If you don’t like change, I wouldn’t recommend following college sports at the moment. In the past 365 days, there has been no shortage of developments that have shaken the college athletics world. First and foremost, college athletes (finally) have the ability to profit off their name, image, and likeness in addition to being able to transfer to another school without sitting out for a full season. This by itself would be significant but throw in the fact that Texas and Oklahoma have announced their move from the Big 12 to the SEC along with UCLA and USC announcing theirs from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten, it’s clear that things aren’t the way they used to be in college athletics.
In order to keep up with all of this change, the NCAA has launched a Transformation Committee consisting of an executive group of university presidents and athletic administrators to reimagine the future of college sports. Among the issues being discussed are eliminating scholarship limits on sports that offer only partial scholarships, abolishing the limitation on the number of coaches per team, expanding direct payments from schools to athletes, reconfiguring the recruiting calendar, and implementing certain “transfer windows” for the transfer portal.
All of those are important issues that need to be solved in the near future. I even wrote an article for Conduct Detrimental that emphasized the need for more structure for the transfer portal. With that being said, there is a bigger issue that needs to be explored at length. The problem is that in order to solve it, it means recognizing an undisputed reality of the current landscape in college athletics: college football is not a “college” sport anymore and needs to be treated differently from the 23 NCAA sports.
When UCLA and USC joined the Big Ten, they didn’t do so with their championship-level Olympic sports programs in mind. The Big Ten didn’t bring in the two biggest brands in the Pac-12 to bolster its baseball reputation. Both sides made the decision to pursue each other for one reason and one reason only: to make more money from future media rights deals.
While the latest round of conference realignment is a clear indication that college football is becoming professional football, it is by far not the only sign. Since 2021, two commissioner jobs have opened in the Power 5 conferences. Last summer, the Pac-12 hired George Kliavkoff as its newest commissioner, and the Big 12 recently tabbed Brett Yormark as its lead man moving forward. Both of them have something in common: neither one of them worked in college athletics before becoming commissioners of two of the five most powerful conferences in the country. Kliavkoff came from BetMGM in Las Vegas and Yormark had experience with the Brooklyn Nets as well as Roc Nation. Both hires were made with one goal in mind, and it wasn’t to further their conference's Olympic sports programs. It was to make the best media rights deal possible.
While we aren’t there quite yet, the future of college football could definitely involve a world where the players are employees of their respective schools. Player unions, collective bargaining, transfer buyouts, and more are all possibilities in the next few decades. With that being said, why is college football being governed similarly to all of the other sports offered by athletic departments across the country?
Now, it’s worth mentioning that the NCAA doesn’t have a financial stake in FBS television or championship revenue. Since the 1984 NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma Supreme Court case, the television revenue has shifted more towards the schools and their respective conferences. The postseason of FBS football is controlled not by the NCAA, but by the College Football Playoff board of directors. However, NCAA rules and limitations still govern the sport to a certain extent as they do in other sports.
As college football is becoming more professionalized by the day, it’s becoming more evident that it needs to break away from the NCAA and the rest of college sports. Instead of having five power conferences spread relatively evenly across the country as we had in the past, we are moving towards a landscape that includes only two super conferences with teams from coast to coast. While many lament the loss of regionality in the sport, it’s clear this is the direction college football is headed.
But this doesn’t have to be the case for the other sports. With the exception of men’s basketball, every other NCAA sport doesn’t generate significant TV ratings during the regular season. So, if media rights money is the sole reason why UCLA and Rutgers now find themselves in the same conference, why are we having volleyball players from those respective schools hop on nearly six-hour flights for a midweek game in October? It just doesn’t make sense and could negatively impact the academic experience that administrators often emphasize.
As a solution, I believe that this is the time for the people in charge of college athletics to separate high-level football away from the other 23 sports. While USC and UCLA can compete in the Big Ten in football for money reasons, its non-revenue generating sports can stay on the West coast and play teams closer to home in non-football playing conferences.
Cross-country travel is less of an issue in football because of the scarcity of games and structure of the sport. Unlike many of the other sports which play upwards of 20 or 30 games, football plays once a week on the weekend for 12 weeks of the year with no more than 6 or 7 road trips per season. Volleyball? Baseball? Soccer? Softball? Not so much. These sports should be separated from football and compete in regionalized leagues where travel time and costs are reduced to allow the athletes to get the best experience possible.
So instead of putting all their efforts into looking at limits on the number of coaches and scholarships, I believe the NCAA Transformation Committee should recognize that college football is becoming a professional sport and should be structured differently than the other non-revenue generating sports. In a time where change is overwhelming college athletics, it’s time to drop preconceived notions that all a school’s sports need to be in the same conference. This won’t be an immediate fix, but it’s something that will improve not only the quality of the athletes' experiences on campus but also help athletic departments save on cross-country travel costs as well.
Every time conference realignment shakes up the college athletics landscape, a phrase many people say is that “football drives the bus, and all the other sports are just along for the ride.” My question is: why do they have to be?
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5