College Football In 2034: Existential Threats Could Bring About Sweeping Changes

By Ty Duffy

We underestimate change, both its rate and its breadth. Before we project what college football will look like in 20 years, we must consider from where it came. College football fans in 1989 would hardly recognize what the sport has become.

College football had not aligned fully in 1989. Twenty-seven of the 64 power conference teams in 2014 played in a different conference. Twelve, including marquee schools such as Penn State, Miami and Florida State, were still independent. The Big Eight, the Big West, the Southwest Conference and the WAC still existed. The now defunct Big East had not even formed.

The National Championship then was a poll vote. The 18 bowls had conspired to meet No. 1 and No. 2 to finish a season just eight times in college football history. The College Football Association, composed of 63 teams, had contracts with CBS and ESPN earning an inflation-adjusted $68.5 million per season. Steve Spurrier signed a big money deal to coach Florida that paid him $619,000 per year in 2014 figures (less than the raise he just received at South Carolina).

If intent on watching your team play, you were in a stadium. A player shaking off “getting his bell rung” and returning to the field was standard operating procedure.

College football has changed dramatically within a generation. Facing instability, uncertainty and potentially existential threats, changes on multiple fronts over the next couple of decades could be even more drastic.


College football’s business model has been based on unwavering fan support. We are seeing signs football programs have exploited that support to the fraying point. Many stadiums at the lower FBS rungs are empty. Established programs are having trouble selling out. Even Michigan and Alabama have had to bribe or to threaten students, respectively, to show up to games and stay for four quarters. Teams that normally “travel well” to bowl games, are no longer doing so.

Some of this is not college football’s fault. HDTV has made the sport a far better television product than live product. Football competes against a myriad of devices and entertainment options that were not present two decades ago. The sport also competes against itself. College football has grown into a national sport. Is the core college football fan cheering on the local team from a bleacher bench? Or, is he or she glued to twitter and watching nationally important games on multiple monitors? How about 20 years from now?

Some of this is definitely college football’s fault. Many schools have implemented the onerous ticketing practices of professional teams, such as personal seat licenses and dynamic pricing. They have done so while diluting the product on the field.

Realignment has sapped the potency from conference schedules. Additions have been made for television footprint (*cough* Rutgers and Maryland *cough*), with quality a distant second consideration. Traditional rivalries, such as Texas vs. Texas A&M, have ended. Conference heavyweights, separated by divisions, may play only a few times per decade.

Non-conference schedules have been gutted still further. Major programs won’t sacrifice lucrative home gate revenues. Mid-level programs don’t want to miss out on bowl games. The 10th , 11th and 12th opponents are most often non-entities taking one for the paycheck. That’s a quarter of the season. Compelling inter-conference matchups are rare, except when organized by sponsors on neutral sites.

The combined effect is dismal. The only reason to purchase a season ticket at some schools is out of guilt. That’s not good for gate revenue. That’s not good for television revenue. Substantial scheduling reform will be required after the current round of television contracts.

Nine-game conference schedules across the board are a given. TV will demand it. So will any playoff selection process that rewards strength of schedule. The best solution for non-conference schedules would be some third-party format that ensured competition and equity. Since that won’t happen, expect more inter-conference scheduling agreements similar to the aborted Big Ten/Pac 12 one. Expect more third-parties getting involved, organizing series and neutral site events. If the venue houses large numbers of spectators, College Football will host a game there by 2034.


Sports content will remain valuable to advertisers. It’s the one programming genre that cannot be viewed on demand. Today, it may be the only thing propping up the present cable TV model. Current college football TV deals may appear astronomical, compared with past ones, but those deals could be undervalued.

College Football is just exiting the “Warlord” stage of political development. Conferences have operated as though they are selling competing products. The playoff should have emphasized they are selling a single product. Expect that cooperative mentality to grow and to extend to the regular season, as the major conferences become more active stewards of their own content.

Coordinating first and second-tier television contracts would allow college football to create scarcity. While competing with the NFL gold mine may be unrealistic, major conferences could create “Friday Night Football” and “Saturday Night Football” events. It’s not clear what television will look like in 20 years, but the college football rights may be worth more, not less.

ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion per year for Monday Night Football. That’s more than the five power conferences will earn next season from every regular season and postseason television agreement. That’s almost twice as much per game as the current SEC game of the week on CBS brings in per season, around $55 million. Getting even an eighth of the Monday Night Football fee for an exclusive Saturday Night game would be as much revenue as a current conference earns for a regular season.

Conferences could also sell prime, collective Saturday afternoon packages, similar to the NFL Sunday ones. Individual conferences could sell the rest of their inventory to networks or stream it through their own, in whatever form those still exist.

Conference networks rely on carriage fees through bundling, the so-called “sports tax.” Media companies force providers to pay for networks they don’t want on basic packages (Big Ten Network) to get networks they do want (Fox News, YES). The conference “footprint” is really the millions of cable subscribers paying $1 per month to not watch the conference’s network. That model could come under threat from any attempt to regulate bundling and push cable a la carte.

