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Is the College Football Bubble About to Burst?

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If college football ever needed validation that it’s really, really popular — and the game doesn’t need the ego boost, trust us — it was on display as Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff championship game.

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Ohio State showed that almost anything is possible in the new playoff era. The Buckeyes snuck into the four-team field as the No. 4 seed, then beat Alabama to end the SEC’s eight-year streak of reaching the national title game. OSU then knocked off Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks for the national title — doing all this while using its third-string quarterback.

The Ohio State-Oregon championship game drew an audience of 33.4 million people to set a new cable television viewing record. How popular was college football’s mini-Super Bowl? The Academy Awards attracted only slightly more viewers at 36.6 million. LeBron James, America’s most well-known sports star, cheered on the Buckeyes from their sideline in the final minutes of the championship game inside Jerry’s World — the massive, billion-dollar Dallas Cowboys stadium that screams entertainment and excess.

College football is as popular as ever. That’s likely not changing anytime soon. But popularity doesn’t guarantee that bubbles will never burst. There are challenges facing the sport and, to varying degrees, they are very real:

• Declining attendance in the regular season and at some bowl games

• Increasing financial gap between the haves and have-nots as schools provide more benefits to players

• Growing health concerns about concussions that could limit football’s talent pool

• External threats to pay players and/or give them more legal rights

“College football is an extraordinary game,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says. “I think the months of October and November are the best regular season in all of sports, and I think there’s a lot right with college football. But we ought to be thoughtful, or we’ll find ourselves in a much different place in the future.”

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The bubble isn’t close to bursting in the eyes of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.

“I’m not worried about football,” Scott says. “I think the fundamentals are very strong and, in fact, getting stronger in terms of the popularity of college football and the passion and entertainment value around the game. It’s hard to predict anything too far into the future, but football continues to be the most popular sport in this country.”

Still, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the challenges that face the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that is college football.

Declining attendance

Smaller crowds were bound to happen given how the paradigm has shifted in college sports. Football television money drives the engine, and with nearly every game on TV or available via streaming, it’s so much easier and cheaper for fans to stay home and watch comfortably on their HDTV.

Football Bowl Subdivision crowds for home games averaged 43,483 fans in 2014, down four percent from 2013 and the lowest since 2000. Last year marked the sixth straight season that crowds averaged below 46,000 since they peaked at 46,456 in 2008.

“I have some questions about sustainability,” Bowlsby says. “We are seeing troubling trends in attendance, especially among young attendees. The product that’s on television is so good and you can fast forward or go to other games during the commercials or watch on mobile devices. The fact is we’re consuming our sports differently than we have in the past, and that’s going to continue to change.”

The good news: 72 percent of the top-25 attendance leaders experienced increases or remained the same (all of the top 25 were from Power 5 conferences or Notre Dame). The bad news: Only 48 percent of the remaining Power 5 schools maintained or increased their crowd average, and many schools in smaller conferences continued to decline.

“In some ways the sport is probably as popular as it’s ever been, and the TV ratings suggest that,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher says. “Yeah, we have instances of dips in attendance, which I think we can link in large part to how we’ve made it very easy to stay home and watch the game.”

Conferences and schools have understood this for years. Realignment didn’t help by taking away some attractive games. Some rivalry games have disappeared (goodbye, Texas-Texas A&M and Kansas-Missouri). Bigger conferences mean that some schools see certain attractive opponents on their campuses far less often.

Some schools are creating better in-game experiences through technology and the game-day environment. Some are downsizing their stadiums and building more club suites to generate revenue. There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. Winning, of course, usually solves attendance problems.

Bowl games continue to be impacted by smaller crowds. Announced attendance at last season’s 35 returning postseason games declined four percent, and the average bowl crowd was down for the fifth straight year.

Television ratings for the regular-season remained strong. ESPN’s New Year’s Eve audience for bowl games averaged 7.1 million viewers, up from 4.6 million in 2013 when less-attractive games were played on that date.

A big question in the next two seasons: How will ratings look for the playoff’s semifinals on Dec. 31 instead of Jan. 1? In order to protect the Rose and Sugar bowls, the College Football Playoff is potentially hurting its New Year’s Day brand again with the semifinals on New Year’s Eve two out of every three years. Last season’s New Year’s Day was a hit with exciting Auburn-Wisconsin and Baylor-Michigan State games leading into semifinal matchups of Florida State-Oregon and Alabama-Ohio State. Meanwhile, the sport will reach 40 bowl games (counting the championship game) when Orlando adds another postseason game in 2015.

