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The Decade Stampede: USF Athletics, 2020-2029

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What will the future hold for USF, and college athletics as a whole?

PGA: The 146th Open Championship - Practice Round
A Bulls fan inspects a family pod at the futuristic new USF Football And Fortnite Stadium, September 23, 2028.
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Gates once said, “most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” I think institutions, such as college sports, are the same way. They change slowly, but more happens in ten years than you realize.

Thinking back to when this blog started ten years ago, would you have envisioned an NCAA player transfer portal? Or a four-team football national championship? Or an FBS football program being shut down by its own state government - and then coming back stronger than ever? Or the dawn of legalized sports wagering? To say nothing of USF’s own Paradise Lost: the disintegration of the Big East football conference.

But I prefer to look forward than back. What will the college sports world look like ten years from now, in 2030? This won’t be a conference realignment or predict-the-Jeff-Scott-era post, but rather a look at what I see as the larger forces that will drive college athletics this decade. And, what they could mean for USF, and how we can be proactive.

Let’s start with what I think is the biggest issue:

The attendance problem must be solved.

This, in my opinion, will be the #1 challenge facing all spectator sports in the 2020s. And how teams and leagues respond to it will have long-term implications.

USF has a serious attendance problem, but we’re hardly alone. Fan attendance and interest is down across the board, even at blueblood colleges with winning teams. Notre Dame football’s streak of consecutive home game sellouts, which dated back to 1973, ended in 2019. And it ended in a game between 7-1 Navy and 7-2 Notre Dame, so you can’t blame a bad team or an uninteresting visitor. The old money-est of old money universities can’t sell out a 75,000-seat stadium anymore.

It is also apparent that televised sports is cannibalizing attendance. People are choosing to stay home and watch the game rather than go to it live, even if they already paid for the tickets. In a recent poll of Wichita State fans, 54% of respondents gave this as a reason they’re going to fewer games. Despite ticket sales remaining steady at about 10,000 per game, actual attendance at Wichita has dropped from 8,806 to 6,626 a game in just five years.

There are generational challenges, too. According to one study, interest in sports drops from 48% among Millennials (born 1980-1995) to 35% among Generation Z (born 1996-2009). Also, the number of Americans who say they don’t have a favorite sport has nearly doubled in 20 years, from 8% in 2000 to 15% now. Younger people simply aren’t as committed to sports fandom as prior generations.

College sports has always been able to count on a certain kind of inertia. Most campuses have a self-perpetuating culture of fun, excitement, pride, and camaraderie around sporting events. This makes it easy to attract Incoming freshmen, who’ve just made a long and expensive commitment to the school. This cycle can’t be taken for granted anymore.

Fortunately, there are models to follow. In the 1980s, movie theaters were thought to be going extinct. No one would go to a sticky movie theater and buy overpriced popcorn when cable movie networks, VCRs, and video rental stores all offered convenient viewing at home. But movie theaters survived, by improving the customer experience. Following the lead of Cineplex Odeon, they began offering top-quality sound systems, additional on-site entertainment options, cafes, bars, in-seat food service, luxurious seating, party rooms, and other amenities. Nowadays, a trip to the movies is a special event, with a special price tag.

Spectator sports is now at a similar crossroads. Potential customers - and yes, we need to start thinking of them as customers - can stay at home and watch the game at little cost. So far, sports teams haven’t given them a reason to do otherwise. If you want fans to come to games again, you need to improve the fan experience, like movie theaters did.

USF Athletics needs to see itself as one of many entertainment options available to students and to people in the community. It needs to make coming to games as appealing and hassle-free as possible, for all their demographics. What do students, young alumni, older alumni, families, casual fans, and other groups each want? Find out, and give it to them. One surprising finding in the Wichita State study was that 22% of respondents demanded better Wi-Fi. Really. If that’s what current students and the younger generation wants, then get your stadium Wi-Fi in order.

Why is attendance so important? Because if students don’t go to games, when they form lifelong allegiances, they’re not going to care enough to watch games on TV when they’re older. Don’t assume TV revenue will make up any attendance loss. The people watching now benefited from the sports culture of the past. Or, they’re younger fans who don’t see any value in going to the game versus just watching it.

The Wichita survey mentioned ticket cost as a reason for going to fewer games. But that doesn’t mean tickets are too expensive. It means people don’t see enough value in the cost. People will pay $20 for $20 worth of fun. People are saying college sports isn’t giving it to them right now. Again, ticket sales haven’t gone down; attendance has.

What is the future of televised sports?

As mentioned above, televised sports has become pervasive. This also means there’s no new ways to make money from it. And there’s already evidence that networks don’t want to spend any more on college sports than they already do.

