College football has always explained America. It is no wonder why the sport has skewed the way it has. Corporations box out the mom and pops in the business world and, on an individual level, the wealth gap in the United States has never been greater. So why would you expect the most nakedly capitalistic sport in the country to operate any differently? The only difference in college football is that the spheres of influence are not mainly on the coasts but instead lie within a part of the country that does not often have positive front-facing enterprises.
Salary caps and draft orders seek to level the playing field across pro sports, but might makes right in college football. The South simply cultivated the greatest natural resource in sports (talent) and attracts most of the best assets. This is the end result of factors both within and beyond the sport’s locus of control. Following the postwar dominance of northern programs, integration ushered in a new stream of talent in the 1970s. A population boom in Florida juiced Florida, Florida State and Miami in the ’80s and ’90s. Migration patterns and the perpetual motion of recent success are the current reality.
The original sin was pretending college football is something it simply isn’t. It is a sport with regional pockets of fervor that masquerades as a national endeavor when you link them all together. There are weak links in the chain. It is played from sea to shining sea, but it is no secret where it is played the best.
We’ve gone through numerous unfulfilling paths to pick a champion. Years ago, the sport shackled itself to postseason exhibitions as rewards and has since been forever caught between kowtowing to that bowl system because of its uniqueness and delivering what is the end goal of every other American sport: a straightforward champion via the postseason.
A rematch of southern teams (LSU and Alabama) was the major impetus behind finally creating a College Football Playoff. Southern teams kept winning the “new thing,” and it is part of the reason the CFP is due to expand. And if that happens, it will likely create a system where more teams are playing for the right to get smoked by the same cadre of the top teams, the majority of which reside in the South. That is not a reason to keep the Playoff at the current four-team format, but more an understanding of what is to come. Playoff expansion is necessary so the illusion of a championship is tangible, which hasn’t been the case for many teams, whether we were voting on the champ, deciding it by computers or doing it by opaque committee decisions.
To be the man, ya gotta beat the man, and few programs outside of the region have proven able to do that at the highest level since the start of the modern era with the advent of the BCS in 1998. The Playoff and its marketing promised access for everyone, but the results have shown regional dominance with every passing year. If the sport wants to reverse the trend, find ways to win the biggest games in this bottom-line business.
Unless you’re an advertiser or an ESPN executive, you don’t need to care about the TV ratings. Semifinal viewership suffers on non–New Year’s Day years, but if 30 million people are watching boring semifinals instead of 17 million, it doesn’t change the results of the games (only three of which have been one-score contests). Perhaps college football has simply maxed out within an increasingly crowded media and sports media landscape. Going back to the start of the BCS in 1998, the numbers are fairly consistent for the national championship game through 2019, mostly hovering between 24 and 28 million viewers. There are peaks around a Game of the Century featuring the second-biggest media market in the country (2005 USC-Texas; 35.6 million viewers), Alabama’s first trip back to the title game in 17 years (30) and the first CFP title game ever (34.14).
It remains to be seen whether Alabama and Ohio State’s 18.7 million number in 2020 is a pandemic outlier or the new norm, but a midwestern team in the season’s biggest game certainly did not juice viewership even though the Buckeyes have arguably the strongest national brand in the sport. But if '20 taught business anything, it’s that COVID-19 exploited whatever inefficiencies an organization has. Is there any wonder why Alabama steamrolled to the title despite the headwinds?
There is no escaping the jealousy that a southern team is going to win the national title again. There is dynasty fatigue across sports, whether it is the Patriots, or the Yankees or the Lakers. Those are big cities with certain amounts of glamour. You can easily point them out on a map. They’re nothing like and nowhere near Clemson, S.C., or Tuscaloosa, Ala. Nationally, you’re not usually jealous of that part of the country. The conversation surrounding this sport would certainly be different if Rutgers and USC were dueling for national titles every year—the latter at least has a pathway back to prominence.
There is also the fact that Nick Saban, the greatest coach in the history of the sport, also runs the most football-mad program, Alabama, at a level of excellence that is basically untouchable. Saban and Bama are shipping out NFL prospects at an untouchable Amazon.com-type pace. Just like Jeff Bezos pivoted his company from merely selling stuff to making stuff, the Crimson Tide went from doing business defense-first to becoming an offensive juggernaut. Trying to keep up with the corporation drives competition and so the Tide rises while lifting all boats where interest is the highest. Signing Saban assistants as head coaches, beefing up facilities and armies of support staff and other program infrastructure. Meanwhile, the rest of the country is still playing catchup.
Brian Kelly, Oklahoma, and Texas just showed that if ya can’t beat ’em, ya join ’em. That also serves to create margin for the South when Alabama doesn’t win a title. Pending a USC revival, the West Coast’s hopes are squarely on Oregon’s shoulders. A similar situation exists within the Midwest and Ohio State. This isn’t merely about getting into the Playoff, it’s about winning it. Washington, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Michigan and Cincinnati all were worthy of being called one of the four best teams in the country, but there is a massive gulf between CFP entrant and CFP winner.
College sports has a phobia of admitting what everyone knows: It is a business-first, enterprise-driven largely by football profits. The South spends, so the South wins. Many successful teams in the region make no bones about the fact that they are big state schools that offer fine educations while not truly purporting themselves as the ivory tower institutions of higher learning. An average of the conference’s U.S. News & World Report shows there are few Ivies down South (SEC schools average 110th, Big Ten 56th and Pac-12 80th)—as if that truly makes them lesser than in a modern America that devalues the college degree each year. If all of these universities were honest, they’d tell you the football teams prop up enrollment and keep the schools relevant in the zeitgeist, as well.
If you want the sport back from the South, then seize the means of production and take it. Until then, you will have to be content to remain under the southern thumb.
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