Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Football

The End of College Football As We Know It

Why, in the future, football fans will actually be nostalgic for the NCAA.

It is tempting to say that 2014 was a bad year for the NCAA, but, honestly, every year is a bad year for the NCAA. But this was a particularly eventful one. In March, former athletes brought an antitrust class-action suit against the organization, calling it an “unlawful cartel.” Football players at Northwestern voted to unionize. The NCAA lost the Ed O’Bannon case. O'Bannon, a UCLA power forward, accused the league of unlawfully profiting from his image, and a U.S. district judge ruled that the organization “unreasonably restrained trade” when it came to its players’ earning potential. The way it handled an autographs-for-pay “scandal” with star Georgia running back Todd Gurley—suspending him for attempting to profit off his own name and then including “community service” in its punishment, as if the NCAA were some sort of licensed judicial entity—made many wonder why in the world anyone would ever want to be a part of this corrupt system in the first place. 

But the most significant change, the pivot point around which the future of the sport may revolve, might have come in August, when the NCAA—in an attempt to stave off its increasing weakness and potential irrelevance—allowed universities from the Power Five conferences (the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) unprecedented autonomy in basically making their own rules.  Schools from those conferences, profoundly more wealthy than smaller schools because of their massive cable contracts in a television industry that needs them more desperately than ever, had long been chafing under NCAA regulations, particularly when it came to compensating (or at least providing insurance and more expansive scholarships for) their athletes. After years of threats that those conferences would take their ball and go home to start their own leagues, the NCAA gave in and granted them their precious autonomy. It has only been since August, so there haven’t been many massive changes yet. But they’re coming.

The first signs of these coming seismic shifts arrived earlier this week, when the University of Alabama-Birmingham announced that after this season, it was discontinuing the school’s 19-year-old football program, to the considerable (and vocal) consternation of the current players, who spent much of Tuesday screaming at the school’s president. There are conspiracy theories around Alabama that the decision had something to do with Bear Bryant’s son being on the University of Alabama’s Board of Trustees—the theory, which has been floating around for nearly a decade, seems to be that Bryant Jr. somehow saw UAB football as some sort of threat—but the primary reason appears to be economic. UAB is currently losing money on football, but that wasn’t the problem: The problem was what they were going to lose. UAB looked upon the future of NCAA football and saw what it would require to continue to compete. It would require spending the way that those big schools do. Other so-called “mid-major” schools have looked upon the same landscape and pronounced it verily terrifying. UAB saw that, and begged off. No one has followed them yet. But some will. And the sport will never be the same.

This Sunday afternoon, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, the one with Condoleezza Rice and Andrew Luck’s dad, will announce the four teams that will play in the national semifinals of the first ever College Football Playoff on New Years Eve. This playoff, long desired by fans, players, and coaches alike, is expected to pour even more money into the already flush sport, and the dollars will flood in in even greater numbers when the playoff inevitably grows to eight or even 16 teams. And you should mark the day. Because the sport you know as college football is going to look so different in 10 years that you might not even recognize it. It has become truly professionalized. We will look back and see 2014 as the year that started it all.

How might the college game look in 2025? Here is a view of our football future.

The soulless stadium is the stage set 

One of the ongoing frustrations among longtime college football fans is the increasing number of big-time games, both pre-conference and post-season, being played in corporate, soulless megastadiums like AT&T Stadium in Dallas or Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte rather than in the tradition-rich stadiums on campus. (The first three College Football Playoff title games all will be played in NFL stadiums.) Even though college football is as steeped in its history and culture as any sport in the country, with the amount of money flying around the sport, it’s just more efficient to play games in these huge stadiums, sold to the highest bidder. The strange thing is that—national title games aside—these stadiums are often empty, particularly for conference championship games. (None of the major conference championships—the Pac-12, Big Ten, or SEC—is expected to sell out their games at neutral sites this weekend.) That doesn’t really matter for the people selling these games: Television stations, particularly ESPN, who just need the programming. (The fans in attendance are essentially just atmosphere—extras.) This is the ongoing trend, too: Fewer and fewer students are even showing up to campus games anymore. In the future college football world, you won’t even need them: These games might as well be played on sound stages.

Bowl games are obsolete

There are currently 38 bowl games, for 76 teams. These bowls generally don’t make money for the schools or the conferences—at least not enough to make their fans pay to attend them; more often than not, both teams return tickets—and are there mostly out of inertia, and the need for ESPN to show something the week in between Christmas and New Year's Day. With more teams in a playoff, the games will feel even more like a relic. If more teams go the way of UAB—or just accept that they can’t compete, and drop down to the FCS level—you might not even have enough teams to fill them. Which leads us to…

The regular season is the playoff preseason

It has long been a presumption the Power Five conferences really just wanted to have their own leagues, with their own rules. When the NCAA gave in earlier this year, this is effectively what happened: The other FBS teams, considering how impossible it has become for them to compete, might as well be playing an entirely different game. Thus, we'll see a winnowing of the college football ranks, with some schools, like UAB, shuttering their programs, and others frozen out, allowing the Power Five schools to form four or five Super Conferences of 16 teams a piece. This, with the assumed expansion of the playoffs, means we could see 16 playoff teams being chosen from 80 or even 64 legitimate contenders. That would make the regular season—long college football's hallmark—less impactful than ever. It would turn it into something closer to the NHL or the NBA, where more than half of the teams make the postseason. After all: The postseason is where the money is.

College football is—officially—the NFL minor league

For years, college football has been accused of being an unpaid farm system for the NFL. This winnowing of the ranks, and the increased ability of Power Five schools to compensate players, could make it that much closer to a formality. If we accept—as the Northwestern union lawsuit claims—that these players are more “athletes” than “students” (and thus more employees than subjects) then they’re essentially professional leagues already. You can see this eventually—maybe not as early 2025, but someday—becoming standard operating procedure, and having the Dallas Cowboys go ahead and make Baylor or Texas A&M their “farm” team. Because who are we kidding at this point?

The NCAA is being phased out of the picture. Whatever your thoughts on the organization—and you should probably hate them—they are one of the last connections any of these athletic departments have to “academics” at all. In 10 years, we might find it amusing and quaint they were ever involved at all.