College Football: A 19th Century Business Model

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? What sport does it involve?

Dozens — perhaps even hundreds — of teams across the nation, filled with unpaid amateur players, seek a plausible method for recognizing an annual champion. They experiment with one unsatisfying process after another, and finally begin to gravitate towards a relatively formal system of direct competition.

But the prospect of financial profits begin to impinge on their amateur credo, and the larger teams in wealthier markets begin to dominate their weaker foes. Finally, those larger teams decide to join each other in new “super conferences,” declaring their own victors to be national champions, and leaving hundreds of smaller teams excluded from consideration.

It sounds like contemporary college football, doesn’t it? But the entire process previously played out over a century ago in America’s original National Pastime, the game of baseball, as well. And the lesson learned from nineteenth century baseball may not please gridiron fans who admire the amateur ideal.

A Gentleman’s Game

Although obscure versions of baseball were played in America as far back as colonial times, the modern game first took shape as a part-time pastime of gentlemen who created clubs and played on grassy fields and rural pastures. Sportsmanship was emphasized by these pioneers; the very first policy of the inaugural 1845 codification of the “Rules and Regulations of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club,” for instance, noted that “members must strictly observe the time agreed upon for exercise, and be punctual in their attendance.”

A National Association of Base Ball Players convened several times from 1857 to 1871 to organize play, protect the amateur ideal, and recognize a championship pennant. But as in today’s sport of professional boxing, teams had no obligation to square off against their strongest rivals, and games were often scheduled on an ad hoc basis. Near the end of this period, “under the table” payments began to be paid to the game’s most talented players, and the first openly professional team (i.e. the Cincinnati Red Stockings) finally emerged in 1869.

During the early 1870s, the first association of professional ball players emerged from the amateur system, and it was open to any team — large or small, from any major or minor regional market — that chose to enter the competition. But wealthy and powerful teams from the major metropolises of Philadelphia and Boston then trounced tiny rivals like the Fort Wayne Kekiongas and New Haven Elm Citys five years in a row. Finally, in 1876, eight of the largest teams formed their own professional league and excluded the others, thus banishing the ideals of open competition and amateur sportsmanship from major league baseball forever.

College Football Today

The parallels between college football today and the amateur (though rapidly professionalizing) sport of baseball in the mid 1800s is quite striking. Today’s gridiron game remains one that is played with amateur players, though the most talented ones are occasionally tempted with “under the table” compensation for their services.

And like the National Pastime of yore, college football’s large and unwieldy assortment of teams has made it difficult to crown a national champion. Prior to 1992, in fact, various sports experts were simply polled throughout the year to identify the sport’s finest team. Then, for several years, a coalition of football Bowls attempted to arrange an annual game between the two poll leaders to crown a champion.

The current Bowl Championship Series was first established in 1998, but it has been roundly criticized for failing to provide a level playing field for all college teams. As was the case with professional baseball over a century ago, this level of dissatisfaction — along with financial interests to anoint a champion — has compelled the largest and wealthiest college teams to coalesce into a “super conference” configuration.

A Conference Quartet

For quite some time, sports pundits have been predicting the eventual transformation of the college football landscape into a quartet of 16 team conferences, each with two 8 team divisions. The alignment would allow the 64 largest collegiate football programs in the United States to produce a quartet of annual conference championships, to be followed by a pair of semi-final games and a subsequent national championship match.

Last week’s shift of the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University to the emerging super-sized Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) increases the size of its roster of teams from 12 to 14. Rumors of the ACC’s recruitment of the University of Connecticut and Rutgers would, if brought to fruition, complete a full 16 team conference.

What would happen to the dozens of collegiate football programs across the nation that would be omitted from a quartet of 16 team super conferences? Like the teams in former major league baseball cities like Fort Wayne and New Haven, they may learn to be content with minor league status, giving up the dream of ever playing for a national championship. Considering the success that Major League Baseball has enjoyed with such an approach, it may be inevitable that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) will follow the same business development plan.