At last! After over half a year without a meaningful football game having been played (apologies to the XFL) the sport is back in full swing. Both the NCAA (college) and NFL (professional) seasons are underway.
The first week of games has reminded fans not to take anything for granted. In the pros, the visiting Detroit Lions prevailed over the team favored by many to repeat as Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs. In the college ranks, the Alabama Crimson Tide lost a home nonconference game for the first time in 16 seasons.
Some aspects of the sport remain familiar; others, not so much.
The same: The talent continues to improve every year, the competition is as intense as ever, and fans have many titanic struggles—including unpredictable upsets and exhilarating conquests—to look forward to. In short, there will be no shortage of drama, joy, sadness, and memorable plays (some spectacularly good, others distressingly bad) for the entertainment of America’s voluminous football fan population.
What's changing: A sport as popular as football inevitably, over the decades, has been increasingly monetized, and that trend seems to be accelerating, particularly at the college level.
The Transfer PortalIn 2021, there was a revolutionary development in the transfer portal: Student-athletes were allowed to transfer to another school’s football program without having to sit out for a year. Not surprisingly, with the huge disincentive of losing a year of play removed, the number of transfers increased. This feels a lot like when free agency came to major league baseball in the 1970s. When players were more or less bound to one team, there was a greater sense of continuity; a fan could anticipate that most players would remain on the team. Just as more and more baseball players sought out greener pastures when they were no longer tied to one team, so today, more and more college football players are bailing out on the team they started out with.
Don’t underestimate the economic factor in this surge in transfers. Players switch schools if they think they’ll get better coaching that will elevate their draft status, since the earlier a player is drafted by the NFL, the more money he will receive. Literally millions of dollars are at stake for the best players. Thus, some players transfer because they're buried on the depth chart at their first school. They move to where they think they can get more playing time, become more visible to pro scouts, and thus increase their draft odds. Some players who excel in a so-so football program now transfer to schools that are nationally ranked. This means performing under a brighter spotlight, again in the hope of enhancing their draft status.
One of the notable success stories in utilizing the draft portal is reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, the quarterback who followed his coach, Lincoln Riley, from Oklahoma to Southern California and soared to the pinnacle of college success.
NIL RightsThe second economic tsunami that's fundamentally altering the landscape of college football is the granting of NIL to college players. Prior to 2021, college football players were more or less under the thumb of the university that was granting them a scholarship to play football. If a player didn’t like the way the coaches treated him, well, tough luck—the university had leverage over the player by virtue of the player’s financial dependence on the scholarship. (Note: That’s the official story. In practice, there were many under-the-table inducements from which star players benefited.) Today, the monetary floodgates have opened. Many players can make more from licensing their NIL rights than most of their classmates will earn after they graduate.
Conference RealignmentsFinally, in the scramble to keep their football programs attractive to prospective athletes and/or economically viable, a number of universities are abandoning conferences in which they have competed for decades. There seems to be a mad scramble to join conferences where their players will enjoy greater visibility—and perhaps where the visiting team’s share of ticket revenues is larger. The results of these realignments can be rather humorous, in a wry sort of way.
Take, for example, the Big Ten. There have been more than 10 football teams in that numerical misnomer of a conference since 1993. This year, there are 14 teams, next year, there will be 16, and there is scuttlebutt being heard about expanding to 20 teams in 2025.
College football conferences aren’t just making a mockery of arithmetic. Now they're mutilating geography. Just last month, the Atlantic Coast Conference agreed to add Stanford and California. Sorry, folks, wrong coast.
The bottom line here is that, while the tectonic plates under NCAA football are heaving and shifting, there will be a lot of great football on television. Alas, I suspect that just like smaller major league baseball markets such as Pittsburgh and Kansas City have found it hard to compete with the wealthier big-market clubs since free agency began, so college football will become increasingly divided between wealthy powerhouse schools and poorer schools doomed to serve as punching bags for the big boys. All hail the mighty dollar! And go, Lions!