WHO WILL BE THERE TO PICK UP THE PIECES IF/WHEN COLLEGE FOOTBALL CRASHES?

With more than 25 million viewers taking in the NCAA college football championship on January 13 and with staggering television payouts helping to boost gross revenues for the twenty-five most lucrative programs alone to $2.7 billion in revenue last year, it might seem ludicrous to imply that the sport is anything other than a pink-cheeked picture of health. Yet, the intoxicating financial benefits of what amounts to a hell-for-pigskin pursuit of Nielsen ratings have not come without some sobering side-effects for thousands of college football's most ardent fans, for whom it has traditionally been not simply a spectator sport, but a participatory ritual.

 According to a recent report, attendance fell by 7.6 percent between 2014 and 2018 at games involving the 130 big-time programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and the average turnout in 2018 was the lowest since 1996. Not only do major powers like Alabama and Clemson struggle to sell out their home games, but a 2018 Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that, on average, only 71 percent of those holding tickets for FBS games in 2017 ever made it through the turnstiles.

 

Some of the income derived from billions in TV payouts has gone to support non-revenue-producing sports--from field hockey to track and field. Yet, that money also seems to have ignited an orgy of spending on new and upgraded football facilities and super-sized coaching salaries. (According to Knight Commission data, between 2010 and 2018, total spending on football at the University of Georgia increased by 142 percent, while the coaching salary budget swelled by 167 percent.These numbers seem positively puny, however, in comparison to Tennessee's 207 percent bump in total spending and Texas A&M's whopping 333 boost in salary  payouts over the same period.)  With such expenditures now at altitudes too stratospheric to be kept aloft by TV royalties alone, major programs seem more dependent than ever on bigger donations, not only from traditional high-dollar private benefactors, but also from less affluent ticketholders as well.  

 

Getting season tickets has long required ponying up, not simply for the face price, but for an additional "donation," which assures you the privilege of making the purchase.  These buy-ins can vary radically from year to year and school to school, but in 2018, first-time season-ticket purchasers at the University of Georgia were expected to show nearly $24,000 worth of "school spirit" on the front end before spending a minimum of $275 each for some of the worst seats in Sanford Stadium. These fans may be able to improve their views of the game at some point, so long as they maintain the appropriate level of annual "giving" as well.

 

The effective costs for donor-buyers under this arrangement began to bite a bit harder after 2018, when Congress finally blew the whistle on the egregious scam of allowing up to 80 percent of the amount of these coerced contributions to be written off as charitable donations. As a result, more fans are opting to discontinue their purchases of standard season-ticket packages--and thereby their donations as well--in favor of a cafeteria-style, pick-and-choose strategy through secondary ticket distributors like Stub Hub.

 

Consider the University of Texas, where, last year, season tickets for midfield seats would cost a fan $550 each, plus $3,500 in additional support.  At current price projections, by availing himself of Stub Hub, the same Texas fan could get decent seats at all four of the Longhorns' most attractive home games in 2020--against West Virginia, Baylor, Iowa State, and TCU--for a total of roughly $700. The savings would leave more than enough to acquire an enormous state-of-the-art HDTV for watching the remaining Texas games (and many others beside) from the climate-controlled, beer-enhanced comfort of his man-cave.

 

Ironically, that is precisely what the people who are really calling the shots in college football these days--this is to say, television executives-- would prefer that fans do. With their respective corporations shelling out so much for the rights to broadcast games, these executives understand full well that their bread gets buttered by enticing college football fans to keep their gaze fixed on their flatscreens, and spurn the stadium for the sofa.

 

Having outbid CBS for future broadcast rights to Southeastern Conference football games, ESPN will soon be showering $63 million in annual TV revenue on every SEC school, thereby making relative pikers of those Big Ten Yankees currently scraping by on $52 million per member university.  It's a fair surmisal, then, that viewership totals weigh more urgently on the minds of network officials than do the comfort and convenience of fans who still like to consume their college football in person.

 Accordingly, athletic departments addicted to those big TV checks are also taking their marching orders from the folks who sign them instead of the fans, many of whose families have been faithfully buying tickets and attending games for generations.  ESPN/ABC's telecasts already account for 54 percent of the college football viewing audience, and its acquisition of the phenomenally popular SEC package stands to make it an even greater factor in the lives of fans looking to be on the scene when toe meets leather. A single network conglomerate holding sway over so many games means its execs will be juggling kickoff times even more frantically, hoping to plug the most attractive matchups into the most desirable time slots without pitting them against each other. As a result, more fans, especially those who live at some distance from campus, will be forced to weigh their enthusiasm for actually being there against the inconvenience of arising in the wee hours for games at noon or even earlier or getting home from those played at 8 pm or after at roughly the same time.

 

Because all that network money has to come from somewhere, we can anticipate more and longer commercials in games that already subject fans' patience, bladders, and backsides to what amounts to a four-hour stress test. Those who head from the stadium to the local motel instead of fighting traffic and fatigue on the long drive home are almost certainly looking at two-night minimums on rooms at grossly inflated rates. Throw in gas, food, and tickets for a family of four, and your credit card tally will scream of a weekend in Paris, not Clemson.

