Canzano: College football's TV sell out is locking fans out
TV isn't wagging the dog anymore -- it is the dog.
In the days leading to the news that UCLA and USC were defecting to the Big Ten Conference, I was working a column about soft football season-ticket sales within the Pac-12 Conference.
Multiple conference athletic directors told me they believed a variety of factors were contributing to slow sales. Among the top ones? Inflation, late kickoff times, and the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones feeling increasingly disconnected from the sport itself.
Utah was an outlier, though.
The Utes were coming off a Rose Bowl season and a Pac-12 championship. Coach Kyle Whittingham’s program was humming. And Rice-Eccles Stadium was among the few venues in the country that recently expanded and added seats to meet demand.
A few years ago, pre-pandemic, I did a piece on athletic directors and administrators nationwide who were grappling with increased costs and shrinking stadium attendance. In 2018, for example, the Pac-12 suffered the biggest attendance decline in the upper echelon of major college football, drawing nearly 250,000 fewer fans to its stadiums than it did just one year earlier.
The Big Ten posted its lowest average attendance in 25 years (65,376) that same season. And the football-crazy SEC was down more than 100,000 in total attendance in 2018. It marked the third-straight season of declining attendance for the conference that markets itself with the slogan, “It Just Means More.”
At the time, Oregon AD Rob Mullens told me, “I think we have a changing consumer.” Pat Chun, the AD at Washington State, said: “The competition of a widescreen TV at home is real.” And when I asked SEC commissioner Greg Sankey why he thought ticket sales were trending down in his conference, Sankey offered, “A sociologist may be a better contributor than me.”
USC professor and author David M. Carter went a different route, however. He talked instead about the role television was playing.
Said Carter: “Media dollars were once the tail that wags the dog. Now, they’re the dog.”
I can’t help but think about stadium attendance and fan interest in the wake of Fox’s $1 billion-plus television deal. USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 in pursuit of tens of millions more in media rights revenue annually. Good for them, sure. But I wonder, in general, what will become of college football — particularly in the western part of the country — if television is all that matters anymore.
This column isn’t about the Pac-12 being left out. It’s about college football recognizing that the revenue stream at the stadium was shrinking. Then, solving that issue by relentlessly pursuing media dollars, blowing up tradition, ignoring geography and further alienating large swaths of consumers.
I loved what ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips said about the fences going up around college football’s most exclusive neighborhoods this week.
Phillips used his league’s football media day on Wednesday to talk about the ACC, but it’s what he said about the overall health of college athletics that got me thinking.
The addition of UCLA and USC gives the Big Ten a presence in 5.7 million households in the Los Angeles television market. It’s a valuable footprint, but falls short of making the rest of the west feel geographically included in the upper tier of the sport.
Parity has long been a problem in college football. But the sport has always had strong geographic distribution. The Pacific and Mountain Time Zones have mattered. Now, ESPN has partnered with the SEC, which snatched up Texas and Oklahoma. Fox responded by grabbing the Big Ten and the Los Angeles market. Those two mega-conferences are now positioning themselves to monopolize what will soon be an expanded College Football Playoff.
“I will continue to do what’s in the best interest of the ACC,” Phillips said, “but will also strongly advocate for college athletics to be a healthy neighborhood, not two or three gated communities.”
Pac-12 Conference Commissioner George Kliavkoff will take the stage late next week in Los Angeles as part of his conference’s media day. I’m interested to hear what he’ll say, but Phillips spoke for a lot of people in his 28-minute opening statement on Wednesday.
The NCAA has no oversight anymore. Television is running college football, and it has turned the bowl games and conferences into commodities. It makes me wish someone had long ago appointed a college football commissioner with instructions to put the health of the sport first.
I’ll continue to track fan interest and season-ticket sales this season. I think we can all safely say that what’s happening in college football will work financially for about 32 programs. But you’re kidding yourself if you think the sport itself is better off because of that.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF SELL OUT: Oregon State announced this week that the rivalry game against Oregon at Reser Stadium in November is officially sold out. The Beavers are renovating their home stadium and capacity is reduced to 26,407 this season. That plays a big role here, but if you want to see OSU play at home this season, you might want to grab your tickets now.
