The other day, VandyImport wrote again that the College Football Premier League is coming. Today in the Athletic ($), Stewart Mandel floats pretty much the same idea in a piece that also has a few other ideas regarding possible future realignment scenarios. Mandel imagines a 28-team Premier League with four divisions, which for some reason includes Tennessee, but never mind that for now.
It sounds like a reasonable idea on paper. But it’s not happening. Here are just a couple of reasons why.
Uh, what about the other sports?
Yes, football drives conference realignment. We all know this. Even the basketball-driven formation of the new Big East was a direct response to the football-driven expansion of the old Big East. That’s all that really matters here, isn’t it?
Until it isn’t. The reason why football-driven realignment could work was only because the other sports naturally followed the football teams. But the explicit premise of the College Football Premier League is that the other sports don’t follow. It is a football-only competition that explicitly takes advantage of the fact that the NCAA doesn’t operate a championship in FBS football.
So, just what happens to the SEC when nine schools join the College Football Premier League and leave the other five behind? (If you’re curious and don’t have a subscription to The Athletic, the five left behind are Kentucky, Vandy, Missouri, and the Mississippi schools.)
Tennessee: Hi, I know we joined eight of our fellow conference schools in the Premier League and screwed over your football programs and deprived you of a lot of money, but it would be great if you still played us twice a year in basketball.
Kentucky: Hi. Go **** yourself.
And that’s the fundamental problem here. The working assumption appears to be that the existing conferences would continue to function as normal outside of football, where a little more than half of the current P5 members are relegated to permanent second-tier status. The problem is that I’m not sure you can overcome that bridge. If Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas A&M elect to screw over the other five SEC schools, do those five have any legitimate reason to continue doing business with them? I don’t think so.
But this is where the other sports suddenly become important. The 28-team Premier League might be a good idea for football, but it’s a terrible idea for other sports. And speaking of other sports, the NCAA operates championships in every sport other than football. How does the NCAA respond to all this? Does UCLA want to render its basketball program permanently ineligible for the basketball championship? Does LSU want to sit out the College World Series? Maybe they don’t care about that, I don’t know. But the NCAA could very well make that decision for them.
And speaking of burning bridges...
Oh, yes, there would absolutely be lawsuits. Next question.
Title IX and the IRS
Some of the “other sports” problems could be solved simply by, I don’t know, electing not to compete in the other sports. Except that, of course, brings up Title IX issues. And the schools branching off in the Premier League need a place to park those sports and as we’ve established, it ain’t going to be their current conference. And while you might not mind a National Premier League concept for football, flying your women’s soccer team all over the country to satisfy your boner for football money is a really dumb idea.
And as we’ve established, the whole point of amateurism and making the players go to class is to satisfy the IRS requirements that your sports teams be a legitimate extension of the university’s educational mission, and the Premier League idea makes this look less and less like anything to do with your educational mission. It already doesn’t in any meaningful sense, but at least it’s close enough at present to qualify legally. But if the whole idea here is to try to evade the oversight of the NCAA and allow players to profit off their likeness and spend all their time at the football facility instead of having anything to do with school? Yeah, the IRS is probably going to tell the universities to disassociate from the football teams or risk their tax-exempt status. And when given the option of paying taxes and not paying taxes, most sane people are going to choose the second option. So at that point, the universities would either have to think this through or have their football teams officially disassociated from the university.
Which might actually be a good thing, now that I think about it. But no university administrator is going to see it that way.
Hey! Who actually wants this, anyway?
And finally we get to the real issue. Anybody who thinks that turning major college football into NFL Lite is a good idea just really doesn’t understand the popularity of college football.
The continuing popularity of college football has always been because it’s explicitly not the NFL. There are bands, pageantry, old rivalries that have been played for a hundred years or more, and for fans the opportunity to tailgate and come back to campus for a weekend.
But the slow march of made-for-TV college football has killed a lot of that. Games that kick off at terrible times (because TV), miserable five-minute breaks in action where fans in the stands have to sit on their thumbs, small towns that have nowhere close to the infrastructure to handle a gameday crowd. And people wonder why college football teams struggle with attendance? Yeah, people still watch on TV because the product is still compelling.
On the other hand, when is the last time you watched minor league baseball or the G-League on TV? Minor league baseball is instructive here. Some teams make money by getting fans out to the ballpark, but by and large the ones that do aren’t selling the baseball, because if you really want to watch baseball then you can just find your MLB team of choice on television.
And that’s what the College Football Premier League is up against. You’re basically proposing the NFL, but with a lower level of play and in smaller markets that are mostly inconvenient for fans in a way that isn’t necessarily appreciated by people who like the draw of going back to campus and watching your team play an old rival. Does it sound like a compelling product any more? If I wanted NFL Lite, I’d rather just watch the NFL.
College football realignment in the past has only worked because while it’s killed some rivalries, it hasn’t completely burned the bridge with the history of the sport. Does it still work if you completely sanitize it and burn the last remaining bridges, turning it into NFL Lite? I don’t think it does.