A number of articles over the past year have focused on the death of football, with most of them citing long-term effects of concussions and impending lawsuits as the major cause. Last February, Grantland focused on the "concussion crisis" and included such references as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of boxing and horse racing as two of the biggest three sports in the first half of the last century along with the fact that Napster no longer exists in its original version.
Whether the "concussion crisis" has an adverse affect on football will be easy to follow. Studies being done have a high profile, as do the related lawsuits, and, of course, so will any unfortunate episodes that are (allegedly) the result of CTE. (I'd like to add that I am very proud my alma mater the University of Nebraska has taken a lead role in concussion research.) The National Federation of High School Associations publishes information on participation rates in high school sports, so tracking high school football to see if kids aren't playing is easy to follow as well.
More recently there have been articles regarding the "sports cable bubble"; the idea that cable television bills have risen so much over the past few years that sooner or later non-sports fans will say enough is enough, get tired of subsidizing sports channels and cancel their subscriptions (cut the cord) or demand a la carte pricing.
It's a well-known axiom in the business world that when 50% (some say 30%, but it depends on the business — we won't get that specific here) or more of your income/revenue is from a single source that your business is in danger of failing because of overdependence.
Consider that 81% of NCAA revenue in 2011-2012 came from "television rights and marketing fees." Conferences such as SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12 don't provide a breakdown of their revenue (at least none that I could find), but in May the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the Big Ten Conference paid out a record $25.7M per school this season, $19M coming from television contracts, which represents roughly 74% from television revenue.
Were television revenue to drop, athletic departments across the nation would find themselves in serious trouble. Besides escalating coaches salaries and the facilities building arms race, the fact that only 23 of 228 athletic departments generated enough money to cover their operating expenses in 2012 should set off some alarms.
After researching the subject extensively, I don't believe television revenue will drop, as fans love their college football enough that they will pay for it regardless of what form it takes. However, I did ask for assistance from Vox Media sister site TheVerge.com — their response is included in the sidebar on this article.
More Important Problems
Contrary to popular belief, the "concussion crisis" and "sports cable bubble" aren't the biggest problems facing college football. Nor is the Ed O'Bannon/NCAA lawsuit, although the result of that lawsuit could be the dagger that finishes college football for good.
The biggest problem facing college football comes from within colleges and universities themselves.
College football will die as we know it because within the next two decades colleges and universities as we know them will cease to exist:
Some people, like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, predict that in as little as 15 years half of the colleges in the United States will be in bankruptcy, upended by online learning and the move to hybrid models in which only select classes are taught in person on campus. Others see more incremental shifts, with virtual learning remaining a tool rather than a transformative technology in higher education.
The Christian Science Monitor article linked above discusses an acronym that has higher education administrators very worried. That acronym is MOOC - Massive Open Online Course. In short, a MOOC is a tuition-free online course that can be taught to a massive number of students simultaneously.
MOOCs are a recent development, but are quickly causing a stir amongst higher educators because of their ability to reach so many students using few resources. Example: In 2011, Stanford offered three MOOC-based courses in machine learning, artificial intelligence and databases. 350,000 students from 190 countries signed up. To understood the magnitude of Stanford's experience, professor Andrew Ng stated:
In order to reach a comparably sized audience on campus I would have to teach my normal Stanford course for 250 years.
I don't have to tell you what that potentially means to the concept of a traditional college campus-based education.
Pundits often talk about "disruptive technology"; technology that brings about massive changes in life, business, or the economy. The phrase can be overused (it's included on every technology startup presentation ever made), but if anything qualifies, MOOCs are it. MOOCs are popping up everywhere. Universities are coming out of the woodwork to get on board, mostly from fear of being left behind.
It's one thing to offer a course for free online, but the idea is crazy, right, that a college or university could replace traditional classroom education with online coursework for credit or even offer an entire degree online for free?
It is until it happens. Georgia Tech has teamed up with MOOC-based startup Audacity to offer an online master's degree in computer science. The current two-year degree program costs $80,000, while the online version will cost $7,000. While not free, it's a massive reduction in cost and the goal is to offer it to 10,000 students over the next three years rather than the 300 it would normally serve.
Lawmakers in California are working on legislation that would allow MOOC-based learning to replace "lower-division gateway courses" because of long waiting lists for those courses.
The tipping point for the MOOC revolution will come when corporations begin to accept a MOOC-based degree as equivalent to a traditional degree. At that point, it may not matter if a higher education institution or a corporate-based entity offers the course. Academics may counter, "education is too important to be left to corporate interests", a statement that rings a little hollow when you consider the amount of corporate grant money already supporting higher education and the fact that academia has ruined their reputation with corporations because of grade inflation.
