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How could US college football be restructured to improve its competitive & economic potential?

American football running back carrying ball through defenders
Friday, 03 September 2021 By Drew Thornley

US college sport is undergoing major changes. On the legal front, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent unanimous decision in NCAA v. Alston[1] upheld the Northern District Court of California’s ruling that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) is bound by federal antitrust law and that its rules limiting education-related benefits are unlawful.  And simultaneously, many States are passing legislation entitling college athletes to profit fully from their names, images, and likenesses (NILs).[2]

Fresh on the heels of this, we are seeing structural changes to college football. Texas and Oklahoma, the two most powerful members of the Big 12 Conference, have begun their departure from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The reason for this is that, quite simply, each will make much more money each year than they would if they stayed in the Big 12. There will likely be more changes to come. Indeed, news has just surfaced that the Big 12 is potentially preparing to extend membership offers to four lower-conference teams.

In the author’s view, this is good news. College football needs to evolve if it wants to achieve its full competitive and economic potential. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward: there are many teams in the top conferences, but only a handful of them are considered “top” teams that have a realistic chance of winning. Of the 65 schools in the Power 5 conferences, only 10 schools have won (or split) the national championship in the past 20 seasons. Given that each school is allowed 85 scholarship players, the talent gap among the powerhouse schools and the rest is enormous, since the top players disproportionately join the best teams. And with the richest schools only getting richer, college football is fast becoming a world of the haves vs. the have nots. Moreover, in terms of popularity and revenues, big-time college football (meaning that which occurs within the NCAA’s Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision Power 5 conferences - see footnotes[3]) bears little resemblance to all other collegiate athletic sport.[4]  It is very arguable that being yoked with those programs under the governance of the NCAA is an albatross around college football’s neck and that it could achieve far more with bespoke regulation.

So far from bemoaning the recent changes to the college-football landscape, the author believes it is time to embrace them - not least because of the increasing legal/financial rights of players and the precarious financial situation of athletics departments and universities in general.  Accordingly, this article examines several options for structural change that the author believes would benefit the current system. 

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Written by

Drew Thornley

Drew Thornley

Drew is a Associate Professor of Legal Studies at Nelson Rusche College of Business, Stephen F. Austin State University



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