 

In reality, it's not alums but students who have become college football's most visible no-shows. Some of this has to do with the attractiveness of watching games on high-res TVs in close proximity to kegs and coolers at the frat houses, but there's another technological troublemaker afoot here as well. Slavish addiction to cyber-fixes has led to sustained whining about poor cell coverage inside stadiums, prompting massive investments in more bandwidth for young people who don't find the spectacle of live college football sufficiently captivating.

 

The ineffectiveness of such efforts to date has so frustrated college football's most famous coach, Nick Saban of the University of Alabama, that he resorted to using location-tracking technology and a rewards system to discourage students from leaving games too soon or arriving too late.

 

Some slippage in student attendance may be attributable, indirectly at least, to a larger problem. The sharp downturn in legislative funding for public higher education since 2008  has forced America's cash-strapped public universities to boost tuition revenue by recruiting large numbers of out-of-state students. Representing a reported 59 percent of Alabama's student body in 2018, out-of-staters may be passing on games in Bryant-Denny stadium because they want to watch their real "home team," which is playing elsewhere, on TV. 

 

Failing to fill steeply discounted seats with students may not seem like a problem at this point if others are still willing to pay full price (and more) for the privilege of occupying the same spots. But growing student disinterest in attending games has ominous implications for the future of the college football enterprise. In the years to come, alumni who couldn't be induced to darken the stadium gates as students will be far less likely to be on board with the annual football ticket shakedown cruise than their elders have been.

 

Slumping alumni turnout stands to inflict some collateral damage on a university's academic endeavors as well. Development officers charged with bringing in private contributions to support academic programs and research rely heavily on home football games as propitious occasions for rounding up well-heeled old grads for a weekend of nostalgia-tripping pursuant to a flurry of check-writing.

 

Needless to say, over time, declining attendance within this demographic could end up depriving colleges of much-needed academic support. This support is so precious because, contrary to what some university administrators maintain, solid evidence that athletic success boosts giving to the academic side is practically nil.  

 

In a sad reflection of the times in which we live, an embarrassment of riches has bred an all-enveloping uber-competitiveness in which the prowess of a college football program is registered not simple in its on-field exploits but the priceyness of its construction projects, the luxuriousness of its locker rooms, the exorbitance of its coaches' salaries, the extravagance of it recruiting budgets, the vastness of its stadium video screen. and, more than anything, the grandeur of its own expectations. These days, programs aspiring merely to a reasonably improved record topped off with a solid trouncing of the old archrival are mocked as "losers," not so much for a lack of achievement as for a want of ambition. The year-long obsession with making it into the hyper-hyped college football playoffs has reduced once-prestigious bids to major bowls to little more than consolation prizes. For the most part, once any self-respecting FBS team has incurred two regular season losses, its year is effectively "over."  Many dispirited fans have shown so little interest in what now seem wholly inconsequential postseason contests that tickets can be had for a mere fraction of face value, and judging from an average 35 percent decline in the viewership of the recent Sugar, Cotton, and Orange Bowls, a number of them can't even be bothered to take them in on the tube.

Much the same can be said for many of the players. The hoary nostrum that it's all about getting a degree hardly gets even lip service anymore. What coaches are unabashedly selling recruits now is not a degree but a pedal-to-the-metal autobahn dash to the NFL. Never mind that only 1.5 percent of eligible NCAA players will hear their names called on Draft Day. Coaches who bombard recruits from their very first minutes on campus with LED scrolls flashing the staggering salaries their former players now command as pros surely have little reason to be shocked when their standout upperclassmen announce that they will not be jeopardizing their own prospects for pulling down such paychecks by risking an injury in a superfluous bowl game.

Only recently has there been any relaxation of the once-ironclad restriction that effectively bound players for four years to choices they made as wide-eyed seventeen-year-olds while their coaches were free to bolt whenever they spotted an even more remunerative opportunity elsewhere. It is no mere slip of the tongue when high school stars these days proclaim their excitement about spending the "next three years" at the school of their choice, for they mean to do precisely that and no more. They see themselves in an NFL uniform by the time what would been their senior collegiate season rolls around. Eager to escape their own economic serfdom and with their often sorely disadvantaged families looking to them for relief, there is scant time to wait one's turn while learning from the more experienced upperclassmen playing ahead of them, let alone stick around to earn their diploma. Desperate for enough playing time somewhere to showcase their skills for the pro scouts, they are heading to the transfer portals in substantial numbers before taking the earliest opportunity to declare for the NFL Draft, where, history shows, roughly one-third of them stand to be passed over. Beyond shattering any remaining pretense of amateurism in college football, the contagion of blatant commercialism now afflicting it at every level has helped to make exiles of the people who long saw it not simply as a welcome diversion but the central element of a deeply personal, culturally affirming ritual. It seems unlikely that the rich streams of revenue currently disgorged by this prodigiously lactating cash cow will begin to dry up anytime soon. Yet the future of college football is not foretold solely in exuberant estimates of forthcoming profits, but in the ever-tightening camera angles required to spare millions of TV viewers the visually jarring and steadily encroaching swaths of emptiness within the stadiums themselves.

 

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This page contains a single entry by Jim Cobb published on February 7, 2020 12:28 PM.

WHEN SOUTHERN HISTORIANS MADE HISTORY THEMSELVES was the previous entry in this blog.

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