The College Football Playoff is officially expanding to 12 teams in 2024, and I couldn’t care less. This should be an exciting moment, the advent of a month-long extravaganza that will allow college football to crown a true, controversy-free national champion, and instead it feels like the worst fears of the BCS defenders have been realized, that college football has been turned into something unrecognizable, a big-money corporate cash grab not much different from the NFL instead of the tradition-filled pastime it once was. Granted, it’s been a corporate cash grab for a lot longer than the purists are willing to acknowledge, and becoming more so was probably pretty much inevitable so long as communities without professional teams invested the local college team with the level of importance of a pro team, but it still feels like the sport is becoming a shadow of its former self.
The last piece of the puzzle to put the CFP expansion in place was the Rose Bowl effectively being browbeaten into effectively being forced off its traditional New Year’s Day date on a regular basis (something that already happened every four years in the early days of the BCS before the creation of a separate national championship game) by college football’s poobahs setting a deadline for the Rose to fall in line. As much as the Rose Bowl might not like it, it will likely now be at its most relevant and most retain something close to its status as the “Granddaddy of them All” when it’s not played on New Year’s Day, when it serves as a semifinal instead of a quarterfinal. It probably can’t really be guaranteed its traditional Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchup, but with USC and UCLA moving to the Big Ten that tradition probably wasn’t much worth keeping anyway. Any way you slice it, the Rose Bowl as we know it is dead, and with it, as I explained at the start of the season, is much of what people liked about college football as it existed.
And as I said at the end of that post, we could have avoided all this if the biggest names in college football had taken a step associated with perhaps the biggest sort of cash grab of all.
Back in 2019 the San Jose Mercury News‘ Jon Wilner raised the prospect that between the legalization of college athletes pursuing name, image, and likeness rights, and streaming services not tied to regional cable systems caring less about geographic coverage than about maximizing the value of whatever they signed a contract with, the 20-30 most valuable collegiate brand names could end up being lured to a new NFL-esque entity that could provide marquee matchups to media companies every week. The following year the Knight Commission, an influential but unofficial group of leaders and thinkers interested in reforming college athletics, recommended that FBS football split off from the NCAA and form a separate body, with FBS schools remaining part of the NCAA in all other sports and the NCAA continuing to manage college football at the FCS, Division II, and Division III levels. Bringing the two together, Mark Cuban, who had previously suggested that a private-equity firm or other wealthy party could bankroll a full-fledged split from the NCAA, responded to the Knight Commission report by publicly inviting FBS schools to contact him if they needed investors for a split.
At the time, I had thought that any such split couldn’t be limited to the most valuable schools alone but had to bring along other schools bound up with those schools politically and in rivalries, and as such, I believed any “super league” or FBS split would have to include, at minimum, basically the entire Power 5 in a structure of at least 64 teams. This, of course, was before the SEC and Big Ten brutally proved me wrong about my assumptions, but it still seems like the most likely outcome of the Knight Commission recommendation, and my hunch is that a smaller “super league” would still end up on the larger end of the scale. I’ve seen some speculated super leagues consisting of 16 or even 15 schools (with the latter based on the targeted size of the European football super league), but Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Georgia, Tennessee, Penn State, Auburn, LSU, Nebraska, Florida, Florida State, and USC make up 15 schools all on their own and you’d be hard pressed to argue for omitting any of them. (Notre Dame might not want to join if it means giving up their independence, but that’s not the same thing as not being invited.) Texas A&M, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Miami would probably be among the next few schools invited, bringing us to 19 schools, and not only have we not yet gotten to Clemson, one of the most successful schools of recent years, I’m not sure they’d be picked ahead of in-state rival South Carolina. (Clemson wasn’t exactly one of the more distinguished schools in the sport before Dabo Swinney came along.) Nor have we picked any schools west of Texas to provide USC with schools to play that don’t require long-distance travel, and we’d probably want to take a couple more Big Ten schools (say, Iowa and Minnesota) to minimize resistance to separating football from the established conference structure. So while adding more schools would certainly dilute the pie for the schools already chosen, I think any super league would need 24 schools at bare minimum, and more likely at least 32.
