College Football Is Back... But What Comes Next?
September 17, 2020 5:00 AM
by Jay Paterno
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Amid the immediate euphoria of the Big Ten now trying to play in 2020, in the not-too-distant future we may recall this year college football and think of the phrase “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Despite posturing on player safety, the rush to play the games is also being driven by television money. Because schools have incurred an explosion in fixed annual expenses, they’re scrambling to play games to recoup tens of millions of dollars in television mone

Even as some colleges have sent on-campus students home, or quarantined entire campuses, schools have skewed the status of football above academics. And what for: to play in empty stadiums?

The strength of college football is that it is an event. It is tradition. Now we’ve reduced the beautiful game and all the pageantry to a made-for-TV-studio sport complete with fake crowd noise. 

Yes schools will make some money back and that is “penny wise.”

But here’s where the “pound foolish” meets the road.

College football players will see that they’re still being asked to risk their own health and safety for money. Schools have accepted the risk of exposing their players to COVID-19. 

And while $40 million in TV money is but a drop in the bucket for a school whose overall budget is $5 billion or more, to the players that’s a huge pool of money. To the players, as they get COVID-19 they’ll see their risk is for someone else’s reward.

After this year, they will be coming for their piece of the reward.

And what might that look like?

This year college football is, at its core, content for sports television outlets.

So for the purpose of envisioning what comes next, let’s focus on future television revenue. The average Power 5 school brings in about $40 million in television money, ranging from $29 million in some conferences to above $50 million in others. That only happens if players are on the field.

If just before the White Out game between Penn State and Ohio State players from both teams agreed to walk out, would any of us keep watching to see the coaches meet at midfield and play a game of corn hole? As thrilling as televised corn hole may be (and I admit I’ve watched some) it wouldn’t get the same ratings for the Big Ten as actual football.

With the school’s dependence on players for 2020, the players will come away from the pandemic season’s shadow with a renewed sense of collective power. They’ve learned to connect with one another and in 2021 will be newly empowered with their ability to make money of their own name, image and likeness (NIL).

Networks use the players to promote broadcasts that reap billions in ad revenues. Those broadcasts collectively put billions into athletic department budgets to pay over-the-top salaries. The players’ next step after NIL may well be television revenue sharing.

And how might that work? Take an average Power 5 school with $40 million in television revenue and 600 student-athletes across all sports. A reasonable demand would be a 30% revenue share to the players, costing a school $12 million. To be fair to all athletes and minimize risk of a Title IX lawsuit, you split that $12 million evenly among all student-athletes. In this example each student-athlete would get $20,000.

Most student-athletes are getting just partial scholarships or no scholarships and most would probably use that money to help pay tuition. Much of that money would become a transfer of athletics money to the academic side, as well as reduce the student loan burden for them by $80,000 over four years.

There is a whole lot to like there.

Here’s where the “pound foolish” part comes in. To hang on this year, schools have shown an over-emphasis on football. That’s opened the eyes and ears of players who will want, over the long-term, a lot more of the revenue pie than the schools will ever recoup this year.

But where does that money come from?

Already the Pac-12 players have stated that they do not want sports being cut. So that means the biggest targets are the salaries of coaches and administrators. 

And for those fans who believe in amateurism and the integrity of college athletics, demanding football during this pandemic has turned college football into semi-pro franchises operating separately from the academic mission of the schools. College football has also become an engine of big money in widespread legalized gambling and much more.

Now as the 2020 season has shown that the student-athletes are bearing all the risk, they will soon be back looking to get a slice of the pie. And we may look back and mark this moment as a turning point in college football as we’ve always known it.



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