In The Reckoning, David Halberstam’s 1986 epic about how Japan disrupted the American car industry, there’s a scene in which a young General Motors executive is tasked with traveling abroad to study new European cars. There, he found “a car enthusiast’s dream”: fun, brilliant, well-designed vehicles that he figured would excite car lovers back in Detroit. When he returned and gleefully shared the information, though, he quickly realized that the people running these companies did not love cars. They were not enthusiasts of anything except making bigger cars with bigger accessories and bigger profit margins. “Those who had the most power had the least passion,” Halberstam wrote of the realization. It is not hard, given the theme and title of the book, to guess what happened next.
The best thing you can hope for when you are the captive audience of a sport is that the people making decisions like the sport, too; that they understand why people watch it in the first place. This is not unique to one sport—it could be about any (baseball, golf, soccer) that’s facing upheaval in a world of changing television habits, technology, and media economics. But right now, the sentiment best relates to college football, a sport that remains one of the best things in the world despite 100 years of bureaucrats and administrators trying to make it worse. It is not dying—any suggestion that it is should not be taken seriously. And if, somehow, it was dying, Tennessee and Alabama fans would still meet in a grass parking lot every October to figure out how to play something. You cannot kill college football: I know, because the people who run it have tried their best. But the sport is, as of this month, lunging dangerously close to becoming something it is not—and that’s where the trouble starts.
There are two quotes you can use as guideposts to college football’s great unraveling. The first is from Paul Finebaum, who said on a WJOX radio show in April that college football “is going to come apart, the NCAA is on its last breath, and I think college football as we know it is on its last breath. And it’s happening with unbelievable speed, supersonic speed that I could not have predicted.” The second is from writer Pete Thamel: “No one is in charge. For all the billions of dollars, millions of fans and boundless passion that surround college football, that has always been its glaring and bizarre flaw. No one is looking out for the greater good of the game. No one is guiding the sport toward long-term prosperity and short-term sensibility. No one is building consensus and channeling all of the ratings, financial success and popularity toward an outcome that is positive for everyone in the sport.”
Thamel wrote that in 2011, during the first wave of the realignment boom, and it is more true now than it was then. No one is in charge of college football (well, maybe the TV networks), and no one is guiding the sport toward anything meaningful beyond grabbing more land in bigger TV markets.
This probably feels like background noise for people who do not religiously follow the sport. College sports always seem to be at a crossroads, always on the verge of a paradigm-shifting blowup, be it realignment, a court case, NIL panic, or the transfer portal. It is a system designed for anxiety about the future and your team’s status in it. But even by these standards, this is a new era. Two weeks ago, USC and UCLA announced they will leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024, accelerating a decade-long trend of top teams consolidating into the Big Ten or SEC. (The SEC poached Texas and Oklahoma last summer, and the two are scheduled to depart the Big 12 in 2025.) The move had two major aftershocks: The first is that everyone realized, if they hadn’t already, that geography will mean absolutely nothing in the conferences of the future—a five-hour flight between schools is no longer a barrier to entry. They also realized that it is time to start worrying if you are not currently in or in line to join one of the two main conferences, both of which are about to triple—at least—every other conference’s revenue. Nike founder Phil Knight, according to CBS’s Dennis Dodd, has started cold-calling, trying to get Oregon into the mix. Washington also called around and was told the Big Ten isn’t adding anyone right now. Every school is thinking about this, because they have to. There is no other timeline for the future: There will be two superconferences.
Now, any debate about the future of a sport becomes reductive very quickly, so let me say a few things about where we stand: College football’s playoff, and the availability of nearly every game on television, has been great for the sport over the past decade. Ask your parents about buying nonconference games on pay-per-view in the ’90s, or trying to find out what the UPN affiliate was to catch the end of a particularly thrilling Kentucky game. This is unquestionably a better time to be a football fan—college or pro—than 2002, or 1992. With that said, there is no way to look at the events of the past two weeks and think college football in 2032 will be better. You can brand me, or anyone else criticizing the direction of the sport, as an old man yelling at a cloud, but my counterpoint is that what is happening at this very moment sucks, and you’re allowed to think and say it sucks.
Here’s one major problem: There is no end to this upheaval. On Monday, Matt Hayes and Dennis Dodd both reported that the SEC will stand pat at 16 teams, in an effort to halt the expansion wars. But what if the Big Ten adds four more teams tomorrow? What if one of them is Notre Dame? What if Clemson finds a legal way out of its seemingly ironclad ACC deal, which runs until 2036? Any report that a conference is standing pat means that there simply isn’t a logical team to add at that very moment.
ESPN’s David Hale said an exit fee for departing the ACC would be in the nine digits, and then a team would also have to buy out its media rights, which might be another $300 million. That is not going to happen. No school, or booster, will spend that. This is not buying out Willie Taggart’s contract, this is spending more than the GDP of some Oceania countries in order to play Rutgers and get a place at the table in a landscape that changes so swiftly you might want to go somewhere else in a decade. Thamel wrote last week that “For the ACC schools to bounce, there’s a legal briar patch no one—the poachers or the schools wanting to leave—is eager to navigate.” What you have here is not anarchy, necessarily, but about a decade of unease for everyone. The ACC will likely be the third-biggest conference for the remainder of its TV deal—it already gets about half of the TV money that the Big Ten gets, and the Big Ten is negotiating a new deal for next year that will be far bigger. There is no way this is sustainable.
