When the college football season begins this Labor Day weekend, it will be a challenge to stay focused on the game. While attention may initially be on the basics of football – blocking, tackling, and assessing team rankings – the future of the sport is rife with uncertainty. Specifically, college football is on the brink of unprecedented changes that will greatly impact its landscape.
In just a year’s time, the Pac-12 Conference may cease to exist. Texas and Oklahoma, long-standing members of the Big 12 Conference, will have joined the Southeastern Conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference will expand to include California-Berkeley, Stanford, and Southern Methodist University. Furthermore, the College Football Playoff will expand from four to twelve teams after this season.
These changes come at a time when school movements, driven by television money, are matched only by the movement of players. Changes in NCAA rules now allow for athletes to benefit financially from booster-funded organizations. The sport is also facing potential structural changes, as federal court cases and National Labor Relations Board hearings question whether athletes should be considered employees entitled to wages and benefits.
The college athletics business plays a significant role in the current upheaval. The growing income gap among programs has exacerbated the divide between high-resource and low-resource schools. Stanford, Cal, and S.M.U., desperate to join the A.C.C., have taken significant discounts to become members. Stanford and Cal, facing financial challenges, will receive only a fraction of the A.C.C.’s media rights distribution. S.M.U., hoping to move up the ranks, will not receive any media rights distribution for the next seven years.
Last year, the Power 5 conferences generated a combined $3.3 billion in revenue. With the influx of gambling partnerships, the wealthiest programs have poured money into facilities, amenities, and coaching salaries. Surprisingly, coaches themselves are now advocating for revenue sharing with athletes. The changing landscape of college athletics has strayed further from its educational roots and resembles an unregulated capitalist system.
As conferences continue to shift, college football is becoming more like English soccer, with promotion, relegation, and teams trading spots at the top. While the upcoming Labor Day weekend will be a celebration of the sport, it is clear that the future holds significant changes. Schools like Kansas State and Oregon State have seen their fortunes transformed over time, and now find themselves facing a new era of uncertainty. With conference realignments unfolding, it is crucial for athletic departments to remain adaptable in the face of an ever-evolving landscape.