When the Big XII failed to expand in 2016, a major reason was that ESPN and Fox didn’t want to pony up the $25 million per school they had to pay under the terms of their contact. They negotiated with the member schools to drop that clause. They effectively paid the Big XII not to expand. On top of that, Fox declined to purchase Big XII championship games it had the right to, leaving them for ESPN to pick up. Not that the league is doing poorly, but these are signs that spending might have reached its ceiling.

The Power 5 conferences’ TV rights deals begin to expire in 2023-24. Obviously, there will be demand to broadcast these games. But the response from the market will be driven by completely different factors.

Until now, everything has been driven by the economics of cable. Cable only sell channels in large packages, because they have high infrastructure costs to meet, and until recently, you had no choice anyway. So you subscribed to a bloated package of 50 or more channels. Most channels cost only a few cents per month, but sports channels are ludicrously expensive. ESPN costs each cable subscriber $9 a month, even if they never turn it on. Against that set of rules, conferences can pressure cable providers into carry their channel, or be deluged with angry calls from State U fans if they don’t.

Now, cable TV is under pressure. Streaming services and cord-cutting are, well, cutting into their profitability. Furthermore, the conference TV channels aren’t performing as well as cable would like. Most damning of all: most of these big conference TV contracts were signed before these trends really kicked in. There’s a good chance that by 2024, the current conference TV deals will look like Alex Rodriguez’s $250 million contract with the Texas Rangers. Which means the Big Ten won’t have $759 million in total revenue to pay their member schools $30-50 million a year. To put that figure in perspective, NCAA’s total revenue is about $1 billion a year, and 80 percent of that is the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Also by mid-decade, the streaming services will be a new bidder for college sports content. There are already some lower-tier NCAA games on Facebook Live. The knee-jerk response is that more competition would drive prices up; however, streaming services offer better efficiency. Their business model is customers picking and choosing the content they want, not bloated packages that charge everybody. They’re also not tied to factors like media market size. Good news for East Carolina, I guess.

Though we shouldn’t be rooting too hard for chaos. If there’s less TV money for the Power 5 conferences, then there’s a lot less money for the rest of us. A more even playing field might seem like a boon, but decreased revenue runs into another new problem:

Players will be paid.

The state of California passed SB 206, which allows student-athletes to be compensated for their image and likeness. Other states are following suit. In reality, this is theater to pressure the NCAA to deal with the problem. They’ll delay it as long as they can, but there are enough amateurism lawsuits in the hopper to make not dealing with the problem the worse option.

“Image and likeness” will be the foot in the door that “medical purposes” was for other green, plant-based substances. There’s plenty of things that need to be “endorsed”, and a lot of them are owned by football-supporting alumni.

If you prefer a less cynical view of it: student-athletes will cost universities more money in the future, if only the form of further incremental concessions. The cost-of-living stipends the NCAA recently permitted are costing schools $500,000 to $1.5 million a year. And that’s to pay annual stipends of under $5,000 per player - not money to actually live on. Imagine the cost increases if universities had to pay actual salaries. Or benefits.

TV money appears destined to shrink, while the costs are going up. What else could be a factor?

The role of legalized gambling.

This is a big one. Since the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling that states may allow and regulate sports wagering, eleven have already done so. College sports has traditionally been very anti-gambling. Open gambling and poorly-paid athletes make an explosive mix that could undermine the sport with scandals.

Or, sports gambling could become widely accepted and common, as lottery tickets did when they were introduced. This has already started where I live, which borders a state that just legalized sports gambling.

How will gambling drive attendance and fan interest? Fantasy football, which is really just a complex proposition bet, has kept interest in the NFL high. The league has embraced it, and produce much content aimed at fantasy players. The games themselves are a weighted random number generator; the real blood sport is drafting your fantasy team.

Can gambling become a new revenue source for schools? Will conferences start their own gambling ventures, like they did with broadcasting? And if so, will it grow so lucrative as to dictate conference alignments, like we saw with broadcasting? Will USF’s large fan base of degenerates help get the school invited to a conference looking to increase its handle? (I’m kidding with that last one. But not entirely.)

Other developments.

The changing nature of attendance, broadcasting, player compensation, and gambling will dictate the direction of college sports this decade. Those are some weighty subjects, so let’s wrap this up with some lighter predictions of things I think will happen this decade.

  • USF will have an intercollegiate esports team. Okay, they probably already do have one. I’m talking about a varsity team, competing against other universities, under a sanctioning body, carrying the same on-campus cachet that varsity athletes have now. Including televised matches and scholarships.

Esports are rapidly becoming big business, and building passionate fan bases. Broadcasting rights fees for the Overwatch League are already approaching nine figures. OL has embraced a traditional sports model of city-based teams, and will start playing actual home-and-away games in 2020. Considering the league stretches from Paris to Chengdu, China, that’s pretty ambitious.