It won't be MOOC technology alone that disrupts higher education. Disruptive technologies are driven by economics more so than not, and more parents and students than ever are asking whether a college degree is really worth it as they stare at stacks of college brochures, many of which represent the school as a resort more than an educational institution.
Higher education has long touted the fact that college graduates earn more than their less-educated counterparts, but with little regard for informing them about the value of their degrees — "Will this English degree get me a job that will allow me to pay off $35,200 in debt?". With the way colleges sell themselves, one could conclude that they not only do not care about answering that question, but they've never actually thought of it in the first place. (Full disclosure: I have a daughter who will be a senior in high school this coming fall. I have seen about eleventy billion college brochures to this point. After seeing the 143rd, one becomes quite cynical.)
The way that higher education has been sold could be easily compared to the real estate market before 2009, a point at which the mortgage crisis occurred and drove the country into recession:
- College loans provide easy access to debt regardless of the borrower's ability to pay them back.
- Policies and attitudes that have driven countless number of students into higher education when that may have not been the best choice for them.
- Tuition has increased far more than wages over the past few years creating an unsustainable financial environment.
- Student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion, more than credit cards ($679B) and auto loans ($783B).
- Student debt default rates are higher than graduation rates at 514 colleges and universities.
- Average student debt upon graduation is $35,200. Whether your student's salary upon graduation is enough to pay it back is a tough question to answer.
It's clear that something has to happen here. Young people simply cannot afford to go to college and incur massive debt at the current rate (By rate, I don't mean student loan interest rate. The current political wrangling regarding that subject is just that — politics and does nothing to solve the real problem, which is cost. Debating the student loan interest rate is akin to asking how quickly you want to be bled to death). What has to happen is that the cost of higher education must come down.
New college students will no longer look to attend a four-year university for the sake of attending a four-year university. They will be looking to cut costs any way possible. If that means going to a community college for two years then to a university for the last two to save money then that means that the university has missed out on two years of income. If they can get credit for a MOOC-base course in lieu of a traditional classroom-based course, they will do so. Again, the result is that the university won't make as much money as they would have otherwise.
All of this comes down to colleges and universities losing money. Lose enough and the result will be (as stated by the quote at the beginning of this article) colleges and universities going into bankruptcy. There will be no assistance from state governments as they're heavily overextended. There will be no help from the federal government for the same reason (along with the fact that they can't resolve a relatively simple problem, a la the interest rate for student loans).
Very few politicians will allow schools to cut their budgets and academics without first cutting athletics (the exception being in SEC country where athletic departments make decent money but somehow still get away with charging student fees for athletics). The result will be that athletic departments would face budget cuts and if profitable be forced to turn over a greater share of their profits.
There are a number of possible outcomes if this were to happen:
- Schools would have no choice but to stop paying outrageous coach salaries and the best coaches would move to the professional ranks.
- Schools would be forced to cut sports, but, being strung by Title IX, would be forced to cut mostly men's sports other than football.
- If enough schools are forced into bankruptcy, conference realignment will look like child's play as schools are forced into survival mode and eliminate athletics all together.
- If the value of athletic scholarships drop while athletics continue to rake in revenue at the rate they are now, political pressure to pay athletes will become much more intense.
- If enough schools eliminate athletics, the private sector may decide to replace collegiate athletics with semi-pro or lower-end professional sports.
- The NCAA loses Ed O'Bannon lawsuit and is forced to share revenue from television with former and/or current student athletes, resulting in the final nail in the coffin of college football.
I purposefully did not go into all of the issues surrounding what is happening within higher education. I did not discuss tenure, administrative compensation, research funding, nor did I touch on whether or not a MOOC-based education can provide the same value as a traditional classroom education. Facilities management is an enormous issue as higher ed institutions have built dorms and recreational facilities resembling those which you'd find at a resort while at the same time facilities construction in athletics has resembled something close to an arms race. Whether these buildings were paid for with private funds isn't the problem — maintaing them with a solid operating budget is. These are huge issues and beyond the scope of this article.
If I had a crystal ball, I would say that at some point in the next 20 years, college football will be replaced by a form of semi-pro football either run by the NFL or by a number of investors who purchase assets from existing college football powerhouses and then run them as private entities.
I don't believe it is a matter of if these things happen, but a matter of when. There are simply too many disruptive forces at work for college football to survive in its current format.
Note: Comments on this article need to stay on topic or they will be removed. There is a lot of politics involved here — that is NOT an invitation to become openly political.