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Georgia has been at the forefront of upgrading home schedules, adding teams like Clemson for future years.

A Dawgs fan wonders what college football will look like in five years

What a crazy, disorienting college football season we just went through, right? 

We don’t know yet what the 2021 season will be like, but the pandemic played havoc with the sport in 2020, what with spring practices mostly canceled, seasons both delayed and shorter (and some schools not playing at all), reduced capacity at stadiums (meaning most fans and season ticket holders couldn’t attend), teams playing conference-only schedules, games hurriedly having to be rescheduled and canceled throughout the season, bowls deciding to skip a year, a bunch of players (and even whole teams) opting out of lesser (non-New Year’s Six) bowl games, and seniors being offered an extra year of eligibility, if they want it. 

And, yet, the College Football Playoff ended up being pretty much the same old same old, featuring four of the usual suspects: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Also, the sport’s pre-pandemic “new normal” (aka the transfer portal) continued to mess with many coaches’ depth charts at season’s end.

It’s enough to make you wonder what the future holds for college football, especially when you factor in pandemic-related financial losses, declining attendance and TV ratings, the increasing irrelevance of the western half of the country to the sport, the transition of programming from cable and satellite to online streaming, and — the biggest unknown of all — the looming impact of the change bound to come sometime soon allowing athletes the right to profit from their own names, images and likenesses while still in school. 

Georgia has been able to keep its attendance steady so far, but the trend in college football is downward. (Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Money lies at the root of most change these days, and that’s likely to be the case with college football. While some schools, like UGA, have managed to hold steady in their attendance figures and finances in recent years, the overall trend in college football is downward. These days, many fans prefer to watch games on a big-screen TV in the comfort of their own home, eating and drinking whatever they wish, instead of battling traffic and long lines to spend a day getting to and from a three-and-a-half-hour football game.

Some schools, like North Carolina, have responded to that concern by trying to improve the fan experience — reducing the total capacity of their stadiums by replacing bench-like bleachers with individual seats with backs, as well as upgrading concessions and amenities. If the surroundings are pleasant enough, a rise in ticket prices can make up for whatever revenue is lost by reducing the number of seats.

In Athens, it’s notable that, after years of the UGA Athletic Association focusing mainly on improving facilities for players, one of the first things new UGA Athletic Director Josh Brooks talked about after his elevation to the top spot was the need to focus on the fan experience.

The concern over keeping stadiums full of paying fans also has driven schools like Georgia to begin upgrading the nonconference portion of their home football schedules.

Kirby Smart’s scheduling moves seem to be based on the idea that the playoff will expand. (Vasha Hunt/Abell Images/Chick-fil-A Bowl

Under Kirby Smart, the Dawgs have signed home-and-home deals with the likes of Texas, Florida State, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson. A schedule with visitors like that is a lot more likely to keep the dollars flowing from season ticket holders and contributors than one featuring the UAB Blazers or Charleston Southern Buccaneers (both of whom are on the Dawgs’ 2021 home slate).

Of course, playing a schedule with more Power 5 opponents might make it tougher to gain a playoff berth under the current setup, where two losses all but eliminate you, no matter who the opponent was. However, Smart and Co. appear to be betting that the College Football Playoff will be expanded to at least eight teams when the next playoff TV contract is signed. And, in that case, a 10-2 Georgia team whose losses were to other Top 10 teams probably still would be in contention for a playoff spot.

Another unknown is whether the golden goose for college football provided by the sale of conference TV rights will continue to be as productive as in recent years. 

With traditional cable/satellite channels losing viewers to streaming services, you have to wonder whether ESPN will exist as we know it in five to 10 years. Perhaps its Disney owners will find a way to make a successful transition to streaming that allows them to keep their vice-like grip on college football. If so, the pay days might continue to be rich; if not, conferences will feel the pinch.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the playoff championship game between Alabama and Ohio State drew the smallest television audience for a college football national championship game in 23 years. 

Now, since ratings were very good the previous year — for the playoff championship, and for the season in general — this could be a one-year aberration. Another possible factor might be the Alabama fatigue that has set in during the Nick Saban era (this year’s game was down 27 percent from the ratings for last year’s Clemson-LSU match, when Bama wasn’t in the mix). 

Some have argued that the recent dominance of the SEC, Big 10 and ACC (with Oklahoma and Texas sometimes in contention) has left about half the country with no real rooting interest.  

