Michael Oriard, author of three books on football published by UNC Press (Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle , King Football: Sport and Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio and Newsreels, Movies and Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press , and Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport ), has a fourth book in the works on college football, entitled Football Revolutions: The Transformation of the Big-Time College Sport since the 1960s, which will be published in Fall 2009. In an article on Slate.com, he talks about the influence of television revenue on the athletic programs at major universities.
What’s the biggest story in college football so far this season? The dramatic surge of Alabama in Nick Saban’s second year? Early losses by Ohio State, USC, and Georgia, opening up room at the top for the Crimson Tide and others? I’d nominate the SEC’s $2.25 billion deal with ESPN for rights to televise the conference’s games through 2025. With an additional $55 million annually from CBS, the SEC will get $205 million a year over the life of the television contracts, a little more than $17 million per school per year. Those figures don’t resonate with football fans as much as, say, the latest jockeying in the Heisman Trophy race, but it’s these figures that will shape the game’s future.
We’ve been hearing for years that big-time college football is becoming indistinguishable from the NFL. I disagree: College football is much more cutthroat and competitive. On account of pro football’s revenue sharing—most importantly, nearly $4 billion in television money gets split up between the 32 NFL clubs each year—it’s hard for even a lousy pro football team to lose money. NFL clubs do not constantly have to upgrade their facilities in order to attract players. Instead of recruiting wars, pro teams take turns selecting the best college players, whom they pay a fixed percentage of the league’s revenues. NFL clubs also don’t steal one another’s coaches, and what they pay the men on the sidelines is not governed by fear of losing a successful coach to another team.
College football programs share revenue, too, but not nearly as much and only within conferences. That’s why the SEC’s extraordinary windfall could change the basic structure of big-time football.