Friday, September 16, 2011

The Market Price of Tradition

It’s been building for a long time.

Breaking news from ESPN’s Adam Shefter...

“The NFL is in the process of executing a high stakes merger with the SEC, Pac-12, and Big-10, adding three new conferences to AFC and NFC. Currently, the debate at the negotiating table is whether to adopt the NFL’s current playoff system or to just give Roger Godell the power pick who he thinks are the best two teams. The NCAA is excluded from this merger, and will be left to govern cross-country and women’s volleyball for the Mountain West Conference. We spoke earlier with University of Miami president Donna E. Shalala.”

‘This is great. I can finally get all this ‘Paid to play’ crap off my back! And we can finally reinstate Luther Campbell as general manager!’

“Schefter added that Auburn University AD Jay Jacobs is leery of the deal.

‘We got a hell of deal with Newton for $200 K. We’re gonna go bankrupt keeping up with everyone now! Damn you free market!’”

This isn’t so far fetched. Big time college football programs are giving the NCAA the Heisman and going straight to the pros. With Texas A&M pinning to join the powerful SEC, the 16 team super-conferences are getting less ridiculous by the day.

Fueled by television revenue (with a splash of recruiting interest), conference officials are gobbling up universities in an arms race to create the most lucrative product on the field.

And Texas A&M wants in with the richest.

In 2008, ESPN signed a 15 year, $2.25 billion contract with the SEC to show football and men’s and women’s basketball. CBS signed a similar fifteen year deal with the conference worth $825 million.

CBS broadcasts one SEC football game a week. One.

These TV deals give each SEC school an annual share of $17 million, $10.9 million more than the deal the ACC has currently. While the Big-10 and other conferences labor over creating their own networks, the SEC has broadcasting companies in bidding wars for the rights to their games.

This, undoubtedly, fueled the $300 million deal between ESPN and Texas for the “Longhorn Network”. Which, undoubtedly, made A&M mad enough to want to bolt to a conference that at least split their exorbitant revenue evenly and didn’t give absurd recruiting advantages to the school with the TV deal.

Coupled with the departures of Nebraska and Colorado, this cat fight has left the Big 12 in shambles and Baylor trying desperately to hold everything together like a divorced couple in a Lifetime movie.

But as I said earlier, this has been building for a long time.

In my previous post, I wrote that by revolutionizing the image of football programs like Oregon, Maryland, and South Carolina, Nike and Under Armour are using “amateur” athletes as billboards for their gear and apparel. Adidas jumped into the competition Saturday night thanks to its throwback Michigan and Notre Dame jerseys for the biggest football crowd in history. It didn’t hurt that it was also the best finish to a game in years.

At this point, the only difference between college and the NFL are paychecks... at least in theory. (Enter Cam Newton/Miami joke here.)

It’s hard to find an argument against A&M joining the SEC, or Texas agreeing to the Longhorn Network, or the Big 10 or Pac 12 creating their own networks, but at what point do these universities realize they’re killing what made their product succeed in the first place.

Why does the Vol Navy dock their yachts outside Neyland Stadium days before the Florida game? Why do Texas A&M students get together at midnight before home games to yell and “fire up the twelfth man”? Why is the speed limit on campus at Ole Miss 18 mph in honor of Archie Manning? Why does anyone still care about Notre Dame?

Culture and pride. Pure and simple.

While the NFL is king, it’s still a business. Teams are created for their profitability, not to represent their state or community. When that profitability wanes, the team either folds or leaves for a more lucrative market. They’re a business like Wal-Mart or Kraft or Coca-Cola. Team owners must put the interest of their team above all else, as well they should. 

So why on earth do university presidents and donors insist on creating a product that tries to rival the NFL? It’s like CC Sabathia challenging Usain Bolt to a game of tag. It makes no sense challenging a power at their greatest strength. It’s basic football strategy.

Scheduling games between Green Bay and New England makes no sense for the NFL other than both teams are good and fans would be glued to the TV. Creating a rivalry is unnecessary. College football mimics this same format and creates the LSU vs Oregon “Cowboys Classic”. Fans watch because it’s compelling, but the game is void of substance.

I would wager the Texas A&M faithful would sacrifice every game in 2011 if it meant the Aggies would crush Texas. It would at least be considered.

But this could all be lost in a BCS, money driven culture we’ve created for ourselves. Bob Stoops admitted he doesn’t see his rivalry with Texas as essential. The Colorado and Nebraska rivalry, which began in 1898 and has been played every year since 1948, is no more. The Buffaloes will instead end their season with their old nemesis Utah, whom they last played in 1962.

If college administrators want so badly to operate their well oiled athletics machines like businesses, then they need to consider “product loyalty”. Pro football stadiums are glorified for having a college atmosphere, but no one ever says, “This campus has a real NFL feel to it.” If fans chose to invest in college football over the NFL, it’s more than likely an intentional move.

And since both are more popular than ever, why not leave the competition on the field?

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