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The Failed European Super League and the Future of NCAA Football

Different sides of the ocean, similar problems

In this photo illustration, the UK football teams that are... Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In case you missed it this week, the proposed European Super League - a grouping of 12 of the most famous and financially powerful soccer teams in Europe - fell apart spectacularly under the weight of fan protests and widespread condemnation by players and governments.

This whole saga has gotten me thinking a lot about the future of college football, because in many ways, college football faces some similar problems to European football.

The whole enterprise is generating massive sums of money, but at the end of the day, almost everyone says they don’t have any money:

  • The smaller power conference programs need to raise and spend ever increasing amounts of money to compete with the quasi-professional teams who are running the sport.
  • The quasi-professional teams are in an ever-escalating arms race with one another.
  • The teams on the fringes (think UMass and UConn) lose vast amounts of money just by showing up and fielding a team, and have to rely on the largesse of showing up and getting hammered by a top program in a pay game just to stay solvent.
  • The smaller programs (and not to mention, the smaller spectator sports playing under the same school banners as famous football teams) look at the piles of money generated by college football and wonder why they don’t get their share of it.
  • The bigger programs continuously look to establish new ways to increase their own cut, which they feel they deserve, as they are the ones generating the big bucks.
  • The whole drama and romance of the sport is predicated on upsets and the ability of anyone to compete, but in reality, only a small number of teams ever realistically win anything, and the gap between the top and everyone else seems to grow each year.

This is basically the same situation soccer finds itself in, and it seemed (and frankly still seems) inevitable that there will be some sort of reckoning, either involving the top teams siphoning off the largesse they create and leaving everyone else to compete in a less expensive but less prestigious competition, or by governing bodies stepping in and imposing some financial sense on an industry that has become a runaway money train that still, somehow, is always in need of more money.

The Super League failed because it was just too crass and too much, too divorced from the traditions of European sport, rolled out too hastily and done without the kind of buy-in from all the power players needed to plow ahead in the face of pushback.

But would a similar concept be so alien to American fans as to be found too distasteful for college football? I am not so sure.

There are lots of ways I could see the future of college football playing out. Two that seem likely to be floated:

  • A full, more formal breakaway by the Power 5, creating a cleaner playoff (5 champs, 3 at large). This will involve figuring out how to deal with Independents (ahem), and a time where programs might want to hop up or down the ladder depending on where their football ambition lies.
  • A straight-up breakaway league with more relaxed amateurism rules, featuring around 30 teams, such as your big SEC and Big Ten programs, and maybe a few others who want to hop along. At that point, what does a Notre Dame (or, for that matter, a BC) do?

These are difficult questions and are made more complicated by the fact that college football is theoretically amateur - and unlike in soccer, where pretty much everyone acknowledges that player salaries and transfer fees are driving the financial woes, it’s clear that any legislated future for college football is going to involve more resources going directly to the players.

While there would be some hurt and some pain in the transition to a more fenced-off structure for college football, I can’t see the kind of fan pushback stopping it that halted the European Super League. But I could be wrong.

Fans of Liverpool and Manchester United made it clear that they value their traditional games against Stoke and Leeds and Brighton more than the possibility of more games against powers like Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Do fans of SEC teams value their games against traditional opponents more than the opportunity to play more big-money, high-stakes games?

It’s clear that whatever change comes in the future to college football, it will have to be done more slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully than the attempt to ram through the Super League. But this sort of reckoning is coming to college football at some point, because soccer isn’t the only sport facing financial constraints, especially looking toward a future where demand for televised sports may continue to dip, and impact the value of TV contracts.

When that happens, lots of schools - including BC - will have to figure out how they want to play the game of musical chairs that will follow.