And that’s only one possibility. If there do end up being two superconferences with dozens of teams between them, Clemson, North Carolina, FSU, Miami, and others would eventually join in. So, too, would Washington, Oregon, Stanford, and Cal, whose conference is, as we speak, negotiating TV rights which would presumably keep them in the new Pac-12. The Big 12 is also in negotiations, though teams like Baylor and Oklahoma State would be desirable in a broader expansion. How these teams navigate these next few years—with court cases, handshake agreements, pacts, and middle-of-the-night conference hopping—will define where the sport is going. College football, for the next decade, will be like a small town near a dam, nervous that it could burst at any second but going about its business anyway. Because neither the Big Ten nor the SEC wants to be the first to rip the Band-Aid off (and because no conference knows how many teams it’ll stop at), we’ll get piecemeal departures over the course of more than a decade. Everyone will hate it and no one will stop trying to do it.
What the USC and UCLA moves signify is nothing short of revolutionary within the sport. Fox’s Joel Klatt, an astute college football observer, said last week that the moves are designed to make college football the clear no. 2 sport in America (which, by TV ratings, it may already be). “Maximizing its potential hinges on the consumption from a national market rather than a regional one,” Klatt said. What these conferences are betting on is that there are enough meaningful national matchups that the product will be better overall, and that USC-Rutgers is a tax the viewer will happily pay in order to get USC–Ohio State that same season.
In the short term, this is almost certainly true, especially while the novelty is fresh. Minnesota and Maryland fans will absolutely take an easy direct flight to watch their teams play in the Rose Bowl or Coliseum in 2024 or 2025. These megaconferences will look like a roaring success at the end of this decade. But in the long term, decision-makers are betting that the emotional attachment from playing the teams you’ve always played does not mean all that much, and that compelling TV matchups in the fall can feed a 12-month ecosystem. That part is more complicated.
College football, I believe, is not built on TV markets and cable sub fees. It is built on crisp, perfect fall days, and pure spite. College football is propelled by a type of fury that is completely unintelligible to anyone who does not experience it. Fury at your rival, their coach, your own coach, the people who make recruiting rankings, the people you work with who once taunted you after the wrong loss. It is about the most American force possible: vague, mostly unexplained hostility toward your coworkers and neighbors.
Most people have never set foot on their rival’s campus—some fans have never set foot on their own team’s campus—and yet college football is their favorite thing in the world. Not, crucially, because it’s a farm system for the NFL, or even because it makes them happy: The only real goal is for your rival to be more miserable than you are. Very little of what you put into your fandom gets paid back, aside from an occasional email congratulating you on subscribing to a recruiting message board for 100 months, an empty case of Bud Light every Saturday, and the ability to talk about Jacob Hester for 20 minutes at any sports bar in the southeastern or southwestern United States. And yet it’s all somehow worth it.
It is the closest thing America has to European soccer, where the rivalries are set in stone and should, so long as one team doesn’t happen upon a massive rise or fall, last forever. A Reddit post by a West Virginia fan summed up well the potential pitfalls of what a post-realignment world will look like.
The problem, over a matter of decades, is that these rivalries will not be replaced. Ohio State and USC will almost certainly play epic games with the best players in the country, but so much of what makes college football great is how interconnected schools are, not just by geography, but by history. Big games are one thing; the kind of hate that keeps you refreshing your Twitter feed in June is another. Both matter in different ways. But the schools that are left behind—and there are far more of them with big audiences than you think—will not decide to magically opt into games that don’t have any impact on their world. If you’re going to become a truly national sport, you have to think about the entire nation. And mark my words, if the Pacific Northwest disengages en masse from college football because they were left out, or if season-ticket sales at UCLA tank in 2033 because, well, people just wanted to see the schools they used to see, officials will try to blame NIL and the transfer portal before they look inward.
Looming over all of this is that over the next few decades, there’s no guarantee that even two superconferences is the final product. The sport may have a permanently messy future. One thing about realignment is that you don’t stay the apex predator for nearly as long as you think. At the beginning of the last decade, in the biggest what-if of the entire chain reaction, the Pac-10 almost absorbed six Big 12 schools, including Texas and Texas A&M, leading to the formation of the Longhorn Network, an Aggie departure to the SEC, and what we are seeing now. There will not be bigger conferences than the SEC or Big Ten—the ACC cannot exactly pull a power play here—but as the sport gets more professional, you never know what big money could come in and disrupt things further.
What happens, as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick Jr. theorized this spring, if teams in the middle of the next decade just opt out of the college game entirely and associate a university in name only? Do the conferences still control that new league? What happens if a rival TV network wants to get in on the action and decides it could start tempting teams to join some new venture? What of the lower-performing football schools like Vanderbilt or Rutgers in 15 years, when TV revenue is all that matters? What happens—and this is a big one—when a rival minor league decides to take a serious run at outpaying boosters for players in the three years before they get to the NFL? I ran that idea past an NFL executive on Monday: He said barring a LIV Golf–style minor league competitor, the best facilities and coaching for prospects will still be at the college level. But the NFL has no moral problem with it: The league doesn’t care where the players come from. The path for disruption is there.
There will be no rules, because there never were any to begin with. It all seems unthinkable, but so, too, did the Big Ten wrecking the Rose Bowl by taking the Pac-12’s most famous team after decades of treating the bowl as a sacred cow. Everyone in college football is Monty Burns sitting around a cabin with Homer Simpson: Homer says Burns is the richest man he knows. Burns shoots back, “Oh yes, but I’d trade it all for a little more.”
The other door here is that eventually, after decades of piecing it all together, the two conferences get so big that they regionalize again, college football more or less becomes what it was, and we get a sort of end-of-Titanic scene in which Maryland and Duke absolutely despise each other in basketball again. Maybe these schools will all be reunited in the SEC Southeastern Coast conference in 2038. Maybe you will get to hate again. Maybe someone will be in charge. Maybe that person will like college football.