College Football is in Full Conflagration: We Need a New National Model


Did the University of Washington just move to Oklahoma City?

No. UW did not replicate the stunt that cost Seattle the Sonics 15 years ago, and counting. The university and its football team remain in Montlake, where next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, six or seven games will be played at Husky Stadium, the self-proclaimed greatest setting in college sports. The Huskies also will play in those years six or seven road games, maybe including Pullman, which some consider a good thing. And the football program probably will make enough to sustain all the other UW sports that make little or no revenue.

So regarding the more hysterical responders among the People Who Wear Purple to the abandonment of the westerly Pac-12 by Washington and Oregon in favor of the midwesterly Big Ten, I have two words:

Bow down.

The Huskies are a part of a rearrangement. Not a relocation. And while the Pac-12 Conference and its antecedents survived 108 years and created many championships, heartfelt sentiments, scandals and intrigues, by the start of the 2024 school year it will be what the rotary phone is to modern telecommunications.

A relic. Deal with it.

The Pac-12 and the other big-time college sports conferences operate as part of a trade association (called the NCAA) to promote a mutual well-being of the industry (think: The Dairy Farmers of Washington). In contrast, the pro sports leagues that have come to dominate our sports-business consciousness are monopoly operators whose massive leverage includes the ability to extort their municipalities for financial benefits. Pay up tax dollars for facilities, or see a team relocate to another city more eager to bend over.

Pro sports are far more ruthless than big-time college sports, which are jealous of that. Because the programs are currently tied to those gosh-darn anvils called schools, the trade association members have no leverage to extort anyone except each other. They have given over financial control of their top programs to the entertainment industry (linear and cable networks and their streamer offspring). So the CEOs of ESPN/Disney and Fox Sports have become commissioners-without-portfolios, able to dictate business terms and conditions via their handsome rights fees.

Without saying so, the TV moguls determined the Pac-12 was inefficient, unworthy of rescue. Why?

Part of the reason is a matter of geography that is immutable. Largely in the Pacific time zone on Saturdays, many games were telecast when fans in the rest of the country were already passed out drunk. Even those Pac-12 games in national prime time typically draw smaller local TV ratings because college ball comes in second or worse in the league’s big cities awash in pro sports: Bay Area, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle and Denver.

The marketing slogan of the all-powerful Southeastern Conference, rich in college towns, addresses the contrast slyly and succinctly: “It just means more.” Even though the networks try to claim the much-lamented Pac-12 late kickoffs are in a valuable TV time slot, that’s crap. In the digital ad world, they’re called remnants, an inventory of ads sold at a discounted rate because of smaller audiences.

A bigger reason for the demise was self-inflicted: The Pac-12 Networks. In 2011, then-new commissioner Larry Scott introduced an innovative platform bought by the schools: A wholly owned, 24-hour cable channel that would distribute all football and men’s basketball games not taken by the networks, plus all the non-revenue (Olympic) sports that rarely get TV time. The problem was that the biggest distributor in the West, DirecTV, refused to agree to Scott’s pricing, because it didn’t believe there was an audience beyond family/friends for the other sports. As a result, Pac-12 Networks were invisible to large swathes of the conference footprint.

The epic misjudgment was compounded by the naive belief of presidents and chancellors that their own network would serve as a contemporary, yippee-skippee postcard for all member schools, and underscore to the colleges’ liberal sensibilities of inclusion and equality by giving time to sports beyond football and basketball. The noble aspirations came without traction. DirecTV was correct.

As a result, Pac-12 per-school annual revenues among the Power 5 conferences fell behind the SEC, Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference, and barely ahead of the Big 12. Facing an entertainment industry in financial distress, George Kliavkoff, Scott’s successor, came in late and low with an exclusive proposal from Apple TV that was all streaming with no linear TV. The early-year revenues were well below the previous media-rights deal from ESPN and Fox. Oregon said no first. Washington said no second. The Pac-12 was dissolving: Every school for itself.

Arizona, Arizona State and Utah followed Colorado to the Big 12, leaving Washington State, Oregon State, Cal and Stanford adrift; a sudden, ignominious end years in the making.

