Have We Created A College Football Bubble?

Today Sean passed this article by Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports to us blog fathers and it is a very interesting reading. Dodd examines some of the signs, namely declining TV ratings and attendance, that College Football may have peaked in its popularity. Meanwhile athletic directors and conference commissioners are tasked with continuing to expand a product that may have no more room for growth. The article asks questions, like, Is TV cutting into game day attendance? Is a new generation with new technology less interested in these games? I’m not sure these are the right questions. I’ll tell you what concerns me more, after the jump…

Attendance at the Military Bowl. Clearly, we did not need this bowl game.

Throughout my lifetime I have watched the sport I love do nothing but grow. Everything from stadium capacities to the number of televised games, bowl games, and even the number of Division I programs have all risen to levels that would have seemed cartoonish just a few decades ago. Astronomical TV contracts, ever expanding stadiums, new bowls and new teams added every year… can college football sustain this kind of growth? Surely it cannot, so what then? Will it collapse under its own weight taking countless programs down with it, or will it simply level off to a more sustainable level of growth, focusing on adding quality rather than quantity?

The last few years we have hit a tipping point. There was a time when new bowls were exciting and made sense, and adding new teams was the same. ESPN and regional cable sports networks brought more and more games into our living rooms and it was a welcome sight. But lately, perhaps for a decade now, every new addition brings more eye rolling than excitement. Does FBS football really need a Belk Bowl, or Arkansas State? Do any of us need either to be on TV? Definitely not. A few years ago now college football was expanding with programs like Boise State, UCONN and Nevada that have brought excitement and strong fan bases to the college football landscape. Additions of bowl games like the Las Vegas Bowl and Outback Bowl brought good matchups and great fan destinations to the bowl season. On ESPN, Prime Sports and then Fox Sports Net/Root we could finally watch our own team and our conference foes on TV regularly,  and we even got to experience the air-it-out craziness of the old WAC. Basically additions were good. Not anymore. We have plenty of teams, too many games on TV and way too many bowls. We have diluted the product.

Since 1987, 26 programs have been added to the top division of College Football. With the money from TV and bowl games it was like the Klondike Gold Rush of collegiate sports and lots of programs were willing to risk everything to make the leap. Pretty much everyone who took the leap has made out like a bandit, so far. (interestingly Pacific University shut down their football program in 1995, right when things were beginning to really blow up. This is a program that absolutely walloped Wichita State in the 1948 Raisin Bowl, then less than 50 years later, poof!)

Thought Football was great last year? Just wait 'til Old Dimnion joins FBS in 2014!

But like most bubbles, somebody has to be sitting on a steaming pile of you-know-what, right? Is it really possible that programs like Georgia State, Louisiana Monroe, and our pals the Vandals, aren’t just a little over-valued in all this? Or God Forbid, is it us in the major conferences that are writing checks our true value will never be able to cash? The latest round of TV negotiations screamed SPECULATION BUBBLE. Was there really enough value in this product to justify the massive payouts? However there are some encouraging signs that sober minds may be getting out ahead of this problem before it bursts all over us. First of all, we finally have a playoff on the way. Sure, it is only four teams, but all indications are that this thing is going to expand in the coming years. That alone may inject a much needed shot of enthusiasm into a fan base that is no longer interested in watching two directional schools play in an empty stadium in the Charmin Ultra Bowl. Also, the pressure conference realignment is putting on teams like Idaho will make others think twice before trying to move up a division. Lets face it, FBS has all the teams worth having already and a few others (I'm looking at you, Florida Atlantic!).  

On the Palouse we can see both the boom (Wazzu) and the bust (Idaho) of this football bubble. Idaho has been left without a chair after the latest round of conference musical chairs and looks more and more like a team with FCS value paying a mortgage with an FBS price tag.  Meanwhile, in Pullman that beeping sound you hear is from the dump trucks the Pac-12 Net keeps backing up to Bohler gym and dumping mounds of cash. Are we really worth this much? Is there another shoe ready to drop? Hopefully not.

Finally, while it probably does not imperil the programs bottom line, given our revenue now comes mostly from TV, we are a team with attendance issues that need to be resolved. So far Bill Moos’s stadium plans have focused on a smarter stadium, rather than a larger stadium. Just because everybody wants an upper deck, doesn’t mean everyone needs one and we’d surely have to tarp ours like the Oakland A’s. These days people have more options than ever on gameday. No longer is it A. drive across the state, or B. listen to Bob Rob. The game day experience needs to compete successfully with all the other options if we want butts in seats. While the festivities and amenities available to fans are better than they've ever been, there are still big factors working against us. Namely, it is time consuming and expensive to get yourself (and your family) to and from Pullman and the home schedule, which caters almost entirely to TV audiences, is terrible. 

I don't have numbers to back this assumption, but it seems obvious to me that the fans who attend games are the ones whose support is least fickle and most likely to go beyond the cost of their ticket. In an uncertain time, an investment in their continued support seems wise and I hope to see future home schedules improve. Other than that I believe Moos is working hard to put a good team on the field in a nice stadium. Is it good enough to justify the cost vs. your sofa and 60" flat screen or a stool at the Joker Pub? I guess its up to all of us to decide.