Oklahoma Football: The end of college football as a regional sport

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

The forthcoming expansion of the College Football Playoff shows the sport is adapting to life as a national product.

I’ve been writing about college football for nearly 15 years and I’ve never really wavered about a postseason playoff. I didn’t like the idea of it before we had it. I don’t like what we have now. I’m not excited about the new version coming down the pike in a couple years.

In reality, though, the imminent expansion of the College Football Playoff from four teams to 12 ties into a slow-moving sea change in the sport that goes well beyond how a champion is crowned.

National marketing

College football followed a regional marketing path in its early days. Historically, schools sold their product to students, alumni and local communities – the people who were most likely to become diehard fans. They’re the ones most who shell out for season tickets, go on road trips following the team and donate to the program. The genesis of conferences and bowl games flowed from this regional approach. By catering to those regional audiences, schools found that customers essentially became stakeholders in their programs.

For decades, however, the meta-theme of college football has been the evolution in marketing of the sport.

As television networks like ESPN and FOX have purchased greater control over college football, they have imposed a national marketing strategy on the sport. They think in terms of delivering to national audiences because that’s the most efficient way to cash in on their assets. Someone in Los Angeles or New York who likes watching football on TV is worth just as much to ESPN as the diehard alum who lives down the street from the stadium. More importantly, there are a whole lot more people in the former group than the latter.

You can see the practical implications of this shift playing out in miniature across the sport now. Take the recent flap over FOX’s decision to schedule the Oklahoma-Nebraska game this year in an early broadcast window. OU athletic director Joe Castiglione looked at the game as an opportunity to stage a primetime event for fans of both programs to celebrate a historic rivalry. FOX saw programming inventory that fit the bill for a national broadcast in its prized Big Noon Saturday slot.

Given that FOX cuts big checks for the rights to broadcast OU’s games, the outcome of that fight was never in doubt. The fans who actually attend the games ultimately lose out in favor of the casual viewer sitting at home.

The changing definition of “fan”

The glacial crawl from a hodgepodge of bowl games to the College Football Playoff has only reinforced the sport as a national product. In fact, a postseason tournament gives a television network a perfect framing device for the entire season. The jockeying for slots in the postseason gives casual viewers a reason to tune into games that carry weight in determining what that tournament bracket looks like. Naturally, the more slots in the tournament, the more games to watch. (That made expanding the CFP inevitable, by the way, and it likely means more expansion in the future.)

But if the CFP represents the true death knell of college football as a regional sport, I have a question: What happens to programs when TV Fans replace Stakeholder Fans?

Look no further than the Oklahoma Sooners to get an idea of what I mean. Oklahoma isn’t a large or wealthy state. It doesn’t have a big population. But the people of the state do have a deeply abiding love for football. That rabid level of support and commitment explains why OU has one of the most successful programs in the history of the sport.

Right now, it’s hard to imagine the Sooners not being a big deal in Oklahoma or the state of Alabama not investing an unhealthy amount of time and energy into the Crimson Tide. Will we still say the same thing in 10 or 20 years? I’m not so sure.

Like all major sports, college football is already competing for the attention of consumers against a growing array of entertainment options. Meanwhile, it seems fair to wonder what kind of attachment will form with prospective patrons who come of age looking at teams as part of their weekly entertainment diet. The growing emphasis on winning national titles also doesn’t help with maintaining the interest of fans whose teams get knocked out of contention.

Of course, national marketing has helped turn the NFL into one of the most successful business ventures in history. There may be significant differences that make the big leagues more suitable for the national approach, but we’re not talking about the imminent demise of college football. People like football too much for college football to shrivel up and die. National marketing can work – the sport might just look very different in the not-too-distant future.

What about OU?

In terms of the implications of the new world order for the Sooners, a couple issues come to mind right off the bat.

First, programs like OU have long benefited from what you could call an “enthusiasm gap” over the vast majority of programs in college football. It has one of the most valuable athletic departments in the country in large part because Sooner fans put a premium on supporting a winning football team. That translates into spending on tickets, merchandise and donations.

If individual programs can’t count on similar levels of fan engagement going forward as a rule, finding ways to keep that enthusiasm from dropping too precipitously becomes paramount.

Second, this may put OU’s relationship with the Big 12 on shakier footing. (Again, for all the conference-realignment addicts out there, let me stress the may part.)

Yes, it seems counterintuitive to make that kind of statement when the coming changes to the CFP all but assure the Big 12 will have a representative every year. Still, if college football is turning into more of a national product, it makes sense to align yourself with the conferences that best fit the national business model. The schools in the Big Ten and SEC simply have stronger demographic profiles than those in the Big 12 when it comes to competing in that kind of environment. Meanwhile, if the athletic department truly fears the erosion of that enthusiasm gap, beefing up the schedule with higher-profile opponents like Georgia and Alabama or Ohio State and Penn State couldn’t hurt.

All of that hardly spells doom for OU’s tenure in the Big 12. After all, even if another conference is on the Sooners’ radar, it’s not a given that the SEC and B1G would even be keen to add new members any time soon. But with the shift to a national paradigm all but complete, that kind of thinking will become even more prevalent in the near future than it already is now.