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Sports >  NCAA

Commentary: Greed might ruin college football — but there’s a good chance it helps it instead

July 14, 2022 Updated Fri., July 15, 2022 at 6:02 p.m.

WSU hoists the Apple Cup after defeating the Washington Huskies during the second half of a college football game on Friday, Nov 26, 2021, at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash. WSU won the game 40-13  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
WSU hoists the Apple Cup after defeating the Washington Huskies during the second half of a college football game on Friday, Nov 26, 2021, at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash. WSU won the game 40-13 (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – I’ll start with a preface I may have to add to my author bio, as I’ve repeated it in some form or another more than twice: I have no idea how much the thoughts of tweeters, message-board posters or newspaper-column commentators represent the general public.

When some of my fellow ink-stained wretches say things like “people are saying X should be fired,” the “people” are usually 15 randos with their cat as their profile pic.

But I’m going to indulge the online gripes of the anonymous right now, because I think they are speaking for more than just the fringe. People are saying that greed is ruining college football.

Is it?

If one were to check the Cal Tech Richter scale readings from earlier in the month, he or she might see a quake registered at 9.0 or higher. Not because of a break in the San Andreas Fault, but due to UCLA and USC forever shaking up the NCAA.

The two SoCal schools agreeing to move from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten foreshadowed a football future involving “super conferences” (the Big Ten and SEC) that cater to the whims of TV networks and the billions of dollars involved in their contracts. On the surface, it looks like a corporate move antithetical to the tradition and pageantry of college football. But what if all those billions of dollars are the result of TV giving fans across the nation what they really want?

That’s just a question for now. Maybe it’s true that a super-conference era would backfire on college football, as Alabama coach Nick Saban fears it would. But this is a sport that has evolved rapidly over the past quarter century for, dare I say – the better.

The 15-year BCS era, which began in 1999, was flawed – and once produced a split national-championship season. But considering that there were four split national titles from 1974-91 – including in back-to-back seasons in ’90 and ’91 – the BCS was an upgrade.

Yes, there was still controversy, not to mention a prestige downgrade in certain bowl games, but it catered more to the desires of the country than the previous system.

Same with the College Football Playoff. This definitely sparked a downgrade in bowl-game prestige, particularly the Rose Bowl, which now rarely pits the best teams from the Pac-12 and Big Ten against each other. But the actual playoff games have generated massive TV ratings, and the regular season wasn’t devalued at all.

Maybe Oregon fans were ticked they had to watch the Ducks play Wisconsin instead of Ohio State in “The Granddaddy of Them All,” but the rest of the country was happy to see the four most deserving teams (usually) square off for the national title.

No doubt that television executives can miss sometimes. Any powerful executive can. The leadership of former Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, by many accounts, torpedoed the conference and put it in this precarious position. But the networks generally have a pulse on what the public wants, and super conferences could radically upgrade the week-to-week game quality between the nation’s top teams while organically spawning an expanded playoff.

If you have two conferences comprising 20-32 teams each – a six-team playoff in each conference leading to a national-championship showdown could captivate the country in a way we haven’t seen in college football. And super conferences would eliminate what often feel like formality games between perennial conference giants and perennial conference cellar-dwellers. Again, much better TV.

Of course, there are almost always victims when it comes to innovation. Video killed the radio star, and major conference realignment would relegate certain Power Five schools (see: Washington State) to outsider status. Cougar fans aren’t going to get revved up for a Mountain West schedule the same way they would a Pac-12 schedule, and if somehow the Apple Cup ceases to exist five or 10 years from now, it’s going to be a painful regional blow.

But will it cause fans across the country to stop watching college football as frequently? I hesitate to say yes.

More pertinently, I hesitate to say I have any idea what the future of college football is going to look like. Theories seem to change every day. Maybe the super-conference era will never come to be and the sport won’t undergo the radical changes folks are predicting. But I doubt that.

I completely understand the frustration of fans who say they’ve lost interest because the sport they grew up loving succumbed to money and will never look the same. But I also think if those same fans’ teams start next season 4-0, they’ll be just as engaged as they were before.

Tradition is grand, but change is constant. Greed might ruin college football – but there’s a good chance it helps it instead.

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