After college football's most trying season ever, what did we learn? Seismic change is coming

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The crimson confetti fluttering through the still South Florida sky on Monday night represented both a celebration and an exhale.

Through constant disruption, considerable risk and unprecedented circumstances, the 2020 college football season was completed with a relatively drama-less College Football Playoff title game.

Alabama’s victory over Ohio State marked both the end of the season and a shift of focus to a continuing period of seismic change for both college football and college athletics.

There’s little doubt that college sports leaders will label 2020 as a success through adversity. But what’s much more compelling is how the pandemic-induced financial crunch and desperation for revenue will fundamentally change both the sport and the college athletics industry. Iowa reportedly faces a $55 million deficit, Ohio State reportedly $107 million and Utah about $35 million, to name a few.

After an informal survey of industry leaders this week, here are a few upcoming subplots to watch, in no particular order, that will be in the crosshairs as we enter a period in college athletics where the new normal will revolve around dynamic change. There will undoubtedly be books, documentaries and doctoral projects centered around how the pandemic will reshape college athletics.

Nick Saban and Alabama rolled to another college football title on Monday. Would an expanded playoff help level the playing field across the sport? (AP)
Nick Saban and Alabama rolled to another college football title on Monday. Would an expanded playoff help level the playing field across the sport? (AP)

Another wave of conference realignment

The life cycles of realignment have long been attached to the impending expiration of television contracts. As conferences approach new deals, history has shown that adding universities translates to additional inventory and dollars. Will that still be the case in an age where media is increasingly more fragmented?

The Big Ten’s TV deal is set to expire after the 2022-23 season, the Pac-12’s after the 2023-24 season and the Big 12’s after the 2024-25 season. That means that the Big Ten begins dabbling in the television market as soon as this calendar year. If any of those leagues had interest in expanding, the exploration would have either already begun or will start soon.

Perhaps more relevant to the prospect of a significant shakeup is the ACC’s untenable television deal that new commissioner Jim Phillips inherits. The ACC is locked up through 2035-36, and the fixed income of that contract essentially puts the league in cement financial shoes as its peers are poised to distance themselves from the ACC financially.

Can a creative and dynamic solution arise — like the addition of new big-brand partners — to prompt a new deal? It’s tricky, as ESPN didn’t become a worldwide conglomerate by ripping up deals that are tilted significantly in its favor.

Also relevant is that the AAC has already engaged with Boise State and San Diego State about potentially joining. It’d be naïve to not brace for another round of realignment at both the Power Five and Group of Five level.

“It’s hard to imagine that everything is static,” said Chris Bevilacqua, the co-founder of the media consulting group BHV, which has consulted for numerous leagues in media rights deals over the year. “It seems like there will be change, it’s hard to know when it will be and what will happen.”

Expand the College Football Playoff

The College Football Playoff management committee met via Zoom on Monday afternoon, and everyone involved was anxious to report that there was nothing significant to report in terms of expansion.

The topic of playoff expansion is approaching a sweet spot for potential change — schools/leagues desperately need the money, the product needs some spark as Alabama/Ohio State/Clemson fatigue settles in and ESPN would always be open to more postseason product. The low ratings number from the title game certainly didn’t go unnoticed, as it drew fewer viewers than both semifinal games and is the lowest of the BCS/College Football Playoff era.

The playoff clearly needs some juice. It’s important to remember that the College Football Playoff is essentially a television contract with ESPN. They just completed Year 7 of a 12-year deal. CFP officials have been demonstrative in past years about how difficult it would be to change the playoff midstream, as stadiums and ancillary events are booked years in advance. Most of those arguments are moot after the Rose Bowl was played in Arlington, Texas, and the entire season played out in freelance fashion.

Any change in the CFP would require a new contract, with significant financial commitment from ESPN and more years from the CFP. That would take the playoff off the market for any potential competing bids for the next playoff cycle, which means it comes with some risk. This is high-level chess with billions at stake.

But the bottom line is that there are enough tailwinds to make this happen, it’s just a matter of finding a deal to satisfy both parties.

“I think the market forces at play here are likely to, I’m sure, engender that type of conversation around the expansion of the football playoffs,” Bevilacqua said in an interview on Monday afternoon.

Would Luke Fickell and Cincinnati have made an expanded College Football Playoff? (Credit: AP/Gary Landers)
Would Luke Fickell and Cincinnati have made an expanded College Football Playoff? (Credit: AP/Gary Landers)

More conference games

You can cut out the old tropes about “the best interest of student-athletes” and let money guide the way for changes. The conference-only schedules in the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten opened eyes to the viability and potential financial motives for playing more conference games.

