Congratulations, everyone. We’ve now made it almost a complete week without the announcement of any conference realignment moves which would create a tectonic shift in the college football landscape.
Last week’s announcement that PAC-12 stalwarts Southern Cal And UCLA would be decamping for the Big Ten caught some in college football circles by surprise, not because there weren’t rumors of it (there were) or because there was no justification for the move (there is), but because it simply flies in the face of the existing order. There’s a vignette in the Michael Lewis book The Big Short in which Lewis talks about two of his protagonists making a great deal of money in the options market betting on bad financial outcomes, which were mispriced in the market in part because people simply didn’t want to think that the worst case scenario could come to pass. While I’m not saying that the Bruins and Trojans joining the league of Rotel and beer cheese is a catastrophe, it’s certainly the sort of thing that no one would have objectively believed possible in the world of college football circa 2012. If you’d been willing to bet UCLA and Iowa would be conference mates a decade ago, I imagine you could have gotten some truly delicious odds.
But it’s a different world in which we find ourselves. College football evolved as a regional sport, eventually morphing into a loose national confederation of conferences designed to serve the interests of constituent schools. At some point it became clear to the powers that be that vast sums of money could be wrung from the intense regional rivalries and local loyalties. We’re a solid thirty years into that phase, and perhaps on our way out of it, headed toward an epoch in which college football is at its core a national product, and the schools answer to the conferences rather than vice versa. Much as today’s high school football recruits make friends with recruits clear across the country in a way they didn’t twenty years ago, college football rivalry is now a national affair. The name of the game is not providing a great experience to a geographically insular set of alumni and fans. Georgia will certainly continue to schedule Clemson in non-conference matchups. But it’s not because ‘Dawg fans in Toccoa or Anderson want bragging rights over their orange-clad neighbors. It’s because ESPN has an insatiable hunger for fresh college football content that people in even Minneapolis and Seattle might be interested in.
We’ve seen this before. We’ve seen it in college football’s most devoted geography, the South. What we are seeing is the continued NASCAR-ification of college football.
This should come as no surprise to longtime readers of this site, but I am old. I’m in that transition from geriatric millennial to just plain geriatric. As a result I remember a sporting world in which RVs flooded the infields of Daytona and Talladega, and “The Rock” referred not to a former Miami Hurricane and wrestling star but to one of the meanest short tracks in the Carolinas. NASCAR began as an intensely regional sport, with loyalties as complex and subtle as they were deep. It made for great theater.
Everyone either loved or hated Dale Earnhardt. Most everyone knew that “The King” drove the STP car rather than singing Blue Suede Shoes. The reservoir of devotion among fans wasn’t broad, but it was very deep. I’m willing to bet that Bill Elliott’s name recognition in the state of Georgia in 1988 was at least as high as the Lieutenant Governor’s, and a darn sight higher than 94% of the state legislature. At the same time he probably could have walked the streets of lower Manhattan in full race day fire suit without being recognized.
NASCAR fever was a potent disease and at some point someone said “if we could bottle this excitement we could make millions.” So they did. Stock car racing was shipped from coast to coast and trucked into every home in America by cable television. Local and regional celebrities became a part of the national consciousness. And America loved it. Drivers who had been regional stars became mega stars. The faces of national brand campaigns, making cameos on weeknight sitcoms. Race weekends that had occurred in the hills of western Virginia were suddenly taking place in the hills of California and on the plains of Texas. NASCAR became huge, huge in every way, huge everywhere.
Huge, and hollow. If you’ve followed stock car racing over the past fifteen years you know that the sport’s in-person attendance has been on a steady downward march and that television viewership peaked in 2005 and has likewise been on the way down. Why? Well there are plenty of suspects. Some say the sport was never truly able to replace legends like Dale Earnhardt. That safety measures designed to prevent deaths like Earnhardt’s created a less appealing product. That in a more environmentally-conscious world the notion of watching forty cars running on leaded gasoline spewing CO2 into the air for four hours was hard to justify. Or that in a world of viewing options watching those cars roar around the track for hours on end is only slightly more exciting than watching paint dry. And frankly, some of the fans who were so passionate about the sport in the 1970’s and 80’s just aren’t around anymore, and their kids and grandkids have other, better entertainment options.