I remain impressed with Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith. But Las Vegas apparently isn’t buying it. The bookmakers set the Beavers’ win total for the 2022 season at a cool 5.5 victories.
No bowl game? After what we all saw last season?
I like the “over” right now.
Smith has done a remarkable job at OSU. The place was a mess when he was hired late in 2017. The former walk-on quarterback took over a Gary Andersen creation that was a dismal 3-24 in Pac-12 play in the previous three seasons.
The roster was depleted. The trajectory was troubling. Smith was hired away from Washington, where he was calling the plays for Chris Petersen. Our early conversations didn’t center around victories. Smith just wanted his team to be competitive — and it often wasn’t.
That first season, the Beavers’ defense also gave up point totals of: 77, 56, 55, 52, 49, 48 and 42. Amid the flurry of points, Smith didn’t pull out his hair. He just continued to preach process. That’s difficult to do when you’re not getting results. But he did it.
I told Smith on Sunday that I’d been thinking some about the impressive work he's done at OSU. The Beavers were 7-6 last season and made a bowl game. They won in dominating fashion at USC. OSU went 6-0 at home, including wins over Utah, Washington and Arizona State.
The non-conference schedule in 2022: home vs. Boise State, at Fresno State, a neutral-site game vs. Montana State. Boise State is always dicey and Fresno’s Bulldog Stadium is a difficult place to play. Still, a 3-0 start is on the table. If Smith pulls it off, it would mark the first time since 2014 (Mike Riley) that OSU started the season that way.
WIN TOTALS: Since I gave you Oregon State’s season win total, I figured I might as well share the rest. See any opportunities here?
Over/under win totals set by Las Vegas:
USC: 9.5 victories
My comment: 10 wins feels ambitious for Lincoln Riley in year No. 1. I’m going “under” on this one.
My comment: Chip Kelly’s best chance to matter in the Pac-12 is right now. But I think he has an 8-4 team.
My comment: I lean “over.” Kyle Whittingham is the favorite to win this conference.
My comment: Dan Lanning’s first season… this line feels about right. Georgia and BYU in non-conference play feels dicey.
My comment: The Huskies don’t have to play Utah or USC in the regular season, but eight wins would be a huge rebound under a first-year coach. UW could be disruptive, but it has seven wins written all over them.
Arizona State: 5.5
My comment: I want to say “over.” But I don’t trust the program right now.
My comment: Coach Justin Wilcox always wins 1-2 games he shouldn’t win but getting to six wins without Chase Garbers at QB feels ambitious. Purdue transfer Jack Plummer feels like the likely starter.
Oregon State: 5.5
My comment: I like the “over” here. Beavers may start 3-0 and make this easy.
Washington State: 5.5
My comment: “Over” is the play. Cam Ward is the real deal at QB.
My comment: David Shaw has better recruits than prior years, but are they ready to contribute this season? Colgate, Notre Dame and BYU are the non-conference games.
My comment: It’s a rebuild in Boulder. Non-conference games against TCU, Air Force and Minnesota feels like a 1-2 start at best.
My comment: Jayden de Laura and Noah Fifita at QB is enough to get to three-plus wins, right?
Thank you for reading. I appreciate all who have supported, subscribed and shared my new independent endeavor with friends and family in recent months. If you haven’t already — please consider subscribing.
TV has affected my behavior at the gates in another way. The high variability of game times--often announced less than two weeks prior to game days--just made buying season tickets less efficient. I just started buy them piecemeal. When you're bringing a family--all of whom have other stuff going on their lives--it just becomes to complicated to plan around. I miss the days when you could depend on a 1:00pm start every Saturday.
The game is over. College football is no longer played for the benefit of the fans or the players. Tradition, rivalries, and academics have all taken a back seat to television. College football games are now basically TV content, TV inventory. Players and coaches have become commodities. Conference commissioners and athletic directors sold their soul to television in pursuit of the almighty dollar. And the combination of unregulated NIL and the transfer portal have accelerated the descent into professionalism. It's a crying shame, but the sport we knew and loved all these years has become NFL 2.0.