Fresno, CA

Opinion: Who owns college football? No one – and that’s the problem

Clay Kallam

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Fans will still come to Tennessee games after the dust settles, but what about Fresno State? And Cal?(Photo by Steve DiMatteo on Unsplash)

There’s a crucial difference between ownership and sponsorship – and that difference is a major reason for the chaos in college football.

We all know – and have known for many years – that college football is a professional sport. The revenue is in the billions, and the lucky old men at the top of the food chain collect enormous paychecks.

But with a waterfall of confusion now unleashed by the expansion of the Big 10, there’s an important distinction that must be made: Though college football is a professional sport, it is not like other professional sports. It is not a mini-NFL, or an echo of the NBA, but as long as we think of it as following those same rules, we will find it hard to see our way to any kind of calm waters downstream.

So instead of looking at the NFL as the model, and seeking solutions within the NFL framework, it makes sense to step back and take a hard look at the reality of college football, and how it differs from other professional sports. And once we do pull back, we can begin to see that college football doesn’t resemble the NFL as much as it resembles another very familiar part of the sports world: Youth sports.

Think about it: College football is a sport limited to young men aged 18 to 23, and just like youth sports teams, it all starts with recruiting. There are no drafts, no enforceable limits on attracting talent, and so the college sports landscape bears a much closer resemblance to youth basketball leagues, say, than it does to the NBA – and in that resemblance may lie a reasonable path forward.

But to see that path, we have to go back to the beginning, which is how youth sports teams get funded. By sponsors, whether those sponsors are high schools or the neighborhood yogurt shop or parents of the players. In college football, obviously, the sponsors are the universities themselves. Granted, their sponsorship costs tens of millions of dollars a year rather than tens of thousands or less, but the principle is the same, and so, critically, is the relationship.

Sponsors are not owners. Sponsors generate their income from other sources, not from the team, and even though NFL owners are usually independently wealthy, the franchise is a property, a property that will be sold or inherited, and a property whose value must be preserved.

A sponsor, though, is tied to the team only by convenience. When it no longer makes sense to sponsor the local Little League team, the sponsor just says no. When St. Mary’s College in California was faced with the choice of either upgrading its football program significantly or dropping the sport so it could remain in Division I basketball, it simply quit sponsoring football.

And sponsors have much less reason to cooperate than owners. A sponsor cannot sell or bequeath the team it sponsors; a college cannot sell its football team. In that sense, the team has no financial value beyond its ability to enhance the image of the sponsor. (Of course college football generates revenue for universities, but that revenue often goes to support other sports. The football team has an annual value for the programs it might finance, but not a long-term one. And if there’s no more women’s tennis team because there’s no more football, the university will still be in business.)

So let’s return to the world of youth sports, which is a jungle red in tooth and claw. Recall how the Taiwan Little League recruited from all over that large island to win at Williamsport. Note how high schools get top players to move into their district (or falsify their addresses). Look at the proliferation of elite youth basketball teams with players from all over the country.

Bringing order to such chaos is no easy task, but it happens. Sponsors can be kept in line, rules can be enforced and the playing field can be more or less leveled. The mechanism for such control, however, varies from sport to sport.

In youth baseball, Little League imposed stricter rules and spent more money enforcing those rules, and since winning a Little League title was the pinnacle of 12-and-under baseball, teams followed the rules. If they didn’t, they couldn’t play – and not incidentally, they had trouble finding sponsors.

In high schools, state associations control access to leagues and playoffs. They may not do a great job of keeping cheating out of the sports they oversee, but they try – and there are teams and coaches that are punished every year.

In youth basketball, Nike runs what’s known as the Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) for both boys and girls, and it’s the best, most prestigious league in the country. And if you want to participate, you have to play by the rules. If you don’t, and Nike kicks you out, then parents won’t pay teams to let their children play, and other sponsors will drift away as well.

So where does college football fit in all this? Left to their own devices, with no vested interest in the survival of the business model, colleges will do what they’re doing now. UCLA will abandon Cal to collect more money, and beg forgiveness from the system’s regents rather than having risked asking permission. The Big 10 will take whoever they want, whenever they want, and what happens to Boise State is no concern of theirs. (This is why comparisons to the NFL do not work. The NFL needs all its franchises to be successful and competitive in order for the business model to make sense, in order for the price of franchises to remain high. The NFL has owners, who own the league as well as their teams, and those owners will make decisions and even sacrifices to ensure its survival.)

When it comes to college football, then, who has enough power to enforce its will, and the need to do so? Obviously, the broadcast and streaming media. Though the big money is in the Big 10 and SEC, media make money off Boise State too – and so do cable networks and streaming services. ESPN wants Fresno State to supply product, and ESPN wants to make money off that product, but if the Big 10 and the SEC squeeze the life out of the sport, then a Fresno State football game might as well be an intramural championship.

ESPN, Fox, NBC and everyone else who stand to make money off of college football are, in essence, the owners of that business. It is in their interest to rein in the sponsors, to bring order out of the confusion, and most important of all, keep that golden goose laying those eggs. The sponsors, the colleges, do not have nearly the skin in the game that the networks do, because their football teams are not their business, not their reason for existence.

So if we look at college football this way, as a youth sport run amok, as a group of sponsors with no collective will, then the path to a solution becomes clearer. The colleges cannot run this business; the colleges can neither make nor enforce rules; the colleges are, at heart, uninterested in the big picture. Which means that the only hope that the future of the sport might resemble the past lies in the media, that reviled and blatantly money-grubbing group.

Sure, it’s easy to blame Fox and ESPN for the Big 10’s power grab, and they are indeed guilty. But in the long run, Fox and ESPN aren’t really the problem – in fact, in a most unlikely turn of events, they are really the only ones who can make and enforce any rules, and the only ones who can possibly be the solution. For the age-group sport that is college football, salvation lies in letting the people who write the big checks write the rules – and then realizing that following those rules is the only way forward.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

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