At some point last week, the college football season ended. At least I think I did. There may be some stray north-south, east-west games to be played. But I’ll stick to my tradition of not watching any college football during the year. Even if you don’t watch, of course, if you follow sports at all – and ESPN is on half the time at the gym – you do know a little about what’s happening. So I know that Alabama battled it out with Clemson. Clemson won. And while it’s not exactly s if I’m a Clemson fan, but, surely, beating Alabama is a good thing.
I actually used to enjoy college football – at least I enjoyed it more than I did pro football, which has always seemed so right-wing-y to me. Not that college football doesn’t share many of the same characteristics: violent, militaristic, way too in love with itself. It’s just that college football has always seemed less so – at least on the margins.
But the more you learn about college football, the worse it gets, what with the way it treats the majority of its athletes. I.e., those who won’t be going on to a brain-bashing career in the NFL. Especially the way that the mega-programs treat their poor and minority athletes. It’s ugly and it’s exploitative. Which is why I more or less gave up on college football, other than to go see non-big-time games every few years. The kind of games where the Crimson plays the Quakers, or the Jumbos play the Ephs. Where the kids playing are more or less normal size, and more or less normal students. Where 90,000 people aren’t going crazy in the stands. And where the fight songs have words like “fiercely” and “boola boola” in them.
Unlike the big time, NFL farm league, black-spoiltation teams, where the war cry is “moola moola.”
And as I saw on Bloomberg earlier this month, it really is true that the more you learn about college football, the worse it gets. Bloomberg’s finding: College Football’s Top Teams Are Built on Crippling Debt. This article was part of a multi-part story on the financials behind major programs. It is, for the most part, a tale of the haves and the have nots, with the major conferences – SEC, Big Ten – mostly doing okay, thanks to TV revenue; and the lesser conferences foundering.
But even being part of one of the “good” conferences doesn’t necessarily make for solvency.
Last year, Cal Berkeley’s athletic department (Cal is part of the Pac-12) ran a deficit of $22M, thanks in part to “the most expensive college football stadium overhaul ever.” (Price tag: nearly half a billion.) Cal is not alone:
Football critics nationwide often point to multimillion-dollar coaches as emblems of excess. They should be more worried about debt, which costs more and lasts longer. A high-priced coach might earn $4 million to $5 million a year. Meanwhile, according to public records, athletic departments at least 13 schools in the country have long-term debt obligations of more than $150 million as of 2014—money usually borrowed to build ever-nicer facilities for the football team.
Alabama – The Crimson Tide, not to be confused with The Crimson – is among the schools that have rolled up big debt: they owe “$225 million over the next 28 years.” Talk about Roll, Tide. Sure, they’re a powerhouse, but what happens if the rich TV deals that are supporting them disappear over the next 28 years – either because people just plain grow away from football, or the media picture just upends in ways we can’t imagine. How does the debt get financed then?
“Leaders need to be very careful that long-term expenses and commitments cannot, and should not, be balanced on the assumption that these traditional media rights deals will hold up,” said Karen Weaver, a sports-management professor at Drexel University and specialist in college media rights.
Many in college sports are more optimistic. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, for example, has said he expects that his schools will make more money from media as rights get carved up among traditional broadcasters and digital streaming platforms. All of the biggest conferences signed rich, multiyear television contracts recently, and most athletic directors believe the money will continue to flow into the next round of negotiations as well.
We’ll see how all this plays out. No doubt, the big ol’ semi-pro teams/schools will survive all this debt. And maybe the lesser lights will drift down to fielding lesser teams, more along the lines of the Quakers and the Ephs. Or maybe, over time, football – college and pro – just kind of quietly goes the way of boxing. Boxing’s still around, but it’s not quite the same as it was when the Friday Night Fights were broadcast, and most sports fans followed the sport enough to know the difference between Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano. Maybe there’ll come a point where no one knows the difference between Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.
Until that day, I will somewhat hypocritically keep on following the NFL in general and the Patriots in particular. Still, if it all went away tomorrow, I wouldn’t exactly be heartbroken. Baseball, on the other hand…