Carl Wernicke: College Football & Commercialism

May 15, 2014

Credit IHMC

We love college football in the South. I know I do. On the fanatic scale I lie somewhere between the casual fan and the all-in crazy who already knows which junior high school players his team is recruiting.

What I have most loved about the game is its ability to make me forget everything else. Stress at work? Worldwide financial crash? 20 extra pounds to get rid of? All banished at kick-off.

If you have to wonder if you are a football fanatic, you are not. But you certainly are if you have ever uttered a sentence such as: “Who thought it made sense to schedule the wedding for a Saturday in October?”

Of late, though, the bloom has been fading from the football rose. My football friends are openly wondering what happened to the game we grew up adoring. There‘s one overriding answer: money.

College football has succumbed to the unfortunate American notion that money trumps everything, and more is always better.  College presidents and athletic directors seem to have no objection to anything that brings them more cash, which they pour back into the bigger stadiums, higher salaries and more lavish training facilities they say they need to keep up with the football Jones. It’s the same circular logic that pushed CEO salaries into the stratosphere while middle class wages were falling. Heck, today the locker rooms and training facilities at big colleges beat any hotel or resort you ever stayed in.

The money is, of course, seductive. When I was a kid you had a couple of college games available on Saturdays; these days it’s unusual when a game isn’t on TV. And not just on Saturday.

But while you watch just about any game now, viewing has become a marathon as networks cram a growing barrage of ads into every broadcast. And it’s not just football; I heard an analyst during the NCAA basketball tournament dismiss bench depth as a problem because, he said, all the TV timeouts provided plenty of rest. One of the strangest aspects of actually going to a football game is watching the players stand around during the TV timeouts, and realizing you paid for your ticket.

This rant was sparked by an ESPN article about how college athletic revenues, primarily from football, have exploded. In Division I, made up of all the big schools, revenue is up 32 percent since the 2007-2008 academic year, and payrolls are up 40 percent. During that same period the median household income of your average fan declined by 1.3 percent.

And the worst thing of all? The game isn’t better. Yes, the onfield product is arguably superior. But the joy of the game is bleeding away. We have so many bowl games they can’t find enough winning teams to play in them; to fatten budgets and fill bloated schedules, big schools hire cupcakes for home games fans increasingly don’t want to watch. Schools are killing traditional rivalries that were at the heart of their athletic tradition to switch to conferences that pay more.

Just getting to a bowl game used to be fun; now for too many fans the season is a total loss if their team doesn’t win the national championship.

And, of course, it’s another fine mess we have gotten our own selves into. We fans welcomed the growing availability of games and told ourselves that watching a few more ads or paying a little more for tickets was worth the cost. But now when you turn the TV on the question is whether you’re watching a football game or an infomercial.

I don’t know how you turn back the clock; football programs that seem increasingly run primarily for their own benefit might just be the perfect reflection of an era in which corporations are now people, and people are, well,  we’ll answer that after the next commercial.