Congratulations, everyone. We have now gone nearly a full week without the announcement of conference realignment moves that would create a tectonic shift in the college football landscape.
Last week’s announcement that PAC-12 stalwarts Southern Cal And UCLA would land for the Big Ten surprised some in college football circles, not because there weren’t rumors about it. (there was) or because there was no justification for the move (there is), but because it simply goes against the existing order. There’s a vignette in Michael Lewis’s book The big court in which Lewis talks about two of his protagonists who make a lot of money in the options market by betting on bad financial results, which were mispriced in the market in part because people just didn’t want to think that the worst case scenario could happen pass. While I’m not saying the Bruins and Trojans joining the league from Rotel and Beer Cheese is a disaster, it’s certainly the kind of thing no one objectively thought possible in the world of college football towards 2012. If you wanted to I was willing to bet UCLA and Iowa would be conference mates ten years ago, I imagine you could have gotten some really delicious odds.
But it’s a different world we find ourselves in. College football evolved as a regional sport, eventually evolving into a loose national confederation of conferences designed to serve the interests of the constituent schools. At some point, it became clear to the powers that be that huge sums of money could be squeezed out of intense regional rivalries and local loyalties. We have been in this phase for thirty years, and perhaps on the verge of emerging from it, towards an era where college football is basically a national product, and schools respond to conferences rather than the other way around. Just as today’s high school football rookies befriend rookies across the country in ways they didn’t twenty years ago, the college football rivalry is now a business. national. The name of the game doesn’t offer a great experience to a geographically insular set of alumni and fans. Georgia will certainly continue to schedule Clemson in non-conference games. But that’s not because ‘Dawg fans in Toccoa or Anderson want to brag about their orange-clad neighbors. That’s because ESPN has an insatiable thirst for fresh college football content that even folks in Minneapolis and Seattle might be interested in.
We have seen this before. We’ve seen it in college football’s most dedicated geography, the South. What we see is the continued NASCAR-ification of college football.
This should come as no surprise to long-time readers of this site, but I’m old. I’m in this transition from millennial geriatric to just plain geriatric. As a result, I remember a sporting world in which RVs flooded the inland fields of Daytona and Talladega, and “The Rock” didn’t refer to a former Miami hurricane and wrestling star, but at 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 theatre.
Everyone 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 the fans was not wide, 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 that of the lieutenant governor, and far higher than 94% of the state legislature. At the same time, he probably could have walked the streets of lower Manhattan in full gear on race day without being recognized.
NASCAR fever was a powerful disease and at one point someone said “if we could bottle this excitement, we could make millions”. So they did. Stock car races were shipped coast to coast and trucked to every American home by cable television. Local and regional celebrities have become part of the national consciousness. And America loved it. Drivers who were regional stars have become mega stars. The faces of national brand campaigns, making cameos on weekday sitcoms. Race weekends that had taken place in the hills of western Virginia were suddenly taking place in the hills of California and the plains of Texas. NASCAR has become huge, huge in every way, huge everywhere.
Huge and hollow. If you’ve followed stock car racing for the past fifteen years, you know that the sport’s in-person attendance has been steadily declining, and television viewership peaked in 2005 and is also declining. Why? Well, there are a lot of suspects. Some say the sport was never quite able to replace legends like Dale Earnhardt. These safety measures designed to prevent deaths like Earnhardt’s have created a less attractive product. That in a more environmentally conscious world, the idea of watching forty cars run on leaded gasoline spewing CO2 into the air for four hours was hard to justify. Or that in a world of viewing options, watching these cars roar down the track for hours is only a little more exciting than watching the paint dry. And frankly, some of the fans who were so passionate about the sport in the 1970s and 80s just aren’t around anymore, and their kids and grandkids have better entertainment options.
Perhaps all of these reviews have some merit and explain the removal of at least a subset of longtime fans. But I think the biggest problem for NASCAR was that it lost its core. The touchstones that have made the sport familiar to much of its fans. New venues, new rules and a focus on extracting every dollar of revenue from the sport through higher prices for tickets and merchandise have left some fans disenchanted. Some of those people who used to spend their weekends in motor racing temples started spending their time and money in college football temples. Nature abhors a vacuum and fandom flows like water. Replacements for those RVs that used to stop in Martinsville, Bristol and North Wilkesboro, in many cases, now stop in Knoxville, 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 college football is headed inexorably down a similar road. The nature of business operations is that you are not trying to make less money next year than you did last year. This is 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 now you can feel the tempo picking up in the air. The business had begun to drift away from the shores of regional rivalries and bragging rights that made it a passion for so many. The rope that ties him to that familiar shore has now completely snapped. College football is no longer the sport many of us loved. It’s something different, more glitzy, more expensive and perhaps colder.
It is also a sport that struggles to overcome a variety of challenges. Player health issues. Player compensation. Skyrocketing installation expenses. And all the while, sports decision makers are watching the results, constantly looking for more levers to pull and buttons to push to extract the last precious dollars from media conglomerates paying billions and fans paying thousands.
At some point, however, this has to stop. All does. No object in the physical or entertainment universes can grow infinitely. The question that has occupied me for the past few days is: when the expansion ends, what will remain at the heart of college football?
I still don’t know what it will be. I think I will always 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 is the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party held in Dallas? In which the SEC spends tons of money trying to convince us that we have an intense, long-simmering rivalry with our bitter nemesis, the Orlando TV market, uh, uh, I mean Central Florida?
I don’t know what kind of sport Franken we’re headed for as college football commissioners tweak and manipulate their creation. I’m sure, because I’ve seen it before, that they won’t see backsliding as progress. This offseason, I’ve grappled with the nagging feeling that the purity of college football as I knew it growing up is no more, and that guys in suits are really going to ruin everything. I’m pretty sure I’ll stay up until the wee hours watching San Diego State games just to see their terrific Slovak punter because I’m a degenerate that way. But I’m also aware that some of the most thrilling, crazy, and stupidly entertaining college football games of my life are probably in the rearview mirror because it’s not the product the marketing people want to sell. It’s frustrating, disappointing and frankly probably unavoidable.
I think I’ll love any iteration of this great dumb sport that comes along. And I’ll try not to compare it to the one that inspired me, the one I fell in love with, the one I decided I needed to write down my thoughts 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 dawn 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 stupid and Florida fans to lose their all-too-legitimate minds after losing to Missouri, and the guy behind me to say we should have started Carson Beck this whole time. Because a lot of what is at the heart of college football still remains difficult for those with the ability to screw it up to really screw it up. For that, we can all be grateful, because as recent events clearly show, they are going to do their best. Until later…
Come on ‘Dawgs!!!