Here’s where things get exciting. A super league would, in effect, be a single entity that would claim to stand apart from any NCAA-recognized level of football (to the point of taking over or expanding from the existing College Football Playoff, in the case of an FBS split), and would only be concerned with its own championship, not in trying to craft its championship structure to maximize its champion’s clarity and desirability for a larger championship system. It can set up the structure that works for itself, not anyone else, and with a critical mass of desirable teams it doesn’t have to worry too much about diluting its desirability by subdividing itself. So it can split into “conferences” of 8-16 teams (depending on the size of the league as a whole), with conferences of 12 or more teams being further split into divisions, while maintaining its status as the entity with which media companies and streaming services would be obligated to negotiate, the “conferences” having no power of their own. As such, it can distribute teams into divisions and conferences however it wishes, grouping teams based on geography, established rivalries, and established associations. USC could expect to play most of their games against teams relatively geographically close to them, and wouldn’t have to compete on the same table as Penn State. A super league might look superficially similar to the expanded SEC and Big Ten, but by maintaining a subdivided structure, could ironically maintain more of a semblance of geographic continuity and a sense of conferences as more than just a way to package a bunch of teams’ rights for the sake of making money, compared to the new superconferences.
Granted that USC wouldn’t be any less isolated without at least three more schools west of Texas, which is probably the biggest problem with the Big Ten’s expansion, and Oregon and Washington might be the only such schools with even an argument to join a super league without further expanding beyond 32. You’re also still running the risk of breaking up established rivalries, though quite a few rivalries are preserved among the teams I listed earlier. Indeed, some rivalries nominally within a single conference now might actually be returned to their former glory with a super league; the Michigan-Minnesota rivalry for the “little brown jug” has only been played every other year since the Big Ten expanded to 12-14 teams and split into divisions, and I’m not confident it’d be played any more often in a division-less format where it would take away a conference game from the conference’s other schools, but a super league would be more likely to arrange for the game to be played every year even if it still places the two schools in separate divisions. That’s the thing: rivalries bring their own value to a league. Preserving rivalries tamps down fan outrage over a super league’s very existence, but even more importantly, as part of the soul of college football, enhances the value of a league in and of itself. That’s why I think if the SEC could expand by four more teams, even if they could take ACC schools in the process, Oklahoma State would be the fourth school, not a fourth ACC school, even if Virginia Tech, North Carolina, or Louisville might be more valuable on paper. (Similarly, Oklahoma State would be a strong contender for one of the last few spots in a 32-team league.)
So long as the most valuable teams and most fertile recruiting grounds are relatively well-balanced between the various conferences and divisions, a super league shouldn’t need to worry too much about preserving access to those teams and can instead focus on creating a league the fans will embrace. Unlike in European soccer, heavily mismatched rivalries are few and far between in college football, so a super league wouldn’t necessarily break up too many of them, and could prioritize adding schools that would preserve rivalries among teams already selected.
Then there’s what a super league could mean for the championship and bowl system. Expansion of the de-facto super leagues and College Football Playoff is creating a potentially dire threat to the bowl system. That USC and UCLA could represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl is only one component of the larger threat to the traditional Big Ten v. Pac-12 matchup: the fact that the game is staring at the prospect of becoming a matchup between leagues in very different tiers of competition. The CFP era has already transformed the Rose Bowl into a semifinal once every three years and all but guaranteed the teams it gets aren’t both the champions of their respective conferences the rest of the time. And that’s just the impact on the Granddaddy of them All; if you turn on ESPN as their pundits talk about the postseason race they will talk almost exclusively about teams’ playoff prospects, with the non-playoff New Year’s Six bowls, let alone the non-NY6 bowls, being a complete afterthought. This will get much worse with an expanded playoff, especially if, as seems likely, teams that lose even in the first round don’t get a bowl game – and bowl games that serve as quarterfinals, as also seems likely, seems like much more of a debasement of the concept of a bowl game than serving as semifinals, especially if there are bowls serving both purposes. What happens if the expanded Big Ten and SEC decide that they’ve taken enough of the best schools between them that they don’t need the other conferences? What happens if they decide to just hold a playoff between the two of them?
