Some 8.8 million people tuned into ESPN to watch Texas-Alabama last week, the most-viewed Saturday game on the network since 2014.
It just barely edged out the 8.7 million who watched Nebraska-Colorado on Fox, but was just behind the 9.2 million ESPN drew the week prior for a Sunday broadcast of Florida State-LSU.
Overall, 21 college football games have already drawn two million or more viewers. By this point in the 2022 season, the total was 18, per SportsMediaWatch.
So … is next year the year that fans tune out college football because of the “disaster” that is NIL, or the “wild, wild west” of the transfer portal?
Is that when the stands empty because college football is just a “minor league sport” or the Big Ten shifts to Division III for philosophical reasons?
Asking for a friend … or at least the whiny coaches, fear-mongering conference commissioners, absurd NCAA attorneys and lockstep establishment media personalities who told us, repeatedly, that by now everything would be ruined forever.
All we know is that college football’s demise will have to, once again, be pushed back at least another year because it sure isn’t going to be this season.
To the surprise of no one capable of critical thinking, college football hasn’t grown less popular because players can make a few bucks and have gained a measure of control over their careers.
If anything, it’s more popular.
Stadiums are packed. Television ratings are up — despite ESPN missing 15 million homes due to a contract battle with Charter. The buzz around the sport is incredible, and not merely because of Deion Sanders, although Coach Prime sure doesn’t hurt.
But wait, haven't we been told that fans won’t watch a sport awash in transfers and NIL deals? Yet three years later, Colorado is the biggest deal going?
What about competitive balance? Recall that even if you could stomach the idea that Caleb Williams might appear in a Dr. Pepper commercial — and many who now claim they do, used to oppose it — then all NIL would mean is that the rich would get richer?
Well, you can’t get much richer than the SEC. It’s dominated the sport for nearly two decades. This year, it is 3-6 against Power Five teams, with Alabama, LSU, Florida, Texas A&M and South Carolina all getting smoked by double digits.
The once-forgotten Pac-12, meanwhile, is 21-4 overall and has eight ranked teams. A big reason: It starts 10 transfer quarterbacks, including USC’s Williams (formerly of Oklahoma), Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders (Jackson State), Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana), Oregon’s Bo Nix (Auburn) and Oregon State’s D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson).
That is talent dispersing.
It's not easy to quantify, but since 2015, 247Sports has tried via its Composite Talent Rankings. It assigns a value to each player based on their high school recruit rankings (a clumsy metric, but a consistent one at least).
In 2023, Alabama is the most “talented” team with 1,015 points. In 2017, long before NIL or the portal, it was No. 1 with 997 points. So this Alabama team is 1.7 percent more “talented.”
Yet if you compare the 10th-most "talented" teams of those years (Oregon now, Notre Dame at that point), then the Ducks are 5.3 percent more talented. No. 25 today, UCLA, is 7.2 percent more talented than No. 25 then, Mississippi State. This is consistent with other seasons and other slots.
If anything, the era of NIL and the transfer portal are leveling the playing field a little — at least at the top of the sport.
It even extends to high school recruiting, where non-traditional powers can focus their NIL dollars and attention on a single player. Consider that currently 34 of the top 40 recruits in the Class of 2024 are verbally committed to 19 different programs. That is on pace for the most in at least a decade. In 2018, just 13 schools signed top-40 recruits. In 2017, it was 15. In 2016, it was 19. In 2015, it was 18.
Again, slightly more talent dispersion, not less and certainly not far less, as predicted.
Just about everything the establishment claimed would happen hasn’t happened. It was the same when they opposed athlete stipends, academic awards or just about any other advancement.
Imagine the sport's popularity if its most famous coaches and administrators weren’t constantly telling the fans that everything is trash and the future is bleak?
Actually, the biggest threat to the tradition of the sport is conference realignment. Athletic directors and commissioners — who secretly tamper with and then transfer entire athletic departments in pursuit of more money — can’t blame that on the players.
It’s all an attempt to scare the public so that Congress can somehow “save” an industry that, in reality, is enjoying increased revenue, increased broadcasting deals, increased interest, increased employment and increased salaries.
But hey, keep listening to those old-school coaches who are upset someone moved their cheese.
Remember, it was then-NCAA president Mark Emmert who testified during O’Bannon v. NCAA that NIL would turn college athletics “into minor league sports, and we know that in the U.S., minor league sports aren’t very successful either for fan support or the fan experience.”
And it was NCAA lawyer Dan Waxman who argued to the Supreme Court that “the cost of labor” was a “differentiating feature” for college sports and if players made any money interest would decrease. Waxman even trotted out a survey that claimed “something like 10 percent of the respondents said they would be less interested and would watch less if” athletes received even a $10,000 academic award.
That survey was clearly bogus.
And there is always former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who opined that “the Division III model ... would, in my view, be more consistent with the Big Ten’s philosophy” if something like NIL came along. Soon after that, Delany received a $20 million bonus for negotiating a TV deal.
The complaining continues. The Washington lobbying remains. The media alarmists shrill on (it’s good for ratings). The howls about how the sport has/is/will be ruined are still as loud as ever.
It doesn’t appear many actual fans are still listening.
They are too busy watching the games.