COLUMN: The future of college athletics

With college football season now underway, we are hearing more and more about the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.  There has been enormous change over the last few years, and there will likely be much more.  I am no elite prognosticator, but I have a general sense of where intercollegiate athletics are heading.  I am not sure if it will be in the next few years or next decade, but here are my thoughts on what the future will look like.

  • The large schools (Power 4) will eventually assemble into four large conferences of 16-20 teams each.  They will have mega TV deals worth millions of dollars for their football and other revenue generating sports.  The major networks making these deals will require them to only play games within the Power 4 league to ensure maximum TV exposure.  This league will start to resemble professional sports in many respects.  NIL deals will be lucrative, the transfer portal will be wide open, and the monetary budgets will rival large national companies.  
  • The playoff system in football will be twelve teams but will be tied only to these power conferences and schools.  The seeding for the twelve-team playoff format will resemble the NFL, and the TV money will be enormous.  The bowl system as we know it will filter into this playoff format to a degree and the outliers will eventually go away.  

  • • Even with the enormous amount of money these Power 4 schools will be generating, they will eventually spin off from their non-revenue generating sports (the ones not commanding the TV contracts).  These non-revenue sports will go back to more of a regional base of play and not be included in these mega-conference deals.  College administrators will eventually want to save the travel money and overall cost of operating these non-revenue generating sports to further increase profits.  The NCAA’s role will be significantly reduced if not eliminated at this level all together.
  • The smaller schools (Group of 5 along with some current FCS schools) will eventually organize regional based conferences to alleviate as much cost as possible.  They will renew old rivalries, increase fan and student interest, and operate with much smaller budgets.  They will no longer have the “money” games each year and will evaluate mid-week TV deals with fan interest to determine the most valuable revenue source for them.  
  • With reduced overall budgets, the number of scholarships, coaches, and other cost factors will be evaluated.  Title 9 requirements will be in effect, but the evaluation of a hybrid approach to university sponsored athletics and “club” sports will be considered to help budgetary issues as well with lesser revenue generating sports.
  • The smaller schools will form their own twelve team playoff system in football.  The NCAA will continue to consider one playoff system for non-football sports as long as possible but will evaluate basketball along the same lines in time (pending the pressure from the TV networks providing the mega deals).  This football playoff system will be well received by smaller schools and generate some additional funding through TV deals filling open time on networks.  
  • The smaller schools will still have NIL opportunities, transfer portal moves, and other options garnered by the Power 4, but they will just be on a much smaller scale.  Top players will be subject to moving to Power 4 schools each year.  There’s no stopping that fact.  

I share those thoughts, not because I want them to occur.  Rather, I just share what I see happening in the future.  Intercollegiate athletics has turned into a large business model.  The faster a respective university understands its place in this system, the more effective it can navigate to a successful, sustainable level of operation that will effectively serve the students, the student athletes, the alumni, and the respective communities.  

Next week, I will share some thoughts on changes to come in the educational side of university operations as they are also undergoing significant challenges and change.