How this affects fans’ pocketbooks is unclear. Mostly because cable’s future remains cloudy. By 2034, we may be paying Google for hyper-fast Internet and ordering content from separate entities. What we would predict is that sports fans will stop being subsidized. They will be footing far more of the bill for content than they are at present.


What do we know? The Big 12 and the ACC are unstable. The former exists at Texas’ whim. The latter suffers from a deficit of prestige and TV revenue. Both had teams poached within the past few years and nearly toppled. Grant of Rights agreements hold them together for now. But those expire with the current TV contracts in the middle of the next decade. Placed under a legal challenge, they may not be as ironclad or inhibiting as believed. One domino, especially a burnt orange one, falling could turn a placid equilibrium into a whirlpool.

The Big 12 won’t stay with the present allotment of 10 teams with no championship game. More accurately, Texas won’t stay in the Big 12 with the present allotment of teams and no championship game. The SEC has infiltrated Texas recruiting, which is the life source for the Longhorns and the rest of the conference. Road trips to Alabama, Auburn and LSU have a bit more caché than Kansas, Iowa State and West Virginia. The present lineup will grow stale with both fans and recruits, if it hasn’t already. The Big 12 must expand to continue its present level of competition.

Top ACC programs won’t be content. Their TV deal is back-loaded and less than the others. Though invited to the table, they are a junior partner in the postseason. Playing Wake Forest, Duke etc. every season hurts attendance, TV ratings, branding, luxury box sales and schedule strength. Miscast SEC teams Florida State and Clemson will still feel they can do better.

The most probable scenario is the Big 12 lopping off the head of the ACC. They swoop for Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and Louisville to go to 15. With access to both Florida and Texas, a rootless Notre Dame won’t get a better conference offer than that and joins as a fully-fledged No. 16. The Big Ten and the SEC respond by carving up the Tidewater. UVA and North Carolina align with the north. Virginia Tech and N.C. State align with the South. That moves college football one 16-team grouping away from the four neat “Super Conferences.”

That fourth conference does not materialize. The Pac 12 is the natural base for the fourth conference, but has no natural expansion route. BYU, maybe, is the only school that would bring in the revenue it would be taking back out of the league. A four-team pod alignment that could incorporate left out ACC teams would be unwieldy and worthless financially. The rump ACC becomes what the Big East was a few years ago.

Whatever radical realignment scenario gets drawn up – we’ve tried many – it’s almost impossible to get that fourth 16-team grouping to work without blowing up the conferences and starting over. There’s always a sad collection of lost teams.

The Postseason

This one is not that murky. The playoff moves to eight teams. Eight hits the sweet spot. Moving to eight brings in a lot more money. After eight, an expanded playoff yields diminishing returns and detracts from the regular season and college football’s championship week, becoming a TV spectacle in its own right.

Champions of the SEC, the Big Ten, The Big 12(16) and the Pac 12 earn automatic bids. The playoff selection committee creates as much controversy as the BCS. With two decades for college football to embrace newfangled statistics and objectivity, teams are ranked using an objective formula that accounts for both schedule strength and victory margin.

Bowl games still exist and thrive. Live football attracts a captive, holiday week audience. The playoff will be generating so much revenue it will more than account for any losses from bowl game ticket allotments. Stadiums may be empty. It probably won’t matter. It will be a good time for those wearing gaudy blazers.


College Football’s “student-athlete” labor structure is not tenable. The current status quo, where athletic departments accept 100 percent of the revenue and assume zero percent of the responsibility for injuries, will be reformed.

“Student-athlete” was a construct to block worker’s compensation claims. Football players risk death and life-altering injuries. Even the fortunate can leave with chronic joint trouble requiring decades of treatment later in life. Because athletes are not “employees,” schools are not held liable for sports injuries. They are not even required to honor an injured student’s scholarship. Think of the NCAA as a spirit squad, but one that won’t be paying for that fourth shoulder surgery or that $40,000 wheelchair.

Players need to be protected. They also need to be paid. Everyone on the spectrum, outside the smaller FBS conferences, supports stipends for all athletes to cover the cost of attendance. Those will be approved once the power conferences receive the autonomy. Stipends may be enacted by the start of the 2014 football season. The points of contention moving forward will be likeness rights and direct payment.

Athletes must sign away their likeness rights to play college athletics, ceding an opportunity for individual profit off-the-field when there is a clear market for them to do so. Besides being unfair and anti-capitalist, this creates a spider web of cumbersome rules the NCAA is no longer willing or able to enforce. Major corruption persists unabated, as schools report violations of rules that aren’t even rules.

On the field, college football players do not receive a direct share of the revenue they produce. Thirteen schools earned more than $100 million in revenue in 2012, with the majority of it coming from football. The fair split of the revenue, judging from professional leagues, would be around 50 percent. “Student-Athletes” receive nothing.

This model is under threat on multiple fronts. Players at Northwestern have begun the push toward player union certification with worker’s compensation as a major platform. The NCAA scored a major victory in the O’Bannon case, with players being denied class-certification to go after past revenue, an amount that could have been billions. However, players were granted class-certification to challenge the model for future revenue. The trial is set for this summer.

