University of Florida Athletics Director Scott Stricklin is worried about the direction of major college football.
He’s worried that his good friend Trev Alberts — the athletic director at Nebraska — might just be right.
In the wake of the Pac-12’s demise, Stricklin is worried that college football is headed toward “contraction instead of expansion.”
“I hope it doesn’t come to that because we’ve already seen a lot of unfortunate things happen to schools on the wrong side of the fence through realignment,” Stricklin says. “You’d like to see it settle down and be stable, but there would have to be some sort of paradigm shift for that to happen.”
Alberts, however, painted a doomsday scenario for those schools “on the wrong side of the fence.” We’re talking about the many run-of-the-mill programs in Power 5 leagues who have been living off their bigger, richer conference brothers for decades. Alberts told the Lincoln Journal Star a few days ago that he believes “we’re moving to 35 to 40 top brands” breaking away and forming an NFL-type super league.
“I don’t believe [realignment] is done. It’s never been done,” Alberts said. “It’s more likely than not that there will be continued periods of angst. I believe that the next go-around will be far more disruptive than anything we’re currently engaged in. We need to prepare ourselves mentally for that.
“What’s now happening is the cable bundle is in trouble through cord cutting,” Alberts added. “So where we were able to bundle all this stuff and where you would have certain teams that were joining conferences based on the cable bundle, now that’s being disrupted. So that business model is falling apart. And now it’s about streaming, so now the brand value of every individual institution is more important than ever before.”
Translation: The gravy train that many lesser programs have been riding on for a century or more may soon be derailed.
For years, former UCF coach George O’Leary scoffed at the idea of schools such as Purdue and Vanderbilt being called “Power 5” whereas UCF was looked upon as a lesser program because of its conference status. As O’Leary used to say, “There are two or three good teams in each major conference; the rest are just members who are cashing TV checks.”
I’ve often said that the only reason many programs are in the SEC and Big Ten today is because they were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time 100 years ago when the major conferences were formed. Well, the world has changed and many “Power 5” members of today simply have no significant TV value.
And it’s become increasingly clear that TV value and TV revenue are all that matter in today’s college football. It’s not about academic reputation (just ask Stanford and Cal); it’s about football passion and how many TV eyeballs your program can bring to the table.
While we are all saddened by the demise of the Pac-12, at least now college football is being honest and finally revealing the true value (or lack thereof) of some programs. We’ve always known Washington State and Oregon State were just “cashing checks” and added minimal value to a major conference, and now we’re seeing it come to fruition as those two programs (along with Stanford and Cal) have essentially been kicked out of the big-boy club.
And there will likely be many more mediocre programs that get jettisoned from major college football in the years to come. As the marquee brands continue to need more and more money to pay players, pay coaches and build facilities, they will continue to consolidate and eliminate the deadwood programs so they can keep more money for themselves.
“College athletics is a unique ecosystem that nobody would devise from home if you were starting from scratch,” Stricklin says. “We have some underlying realities because of how we acquire talent. We are the only sport in America whose sole method of having people join our teams is through recruiting or sales. They have a draft in the NFL and they have a draft in Little League Baseball. Pro sports have a draft and the most basic elementary sport has a draft. College is the only sport based on convincing somebody that your school is where they need to be.
“When you have that kind of environment, you’re going to put every resource you can to convince talented people to come join your program. We invest in hiring great coaches and paying them, we invest in facilities, we invest in support staff, we invest in nutrition and strength and conditioning and academic counselors and now we have NIL. When that’s the environment you’re in, there’s nothing you won’t spend to get the best players and best people to come to your program.”
This is why you see universities such as Florida State desperately and shamelessly trying to get out of the ACC, where the TV deal is annually projected to be at least $30 million per team less than what the SEC doles out to its members. FSU realizes that over the next 10 years, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and other SEC teams will have $300 million more to spend on acquiring talent.
Isn’t it only a matter of time before the SEC boots out Vanderbilt and replaces it with FSU; or the Big Ten boots out Indiana and replaces it with North Carolina?
Instead of conferences cannibalizing other conferences, the next wave of consolidation will likely be conferences cannibalizing themselves.
It’s not pleasant, but it’s natural and all part of the earth’s evolutionary process.
Whether it’s college football or Mother Nature, the big fish always eats the little fish.
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