Why college football’s future is a bit murky today

Putting another season in mothballs

Down in these parts, our lifestyle often centers around the “Five Fs”: Faith, family, friends, food and football. The latter is such a big part of our culture that it transcends sports.

I’m not sure of what the future holds for the game that some of us love so dearly. But as we wound down January’s college games and the NFL playoffs, pointing to the Feb. 2 Super Bowl in New York/New Jersey, some of us shook off the owies of a painful season (Gators), while others basked in the glow of success (Seminoles, Knights).

The discussion about football today, however, is not so much about complaints or bragging rights, but how the changing landscape imperils the future of the sport. The popularity of the game is massive, but the financial model is much like the bloated stock market: What goes up must come down.

There are some warning signs ahead – impending demands for paying players, a weakened NCAA governing body, diminishing stadium crowds and a division between the haves and have nots.

Recently in a conversation with one of the SEC’s brightest administrators, we talked about the deteriorating stadium experience and he assured me that college football was working on it as we spoke.

I was surprised to learn why many of the students were taking early outs:

“It’s because their cell phones don’t work,” he said. “Their culture revolves around being connected electronically and cell phone service is not very good in most stadiums.  So if you have 25,000 students, half of them will be gone by the half. Can it be fixed? It will be very costly – maybe $2-$3 million.”

Notice all those empty seats? How can you not? Truth is that the ticket buyers don’t impact the financial windfall nearly as much as the TV revenues do. However, colleges are deeply concerned about early-exiting fans and waning attendance as they count their money from the networks. So coaches – even Nick Saban of Alabama – went as far as to challenge fans not to leave games early.

There are other negatives to the stadium experience – overpriced tickets and fees, traffic and parking, hostile fans, etc. Apathy and disinterest also play a factor. And some of the have-not schools are mired deep in red ink, unable to keep up with the high cost of escalating coaches’ contracts and expenses. Eventually they will fall into second-tier conferences.

All of which portends of a national super-conference, with seven or eight league games and the rest against regional or national competition. A junior NFL.

At the same time, the big payoff for the upcoming four-team playoffs will ensure short-term financial success. But the field for eligible teams will ultimately shrink.

For the super conference, there are other streams of newfound money: Paying intersectional brand-name teams instead of cupcake opponents. Paydays are phenomenal.

Take Florida’s opening game against Michigan in 2017 to be played at Jerry Jones’ house in Dallas. That’s a $6 million payday, with about 10 percent expenses. Unlike a bowl, this is a one-night trip. The remaining $5.4 million doesn’t have to be split among the SEC either.

The NFL, meanwhile, has enjoyed a spectacular run of big payoffs — most-viewed programs on TV, emerging markets, etc. However, it has been bruised by injury lawsuits and the long-term damage looks even worse. That payout to the concussed players thought to have been settled was thrown out by a female judge.

Surveys show that fewer kids are playing youth football, held back by concerned parents. Eventually the talent pool diminishes. Then it’s everybody problem.

So maybe what we have today, at this very moment, is the golden age of football, to be appreciated for what it is now – even if some of our teams fell off the radar screen this season.

Once proud programs like the University of Florida have suffered setbacks and are in danger of having a tarnished brand. Not to mention that the Gators picked a bad time to slip to a losing (4-8) season as their state rival Florida State was enjoying perhaps its greatest year ever. And then there is BCS bowl winner Central Florida, sneaking up from the south to grab a piece of the pie.

Gator fans are waiting to see if new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper from Duke can save the day. So we lament that famous battle cry of “Wait ‘til next year!” There is a flicker of hope. Just remember: A year ago, Auburn didn’t win an SEC game, either.

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