While the SEC and ACC have resisted this by playing only eight, there’s a sense that the pandemic could continue the pattern of fans avoiding the stadium. The best way to get them there is a schedule filled with familiar league opponents, not directional sacrificial lambs or alphabet-soup schools unfamiliar to the ticket buyer. Television would also be amendable to this notion, including league networks.

“Playing more conferences games is suddenly a viable option,” said a Power Five AD. “Playing more Power Five games is going to be the goal of every Power Five league in the country. We need to play more Power Five games [to keep the] fans.”

With expected dips in attendance and donations due to the financial crunch, look for television-related changes to make up the revenue.

“I think the demand for television is really important at this point if you’re not going to create the dollars with people showing up as much,” said the athletic director. “You’re going to have to create the dollars with television.”

Could we see a Power Five school break away from NCAA?

This notion has been bandied around for years, as the NCAA has become increasing unpopular, ineffective and inefficient in running college athletics. The NCAA runs championships well. After that, it’s muddled.

Could all of the Power Five schools create their own organization — perhaps adding a few Group of Five schools with a promise — to band together and leverage the power of nearly 70 schools to dictate television contracts? They’d have significantly more earning power.

But like anything in “amateur” athletics, it’s complicated. There are plenty of arguments for it, but there are two big ones against it. Figuring out the NCAA tournament and its billion-dollar contractual agreements would be difficult. And a separation of the big schools from the smaller ones would change the essence of what makes the tournament great. It’s rare that basketball is significantly considered in major athletics decisions, as Kansas was nearly jettisoned to the Mountain West after getting left behind in the last realignment wave. But a fundamental change to the tournament would give pause.

Here’s a fascinating argument against a breakaway that this reporter never heard until this week. It’s as quintessentially conflicted and unique of a college sports conundrum as you’ll ever find. For the Power Five to break away, in theory, it would require the cooperation of the commissioners and conference offices. The commissioners make up to $5 million a year and their league offices employ dozens of hard-working people.

Consolidation would mean leadership overlap and fat-cutting, which would mean the commissioners would have to sacrifice their own jobs and those around them. That’s never going to happen. College sports is siloed with no central leadership, and it appears more entrenched in that every year. Why would commissioners favor a decision that’d undercut their livelihood and gut their coworkers?

The only annual certainty in college sports, especially football, is that there’s no one looking out for the greater good. They are just clinging to their locker room waterfalls.

If the Power Five tried to distance itself from the NCAA, what happens to the NCAA basketball tournament? (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
If the Power Five tried to distance itself from the NCAA, what happens to the NCAA basketball tournament? (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Will we see an acceptance of professionalization of college sports?

With many schools facing a deficit of tens of millions of dollars from 2020, the money needs to come from somewhere. Where?

The final laughable crumbs of amateurism that the NCAA has long clung to are being brushed aside. (Even if the NCAA isn’t going to shape the rules.)

The players should be able to finally profit off their name, image and likeness after a round of legal tussles and political posturing.

So where can the schools turn now that they don’t have to puppeteer the ideal of amateurism? Well, the online betting industry is booming.

Could we soon see a mainstream college sports embrace of gambling and partnerships with gambling entities in the college sports space? Could BetMGM, DraftKings or PointsBet or others become bigger players? Could signage in arenas and stadiums become commonplace? The schools need the money. The companies are in cutthroat competition for that 18-to-22 crowd at the schools. It makes sense on a lot levels.

There’s already precedent with the University of Colorado coming to a reported $1.6 million agreement with PointsBet.

It’s hard to imagine others won’t follow.

Back to the roots

One of the elite moments from the 2020 college football season was Coastal Carolina’s upset of BYU, which was essentially put together sandlot style 48 hours before kickoff.

“One lesson administrators have learned is that you don’t need to schedule games 10 or 15 years in advance,” former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said.

And here’s another lesson from the country being transfixed by Coastal Carolina, a team millions likely never heard of before the season started. The serendipity off being consumed by a school when you don’t know what state it’s in is part of the charm of college sports. Let’s not forget the essence of what makes college football great.

“Sports are supposed to fun, and our players had a great time this season playing hard and following protocols and procedures — but having a ton of fun along the way,” Coastal Carolina president Michael Benson told Yahoo Sports. “If the college football season, such as it played out, was able to bring a bit of relief and joy to folks who could use more of that in their lives at this moment of time, then I celebrate all those who helped pull it off.”

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