“Some of our bowl games exist purely for the experience, and I think that’s where we probably need to focus as much as anything,” Football Bowl Association executive director Wright Waters says. “I don’t think you can have a discussion about the health of bowls and limit it to attendance and payouts and ratings. If the attendance is down four percent and that’s the same as the regular season, I think it just speaks to the larger issue that we’ve got to get our arms around as an industry.”

For college football, the fight is on to keep its next generation of fans at stadiums.

Financial gap

In mid-November of last year, the College Football Playoff rankings looked as if “Moneyball” had come to the sport. Half of the top eight teams in the rankings (at that time) live in the middle class financially — Baylor (36th in national revenue by athletic department), TCU (43rd), Arizona State (51st) and Mississippi State (56th).

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A month later, the playoff featured some bluebloods: Alabama, Florida State, Oregon and Ohio State. That doesn’t mean the so-called “Moneyball” schools can’t compete for the national title. Now more than ever, it may be easier for those schools to compete given that everyone has TV exposure these days.

Also, money doesn’t buy success. Go ask Texas, which led the country in athletic department revenue in 2012-13 ($165.7 million) and went 6–7 in football last year. Baylor ($86.9 million in ’13-14) and TCU ($77.1 million in ’13-14) shared the Big 12 title, and both flirted with making the playoff.

The reality is that the financial gaps will only increase. And although TV money continues to pour in for many major conferences, the gap will likely present a challenge for some football programs. The new NCAA governance structure gives the Power 5 conferences the autonomy to create legislation to provide more benefits to players. Those benefits come with costs that schools can elect to pay or not pay.

Cost of attendance is the first new benefit, and it’s an important one. If schools want to, they can now pay players an extra stipend of a couple thousand dollars to cover the actual cost of attending college beyond the NCAA’s previous limit on scholarships. The cost of attendance numbers will vary by school and are set by financial aid officers under federal guidelines.

“We’re all at the point where the intent is right, but there’s going to be some problems with managing it,” Steinbrecher says. “We’ve really got to have some faith that people are going to do the right things. The NCAA doesn’t have the staff to monitor this. The question that I have for our own folks is, do we need to develop a conference monitoring system for this? The numbers shouldn’t be dramatic each year.”

Schools can now provide unlimited meals and snacks to players in conjunction with their participation. There’s the possibility that more players could have their education paid for by returning to college at a later date. Covering medical costs for players after their careers is another discussion that’s going to come up.

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, who wants to position his league as the sixth “power conference,” understands what he calls “headwinds” in college sports facing his league.

“We hate that term ‘power conference,’” Aresco says. “We know it’s used a lot. It’s harder on us. We don’t have as much resources. But if you use money correctly and spend it wisely, you can compete. Our guys don’t have the margin for error that other guys clearly have. Also, we realize probably half of those schools (in the Power 5 conferences) are going to struggle with this. They’re not all Michigan and Alabama and Texas and Ohio State. This is a new world where we can compete because we do have scholarship limits and transfer rules, and we fought hard for those in the (NCAA) governance redesign. With those two things in place, you can compete.”

But the money gap also increases the difficulty for some schools to retain coaches — or even hire them in the first place. The SEC West will now have a last-place coach who makes at least $4 million annually. Back in 2007, Nick Saban was the only coach in the country who made $4 million.

Many coordinators at high-profile schools would have to take pay cuts to be a head coach at a smaller school.

“It used to be back in the day you’d be an assistant coach and you might be a head coach at Division II and migrate to a Division I program and migrate again,” Steinbrecher says. “Or in the case of the MAC, it wasn’t unusual to be picking up who was the hot coordinator at that time. But when you look at what’s going on with salaries at the very highest level, not only with head coaches but with assistants, it’s changing where I think all of us are starting to look when we replace a coach.”

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Central Michigan lost head coach Dan Enos, who left to become Arkansas’ offensive coordinator, and replaced him with John Bonamego, a 16-year NFL assistant who was mostly a special teams coordinator. Buffalo hired Lance Leipold, who won six Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater with a 109–6 record in eight seasons. Steinbrecher compared the hiring of Leipold to Wisconsin’s basketball team many years ago picking Bo Ryan, who had won four Division III national titles.

