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The Unfair Game: College Football and the Big Bucks

One billion, two hundred forty three million, one hundred twenty four thousand dollars.

This number represents how much the University of Texas football program is worth as of 2017. By the end of the 2019 fiscal year, it was estimated that the Texas Longhorns made 156.9 million dollars in total revenue.

Tom Herman, who is the standing head football coach at the University of Texas, Austin, has a base salary of 6.75 million dollars, making him just the 7th highest-paid head coach in the nation.

However, by the end of the 2019-2020 season, Texas found themselves with an overall record of 8-5. Mediocre at best. In fact, over the last 10 seasons, Texas has experienced only one 10-win season.

In today’s money-hungry society, college football is not about the play on the field but rather the money that is made upstairs. From the valleys of Starkville, Mississippi to the mountains of Salt Lake City, Utah, college football is a multi-billion dollar machine that spreads its lucrative wings to regions far and wide.

College Football: A Look Around the Conferences

SEC

While Texas’ advantageous paradise may seem impressive, it does not even shine a light when compared to the big picture. During the 2009-2010 academic year, the Southeastern Conference, which is more commonly referred to as the SEC, became the first division to break the one billion dollar mark in annual, athletic revenue 

Fast forward to today, and conferences are almost breaking that mark thanks to their football programs alone. To measure this observation, I will be presenting the annual revenue that each Power 5 conference made during the end of the 2018 fiscal year. The reason why the 2019 fiscal data can’t be shown, is because it is not yet fully available, as some conferences, such as the Big Ten, do not file a federal tax return. 

Big Ten

 As things stand today, the Big Ten currently find themselves as the leaders in the clubhouse, bringing in annual revenue of 759 million dollars (CBS.) Following them is the SEC, which brought in a year-end revenue of 660 million dollars.

Pac-12, ACC, Big 12

After that, is the Pac-12 which brings in 499 million a year, which is followed by the ACC, who made 464.7 million dollars at the end of the 2018 fiscal year. Last but not least, there’s the Big 12, who brought in 388 million dollars, a 38 million dollar increase from the year before.

When adding all these numbers together, you get 2.7 billion dollars. Without factoring in inflation, if you were to multiply that number by just one decade, the Power 5 conferences would theoretically be making a combined 27 billion dollars over the next 10 years. If inflation were to be factored in, the Power 5 would be estimated to make close to 80 billion dollars over the course of the next decade.

If these numbers hold true, The NCAA will continue to be the world’s most implausible non-profit.

 

The Unfair Game

It’s a game where wealth beats talent and cold, hard cash beats grit and determination. Now, of course, the more lucrative schools are going to naturally be more successful, as they have the means to access the best coaches and recruit top-tier talent year in and year out. In college football however, one school could be the most talented team in the world, but if they don’t have the finances to back it up, the national landscape won’t even take a second look at them.

A 12-0 UCF will always be in the  shadow of an 11-1 Penn State or even a 10-2 Alabama. 

The College Football Playoff (CFP), which is the holy grail of the college football season, was established during the 2014-2015 season. The idea behind the playoff was that it would give more schools an opportunity to win the national championship, as opposed to the best two teams being selected to play in the BCS National Championship at the conclusion of each season.

The BCS was a very calculated system and, to get in the big game, more often than not, a team had to be from a big school. However, what ended up happening with the college football playoff, was that it became even more calculated than the BCS ever was.

Out of the six years that the CFP has been played, a total of 0 groups of 5 teams have made an appearance. In fact, only 11 out of the 130 schools who participate at the FBS level, have made the CFP. And to absolutely no one’s surprise, the schools with the most money, are often the ones who find themselves in the playoff the most.

Alabama, who pays their head coach, Nick Saban 8.7 million dollars a year, has been in the College Football Playoff five times. It has only had six runnings thus far. Clemson, whose football team generates 50 million dollars per year, has also made an appearance in the CFP five times. 

Look at the other “big school” appearances:

  • Ohio State 3 times;
  • Oklahoma, 4 times

This brings up the question of whether money equates to success, power, or maybe even a scary combination of both.

 

The revenue gap

I think a perfect example that demonstrates the unfair nature of play between the rich and poor is the story of the 2006 Boise State Broncos.

At the time, Boise State, who was a part of the Western Athletic Conference — (they moved to the Mountain West Conference in 2011) — was considered to be a “mid-major.” A mid-major can be defined as a program that is smaller in size compared to the Clemsons and Ohio States of the world and more importantly, makes significantly less money for their respected university.

