As a new college football season is about to begin, the groaning of the old NCAA empire’s collapse is practically audible. To understand more clearly, there’s a set of standings worth knowing about. It has nothing to do with wins and losses, but much to do about declaring winners and losers in the new long game of college sports.
The crass exits from the Big 12 Conference by Texas and Oklahoma weren’t especially revealing in terms of what we knew about the college sports cartel: It’s a ruthless business, hijacked by outside parties (TV networks, principally ESPN), whose desperate need for live content turns loyalties and traditions into ash in exchange for cash.
What is different about this episode of realignment is that it comes at a time of an economic reckoning induced by both a pandemic and a string of legal defeats that have all but destroyed the enterprise’s bedrock of amateurism. The result, predictably, is an air of dull panic around the brick-and-mortar colleges, many of whom are beset by other crises, chief among which is an increasing irrelevance to a larger chunk of the new college-age class of kids.
Keeping with the narrower world of sports, as fun as all the talk-radio chatter has been about which conferences and schools might hook up when the Longhorns and Sooners formally join the death-star Southeastern Conference in four years (or less), it misses a larger point: Big-boy college football wants to be like the NFL.
They want the order and the popularity that comes with a smaller group of teams of relatively similar strengths in financial and physical resources playing each other for increasingly larger stakes, like, say, 40 or so teams competing for berths in a 16-team playoff field.
Of course, none of the potentates of the sport say this out loud. The schools and networks have to publicly get along with each other while looking over shoulders for the most lucrative exit. Each and every one of them knows the day is coming.
Rather than trying to match schools to future conferences, here’s a different way to look at how athletic departments stack up — by their budgets.
USA Today annually surveys the athletic budgets of public universities. The complete list for fiscal year 2019 can be found here. The simple compilation below of countable numbers doesn’t include long-term indebtedness and can’t estimate future private donor contributions. Nor does it include private universities that don’t provide information.
Here’s a shortened list that includes the 10 public Pac-12 schools, plus the biggest and smallest of the 227 surveyed.
Ranking, school, budget
1, Texas $233M
23, Washington 134
26, Oregon 127
27, Arizona State 122
35, UCLA 108
38, Arizona 105
41, Utah 99
46, Colorado 95
49, California 87
51, Oregon State 82
54, Washington State 72
227, Coppin State 3.2
Given the breadth and depth of the programs at USC and Stanford, a reasonable guess puts them ahead of Washington’s number, so that would give the Pac-12 five schools in the top 30.
Where it gets scary for the Pac-12 is at the bottom. Washington State’s $72 million isn’t a third of what Texas spends and about half of what Washington spends. It is the smallest budget among the Power 5 conference schools.
The Cougars have always been on the short end, and competed admirably despite all. It doesn’t mean they can’t be competitive (ask recent Oregon football players about that). But if the future in a few years includes a radical reformation of the sport, it’s unlikely that ESPN, which owns college football in every way but the name on the title deed, is going to want a 65-team “league.”
No one knows yet what shape or form a super league would take, but logic says that a lower budget team like Cal ($87 million) skates into a 40-team field because of the size of the Bay Area TV market. And despite Arizona’s $105 million budget, they could get bumped out because of Tucson’s smaller TV market in the shadow of nearby ASU in Phoenix.
Also, no one knows yet what kind of impact the abruptly new NIL (name, image and likeness) compensation will have on recruiting. Some smaller schools may help craft compensation packages to players that exceed the market’s presumed size; bigger schools may have trouble. And since the NCAA has issued guidelines, but really has no practical way to sanction excessive behavior, the landscape is essentially lawless and opaque.
The skeptical view will prevail: No one knows what’s going on, except that everyone good is crooked.
What most people do know is that a 40+ league of good to great programs going head to head from coast to coast is the ideal for ESPN and the other networks. A couple of dozen schools will get knifed from the big time, and relegated to a second tier of smaller markets and smaller TV revenues. Some schools inevitably will be forced to give up football because the program is too expensive relative to the revenues.
Texas and Oklahoma going rogue, a move reportedly influenced by ESPN, disrupted the current conference set-up and was the first step toward creating the super league. As far as WSU and others who will suffer the financial consequences, the schools and the networks are so big, they don’t have to care.