The middle isn’t always a bad thing, but when it’s an awkward in-between of two black-and-white options, it isn’t so great. That’s the position college football has found itself in recent years.
By way of example, I’m approaching my 10-year college reunion from the Air Force Academy. I don’t make it back to Colorado Springs for games often, but when I returned in 2019 before the pandemic, I was shocked to find that there was local beer being sold in Falcon Stadium. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked, since Ohio State has been selling beer for years, but when I was in school, there wasn’t a drop of alcohol legally available at the cadet tailgates or in the stadium.
No, the crowd still wasn’t the rowdy type you’d see at professional games, but even the Mountain West program had gained a sense of luster and grandeur that distinguished it from many of its collegiate peers away from the football stadium. In other words, it was awkwardly in the middle of college athletics and professional sports.
Last fall, the Wall Street Journal published an article on some of the means college athletics programs (especially football) were using to make up for pandemic losses — including diving headfirst into vice industries like alcohol, sports betting and even cannabis. While many programs had for one reason or another avoided, suspended or limited dipping their toes in these revenue generating endeavors, the realities of losing essentially an entire season of ticket sales meant that taking the moral high ground was not a financially viable option — with the unintended consequence that college football games began to more resemble professional peers in many ways.
Iowa became the latest Big Ten school to begin selling alcohol this past season, generating more than $3.2 million in revenue in its first year, with most sales coming at Kinnick Stadium during football games. The Big Ten also recently began selling beer at Lucas Oil Stadium for the Big Ten Championship game (admittedly, it was strange to see all the beer carts on the concourse laying fallow on those Saturday nights, when they’d be running for Indianapolis Colts games just hours or days later).
It goes beyond alcohol, though. The media rights deals we’ve seen arise in recent years — especially among the Power Five — are one more example of the relative professionalism of college sports, especially football. To compare, the NFL garners about $10 billion annually in media rights. The NBA’s new as-of-yet announced deal, which would not start until 2025, is projected between $7 billion - $8 billion annually. By comparison, the Big Ten — admittedly, the most valuable sports league when it comes to media rights — is poised to close a deal worth more than $1 billion annually to the conference. The aggregate of college football would not be far behind these most valuable U.S. sports leagues.
Moreover, college football revenue is a major boon to most Power Five schools, between ticket sales, licensing deals, sponsorships, merch and more (including the aforementioned media rights). Ohio State’s football revenue alone was $116 million in 2020 before the pandemic shut down most activities in 2021.
To the lay observer or fan, the shift really doesn’t matter. Eight of 14 Big Ten schools sell beer in their stadiums for the general public. Fans can bet on games the same as they might the NFL. The at-home experience of a Power Five game features broadcast talent comparable to the NFL. The only difference seems to be what day of the week teams play on.
So where does the shift matter, and why does college football in many ways still find itself in the awkward in-between?
When you look at the product on the field, it’s becoming harder and harder to pin down the differences between the amateur and professional sports of football. That’s what makes the NCAA’s ongoing battle in the courts (one now backed by the SEC) to prevent student athletes from being recognized as employees all the more nebulous. The hot topics of NIL and the transfer portal — two areas where change was long overdue — would seem to give even more power to players to be positioned as employees, and last summer’s Supreme Court ruling which set the changes to NIL in motion would also seem to set a different tone.
(Of course, at this point we must acknowledge a distinction between players from revenue generating sports like football and men’s and women’s basketball compared to the rest of the student athlete body. I’m not discounting any athletic accomplishments here, just connecting revenue generating sports with the athletes who enable that product on the field or court. In other words, we are looking at two cases: one of student athletes who benefit the university financially through their play, and another where the programs athletes play in cost the school in funding.)
We’ve seen the disparity play out. It would be nearly unimaginable for a school to cut its football or basketball programs, but others would seem to be on the chopping block when times get tough. Remember when even Stanford was prepared to cut 11 varsity sports in the aftermath of the early pandemic? While the school walked back the move less than a year later, the implications were clear.
So, let’s just call a spade a spade: college football has evolved into a professional, curated, revenue-generating activity for universities.
What’s the cost? Sure, we can acknowledge that the “purity” of the sport is somewhat tainted, but, as Ohio State fans, is it even reasonable for us to buy into this notion? Ohio State already operates as a brand and power on par with many professional teams. There are also obvious implications of players becoming employees (remember when Northwestern’s Kain Colter tried to unionize the program?), including impacts on critical revenue that is used to fund other programs, that we won’t get into here.
When we think of sports in terms of revenue generation — which, frankly, is what most Power Five athletic departments are doing — we must discard the notion that this is an amateur event. If schools are thinking of college athletics as a money making endeavor, then they should be willing to go all in. Many have already done so with everything from alcohol sales to sports betting, so they may as well discard the last “inconvenience” and allow players to be recognized based on their contribution to the on-field, high-quality and professional-level product we’ve come to enjoy on fall Saturdays — and get them out of this awkward middle ground.