Pat Chun, WSU’s athletics director, was predictably, publicly aggrieved.

“There’s a century of history that has gone by the wayside because this conference has mismanaged itself on a bunch of different levels,” he told the Spokesman Review. “And when you have poor leadership, one of the outcomes is failure. That’s what has happened to the Pac-12.”

College football is now in the awkward early stage of a years-long transition. Even if the Pac-12 had somehow stayed afloat, the increasingly harsh truth is, independent of conference affiliations, the haves in the sport are way ahead of the have-nots.

USA Today annually compiles revenue and expense data among 232 NCAA schools. In a June story about 2022 numbers among the public schools surveyed, Ohio State led with $252 million in revenues. Oregon’s $153 million was 19th. Washington was 25th at $145 million, behind seven Big Ten schools. WSU was 53rd at $85 million, just ahead of Oregon State at $83 million.

For the Cougars and Beavers to stay as competitive in football as they have been is remarkable. Money isn’t everything. But when it comes to the industry’s business future, it is the only thing.

For the 120-plus schools in the current top-tier Bowl Championship Series, the argument needs to be made for a British soccer-style system of tiers. The best big-budget schools play their like, then after the season, the worst several among them get relegated to a second tier. They are replaced in next season’s first tier by the best several from the second tier. 

Three tiers of 40? Six tiers of 20? Those are the details to be negotiated with the TV overlords. The urgent need is for radical realignment into a national — not regional — system. National reform is exactly what the conferences are seeking from Congress in their pursuit of federal laws regulating the private money of name/image/likeness that is anonymously disrupting the industry.

If national rules are required for NIL, why not create a national sports league? The beauty of a system of relegation is that it automatically creates dramatic tension for ordinary games, which makes good sports TV and increases attention and revenues. Regarding the loss of geographic rivalries, the current realignment suggests that’s no longer a priority. There will be leagues with teams in all four lower-48 time zones.

In the ruthless world of sports entertainment, the Pac-12 leadership smugly believed itself above the fray, some sort of a special outfit not subject to the smarminess of the business of big-time college ball. If I had to pick a small but representative moment of too-late awareness, it was the time in the 2021 season when soon-to-be-fired UW football coach Jimmy Lake downplayed any recruiting rivalry with Oregon by saying, “We battle more academically prowess (sic) teams.” He followed that on game day by furiously chasing down his own player on the sidelines and swatting him on the helmet on national TV, then lying about it.

Those who care about college football need to get their collective swerve on and demand swift demolition and rapid national reformation. No one wants to see Lake appointed new commissioner of the Pac-4.

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at


  1. The new model I would favor is a de-emphasis of bigtime college football. Particularly Stanford and Northwestern might be interested in such a scale-back. I like Art’s idea of a national league (despite the costs of travel) and I can imagine an academics-first league of national rivals who limit football scholarships, wean themselves from the media domination, and emphasize the research components of major research universities, much as the Ivy League does. It would take college presidents of remarkable daring to opt out, costing them their jobs but saving amateur athletics. My nominees for the new league: Stanford, Cal, Northwestern, Michigan, Duke, USC, UCLA, UW.

      • The games, their TV casts and the revenues will still be there, Gordon. My suggestion is to reorganize nationally by budget tiers, not get rid of games, although some smaller schools may have to abandon football as financially unsustainable. Should have happened long ago.

    • I understand the sentiment, David, but you may as well ask for a large portion of the country to de-emphasize sex. As far as a league of schools that emphasize academics first, we pretty much have that with the actual Ivy League. But it plays at a lower level with lesser athletes. What is needed eventually, as I’ve mentioned before, is a complete professionalization of football at big time schools and make the classroom attendance optional, not mandatory, for athletes. That way the schools rent their facilities, mascots and colors to TV funded teams in order to keep the stink at arm’s length. But one step at a time.

      • I’d like to see the NFL develop “academies” that develop their own players and graduate them from the youth ranks to the pros, akin to MLS and European soccer teams.