Well, for one thing, they could decide to hold a bowl game between their respective conference champions and leave the rest of the “playoff” to their individual conferences, in effect helping to restore the idea of a bowl game being a singular achievement at the end of the season. But this would still pose problems for the rest of the bowl slate, and without the Big Ten and SEC explicitly separating themselves from the rest of FBS, would create a hell of a shitshow among the other conferences. But it points to how a super league could handle these issues in a way that benefits both the bowl structure and itself, especially if it amounts to an FBS split that leaves the left-behind teams to play in FCS. Such a league could create a playoff just between the champions of each of its “conferences”, of which there would likely be no more than four unless it’s an FBS split that grows to a truly impressive size.
Back around 2020, I imagined that any such “super league” would hand-pick a number of schools with as large a national fanbase and brand value as possible so each school adds enough value to be worth the dilution, and divvied them up into conferences with an eye towards maintaining rivalries and geographic continuity and keeping all the schools relatively happy, but mostly in dividing the best, most valuable schools as evenly as possible to maximize the biggest marquee matchups between blue bloods. This goal might not be entirely achievable, as a lot of the best, most valuable schools in college football are in the SEC and Big Ten, and every school would want to maximize their direct access to the recruiting hotbeds of Texas, California, and Florida (and to a lesser extent Georgia and Ohio). I put together two different models of what such a league might look like. One of them was a 64-team league split into four 16-team conferences with two divisions each, with each conference playing a conference championship game feeding a playoff, that essentially looked like the Power 5 minus Vanderbilt and Rutgers and with BYU, but with the Big 12 broken up oddly in places (I actually assigned Texas to the equivalent of the Pac-12).
The other was an 80-team league split into eight ten-team conferences. This would allow the new league to dispense with conference championship games, and by bringing in the most valuable Group of Five schools, would provide schools with relative bottom-feeders to feast on to maintain their brand value regardless of how they performed relative to the other top-tier schools, while providing breathing room for schools potentially rising to prominence within the NCAA to find spots in the new league without being at the mercy of Power 5 schools dropping out, potentially saving the new league from antitrust exposure. As an added bonus, the resulting conferences resembled, to varying extents, the conference structure that existed prior to the waves of realignment that began in the 90s, though there were still some oddities. Here’s what it might look like:
|Pacific Coast Conference
Mountain West (old Big 8) Conference
Midwest (Big Ten) Conference
I have to imagine college football fans would much prefer this to the direction the sport is actually heading in. For the most part, schools are part of regional conferences with natural geographic rivalries, while TV and streaming partners still get to maximize matchups between high-value schools and the conferences can feed a playoff of at least eight teams. A super league would put an end to conferences poaching each other to maximize their share of the media-rights pie by putting all the most valuable schools under one roof and dividing them the way they want without worrying about NCAA rules too much, and similarly, it would have little to no reason to expand the playoff beyond eight teams, taking each of the eight conference champions, while potentially staging bowl games between the other teams in the top five of each conference. It could, paradoxically, bring college football closer to its roots. And if it followed the Knight Commission’s proposal to only be for football, it could save basketball and other sports from being unduly affected by football-driven realignment creating unwieldy conferences.
Would this still be the case with a smaller super league of 20-40 schools? Well, a lot depends on the degree to which schools the league wouldn’t normally take can muscle their way in, as well as whether or not the league is limited to football or would cover all sports, with an all-sports league likely needing to be larger. My hunch is that the league would at least initially try to limit itself to football, as the NCAA would try like hell to keep the top schools in other sports, March Madness might be significantly more valuable than a basketball tournament consisting of only those schools joining a super league, Olympic sports might be too expensive for a profit-oriented entity to consider worth it, and needing to accommodate non-football schools like Gonzaga would be way too complicated.
