The Professionalization of College Football

Although college football teams in the United States have now “kicked off” the 2014 season, their fans are not solely focused on the field of play. In fact, controversy continues to swirl around the NCAA’s recent governance decisions to create a major league with a professionalized playoff structure.

The revamped playoff system was actually announced two years ago. The formal selection of a Final Four set of teams, pairing off and competing for the right to play a single winner-take-all national championship game, was designed in a manner that will inevitably focus fan interest and thus optimize revenues.

The NCAA’s more recent decision to create a major league, though, will serve to accentuate the new playoff structure. After all, by clearly defining the sport’s most successful teams, the NCAA will enable its fans to focus on developing allegiances to the relatively few colleges that possess legitimate chances of winning championships.

In essence, the NCAA declared that the 64 teams from the so-called Power Five football conferences will be permitted to operate autonomously and to compensate their players for the full cost of their participation in the college experience. In a limited gesture to other colleges, they permitted a 65th team that is outside of the Power Five (i.e. Notre Dame) to do so as well.

Some critics are complaining that this declaration will spell the ruin of college sports by enabling the encroachment of professionalism into an amateur game. However, these critics fail to remember that the sport faced very similar challenges more than a century ago, and learned to prosper after making comparable decisions.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the NCAA did not exist. In fact, there was no governing body in existence to regulate college football. Although colleges fielded football teams and competed for trophies, many of the players (quite literally) died of injuries sustained on the field.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned college officials to the White House and reportedly declared ““I demand that football change its rules or be abolished. Change the game or forsake it!” One year later, the sport began to professionalize its operations, forming the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). Four years later, the IAAUS evolved into the NCAA.

Similarly, American baseball underwent a period of professionalization in order to address a set of challenges that plagued the amateur game. For decades before and after the Civil War, ostensibly amateur teams like the Brooklyn Excelsiors illicitly paid superstar players like James Creighton to join their squads.

In 1871, just two years after the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first team to openly pay its players, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players created a formal league structure with a declared champion. Five years later, in 1876, today’s National League emerged to take its place.

So college football fans who are decrying today’s professionalization of their sport need not worry about the future. Throughout the extended history of such business strategies in football and other amateur sports, the teams and their players have often prospered to the delight of their fans.

Amateur Sports: Show Us The Money!

The last four months have not been pleasant for people who believe in the principle of amateur competition in the world of sports. The spirit of commercialism, in its unrelenting manner, has continued to encroach upon the former showcase venues of nonprofit sportsmanship.

Four months ago, for instance, the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games featured the illusion of film star Daniel Craig leaping from an airplane with Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. The spectacle was designed to publicize the release of the movie Skyfall, the latest installment in the James Bond film series.

And then last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg awkwardly relented and cancelled the New York City Marathon after repeatedly insisting that the foot race would be staged around the ruins of the catastrophic Hurricane Sandy. Mayor Bloomberg initially resisted its cancellation because the event generates several hundred million dollars of economic activity for the Big Apple each year.

Finally, last week, a novel type of commercial activity suddenly confronted denizens of the world of American college sports. A publicly traded, for profit corporation decided to bankroll a Division I college sports program for the first time.

150 Years of Money

For the past one and a half centuries, of course, monied interests have been interacting with the venues of amateur sports. As early as 1860, organized baseball’s first star player James (Jim) Creighton was rumored to earn $500 while playing for the ostensibly amateur Excelsior Club of Brooklyn, New York. Nine years later, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first baseball team to publicly acknowledge that it was paying compensation to its players.

Over forty years later, in 1912, Jim Thorpe won Olympic Gold Medals in the track and field events of the Pentathlon and the Decathlon. But the following year, he was stripped of his medals because he had previously accepted as little as $2 per day for playing minor league baseball as a college student.

The next one hundred years witnessed the continued erosion of the amateur ideal, with the emergence of the so-called financial Golden Age of sports in the 1920s, the launch of the modern era of America’s National Collegiate Athletic Association after World War II, the celebrated dominance of the American basketball Dream Team in the Olympic Games of 1992, and the ruinous appearance of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in the Tour de France and other events.

None of these occurrences, though, featured a direct challenge by a publicly traded corporation on the field of play itself. Last week, we witnessed such a challenge.

Introducing … Grand Canyon University!

The corporation that issued this challenge was Phoenix, Arizona based Grand Canyon Education Inc., a publicly traded firm that is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. It acquired the formerly nonprofit Christian institution Grand Canyon University eight years ago; its representatives recently announced that the organization will finance the growth of its college sports program and will begin play in the Division I Western Athletic Conference next year.

Interestingly, Grand Canyon isn’t even the largest publicly traded, for profit university in the city of Phoenix, Arizona! That honor is held by the Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix, a mammoth institution that served approximately half a billion active students two years ago. Its roster has declined precipitously since then, though, in the wake of severe concerns about student enrollment abuses at for-profit academic programs.

Furthermore, the Grand Canyon announcement wasn’t the only business communique that surprised the academic sports world last week. Rutgers and the University of Maryland announced that they would abandon their existing conference affiliations and join the Big Ten Conference in search of more revenue. And the Big East Conference announced that it would affiliate with Tulane University of New Orleans, Louisiana, a metropolis that is not geographically situated in the East at all.

The Olympic Spirit

Some pundits complained that the announcements were “ridiculous,” and that we were witnessing a “silly season” of college football. Other commentators, however, took note of the underlying conditions that are causing economic distress, and explained the circumstances of conference shifting as a function of supply and demand Hardly any one noted, though, that criticisms about the pervasive impact of financial considerations have existed since the earliest days of collegiate sports itself.

After all, as early as 1893, Yale University’s iconic football coach Walter Camp warned in Volume 37 of Harper’s Weekly: “Did you hear the money jingle? Perhaps not yet, but the chink of silver will soon subside into the more quiet rustle of the bank note, and anything like amateur sport for gentlemen be but the name for something entirely antiquated and forgotten.”

Camp, of course, is now known as the “Father of American Football.” Ironically, though, Camp voiced his warning about “bank notes” the year after he left the 1892 Yale national championship team to accept a lucrative coaching position at the newly established Stanford University. Given his own career choices, would Camp have expressed any surprise at the state of collegiate football today?

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.