Welcome to the third edition of the FOG Roundtable, an ongoing series of Q&A discussions with sports business industry participants covering a variety of topics. With the inaugural College Football Playoff forthcoming, the Fields of Green posed five questions to a cross-section of sports industry stakeholders, in order to gain a broad range of perspectives on the business of college football.
Steve Berkowitz, Sports Projects Reporter, USA TODAY
Ilan Ben-Hanan, Vice President, Programming and Acquisitions, ESPN
Daryl Dunn, CEO & General Manager, Rose Bowl Operating Company
Neal Pilson, former president, CBS Sports, and founder, Pilson Communications
What is the biggest growth opportunity for (the business of) college football?
SB: Expansion of the College Football Playoff strikes me as the most global growth opportunity that could be undertaken without greater direct commercialization of the sport. But, depending on schools’ willingness – and fans’ tolerance – it seems to me there are still many naming rights/corporate sponsorship opportunities there to be had. The College Football Playoff could go that route, and already we’re seeing more schools go that route with stadium-naming, field-naming, rivalry-series naming, corporately backed neutral-site games and the like. For sure, this is not going to be for everybody. For example, it’s hard to imagine Kansas State dropping or augmenting the name “Bill Snyder Family Stadium” anytime soon. Plus, the greater the commercialization and the greater the money, the greater the call for the players to receive greater benefits.
IBH: The College Football Playoff is already having a magnifying effect on the regular season, and that should only increase with each season. Fans demanded a playoff, and now that it’s here, teams that otherwise would be eliminated after a loss find themselves still in the conversation as the season crescendos. The CFP will catapult college football to a new level of popularity.
DD: The growth of college football over the past decade has been significant. College football is now one of the country’s four strongest sports (NFL, NBA, MLB) and it continues to grow. Of course, the NFL, NBA and MLB have done a great job in merchandising and marketing internationally, so there could be potential growth in both of those areas for college football. I know that the PAC-12 has begun to explore opportunities in Asia and it is likely that more conferences will follow suit and explore the international market. Of course, the consequences of the college football playoff will likely drive more interest in both the regular and postseasons of college football and a potential expansion of those playoffs could expand opportunities across the board.
NP: Sponsor opportunities for individual schools and for conferences.
How is the distribution/marketing of college football games changing with increased consumption platforms (broadcast and cable networks, conference-owned networks, mobile, digital, etc.)?
SB: It just seems like we’re headed to a point where every game for every school will be shown live on some type of screen or device. I presume this creates some interesting marketing opportunities, as well as some tough marketing challenges. The easier it gets to watch everything without having to go to the stadium, the harder it’s going to be to get people to go to the stadium. While I suspect the wider distribution has a certain attraction for schools, they – at least for now — also have a lot of revenue tied to people actually coming to the stadiums – from ticket sales and donations that result in better seat locations, to concessions, to parking.
IBH: It wasn’t so long ago that many college football games were not widely distributed. That has changed dramatically in just the last decade. Fans seeking out pretty much any game can find it fairly easily. The great thing about college football is that selections are made as the season proceeds, so the best storylines bubble to the top and the best games end up in the most-viewed windows.
DD: The marketing and distribution of college football games is in a state of constant change. The expansion and growth of multiple platforms and networks has led to record revenues for the conferences and universities and expanded the ways fans consume the product, which can be a challenge for venues. Of course, there are inherent challenges in league owned or operated networks, including the very public battles between the networks and carriers, which has, at times, created resentment from fans who are unable to see their favorite teams on select carriers. I think we will see more mobile platforms take a front seat in the future and conferences and schools will continue to reap the benefits of the increase in popularity of college football.
NP: More games, more ways to view games, larger total audience potential, increased sponsor and advertising opportunities, lower costs for production for smaller schools.
Given the many examples of declining attendance at games, particularly among students, should there be concerns about the future health of college football?
SB: Given how fast everything changes these days, there should be concerns about the future health of nearly any enterprise. Even some of the biggest names in college football are learning that you can’t simply open the stadium gates on game days and expect the stands to be full. The student-attendance issue I’m sure will be an ongoing and increasingly complex and delicate one. We’re seeing more and more examples of coaches and administrators expressing frustration about student attendance and students’ willingness to stay for entire games. But narrowing students’ ability to go to games if they want to go could create even more problems. Regardless, the future health of college football – as with the NFL — also may have a lot to do with the health of the players, how schools handle that, and whether that begins impacting participation or fan interest.
IBH: This issue is bigger than just college football – all leagues are dealing with this in some form or fashion. Part of the beauty of tuning into a game is seeing a full stadium of passionate and energetic fans. Specific to college football, fans have become more discerning consumers, and they don’t want to show up to games against overmatched opponents.
DD: Attendance is a huge concern for those who care about sports, including college football. The experience at college football games is particularly challenging as the fans and students’ expectations are higher than they have ever been from a facility perspective. Most college football stadiums are older and have a limited number of events occurring on an annual basis. The technology upgrades of a college football stadium typically are inferior to its professional counterparts, but the expectation level of students as well as the general public is higher than ever before (use of Wi-Fi, video boards, state-of-the-art sound systems, etc.). In addition, as the television viewing experience continues to improve at home, more fans will choose to save their money and watch on television, further impacting attendance. That said, there is no replacement for the passion and tradition of college football, and that makes it very appealing for fans who want to experience it first-hand. If venues and athletic administrators recognize the challenges and allocate the resources to improve the in-game experience, college football attendance will not see a significant drop off.
NP: Much of the decline relates to reduced student support. Schools have to make the game experience more attractive to students.