I took four-year average revenues for each school over the course of the 2016-19 football years, based on US Department of Education Equity in Athletics data, for another post I was working on in the aftermath of the Texas and Oklahoma news, and used that as a baseline to determine the value of each school (without dealing with any pandemic-era weirdness), adjusted based on the value of each conference’s TV contracts (even the bottom-feeding teams in the top conferences can punch above their weight if the conference’s TV contract is worth enough), how well each school did over that four-year period (a more successful school can expect to receive more revenue regardless of their inherent value, while a school that can be reasonably successful financially even in poor on-the-field years is a sign of a school that can bring lots of top-to-bottom value to a league), and other factors.
The first 14 schools to get the call are Texas, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Penn State, Auburn, LSU, Nebraska, Florida, and Florida State. Wilner’s impression was that USC was the only Pac-12 school valuable enough to be guaranteed a spot in a super league, but USC has been in enough of a down period that Washington, Oregon, and of all schools, Utah earned more football revenue over this four-year period, with Washington outpacing USC $84.3 million to $55.9 million. Still, USC is the highest-ranking school in the fertile recruiting grounds of California, so it becomes school #15. Texas A&M and Michigan State get the call next based on their established rivalries with schools previously selected coupled with their strong financial performance; Texas A&M also reinforces the league’s presence in Texas while Michigan State has the side benefit of a large alumni network that translates into a large fanbase. We’ll go ahead and take Washington and Oregon to shore up our West Coast presence and make USC less geographically isolated. Any number of schools could be our 20th school – Wisconsin, Iowa, or Minnesota from the Big Ten, Arkansas or South Carolina from the SEC, Clemson, Virginia Tech, or Miami from the ACC, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, or another Texas school from the Big 12, or Utah, Colorado, or the Arizona schools from the Pac-12 – but while we could stop there and have an impressive-looking league, I think there are enough schools left bringing enough value that we can go bigger. Clemson’s recent on-the-field success punches above its historical weight, but I still feel any super league should include them, so let’s go ahead and add all the mentioned Big Ten, SEC, and ACC schools to get to 27.
That leaves us with five more schools to get to 32. The schools with the most football revenue over this four-year period we haven’t already selected are TCU, Utah, Ole Miss, and the Illinois schools; of the latter, Illinois nearly matched Northwestern in revenue despite not having a winning season over this period, so I’m inclined to go with them if it comes down to one or the other. Oklahoma State and Iowa State have the advantage of rivalries with teams already selected, while Louisville and NC State are tops among remaining ACC schools, but I’m going to use my first pick on Indiana thanks to the size of its alumni base. Ole Miss and Illinois get the nod for geographic coverage, Oklahoma State for the rivalry factor, and I’m going to save the last pick for whatever makes the most sense once I’ve divvied up everyone else. Split that league into two conferences of two divisions each and we get:
|Northern College Football Conference||Southern College Football Conference|
Some of the assignments are a bit awkward, but this is still a pretty impressive group. Arranged this way, you could dispense with the playoff entirely and simply pit the champions of each conference, as determined by conference championship games, in a single national championship, with the remaining top-four teams in each division squaring off in bowl games, bringing college football even closer to its roots. Still, you could argue with some of the inclusions and even considering the willingness to break up rivalries that have typified this round of realignment, there are some schools where it just seems wrong to include them and not their rival. Leaving out Georgia Tech might be defensible because, while it holds an important place in college football history, it’s definitely well behind Georgia in terms of modern-day prominence, and Georgia has Florida as a rival. But should USC be the only California school? Should Arizona State be included but not Arizona? Virginia Tech but not Virginia? And yet, some of the choices we’ve already made feel like they’re mostly there to fill out the numbers; I suspect the people bankrolling this league wouldn’t want to expand beyond this unless it’s to the smallest size that would allow for more conferences or divisions, which would cut down on travel and place more emphasis on rivalries (though the ability to add more bowls could make up for that, and I’m not convinced Notre Dame would find a 32-team super league compelling enough to give up its independence).
