As the days of August tick slowly toward September, college football fans across the country are eagerly counting down toward the kickoff of another season. Undoubtedly, there will be some who bemoan the changing landscape of college football as more autumn traditions like Texas/Texas A&M and Missouri/Kansas come to an unceremonious end. And many will blame the greed of school administrators for it.
While the lure of financial gains has undeniably spawned some of the realignment in college sports, it easily could have been much more significant. The fact is that the top major college athletic programs could generate much more revenue by following a different path — by creating a football-only superconference. To understand why, we must explore the economics of college sports.
From a business perspective, one aspect of college sports is immediately obvious — football is king. It is football after all that generates the most revenue, because it is football that has the most demand from fans (and as a result from television networks). On the other hand, most other college sports fail to generate enough revenue to cover their operating costs. In business terms, football is a cash cow.
But it is more than just revenue that sets football apart. At only 12 games, football schedules are relatively short compared to most of the other Olympic sports. This allows the games to be held less frequently. This is important because it limits the amount of times that teams must spend traveling and the amount of time student-athletes must spend away from class. Furthermore, since college football games are most commonly held on Saturday afternoons, student-athletes are forced to miss few classes. This is unlike some other sports, like basketball with more than 25 games per season, often held during school nights.
So, what do these different characteristics mean for the optimal structure of college sports? Since football generates so much more revenue a more costly structure is viable. Furthermore, since the games are held mainly on weekends with relatively less impact on academic schedules, longer trips are more feasible. The combined effect is that compared to the other sports, football conferences with a larger, more expansive footprint are more economically viable. Conversely, for the other sports it is important that conference alignments, and therefore team schedules, cover a smaller geographic area.
This is part of the reason why school administrators of the top programs across the country have struggled with the decisions to change conference affiliations. On one hand, administrators want the additional revenue a larger conference can generate. On the other hand, they express concern about the impact on their student-athletes. The problem is that they are trying to fit one model of conference alignment onto two different markets and it doesn’t fit well.
The solution? Two business models.
For the non-football sports, the optimal structure is for conferences to cover small, geographic areas. This limits both the cost to the schools and the travel-time for student-athletes. For football though, the optimal structure are large, national superconferences. There is no reason that a school’s football conference must be the same conference for all sports. In fact, a number of schools already differentiate between the two. Imagine OU and OSU joining schools from California, Texas and Florida to create a truly national football superconference. With the right schools, it would be much more profitable.
Remember, more profits to these schools is not such a bad thing. It is through this extra revenue that these schools are able to provide student-athletes in other sports the opportunity to play and receive an education. Without the revenue football generates, many of these other sports would not be active. With more revenue, more students benefit.
It is true that the quest for more money has unsettled the college sports landscape. However, it is also true that if college presidents wanted to maximize the benefit they offer to their student-athletes they shake up college sports even more.
MICKEY HEPNER is the dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Oklahoma. Hepner serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for The Oklahoma Academy.