Jim Delany is a camel farmer who is sitting on a billion gallons of oil. He knows about camels.That is all.
— Brian Cook, from a Q & A with Spencer Hall, November 19, 2012
If you clicked on one of the links in this morning’s buffet, it took you to a piece about the continuing decline in college football attendance. In it, Greg Byrne, Arizona’s athletic director, utters the usual mouth noises we’re accustomed to hearing from the suits about how they’re on the mother (“We are definitely paying attention,” Byrne said. “It is critical that the game-day experience is better for our fans than the television presentation.”).
But here’s my question: what if, in the end, that attention is all there is?
I mean, we already know these guys aren’t nearly as smart as they believe themselves to be. As I once wrote,
All these guys, the Delanys, the Slives – they’ve all been told for so many years that they’re marketing geniuses that they’ve swallowed the hype completely. They’re not. They’re simply people who’ve been sitting in the right place and have taken the obvious steps (so far, anyway) to monetize our passions. Now we’re at a stage where the limits are being tested with unsettling notions like fourteen-school conference alignments, scheduling contortions and schools that seemingly change conference affiliations on a monthly basis (hey there, TCU!). Even most conference names are a joke now. If they’re not careful, at some point they risk their meal ticket saying the hell with it and walking away.
Smarter marketers than our current conference heads have made dumb moves.
If these guys can’t figure a way out of the box they’ve willingly placed themselves in, what’s left for the game of college football?
And we all know what the box looks like.
As they say in Westeros, “winter is coming.” And “winter,” in the case of the fannies-in-the-stadium-seats experience, most urgently amounts to (a) the continuing and spectacular advances in television, and (b) organized sports’ unwavering allegiance to the networks and to the massive windfall produced by that loyalty.
As TVs become even more overwhelming in quality and as those marvelous production values evolve — as HD becomes 3D becomes holograms, as overhead cameras become in-locker-room-at-halftime ones become in-helmet-during-huddles ones … and all cheaper and cheaper and cheaper — what will be the allure of schlepping to the actual site of the games?
Why will people in the next generation or two and beyond, certain to become virtual-reality participants as they lounge on their sofas, bother with the expense and the irritants and the time commitment of attending events in person?
Why will they continue to pay for the privilege of sitting in traffic jams and then in distant and cramped seats (and so often in the company of fools)?
Why will they keep digging so very deep for tickets, for parking spaces and for mediocre food (and in the matter of those spectacularly overpriced hot dogs, after waiting in line for them)?
And there is this, too: Folks will soon become even more painfully aware that those who run sports, collegiately and professionally, care more about the fans who didn’t come to the game and who didn’t fork over the dollars than the ones who did both.
The economics of college football don’t favor attendance anymore. So what happens when the schools and conferences surrender to the consequences of the reality they’ve helped fashion? Well, they’ll just keep doing what they’ve done for the past decade – conference realignment, tossing aside traditional rivalry games as quaint relics of another era, structuring conference championships with an eye towards placing schools in the college football playoffs, commissioners running conferences with an eye towards building broadcast networks… and, of course, postseason expansion – because for them, it’s all worked out in the short-term. And the short-term is all their minds are capable of grasping.
At the moment, postseason expansion means bowl games, which, when you think about it, are the perfect example of this mindset. New ones are popping up like desert flowers after a brief rainstorm not because fans want to go to some out-of-the-way place in mid-December, but because it gives ESPN the opportunity to fill another four hours in its broadcast schedule.
At some point, though, the camel herders will be told that slapping a playoff label on a postseason game will get them a bigger check. And that will be that, because when it comes down to it, that’s the only way they know to run their business. That’s sort of what Nick Saban was getting at with his comments from the other week, which Jeff Long amusingly dismissed.
But here’s the thing to ponder. Once the Delanys and the Slives give in to the dark side, where do things go from there? Sure, it’s easy to see a bunch of bowl games being wiped out, but, while they’re at it, what about conference championship games? Once the field is large enough, they become useless (although it would have the unintended benefit of ending the embarrassing quivers we’ve been watching the conferences endure over how they want to pick their champs going forward). Even better, ditch those games and you’ve opened up another week for the playoffs.
The sport’s new end-of-the-year playoff format currently has a 12-year lifespan, but in the event that more teams are added and more games are played during the college football season, some SEC coaches think the regular-season structure should be looked at and even shortened.
“I would hope that if it expands beyond this, we gotta look at the regular season,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said as SEC media days concluded Thursday. “I think you have to reduce the regular [season]. A lot of people may not agree with that.”
Eh, Mark, they’ll get used to it while they’re filling out their brackets.
I’d like to think I’m hopelessly cynical and way off base with this. But then I reflect on everything that’s happened in the name of college football over the past decade and wonder if I’m thinking too small. Because people like Greg Byrne think they’ve got it all under control.