Perhaps as an alternative, this league could be structured similarly to the way the soccer super league was, with a core group of founding, permanent members and a group of additional members that rotate in and out based on success and whatever value the permanent members and people in charge of the league think they’d bring. Let’s say the founding members are the first 19 I identified, plus the three Big Ten schools I identified on top of that, plus Miami and any one of Clemson, South Carolina, or Arkansas to get to 24 permanent members – or even all three to get to 26. (I’m hesitant to add Virginia Tech, Ole Miss, or Indiana due to the rivalries they’d be leaving behind without preserving much in the way of existing ones without more additions, and they don’t bring the same level of brand or other value. I might pick those three and Oklahoma State to get to 30 founding members, but that might only work if I’m willing to go beyond 32 total.) Based on the last four seasons of results (based on the final CFP rankings and performance in bowl games, and before the just-concluded season) the remaining spots would then go to Cincinnati, Utah, Oklahoma State, Baylor, BYU, and Iowa State, though Ole Miss might bump out any of these.
Anyway, if I were to expand to 40 I’m starting with Arizona and UCLA, as the Bruins raked in more football revenue over the four-year period than Cal despite getting as many wins in four years as Cal got in three, but there aren’t really any obvious choices to expand to beyond that and I could make a case for just about any Power 5 school. I’d probably include Kentucky and Louisville, as Louisville earned more than any ACC school not yet selected despite middling on-the-field results, Kentucky seems to be the dominant team in the state outside Louisville regardless, and the two schools have the largest football budgets of any public school not yet selected. I’d probably give the remaining spots to Colorado, Georgia Tech, TCU, and Cal, but I’m almost picking those schools at random, especially the last one.
The schools with the most four-year revenue still being left out are Utah, Northwestern, Iowa State, Texas Tech, Baylor, NC State, Stanford, Kansas State, and North Carolina. This last is noteworthy because FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver identified UNC as deserving of being in the upper echelon of schools the Big Ten should be considering for expansion, and probably the most valuable school outside the expanded Big Ten or SEC not named Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, or Clemson. That’s partly because of its excellence in non-football sports, but it’s at least competent in recent years in football and is the flagship school in a big, growing state. “Market power” doesn’t matter as much in the streaming era as it did when you were trying to maximize homes for your conference’s TV network, and existing established brand names are probably more important, but the NIL era could still reward a school with proximate geographic dominance, and I could see a super league wanting to maximize the area where people are paying attention to it and minimize the number of people focused on schools outside the league, so I could still see a super league jettisoning TCU or Cal for UNC. We also still haven’t restored Virginia Tech’s rivalry with Virginia, although Virginia’s four-year revenue in football ranks very low among power-conference schools. Syracuse, Washington State, Purdue, Maryland, Pitt, and Duke all brought in more revenue with Cal, with Washington State and Purdue having established rivalries with teams already in the league, Syracuse and Pitt having a rivalry with each other, and Duke potentially with a rivalry with UNC. All in all, though, I’m not sure there are any more schools that absolutely demand inclusion in a super league, certainly not any that its funders would consider worth dividing the pie more ways.
Before we stop there, though, let’s look at things from the opposite direction and return to the idea of a full-fledged FBS split. I said earlier that I had looked at 64- and 80-team FBS splits, but there’s a case to be made that an FBS split could be closer in size to the super leagues we’ve been looking at. The Knight Commission found that “three in five FBS leaders acknowledged that they spend too much on FBS football ‘to keep up’ with other schools”, and that those schools could use an FBS split as an “off-ramp from the highly-commercialized college football environment” of the Power 5 and the wealthiest schools within them. At the time there were 130 FBS schools, and two-fifths of 130 is only 52, so this group presumably included a significant number of Power 5 schools. An FBS split that only left schools behind in an expanded FCS that chose to do so would probably be bigger than 52, but there isn’t a nice neat size for a super league that can be neatly divided into conferences and divisions between 48 and 64, and 48 is a close enough number to work.