For example, at the end of 2017-2018 academic year, it was reported by USA Today that Texas Athletics made a nation’s best 219 million dollars in total revenue. Boise State, on the other hand, made just 48 million dollars in total revenue, which ranked 64th in the country.

The term “mid-major” may even be generous in this case as the wealth gap seems tremendous. 

At the end of the 2006 regular season, Boise State found themselves with a perfect 13-0 record. Averaging nearly 450 yards of total offense a game, the Broncos were considered to be an unstoppable, well oiled machine. Much of Boise State’s offensive success that year can be credited towards running back, Ian Johnson, who rushed for 1,713 yards, accounted for 25 touchdowns, and finished 8th in the 2006 Heisman voting.

For all intents and purposes, Boise State was one of, if not the best, team in the country and should have been given a chance to play in the BCS National Championship game. But as we all know, fairytale endings do not exist in the real world. 

The 2006-2007 National Championship was played between Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State, and Gainesville’s finest, University of Florida, who had experienced a loss during Week 7 of the regular season. These are two schools who make hundreds of millions of dollars on a yearly basis and have brand equity that is immeasurable.

As for Boise State, they were not looked at or even considered to play in the big game. Putting a mid-major in the National Championship, no matter how good they may be, would be the cardinal sin for the NCAA to make. Money could be lost and that is not acceptable in the eyes of Mark Emmert. Instead, Boise State was paired with Oklahoma in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma, who was at the time led by star RB, Adrian Peterson was predicted to run all over the small school from Boise, Idaho. A David vs. Goliath matchup of sorts. 

However, Boise State had heard enough of the doubters and shocked the world, beating Oklahoma by the score of 42-41.

The symbolic nature of this win was that it showed the BCS that it doesn’t matter how much more money a school makes over another. Both teams have to play four quarters and both have to abide by the same rules.

Unfortunately, this message has fallen on deaf ears, as a mid-major has yet to make an appearance on the world’s brightest stage.  

Repositioning in College Football

Another example that shows how college football cares more about dollar signs than wins and losses is through the practice of repositioning. Repositioning, which is also commonly referred to as conference realignment, is the practice of moving an athletic program from one conference to another.

Oftentimes, the decision for a university to relocate to a new conference comes from the belief that there is an opportunity for a significant amount of money to be made. Along with bringing in a bigger paycheck at the end of the year, repositioning to a more reputable conference can lead to a brighter perception of a university, an increase in attendance and an influx in school donations (T.R., & Harmon, 2008.) 

With this being said, it is important to note that there are also downsides to relocating a football program to a bigger conference.

According to Susan K. Harmon, a professor at  Pacific Lutheran University, football programs who relocate conferences, oftentimes experience little to zero on-field success.

To emphasize this point, three tables will be made. These tables represent three schools who have relocated their football program in the last decade. These programs being TCU, Rutgers and Nebraska. The table will dissect how each team performed before relocating, compared to their performance post conference realignment. 

TCU 

Year ConferenceRecordConf RecordBowl Result 
2010Mountain West13-0 8-0Rose Bowl Win
2011Mountain West11-27-0 Poinsettia Bowl Win 
2012Big 12 7-64-5Wild Wings Bowl Loss
2013 Big 12 4-8 2-7DNP
2014Big 12 12-18-1Peach Bowl Win
2015Big 1211-27-2Alamo Bowl Win
2016Big 12 6-74-5Liberty Bowl Loss 
2017Big 12 11-37-2Alamo Bowl Win
2018Big 12 7-64-5Cheez-it Bowl Win
2019Big 12 5-73-6DNP

 

Rutgers 

YearConference Record Conf RecordBowl Result 
2012Big East9-45-2Russell Athletic Bowl Loss 
2013American6-73-5Pinstripe Bowl Loss
2014Big Ten 8-53-5Quick Lane Bowl Win
2015Big Ten 4-81-7DNP
2016Big Ten2-100-9DNP
2017Big ten4-83-6DNP
2018Big Ten1-110-9DNP
2019Big Ten 2-100-9DNP

 

Nebraska 

YearConferenceRecordConf RecordBowl Result
2010Big 1210-46-2Holiday Bowl Loss
2011Big Ten9-45-3Capital One Bowl Loss
2012Big Ten10-47-1Capital One Bowl Loss
2013Big Ten9-45-3Gator Bowl Win
2014Big Ten9-45-3Holiday Bowl Loss
2015Big Ten6-73-5Fosters Farms Bowl Win
2016Big Ten9-46-3Music City Bowl Loss
2017Big Ten4-83-6DNP
2018Big Ten4-83-6DNP
2019Big Ten5-73-6DNP

 

The analysis

While these teams may not have experienced the most success on the field since making the leap to the Power 5, it doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced success off of it. One thing that Harmon preaches in her excerpt is that a football team’s winning percentage has no relationship to donations toward an institution. Over two decades of data and research have supported this claim, and the only schools where on-field success may truly matter comes from the likes of Liberal Arts Institutions. (T.R., & Harmon, 2008.) 

