While vacationing in Toronto, Canada, a few weeks ago, Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams happened upon a $25,000 television in a Sony store.
“Now I’m never going to buy a $25,000 TV,” he said. “But I did want to see what a $25,000 television does. It was amazing. You could easily watch three football games at a time and never get off your couch. I thought, ‘If I had one of these, I might never leave my house.’”
After a brief pause, he then finished his thought, which is a sobering one for all of college athletics, and possibly professional sports as well.
“That’s what we’re really fighting these days,” Williams said. “We all have to compete with the idea that it’s better to watch our favorite teams on TV. We have to make the fan experience so much better than just a game.”
Can they? That’s the theme of this year’s Chattanooga Times Free Press college football special section. Can Alabama win its fourth national championship in five years? Can Georgia reach its third straight SEC title game while winning its first championship since 2005? Can Tennessee post its first winning season in four years? Can UT-Chattanooga reach the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 1984?
And those are all good questions certain to deliver fascinating answers over the next four months. But the elephant-in-the-room question is whether college football can survive in its current state, having become a dysfunctional family of seemingly greedy haves and jealous have-nots, each side unwilling both to see and to help with the problems facing the other.
And it’s all over the map. Outrageous conference realignment — remember when Boise State was going to join the now-defunct Big East? Serious talk of the five BCS conferences — Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern — breaking off from the rest of Division I to form some super league, described by some as “Division Four.”
There’s even talk of the big boys starting their own organization, a new NCAA, if you will, where athletes — at least football and basketball players — will be paid a cost-of-attendance stipend of $2,000 or more a year, have different academic criteria and operate as a sort of unofficial minor league for the pros.
And all of that doesn’t begin to address UTC’s situation, where its own Southern Conference has been torn asunder by the defections of football giants Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, as well as basketball behemoth Davidson.
“It’s just too early to tell what all this will mean to our league,” UTC athletic director David Blackburn said last week. “The Southern Conference will still have one automatic bid [to the NCAA basketball tournament], but what we get beyond that will certainly be impacted by how quickly [new members] East Tennessee State and Mercer can build up their programs. We just don’t know how all that’s going to play out yet.”
What is certain is that this is the last year of the BCS title game as we’ve known it since Tennessee won the first such championship in 1998. A four-team playoff will arrive next season. Most believe an eight-team format won’t be far behind. Let a Division Four arrive and that eight-team playoff will be the minimum number of programs reaching the postseason.
So how did we get to this point, with so much uncertainty, distrust and unrest? Is the current model even salvageable?
“Some of it is the fiscal irresponsibility that some of these organizations have displayed,” said Bill Curry, a former head coach at three BCS schools — Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky. “There’s such enormous debt with some of these schools. Why would you borrow $300 million to add to a stadium when you haven’t sold out the seats you have now?”
Nor do the demographics necessarily favor a quick turnaround.
“This was new to me,” Curry added, “but I’ve recently learned that many young people would rather sit at home with a cooler of their favorite beverages and a remote control in their hand and watch games on TV instead of going to the stadium. And these are college kids. There’s a reason why NFL teams are already showing replays from other games in their stadiums. It’s to keep people in the stands.”
To that end, Williams talked of the kind of discussions his marketing folks are having regarding how best to promote a Commodores program that will enter this 2013 season with the SEC’s longest active winning streak — seven games.
“Can we get the stadium Wifi-ed?” he said. “Who can we get to sing the national anthem? All of that is so much more important now.”
Added Blackburn: “It’s almost becoming minor league baseball. You have to provide a great in-game experience.”
Williams fears television ratings are becoming the most important measuring stick for success, especially with the major conferences beginning to form their own television networks. The SEC Network rolls into your home just in time for the 2014 football season.
He is especially concerned about the future ability of programs such as UTC to schedule games against an Alabama (which the Mocs face on Nov. 23) or UT, which the Mocs play next season.
“I do believe a time will come when there will be more pressure for us [BCS schools] to play each other both in and out of conference. For instance, if you’re sitting at home in front of your television, would you rather watch Alabama play Elon or Washington? I think we all know the answer to that.”
Williams also believes the need to boost SEC Network ratings might force the league to play a ninth conference game. The irony of this — developing a more attractive television product at the same time you’re attempting to put more people in your stadium seats — is not lost on the Vandy AD.
“Our biggest competition,” he said, “may be ourselves.”
Curry didn’t have to worry about television ratings when he decided to accept the challenge to build the Georgia State program from scratch in 2008. But he quickly learned that the public’s perception of competition is pure fantasy.
“At the end of our opening press conference when I was first hired, a man came up to me and said, ‘I can’t wait until we beat Georgia,’” recalled Curry, who retired at the close of last season after taking the Panthers from the drawing board to Division I in four years.
“I said, ‘How are we going to beat Georgia? We haven’t even bought the first helmet or chinstrap.’ But that’s the world we live in now. Everybody wants everything to happen instantly.”
UTC’s Blackburn believes no dramatic realignment of college football (i.e., Divsion Four) will happen for “three to five years.”
But an ongoing lawsuit against the NCAA, EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Company regarding players’ and former players’ rights to royalties from the sale of video games, old game tapes and merchandise tied to their likenesses or jersey numbers could instantly alter the financial landscape as we know it.
Let former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s suit become a class-action suit involving thousands of players and former players, and all that TV money propping up the NCAA and its member institutions could be cut by half in the blink of a judge’s decision.
Throw in the current flap regarding Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and money he may have received from autographs and it’s easy to see why Williams said, “We may also be redefining what it means to be an amateur in college athletics.”
Nor should we forget the current concern regarding concussions.
Again, Williams: “The players are so much bigger, stronger and faster. The impacts are much more violent. Some people see football escalating to boxing, which has lost its favor with the American public due to its violent nature. I don’t think we’re there yet, but safety and the health of our student-athletes is definitely a growing concern.”
Blackburn, Curry and Williams all believe college football will long survive in some form or fashion.
“I think there will always be a place for it,” Williams said. “But there’s also always been a belief that the NCAA is too big to fail, kind of the same thing we said about certain banks a few years ago. That may be right, but we’ve come to a time when we need to accept the fact that the notion that one size fits all doesn’t work anymore.”
Said Curry: “Regardless of what the major conferences do, I believe there will always be football. It may look a lot more like the current Division II or Division III models, with limited or no scholarships, guys working in the cafeteria to help pay for their education, but I think football will survive.”
Added Blackburn, sounding more hopeful about UTC’s future: “A super division might even be to our advantage. The Big Ten, SEC and those guys can have an elite league. Everybody else currently in FBS — schools such as Middle Tennessee, Memphis and UAB — could gravitate to our level. Schools such as ours could be better off.”
Blackburn also added the one dynamic that’s always previously been a surefire cure-all for ailing athletic departments.
“One thing never changes,” he said. “If we win enough, we’ll get the crowds.”
Especially if they’re equally excited to hear the national anthem singer.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...