Esports events have already been hosted in indoor arenas, with traditional sports-like attendance and atmosphere. A 2,500-seat dedicated esports stadium exists in suburban Dallas. And, needless to say, esports demographics skew very young - towards the very people shunning traditional sporting events now. Embracing esports could be a way to get the younger generation going to USF facilities again. And if the Class of 2030 gets the same thrill watching their classmate pummel UCF with Doomfist as the Class of 2015 did watching Marlon Mack run over them, is that a bad thing?

Fortunately, USF is ahead of the curve on this one.

  • Future USF schedules will include fewer games, better games, and improvised games. Getting back to traditional games, one major reason the Wichita State fans gave for attending fewer games was a lack of compelling opponents. I would interpret that to include a lack of games with anything at stake.

The NBA and MLB have already floated ideas to shrink their regular season. The NBA’s proposal included also a mid-season tournament with cash prizes for the teams, and adding a play-in round to the playoffs. MLB has already done the latter. This creates more games with something important on the line, while trimming the weakest regular season games.

College sports needs to do this. Badly. There are just too many random, uncompelling matchups, with little or nothing on the line. In a past rant about expanding the NCAA Tournament, I gave the example of Murray State. After they lost 4 games in a 30-game season, they had no shot at the NCAA Tournament, except winning the conference championship game. 80% of their schedules was rendered moot. This will not drive fan interest in the 2020s. There need to be more prizes to play for, more opportunities for something big, and more teams need to have a chance at winning.

And schools can get creative with this. Instead of playing three games in an empty gym in the Cayman Islands, how about an annual, in-season, all-Florida tournament? Rank all of the state’s teams, set up a weighted bracket that avoids rematches, rent an arena somewhere in the state, and make it something that teams want to own.

Improvised games are already happening. ESPN’s BracketBusters event paired up mid-major NCAA aspirants to play games against each other, with the actual matchups set mid-season. Conference USA basketball teams now play five improvised conference games a year: after each team plays each other once, the remaining five games are based on the season standings. This also aligns with the goals of making more compelling and important games.

These concepts can even work in football. Plenty of games have been improvised after hurricanes disrupted recent seasons. Imagine a mid-November AAC-Mountain West challenge, with dates reserved in advance and pairings based on the season standings.

On a side note - because I promised the post wouldn’t be about this - I think you’ll see some conference de-alignment. Conferences now are a ridiculous mess of TV markets, or the remnants of their predations. Without market size as a dictating factor, I think you’ll see schools re-re-aligning into more sensible groups of local, similarly-matched schools. Conference USA and Sun Belt, I’m looking at you.

  • Soccer will begin to challenge football as a major campus event. For younger people who do follow traditional sports, their preferences are changing drastically. Looking at this page again, football is still Americans’ favorite sport by far, but soccer does well among people under 55. People under 55 who call soccer their favorite are into the double digits. Well ahead of baseball, and challenging basketball for second place.

Of course, soccer in the U.S. has its own challenges: a lack of history, a strangely-managed pro league, and a chuckle-headed national leadership. And its hard to know how many of those soccer-first people are just watching the Premier League on Saturday mornings and could care less about anything domestic. But watch it they are, and that suggests opportunities to make soccer more of a revenue sport. USF has a history of funding the sport, and a delightful new soccer-specific stadium, so it’s in good position going forward.

I do not suggest that football is going to lose fan popularity. However, high school participation is in serious decline. Schools are even dropping football due to lack of players. This has to have a long-term impact. I think football will become even more regionalized to the south than it is already, but that’s a whole other post.

  • USF is in a unique position to build the first 21st century college football fan experience. I mentioned that improving the fan experience, and catering to the wants of a new generation, will be key to sports success this decade. If and when USF ever gets around to planning the long-talked about on-campus football stadium, it could design it with that future in mind.

As with movie theaters, there is a model for this: minor league baseball. Minor league baseball should be dying, like it was in the 1950s when television became a new entertainment option. But it is thriving. In the 2000s, new stadiums were built with better seating, food, and amenities, not unlike movie theaters in the 1980s. Look at all the toys the Round Rock Express have.

Also, the minor leagues promote themselves as a fun, inexpensive night out, with little concern for wins and losses. They also have a wide range of special events, all aimed at fan segments: Faith Night, Harry Potter Night, Singles Night, Bring Your Dog To The Game Night, Latin-American Night, you name it. College sports could use a little more of this attitude.

I’m not saying we should build a USF Football Stadium with swimming pools. Rather, it would have different priorities than past stadium projects: more comfortable seating, party areas, fun diversions, easier access, whatever makes for a great fan experience. Throw in the ability to host soccer and esports. And of course, provide top-notch Wi-Fi. Or whatever technology exists by the time we get this thing moving.