Rutgers has not won a conference game in two years. They’ve been 0-18 to be exact. By looking at this, one may wonder why Rutgers joined the Big Ten in the first place. Their competition doesn’t compare to the big named brands in the Big Ten such as Penn State and Michigan. Their performance has been indicative of that.

However, I guarantee if a “higher up” official at Rutgers is asked if the team has been a failing program since joining the Big 10, they would 100% say no. Since joining the Big 10 in 2014, Rutgers has experienced an average gross revenue of 26.5 million dollars (Blade, 2020.) And while this may not seem like a huge number compared to other Power 5 programs, who are making over 100 million dollars in revenue each year, it is a huge increase compared to when Rutgers was in the Big East.

Air Time for the Big Ten

It is also important to note that back in July of 2017, the Big Ten reached a six-year, TV rights contract with ESPN and Fox Sports, that is said to be worth over 2 and a half billion dollars.

Why is this so important? Because part of this billion-dollar contract goes directly to each of the current 14 Big Ten schools at the end of each year.

For example, at the end of the 2018 fiscal year, the Big Ten distributed 51.1 million dollars to each of their 14 respected universities. By the end of 2019, each school in the Big Ten received $52.1 million dollars and by the end of 2020, the Big Ten is expected to distribute 55 million dollars to each school, just off the basis of a TV super deal (AA, 2018.)

For Rutgers alone, this means that they are expected to bring in a total of 158.2 million dollars in less than 37 months. So to restate the question of if Rutgers has been a failing football program since joining the Big 10, the answer has quickly become pretty clear. 

Out of the 156.9 million dollars that Texas football made in revenue last year, Sam Ehlinger, who is the star quarterback for the Texas Longhorns, saw zero dollars come his way (Express, 2020.)

Ehlinger, who is about to embark on his senior season with Texas, is a money-making machine for the University. During his junior year with the Longhorns, Ehlinger managed to throw for 3,663 passing yards, account for 32 TD passes and rush for an additional 663 yards.

On top of that, Ehlinger was able to lead his team to a 38-10 blowout win over the 11th ranked Utah Utes in the Valero Alamo Bowl. During his sophomore season, Ehlinger was not only able to beat Texas’s rival, Oklahoma, in the Red River Showdown for the first time in four years but managed to win a New Years Big 6 Bowl, as Texas defeated Georgia in the 2019 Sugar Bowl. 

Moral of the Story

Out of the 100,119 people that pack Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturdays during the fall, not one person is there to see Yancy McKnight, who is the strength and conditioning coach for Texas that is making over 500 thousand dollars a year. They are there to watch Ehlinger play.

The millions of dollars that are being made through ticket sales across the country can be accredited to the product on the field and not the personnel on the sidelines. This is not to say that coaches and staff are not a huge part of any given football program and don’t deserve to be getting paid, but the exploitation of young college football players around the nation has gotten out of hand.

Sam Ehlinger is going to make The University Of Texas at Austin well over 100 million dollars during his four years spent on campus, while not seeing a single penny from it. If that isn’t exploitation to the highest degree, then I don’t know what is. 

At the end of the day, college football is bigger and better than anyone who will ever read this. Issues can be brought up, but come fall, they will come. They will come by the hundreds of thousands to support their school which they consider to be family. One may bring up the fact of exploitation, but the fact of the matter is that Justin Fields is going to make The University of Ohio State millions of dollars next year while not seeing a single cent float in his direction.

SMU, which lies out of the American Athletic Conference, could go a perfect 12-0 next season and would still not receive a single vote to enter the College Football Playoff. College Football is an unfair game that will never change due to its power and strength in numbers.  

 

This piece was part of an essay written for sports governance and the NCAA at Rider University

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Peter Snyder
Peter Snyder is an Intern sportswriter who covers collegiate athletics as well as professional sports.
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