Maybe all of those criticisms hold some merit and explain the paring away of at least some subset of long-time fans. But I think the bigger issue for NASCAR was that it lost its core. The touchstones that made the sport familiar for much of its fanbase. New venues, new rules, and an emphasis on squeezing every dollar of revenue out of the sport through higher ticket and merchandize pricing left some fans disenchanted. Some of those folks who used to spend their weekends at the temples of stock car racing began spending their time and money at the temples of college football. Nature abhors a vacuum, and fandom flows like water. The replacements for those RVs that used to come to rest in Martinsville and Bristol and North Wilkesboro in many cases now pull up in Knoxville and Athens and Tallahassee. NASCAR lost them, or maybe left them behind. Either way, a lot of stock car fans are gone and they’re not coming back.
I fear that college football is headed inexorably down a similar road. The nature of business operations is that you’re not trying to make less money next year than you did last year. That’s the very definition of failure in business. And college football, like NASCAR before it, is very much a business. It’s been that way for decades, but you sense in the air now a quickening of the pace. The enterprise had begun drifting further away from the shores of regional rivalries and bragging rights that made it a passion for so many. The rope tethering it to that familiar shore has now completely snapped. College football is no longer the sport many of us grew up loving. It is something different, glitzier, pricier, and perhaps colder.
It is also a sport struggling to address a variety of challenges. Player health issues. Player compensation. Spiraling facility spending. And all the while the sport’s decision makers are watching the bottom line, constantly on the lookout for more levers to pull and buttons to push to squeeze the last precious dollars out of the media conglomerates who pay billions and the fans who pay thousands.
At some point however this has to stop. Everything does. No object in the physical or entertainment universes can grow infinitely. The question that has occupied me these last few days is this: when the expansion ends, what will be left at the core of college football?
I’m still not certain what it will be. I think I will still be a college football fan. But will I be the same college football fan in a world where Georgia doesn’t play Auburn every year? Where the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is played in Dallas? In which the SEC spends tons of money trying to convince us that we have a long-simmering intense rivalry with our bitter enemy the Orlando television market, er, um, I mean Central Florida?
I’m not sure what sort of Franken-sport we’re heading toward as college football commissioners tweak and fiddle with their creation. I am certain, because I have seen it already, that they’re not going to see going backwards as progress. This offseason I have grappled with the nagging feeling that the purity of college football as I knew it growing up is no more, and that the guys in suits are truly going to screw this up. I am fairly certain that I will still stay up into the wee hours to watch San Diego State games just to see their awesome Slovakian punter because I’m a degenerate that way. But I am also cognizant of the fact that some of the most exciting and crazy and stupidly entertaining college football of my lifetime is probably in the rearview mirror because it isn’t the product the marketing people want to sell. That’s frustrating, and disappointing, and frankly probably inevitable.
I expect I’ll love whatever iteration of this big, dumb sport presents itself. And I’ll try not to compare it to the one that inspired me, the one I fell in love with, the one that I decided I needed to write down my thoughts about for others to read. Because I still love college football, I still hate Auburn, and I still don’t fully understand or trust cricket. So here I am, at the dawning of another college football season. Just a man, standing in front of a sport that will never love him back, watching and waiting for Lane Kiffin to say something dumb and for Florida fans to lose their overly-entitled minds after losing to Missouri, and for the guy behind me to say we should have been starting Carson Beck this whole time. Because a lot of what is at the core of college football still remains difficult for those with the ability to mess it all up to actually truly mess up. For that we can all be thankful, because as recent events make clear, they’re going to give it their best shot. Until later…