“Look at people who were high school coaches six or seven years ago. They’re head coaches at the highest level,” Steinbrecher says. “That wouldn’t have occurred a decade ago. There are people at all levels who can flat-out coach. I think savvy administrators will have to work hard to figure that out.”

Concussions

The image was frightening last season. Visibly woozy Michigan quarterback Shane Morris had just taken a hit to the head and wobbled around, staying on his feet only by leaning on a teammate. Morris stayed in the game for one play after the hit. As if that weren’t bad enough, he later returned for one more play.

How Michigan handled the aftermath was also troubling. After the game, then-Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said Morris “wanted to be the quarterback, and so, believe me, if he didn’t want to be he would’ve come to the sideline and stayed down.” That comment represents the old-school football culture that concussion experts are trying to change.

In the ensuing days, Hoke said he didn’t think Morris had been diagnosed with a concussion. Then his athletic director confirmed that a concussion had in fact occurred and apologized for how Michigan handled the injury.

The Michigan example is a long way of saying this: Concussions aren’t going away. They’re a serious health issue that’s heavily scrutinized now by the public. Football at all levels must continue to evolve or risk losing its current popularity.

“I’ve had very high-placed football coaches tell me that they even question the sustainability of football as a whole going forward,” Bowlsby says. “Youth participation is down in each of the past two or three years. You saw Mike Ditka’s interview where he said he wouldn’t want his kids or grandkids playing the game. I think football is under siege in a lot of ways.”

The NCAA has been mired in a lawsuit over concussions. The proposed settlement between the NCAA and the plaintiffs would provide money to former college athletes to be tested for long-term brain injuries if they meet certain criteria from a questionnaire. The $70 million medical monitoring fund would not pay for the actual treatment of the injuries — a criticism some have levied against the settlement.

“I think it’s very unfortunate,” says prominent concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu, who was named to serve on the NCAA’s medical monitoring fund committee. “Unfortunately, where it’s left is these individuals are going to be able to be given the diagnosis and then they’ve got to sue either in a class or individually, and they either have to go after a given school, or if they want to include the NCAA they can. I think a lot of individual schools will get sued.”

Medical experts and economists who created the NCAA medical monitoring fund estimate that 50 to 300 former college athletes in all sports who played from 1956 to 2008 will be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease that has been found in 76 of the 79 brains of former NFL players examined after their deaths. Other factors such as genetics may contribute to CTE, but the disease has been repeatedly linked to head trauma.

In recent years, the NCAA has set new guidelines and spent money on research and education. Reluctant to accept liability, the NCAA, conferences and schools have passed the buck back and forth over who’s in charge of new concussion guidelines. There is not enough support yet for penalties to be attached to a new safety committee that will oversee concussion protocol for the Power 5 conferences, even though NCAA president Mark Emmert and NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline have publicly said that they want some type of enforcement mechanism.

Why is there not enough support to attach NCAA penalties to return-to-play concussion guidelines? “Because some people aren’t doing it correctly,” Bowlsby says. “They want to have local control, (but) their coaches (are) saying, ‘I don’t want to be told what to do on the sideline.’”

In 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education found that nearly half of the trainers surveyed in major college football said they felt pressure from coaches to return concussed players to the field before they were medically ready. A 2010 NCAA survey revealed in the lawsuit showed that nearly half of responding universities said they returned athletes in the same game after a concussion diagnosis.

“What the NCAA has to do — and it’s easy for me to say and not easy to do — they have to police so the policies get done,” Cantu says. “They’re leaving it self-policed until there’s a whistle blown.”

College football has progressed from where it was a couple years ago with concussions. The sport’s head is no longer buried in the sand. Certainly, no one wants long-term health problems for players.

Still, there’s going to be constant tension in college football over this issue. There may be a day when rules changes more dramatic than the NCAA targeting penalty are needed. Educating players will be important, starting at younger ages (if youth football even continues to exist in the future). More players willing to speak up and sit down when they have symptoms of a concussion will help the sport, but that cuts against the grain of football’s mentality.

“You have to keep watching what we’re doing to make sure we’re doing everything possible to make a high-velocity impact sport as safe as possible,” Steinbrecher says. “I think technological advances could help, whether it’s sensors in the helmets or pads to trigger protocols that say if you have a collision measured at X, maybe that’s a player you need to look at immediately to monitor.

