Every right answer is eventually the wrong one.
A quick anecdote. Last month, I was sitting at a bar, and at the end of the bar was a woman staring at her phone, scrolling away. At some point, she looks up and says, “I think I’m gonna go home and watch TikTok.”
A decade ago, she was almost certainly saying, “I’m gonna go home and channel surf.”
I bring this up because the nature of how we consume content has dramatically shifted over the last five years. Television as we know it is on its way out. ESPN is losing millions of cable subscribers, and given how much they charge per cable subscriber, that’s not a profit margin easily made up with a streaming bundle.
It’s not that the product isn’t great. It’s that the consumer habits are changing. Want to see what’s going on in the world around you? Most of you are scrolling social media first. Want to see what the cool kids are up to? User-generated content gives brands more drip than any professionally shot commercial can.
And despite the prognostications, power conference college football seems never more committed to bloated television contracts, and their archaic business models, even as these conferences cannibalize one another.
The Pac-12 and its century of tradition are about to blow up in 10 months, basically because they couldn’t get a TV deal done.
Next year, football teams from Seattle and Los Angeles representing the Midwest-based Big Ten will play conference road games three time zones away in New Jersey.
Media market size is everything to TV execs, yet nobody really wanted two world-class universities in North America’s ninth-largest media market, the Bay Area, until the ACC decided “Sure, why not”. And even then, they felt compelled to add a Dallas school to their foothold for good measure.
The Big 12 declared it was “open for business” following the departure of Texas and Oklahoma, and backed it up the way Oprah would. You get an invite! And you get an invite! I’ve lost count of the “rumored” additions to this Amazon warehouse of a conference. (And yet UMass still can’t catch a break…)
I could go on for days with weird little inconsistencies like this, but my main point stands. Just because we’re a capitalist society, it doesn’t excuse being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
This is why I love this idea put forth by the Mountain West Conference so much. It’s the direction this beautifully flawed sport of college football deserves to go, but doesn’t have the guts to (yet).
In short, Boise State associate athletic director Michael Walsh has created a proposal for a three-tiered alliance of 24 FBS teams from the Pacific, Mountain, and Central time zones with promotion and relegation similar to premier league soccer in Europe.
The proposal also includes a bonus system for each tier, adding even more incentives.
“It’s the right time to think differently and consider what the next generation will wish we had done, rather than putting a bandage on yesterday’s problem,” Walsh told Front Office Sports.
For those unfamiliar with European soccer, all of the major leagues have a system of promotion and relegation, where each season a certain number of teams at the bottom of the premier league are replaced with the same number of teams at the top of the second-tier league. In England, for instance, the bottom three teams of the Premier League are relegated to the second-tier Football Championship; they are replaced by the Top-2 finishers of the Championship, and the third spot is determined by a four-team playoff between seeds 3 through 6.
Presumably, a few Group of 5 conferences can band together and make something like this happen, because there’s considerably less TV money at stake tying them up. And therein lies the unintended virtue of the have-nots: by having to think differently out of necessity, it moves the whole industry forward.
I can’t even count all the different ways I love this proposal so much. Here are my top reasons:
Everybody has a true path to the top
Anybody else sick and tired of geography determining prestige?
Rutgers has been irrelevant in football for almost its entire 150-year existence. Yet because it’s 30 miles outside of New York City, where the Big Ten can push its TV network on a ton of alums, it’s a “power conference” school?
Remember the COVID season in 2020, when Coastal Carolina captivated the country with its electric offense, NFL-caliber playmakers, and colorful locker room that was going viral seemingly in perpetuity? Remember how Jamey Chadwell won National Coach of the Year? Were you unbeaten in the regular season? Beat legit top-20 teams?
And remember how they couldn’t get anywhere close to a spot in the CFP because, well, I mean… I dunno, you tell me what the committee is saying here.
Why is Appalachian State automatically an inferior program to Duke or Wake Forest, with no shot at competing for a national title, for the mere sin of being in the Sun Belt instead of the ACC?
In college basketball, every single Division 1 program, from Kentucky to Florida Atlantic to directional state schools you’ve never heard of, has a path to the final weekend. In college football, you basically have to be one of 30 programs and win favor from a committee.
Why should a football program in 2023 be punished for what they were in 1993? That makes no sense.
The best thing about English Premier League soccer is that this season, a prestigious multi-billion dollar club like Manchester United will have to play an away game at Luton Town, whose pitch looks like a high school stadium in Everett:
And they absolutely earned it, by virtue of winning a playoff final in England’s second tier.
It creates better matchups
Let’s see what a 12-team Division 1 premier league would look like, based on total win-loss record over the last 10 seasons. Based on CFB Saturday’s calculations, a 12-team top tier would look like this:
Only one of these programs — Boise State — feels like it doesn’t belong. And yet, the Broncos have three New Years Six bowl game wins going back to that legendary Statue of Liberty walk-off in 2007. That’s more than some other programs on this list.
Ohio State had a dramatic win over Notre Dame earlier this year, and still has mega-showdowns with No. 2 Michigan and No. 6 Penn State on the docket. They also have…Indiana. You’re telling me a yearly series with Alabama wouldn’t jack you up? And that a yearly series with Boise wouldn’t be great either?
A 12-team league with no truly bad matchups is a league even the most curmudgeonly college football purist can buy into. Matchups based on conference tradition are only good when both sides have something to gain from it. That’s why Nebraska-Oklahoma was so epic back in the day, but a mere undercard when they revived it for the 50th anniversary of the “Game of the Century”. Are you telling me Texas A&M misses Baylor? They’re the center of the universe during LSU and Alabama weeks.
It creates drama all season long
Based off those same calculations, here’s what a 12-team “second tier” would look like based on win-loss over the last 10 seasons:
San Diego State
Fitting that a second-tier league would look like basically American Athletic Conference Plus.
Let’s also factor in that financially, the difference between being in England’s Premier League and its Championship is seismic. A relegation can bankrupt some of these bottom-feeding Premier League clubs. Apply this same structure to these two college football tiers. How motivated is Boise State — a program with fewer resources and a much smaller stadium than its top-tier counterparts — to stay out of the cellar? And how motivated are the resource-rich Florida State’s and Penn State’s of the world to replace them in that top tier?
And it goes without saying, that end-of-season matchup between two teams out of it suddenly means a whole heck of a lot.
It keeps everyone accountable
Want to play with the big shots? Great news. All you have to do is win.
Brendan Hall is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts (’07) and an alum of the Kraft Sports Group (ESPNBoston), Boston Globe, NBC Sports Boston, Hudl, and Oxygen ESports. Follow him at @BHallWrites