So let’s take the 40 schools we already have and see if we can identify eight more schools based on revenue, brand value, preserving rivalries, likely willingness to compete, and other factors. I think that leads me to settle on adding Texas Tech, North Carolina, Iowa State, Purdue, Syracuse, NC State, Stanford, and Pittsburgh. Utah was successful enough over the four-year period that its revenue isn’t as impressive as it should be (though if I had included it I’d be sorely tempted to reach outside the Power 5 and bring BYU along as well); Northwestern has the most revenue of any school left behind other than Utah, and a geographic rivalry with a school already in the league, but it’s a private school with an emphasis on academics (which may also lead Stanford to turn down a slot); Baylor doesn’t have any specific rivalries that would truly compel them to join the league; Duke’s revenue is arguably more impressive than Pitt’s, slotting in just behind them despite a full four fewer wins, but has a mix of the issues with Baylor and Northwestern; and Washington State, Oregon State, and possibly Virginia would preserve geographic rivalries but bring very little value by the standards of the Power 5. The result, divided into four 12-team conferences, might look something like this:
|Northern College Football Conference||Eastern College Football Conference|
|Western College Football Conference||Southern College Football Conference|
Pacific South Division
Gulf South Division
The alignments here are a bit awkward, and if I’d taken another team west of the Mississippi over NC State or Pitt (Utah would probably have worked best) I wouldn’t have awkwardly shoved Georgia Tech into the Northeast, or at least wouldn’t have broken up a rivalry by doing so in order to shove another team into the Mideast. Still, this seems like a viable format that can feed an effective eight-team playoff, with the four “conferences” holding championship games before pairing off in the largest bowls, similar to the existing four-team CFP format, with an additional 10 bowls for the remaining best teams in each conference.
(As for an all-sports super league, suffice to say that Kentucky, Louisville, and UCLA would be taken a lot sooner; if we add them to the first 19 schools we took originally, plus the Big Ten and SEC schools we identified on top of that, plus Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, and Indiana to fill out the basketball blue bloods, plus Clemson, that gets us to 29, leaving us three spots for Stanford, Miami, Ole Miss, Maryland, and potentially others to fight over, potentially squeezing out the likes of Baylor, Syracuse, and Arizona without expanding to 40 and potentially leaving out some valuable programs even then, so a full-fledged Power 5 split might be necessary at minimum.)
I may return to this topic in the future – looking more deeply at potential scheduling or postseason formats, attempting a more rigorous method of determining what schools to pick, maybe even looking at what effect jettisoning football might have on the conferences for the remaining sports. But this should be food for thought as an alternative path for college football’s evolution, one that could have retained and even reclaimed much of what makes the sport great while adapting it to the new big-money, NIL era.
1 thought on “Pining for a (True) College Football Super League”
A fascinating look at just how messy any process of finding the “right” size and shape of league in an environment filled with pre-existing local/regional rivalries and a large number of established teams across an entire continent is – European club football really is the best comparison to college sports, and we’ve seen the mess that created with an imposition over fan culture there.
The mention of Clemson being historically worse than they are now and other teams historically better has its parallels there, too. The European Super League proposal had six (!) English teams out of the initially announced 12; there’s not even room for all six of them in the existing 32-team Champions League, and it’s within even my millennial living memory that the Premier League was a poor relation to both Serie A and La Liga. (That’s even ignoring the Bundesliga, completely absent from the initial announcement; their clubs have majority voting stakes held by fan members, who would assuredly block the clubs from entering even if they wanted to.) Tottenham being better than (say) Roma would have been as laughable a generation-ish ago as Clemson being better than USC, and has just as assuredly happened. If the appeal is “the best play the best,” you need a decent number of teams and/or a promotion-relegation mechanic (and there’s an entire divergence on what that brings to European football for better and worse) to ensure that keeps happening.
Every available option may be on some level bad; you may well be right that the one that’s actually being taken is somehow worse and more disruptive than seemingly more “radical” changes that would in practice change less.