As controversial as the rollout of the European Super League concept has been, the fundamental theory driving its formation contains echos of a potential doomsday scenario for college sports that has been kicked around for years in the media rights world.
How much money could a group of elite college football programs make if they broke away from their conferences, pooled their television rights and sold them to a network with an NFL-style package? A lot. A whole, whole lot.
“I am not advocating they do this, but suffice it to say, that would be worth quite a bit more than whatever the numbers are you’re getting per conference now,” said Jeff Nelson, the president of data-driven consulting firm Navigate, which has worked with four of the five power conferences in college sports.
How much more? Nelson’s rough estimate of a 32-team college football super league suggests that the bigger schools in the SEC and Big Ten could make 2½ times more television revenue than they take in now, while Pac 12 and ACC schools could make five times as much.
To be clear, this is not an imminent development or even a serious conversation anyone in a position of power is having right now. It’s more of a long-term theoretical question rooted in the modern history of college football where schools reorganize themselves every dozen years or so into conference configurations that are designed to maximize their value in television negotiations.
But within those conferences, just like in European soccer, there are more valuable entities and less valuable entities. Regardless of how much they win, Ohio State and Michigan drive more of the Big Ten’s profits than Purdue and Minnesota, yet they make the same amount of the television money. The SEC doesn’t really need Mississippi State and Vanderbilt to make gobs of cash, yet they get the same 1/14th share — last year it was $45.5 million — as Alabama and Georgia.
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So it’s natural to wonder if the schools who create the majority of value for college football will decide to just break away like the 12 European teams and create a television product that allows the best brands in the sport to make massive amounts of money and keep it all for themselves.
Because of the nature of the two sports, the parallels between college football and soccer aren’t identical. The Super League teams still intend to play their domestic league schedules, and in European soccer, clubs can compete for multiple championships or trophies within a season.
But the basic idea of building a season around the richest, most elite, most watched clubs playing each other makes perfect sense as a college football product. What’s more attractive for television? A Southern Cal schedule of Arizona, Oregon State, Utah and Stanford or Oklahoma, Penn State, LSU and Florida State?
As an example, Nelson estimated that the viewership of the Michigan-Ohio State every year drives between $10 billion to $15 million in value to the Big Ten television contract, while other games might be wroth around $1 to $2 million.
“So in theory, if Ohio State was able to play a full slate of games that drew the kind of viewership that Michigan-Ohio State has, its total TV revenue would increase substantially,” Nelson said. “It’s fairly intuitive that if Ohio State got to play Clemson one week and Alabama the next and LSU the next and maybe USC the next, those are going to be much more valuable games than if they’re playing some of the lesser high profile programs.”
This would, of course, destroy the fabric of what college football is. But the reality for the 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision is that only the 65 who are affiliated with the power conferences have a legitimate opportunity to win the national championship under the current system. And even within that group of 65, well over half of those teams are not going to realistically compete for a championship under any circumstances.
Unless the entire structure of the sport changes, no more than 10 teams in any given year have a shot to win the title. So in a weird way, a College Football Super League of 30 or so teams might actually make the sport more competitive.
On a week to week basis, every game would feature two opponents with similar resources and rosters. There would be no schedule manipulation or subjective committees choosing who gets to go to a playoff. You’d get the best against the best every single week without the mythos of conference supremacy, leaving only a team’s record to determine whether they qualify for a postseason tournament. It would be far more difficult to dominate season after season and much easier to slide back in the pack if there’s an injury or a recruiting class that doesn’t work out as expected.
All of which, of course, would be the primary reason why this concept never comes to fruition.
Because for the elite schools, the revenue they’re sharing with the least valuable members of their conference probably seems like a small price to pay to ensure their place at the top of the food chain.
Sure, Clemson might make more money if it was aligned with other schools of similar status, but life sure has been good for Dabo Swinney’s program the past few years being able to dominate the lesser lights of the ACC and glide into the College Football Playoff. Would the financial reward really be worth the risk for Oklahoma trading in a relatively clear path to the Big 12 title for a gauntlet national schedule that screams 8-4?
If anything, the lack of competitive equity has been a huge part of the financial model that has sustained college football for decades. Every year, the power conference teams will pay for two or three guaranteed wins — up to $1 million each — to pad the record, ensure their bowl eligibility and keep donors happy enough to make big contributions.
But that system may not last forever.
The world of players cashing in on name, image and likeness rights is coming soon, which could change college sports in ways we can’t even anticipate. Fan behavior, both in terms of buying tickets to games and what they watch on television, may be significantly different coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The downward trends for the CFP’s television ratings suggest that the dominance of a handful of programs — mostly concentrated in the Southeast — isn’t great for business over the long haul.
Meanwhile, the power conferences are lining up for another round of television negotiations with the Pac 12 and Big Ten coming up in the next couple of years and the Big 12 coming up shortly after that.
In 2010, that same cycle of negotiations led to one of the biggest upheavals in the history of college sports, resulting in conferences being transformed into loose affiliations of brands and markets. Tradition, geography and academic similarity were irrevocably tossed in the trash as conferences raced to secure the most potential cable subscribers for their exclusive networks.
Nobody knows what the next shakeup or the one after that is going to look like because the future of sports television is a constantly moving target with legacy networks and streaming services both in the mix.
“That’s another kind of new variable that we didn’t have in 2010,” Nelson said. “Whether or not the number of bidders are pushing the value of these next set of rights high enough that the conferences feel comfortable standing pat with their membership or whether they feel like the moment is right to make a bold move regarding membership and kind of jump ahead of everyone else, that’s what everybody is looking in their crystal ball to figure out.
“It’s such an interesting landscape because nobody wants to be in a position of being reactive and getting left behind but are you going to be the one to push the first domino and be proactive and send some shockwaves to the industry. That’s the big question. Will someone do it and if it is, who’s going to do it first?”
And, of course, how big that shakeup is could very well be the first step toward the kind of breakaway of top teams that might transform the entire system.
Much like in Europe currently, the backlash to any kind of College Football Super League would be severe. It would leave a lot of prominent schools and their fans out in the cold and potentially spark a civil war over whether those breakaway schools would have access to, say, the NCAA basketball tournament. On balance, it would be horrible for college sports.
But it would be great for television — and the coffers of the top 20 or 30 schools who have most of the power. We know greed often wins in sports. So while it’s unlikely college football’s elite follow the path of European soccer powers, you can never really count it out.