Column: Let’s just accept that college football is a professional sport
The middle isn’t always a bad thing, but when it’s one between two black and white options, it’s not so great. This is the position that college football has found itself in recent years.
As an example, I am approaching my 10-year Air Force Academy college reunion. I don’t often go back to Colorado Springs for games, but when I came back in 2019 before the pandemic, I was shocked to find there was local beer being sold at Falcon Stadium. Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked, since the state of Ohio has sold beer for years, but when I was in school there wasn’t a drop of alcohol legally available at the cadet gates or in the stadium.
No, the crowd still wasn’t the rowdy kind you’d see at professional games, but even the Mountain West program had acquired a luster and grandeur that set it apart 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 ways college athletic programs (particularly soccer) were using to make up for pandemic-related losses — including diving headfirst into vice industries. such as alcohol, sports betting and even cannabis. While many programs had, for one reason or another, avoided, suspended or limited their revenue-generating activities, the reality of essentially losing an entire season in ticket sales meant that taking the moral high ground was not an option financially. viable – with the unintended consequence that college football games began to look more like professional peers in many ways.
Iowa became the latest Big Ten school to begin selling alcohol last season, generating more than $3.2 million in revenue in its freshman year, with most sales occurring at Kinnick Stadium during football matches. The Big Ten also recently started selling beer at Lucas Oil Stadium for the Big Ten Championship game (admittedly, it was strange to see all the beer carts in the lobby lying fallow on Saturday nights, when they were running for Indianapolis Colts games a few hours or days later).
But it goes beyond alcohol. The media rights deals we’ve seen in recent years — particularly among the Power Five — are another example of the relative professionalism of college sports, especially football. For comparison, the NFL collects around $10 billion a year in media rights. The new deal announced by the NBA, which would not begin until 2025, is expected to be between $7 billion and $8 billion per year. By comparison, the Big Ten — admittedly the most valuable sports league when it comes to media rights — is poised to strike a deal worth more than $1 billion a year in the conference. The whole of college football would not be far behind these most valuable American sports leagues.
Additionally, college football revenue is a major windfall for most Power Five schools, between ticket sales, licensing deals, sponsorships, merchandising and more (including the aforementioned media rights). Ohio State football revenue alone was $116 million in 2020 before the pandemic shut down most activity in 2021.
To the lay observer or fan, the change really doesn’t matter. Eight of the Big Ten’s 14 schools sell beer in their stadiums to the general public. Fans can bet on the games in the same way as the NFL. The home experience of a Power Five game features NFL-like broadcast talent. The only difference seems to be the day of the week the teams play.
So where does change matter, and why does college football still find itself in many ways in an awkward in-between?
When you look at the product on the pitch, it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint the differences between amateur and professional sports football. That’s what makes the NCAA’s ongoing battle in court (now backed by the SEC) to keep 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 appear to give players even more power to position themselves as employees, and the Supreme Court ruling last summer who set NIL’s changes in motion would also seem to set a different tone.
(Of course, at this point, we must recognize a distinction between players in revenue-generating sports like men’s and women’s soccer and basketball versus the rest of the student athlete corps. I’m not overlooking any sporting achievement here, I’m connecting simply revenue-generating sports with the athletes who enable this product on the field or on the court. In other words, we are looking at two cases: one of student-athletes who benefit the university financially through their game, and another where programs in which athletes participate cost the school in funding.)
We’ve seen the disparity play out. It would be almost unimaginable for one school to cut its football or basketball programs, but others seem to be on the chopping block when times get tough. Remember when even Stanford was ready to cut 11 college sports in the wake of the first pandemic? Although the school backed down less than a year later, the implications were clear.
So, let’s call a spade a spade: college football has become a professional, organized and revenue-generating activity for universities.
What is the cost ? Sure, we can agree that the “purity” of the sport is somewhat tainted, but, as Ohio State fans, is it even reasonable for us to buy into that notion? Ohio State already operates as a brand and a powerhouse on par with many professional teams. There are also obvious implications for players who become employees (remember when Northwestern’s Kain Colter tried to syndicate the program?), including impacts on critical revenue that is used to fund other programs, which we will not discuss here.
When we think of the sport in terms of generating revenue – which, frankly, is what most Power Five sports departments do – we have to dismiss the idea that it’s an amateur event. If schools see varsity athletics as a lucrative business, then they should be ready to go all out. players be recognized for their contribution to the high-quality, professional-level on-field product we enjoy on Fall Saturdays – and get them out of that awkward middle ground.