“There’s an awful lot we don’t know medically, but we’re learning more and more.”

Litigation

Talk to conference commissioners about the health of college football and they almost unanimously agree on the biggest threat: The attempt to get players paid and/or be considered employees.

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Change is coming to the NCAA. What exactly that change will look like remains to be seen, but it’s becoming very likely that college athletes will be allowed to get paid in some form beyond their scholarship value.

Maybe there will be group licensing deals with schools and third parties allowing equal payments to every player on a team for the use of their name, image and likeness on television or products. Maybe players will be allowed to cut their own deals to receive outside endorsement money. Maybe — in what’s described by critics as the doomsday scenario — players will be allowed to shop their services to the highest-bidding school.

The Ed O’Bannon lawsuit opened legal doors and helped change the public dialogue. So did all of the money pouring into the college sports industry as schools chased new conference homes for money and created their own television networks. A federal judge ruled last August that the NCAA violated antitrust law and that schools are allowed (but not required) to provide deferred payments to football and men’s basketball players after their eligibility expires. The NCAA could cap the amount at no less than $5,000 per year.

The NCAA appealed the ruling. As of early May, the appellate court had not made a decision. The NCAA faces the prospect of having to create new rules for allowing these payments. Under the O’Bannon injunction, schools could begin offering the extra money to current players and recruits on Aug. 1 with payouts starting in 2016-17.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick says that college sports could manage a group-licensing concept for athletes to be paid immediately and not even wait for deferred payments. Swarbrick believes the industry brought this on itself with rules that differentiate athletes from the general student body, such as not allowing athletes to make money off their own names.

“From a risk perspective, O’Bannon was a very favorable ruling for everybody,” Swarbrick says. “The (Martin) Jenkins and (Shawne) Alston cases are much more troubling. You can find ways to manage a finite exposure, which is what O’Bannon gave us. Some people may cut sports, some people may increase revenue, some people may endow more, whatever. The open-ended case, that’s problematic.”

The Jenkins case — which for now is consolidated with the Alston cost-of-attendance lawsuit — is the big one everyone fears in college sports. The Jenkins case is led by high-profile sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who helped bring free agency to the NFL and wants an open market for college football and basketball players.

Meanwhile, the Northwestern unionization case before the National Labor Relations Board remained unresolved as of early May. An NLRB regional director ruled last year that Northwestern football players are employees who can attempt to form a union. Northwestern appealed the decision.

If Northwestern football players are deemed employees, the ballots they voted on will be counted to see if they want to unionize. Even if the players voted no, a precedent will have been set by the NLRB for private schools.

Any attempt to form player unions at public universities would depend on state labor laws. Michigan and Ohio have already put in place legal mechanisms to prevent college athletes at public universities from being declared employees.

“You just hope that fans generally don’t get fatigued with all of the legal issues and debates about whether players are employees, whether they should be paid,” ACC commissioner John Swofford says. “All of the fan feedback and surveys I’ve seen seem to indicate the American public and college sports fans want to see college players and by and large believe they are going to school and part of the collegiate experience. If that changes dramatically, I think that will negatively impact how people view college sports in the long run.”

The Pac-12’s Scott sounds a similar tune.

“The USFL and XFL weren’t very successful for a reason. The D-League isn’t very successful for a reason,” Scott says. “The public isn’t very interested in development or semi-pro sports. The plaintiffs would like to turn college sports into semi-pro sports. I think that would kill college football or college basketball.”

It’s worth noting that doom-and-gloom claims such as these have been heard before in various sports. The public was supposed to lose interest in Major League Baseball when free agency arrived and in the Olympics when professionals were allowed to participate. Needless to say, judging by their media rights deals, baseball and the Olympics are doing just fine.

Right now, nothing is killing college football. The first playoff proved that, after years of predictions that a playoff would hurt the sport.

“It’s a fun game,” the AAC’s Aresco says. “I’m a little concerned about the fact offenses are maybe getting a little ahead. I’m not used to football where scores are 61–58. But it’s an incredible game. I don’t think college football can become much more popular.”

College football’s bubble remains intact.

But bubbles can pop when you least expect them to. It’s up to smart and thoughtful decision-makers to maintain the game’s popularity.

-by Jon Solomon, CBSSports.com