As USA Today noted, since the playoff began in January, 2015, teams from west of Kansas have earned two of the combined 28 playoff berths, and none since December, 2016. Teams from west of the Mississippi River earned only six of the 28 berths, including four defeats in four appearances by Oklahoma. 

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit is among those who think the concentration of college football power in the Eastern and Central time zones is a problem. “We as a sport have got to be able to be a national brand, a national sport,” he told USA Today recently. And it’s tough to be a national brand without California, the most populous state.

Of course, this may be cyclical, and not a long-term problem for the sport. You have to figure that, eventually, the former behemoths of West Coast college ball — Southern Cal, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Washington — will get back on track and become playoff contenders. Those programs likely are just the hiring of the right coach away from returning to college football’s elite.

And, of course, Saban will retire at Bama one of these years, and Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney’s unusual hold on his ultra-successful coordinators (and the level of consistency and success they have provided his program) is bound to slip at some point. Remember back in the days of Bobby Bowden, when FSU seemed unstoppable? And, what gradually happened to the program after he left?

Combined with the probable expansion of the playoff to eight teams (maybe even 12, as Georgia’s Smart recently speculated), that could mean an opening up of the postseason, and a resurgence in interest outside the sun and rust belts.

But, back to money, which is what it’s all about in big-time college athletics (the NCAA’s puffery about “amateurism,” notwithstanding). 

While the NCAA, college athletics’ main ruling body, recently put off a decision on revising its rules on athletes profiting from their own name, image or likeness (NIL), that is, at best, a holding maneuver. The change is inevitable. Already, California, Colorado and Florida have passed laws opening up NIL rights, and quite a few other states are considering doing the same. Plus, federal legislation is working its way through Congress, the courts are likely to weigh in on the issue, and the Department of Justice recently warned the NCAA that the incremental changes to NIL rules that it has been considering (which would impose a bunch of restrictions on what sorts of deals athletes could sign) might have antitrust implications for the sport.

Pending changes would mean the NCAA violation that saw Todd Gurley suspended wouldn’t be a problem for future players. (AJC file)

So, one way or another, college athletes are going to get their NIL rights in the near future. Which means, the thing that cost Todd Gurley a four-game suspension and a probable Heisman Trophy in 2014 won’t be an infraction any longer. (Cold comfort, I know.)

Of course, some fans view the freeing of athletes to make a few bucks while they’re students as the coming of some sort of apocalypse. They think that college athletes should be happy with the fact that they’re receiving an education and room and board, and shouldn’t expect any additional compensation until their playing eligibility (and usefulness to the school) is up.

On the other side, critics of the NCAA’s current stance point out that scholarship players put in a lot more time  fulfilling their athletic duties than do other scholarship students, who don’t have any restrictions on how they make money on the side. It’s also the athletes’ bodies that are taking the wear and tear, with no guarantee of a pro career at the end of the tunnel.

Plus, universities for years have been making millions off these athletes’ efforts through licensing and merchandising programs. The athletes are supposed to be “amateurs,” but the schools for whom they play are full-blast revenue producers.

By the time this young Georgia fan grows up, college football likely will look a lot different. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Ultimately, athletes probably will wind up being allowed to sign their own deals without any restrictions (including, say, the right to take money from Nike even if the school has a contract with some other sports equipment provider). Or, there might be some sort of profit-sharing between the schools who sign the licensing deals and the athletes who make it possible for them to generate all that money.

Either way, the bottom line is that change is coming in that regard, too.

But, probably the biggest factor for existential change looming over the sport involves the athletes themselves. Already, the opening up of the transfer portal has led to more fluid rosters. Once the NCAA finally gets rid of its inconsistently applied waiver rule and allows all transferring players to compete immediately, without having to sit out a season, the portal likely will be more like a superhighway.

That’s going to be a big-time change for coaches, who already are finding it difficult to hold on to 5-star backups who want more playing time (a situation with which UGA’s Smart is intimately familiar, in the wake of Jacob Eason and Justin Fields leaving Athens).

Basically, I think that, before too long, college athletes essentially will be free agents, who can leave and go wherever they want, whenever they want — sort of like it already is with their millionaire coaches. 

That’s why I believe it’s a pretty safe bet that, in five years, college football will differ quite a bit from the sport we’ve known and loved all these years. 

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