Imbalances in College Football Are Getting Worse

by Noah Bair ‘24

For years, debates have been ongoing whether college athletes should be paid similarly to professional athletes. With some top professional athletes earning almost half a billion dollars over the lifetime of their contracts, college athletes increasingly felt that they were not being fairly compensated for their work. In the Supreme Court case NCAA v. Alston (2021), the judges determined in a unanimous decision that since colleges earn enormous sums of revenue from college athletics, the athletes are entitled to profit as well. The dramatic result of this decision is that it is intensifying the massive divide between the best of the best football teams in the NCAA and everybody else.

On July 1 of last year, the NCAA passed a policy that allows college athletes to earn money by participating in deals that involve their name, image, and likeness (NIL). This established the first system for collegiate players to earn money in amounts never before seen in non-professional sports, and was the spark that led to college sports becoming a completely different game.

In the first year of NIL deals, college athletes have earned a combined $917 million across all sports. It is projected that in the second year, the deals would earn over $1.14 billion. Top earners have gotten more than a million dollars from NIL, with University of Alabama QB Bryce Young topping the list with $3.3 million earned already, and he’s only in his junior year.

With NIL deals not only bringing revenue to the players but also the schools, colleges have an increased incentive to recruit players who they know will bring in money from boosters and sponsors to go towards NIL deals. Boosters typically give more money to programs that have well-known players who establish their popularity through NIL deals. Current high school quarterback Arch Manning, nephew of NFL legends Eli and Peyton Manning, committed to the University of Texas in June of this year. It was revealed earlier this month that the school spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on his visits to the school.

Through the NIL system, big schools with money to spend, such as Texas and Alabama, will thrive as they will have the revenue to recruit the very best players along with the promise that those players also will make big bucks. Essentially, there will come a point in college football where the best teams will all be in two or three conferences, and the other conferences will not stand a chance because they will be getting significantly less revenue, and no recruits will want to come to their school.

To counteract this imbalance, the College Football Playoff Committee announced this month that the playoff would be expanding from 4 teams to 12 teams in 2026. Half of those 12 teams will be conference champions, which guarantees that a team from Group of 5 conference will be in the playoff against Power 5 conference winners and runner-ups. Power 5 conferences are the five best conferences in college football, made up of 64 of the best teams. The last 38 national champions have all been from Power 5 conferences. Group of 5 teams are from the next five best conferences, and a Power 5 team has not won a national championship since BYU in 1984.

The only non-Power 5 team to make the CFP in its 8 years in existence was undefeated Cincinnati, who lost 27-6 to top-ranked Alabama in 2021. Group of 5 teams have continuously been left out of the top 4 teams because of the doubt that they can compete with top programs like Alabama or Georgia. With a new guaranteed spot to a Group of 5 team starting in 2026, teams like Cincinnati that run through their easy conference schedule will be able to have a chance to stack up with Power 5 mighty programs.

Not only is there going to be change in how the CFP works, but conference realignment is also rumored to occur in the next two years. With Texas and Oklahoma, two of the best powerhouses in the nation, leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, their former conference will have to acquire new teams to keep up their place as one of the top 5 conferences in college football. They will be getting BYU, UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati from the American Athletic Conference, a Group of 5 conference.

Sparked by Texas and Oklahoma’s moves, UCLA and USC are leaving the PAC-12 for the Big 10 at the end of the 2024 season. Essentially, there will be a point in college football where the best teams will all be in two or three conferences, and the other conferences will not stand a chance because they will be getting significantly less revenue and no recruits will want to join their school.

To prevent this effect where the “rich get richer” in college football, the NCAA has debated over whether or not to hire a “commissioner” of college football to oversee all conference moves and NIL deals and recruitment deals. Either way, college football is moving towards a reality where the best teams will all have the best players, who will be earning millions of dollars, while playing the other best teams in the nation, who will all reside in their conference.