        Of course, because of the expenses of equipment, staffing, providing academic classes and the like, there’s no chance of the NFL owners considering it.

        • “What is needed eventually, as I’ve mentioned before, is a complete professionalization of football at big time schools.” I’d agree except that professionalization already happened. We need to recognize that and put structures in place to manage the relationships between athletes, media and public institutions. I like Art’s notion of bringing the British soccer system here. What, competition? Not monopoly?

    • David, I lived in Michigan in my grade-school years. Trust me, the Wolverines and their fans would boil at the idea of being relegated to an “academic” league like the non-scholarship and IIRC non-bowl Ivies. They’ve been one of the football bluebloods like the SEC, Texas and USC, and they want in on the multi-million-dollar football action with the big boys, even though they haven’t won a national championship since 1997.

      As far as Northwestern, they’re already behaving like a big football program, as proven by the recently discovered hazing scandal.

  2. I like the idea of tiers and relegation. But it’ll never happen. The big boy teams would never take the risk.

    It wasn’t all that long ago — 2008, to be exact — that the Huskies football team went 0-12. Can you imagine if the Huskies had been relegated, sent down to the second tier?

    • I realize the idea is a long shot, but all big schools have bad years. A five year formula based on a quality-wins percentage could be devised as the divider. It’s a bit like the industry agreement in men’s and women’s basketball to limit the post-season tournament field to the best 68, based on data. In relegation, it can last only for a single year.

    • I, too, love the idea of relegation. Absolutely brilliant. Would add a lot to end of season games. Maybe one of Britain’s best ideas. Keep writing, Mr. Thiel.

  3. Another crisis of affluence that is the American economy IMO. The whole draw of collegiate sports was its relative purity from the sports industrial complex. What’s next, tv airtime for high school basketball? Much more fun to be had by taking ourselves less seriously. And turning off our screens.

    • There you go, Sarah, thinking big and connecting dots. All I would ask of you is to search out the time when football was pure. The reason we have helmets in football is because President Theodore Roosevelt was shocked at the number of game deaths. Around 1912.

  4. Ms. Sarah
    NOT disagreeing here:
    Lebron’s high school games saw tickets scalped for >$100/game but he was forbidden to accept even the smallest amount.
    We have high school bb games televised now. Tournament time, mostly.
    For our friends in SEC country, there are all sorts of fun things to do on Saturdays in the fall! Fat chance there–HAR HAR HAR.

  5. On paper UW moving to the BIG 10 is a great move. It means more money which is the reason for college sports even being. It’s all business so the more the money the better everyone is doing their job.

    With the move coming, the upcoming season seems somewhat anticlimactic. It’d be funny if this season the PAC 12 finally has a successful bowl season.

    • My thanks for stating the #1 reason for the so-called ‘conference realignment’ in college football: MONEY. Too many people seem to not recognize that all that money comes with big strings attached — to the media giants that have the money and, therefore, will have the power and control.

      Whatever comes with college football, I’d prefer it be separated completely from any affiliation with any college or university’s athletic department. Tell me I’m a fool for thinking that — I won’t mind.

  6. I’ll add one more feature to the fantasy promotion/relegation concept: two tiers of opponents. Let football and basketball play all over the continent. But form regional divisions for the other sports to keep travel and non-classroom time to a minimum. The volleyball team doesn’t need to fly to College Park and State College.

    • Good point. The revenue distributions would be gnarly. But that’s the sort of thing university researchers should solve, yes?

    • Hockey already does this. The Big 10 has a strong hockey conference consisting of six of their schools plus Notre Dame. Meanwhile, the only hockey-playing schools in the “Power 5” big conferences are Boston College and Arizona State. The former plays in Hockey East (New England) and the latter is an independent. The rest of the leagues are based on regions, such as the ECAC (Northeast), CCHA (Midwest), and the NCHC (Midwest/Great Plains)..

  7. College football needs one overall commissioner if the super conference is going to work. ESPN or Fox should be negotiating with one entity. Like all other sports. I doubt a commish is possible so I doubt the super conference future.


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