Rhetoric will be unyielding and inflammatory, but some compromise on amateurism, eventually, will be reached. A telling case study for how this mayplay out is the college football playoff.

Public sentiment and common sense hold little weight. Power in college football rests with the major conference commissioners. Benefits from a playoff were evident early on. What the commissioners did not want was a playoff with equal access and equal revenue sharing that would erode established advantages. They also had to placate their bosses, college presidents, who were hostile to any change in the status quo.

The commissioners took a hard line against the playoff. This kept the trust of the college presidents. It framed the debate as far away from their disaster scenario as possible. The eventual plan added one game, a modest change that was amenable to college presidents. Not only does it not promote equality, but revenue sharing will be even more disproportionate. It’s not perfect, but it was attainable.

Amateurism reform should play out similarly. Conference commissioners want to avoid full professional revenue sharing which could diminish or even eliminate non-revenue varsity athletics. They also must bring around college presidents, who grow righteous and angry about anything whiffing of “professional” athletics (except the incoming revenue). Change, unless directed by a court, will be modest initially and on the commissioners’ terms.

How would conference commissioners rationally pursue their preferred settlement? They would support amateurism to the point of absurdity, keeping the presidents in tow and framing discussions away from the revenue. They would encourage members to spend, disguising their financial situation. Piling up hundreds of millions in debt for facilities and stadium upgrades looks poorer than having huge stockpiles of TV cash.

Schools would concede an Olympic-type model for off-the-field revenue. It costs them little, and ends the charade with the armies of compliance hall monitors. It would not dismantle Title IX. As happened in the Olympics, it may even enhance the popularity of college athletics. Football and basketball players would have less incentive to leave early. Olympians with endorsement potential (i.e. Michael Phelps) could compete for their colleges.

Combine the Olympic model with the cost of attendance stipend and a manageable percentage of revenue toward a fund to help former and future athletes defray long-term medical costs. That’s the basis for an attainable settlement. Presidents could be talked into it. It is not professionalism. It resolves nearly every concern on the players’ front and undercuts support for them to move further. It would keep the gravy train mostly intact.


CTE research remains preliminary, but early findings do not bode well for football as constituted. Evidence has been found in brains of deceased high school and college players, suggesting it’s not just the product of a prolonged NFL career. Research has also connected CTE to cerebral trauma from subconcussive impacts. Those can’t be weeded out. They are endemic to the sport. The potential implications of the research are heavy and impossible to ignore.

College Football won’t become safe, but it must become safer. The proposed 10-second snap rule is a cynical and misguided method – players appear to have been injured more often last year in slower offenses – but substantial changes will be enacted in the near future. Practice restrictions and some form of running clock to reduce plays are a given. So are increased monitoring and care standards and more sophisticated equipment.

Injury prevention is just one factor. There’s also liability. The NFL reached a $765 million Concussions settlement with former players. The eventual payout may be more than that, as a judge has yet to approve the settlement conditions. That figure was the result of decades spent obfuscating research and bracing for impact. College Football has done nothing, more or less. From Sports on Earth:

"While football at every level is struggling with the issue of brain trauma — it’s hardly hyperbole to call it an existential crisis – the college game’s response has been to do … well, not a whole lot. No systemic effort to reduce injury risk. No comprehensive concussion diagnosis and treatment protocol. No serious blueprint from the NCAA, which typically takes a Supreme Soviet-shaming approach to governing amateurism, crafting and enforcing endless, nit-picky rules that cover everything from text messages to high school recruits to permissible bagel toppings, all in the name of protecting athletes."

Potential claimants may face a more exacting proof burden than former NFL players. But the pool of litigants could be far greater. Whether it is paying for past mistakes or insuring against future ones, combating concussions will make playing college football more expensive. For some, potentially, too expensive.

Schools face a different moral calculation than the NFL. The NFL is a professional association where informed adults can sacrifice future health for financial gain. Schools have a broader mandate to protect students.

Teddy Roosevelt stepped forward to save football with progressive changes, such as the forward pass, in the early 20th Century. Another politician may perform a similar task in the 21st. Those changes could alter the sport comprehensively, perhaps even approaching the dreaded “flag football.”

We may also see cleavages between different versions of the sport with varying thresholds of violence. That could be between the NFL and College. That could be between divisions of College Football. That could be between College and High School. That could also be regional. It’s conceivable some states (probably not south of the Mason-Dixon) may ban youth and high school football at public schools altogether.

So, What Does It All Mean?

Major college programs are still in “the football business” in 2034 but forced to make it function as a business. The regular season, postseason and television schedules are optimized to attract fan interest and to produce revenue. An eight-team playoff determines as true of a “national champion” as the sport has ever produced.

Players are somewhere between “student-athletes” and “employees.” They are protected and compensated, though neither directly by the school nor fairly. The sport itself is fast-paced and exciting, but with far more regard for the brain health of the participants. College Football is improved but remains imperfect and rife with inequity. Its latent instability still makes for some intense, passionate debate.