The Road to the Playoffs: College Football, Mass Media, and Money

Tonight big-time college football crowns its national champion when the Oregon Ducks meet the Ohio State Buckeyes in Dallas, Texas. The game features two high-powered offenses, and ushers in a new era in college football. Oregon and Ohio State advanced to the game after winning semifinal match ups against the Florida State Seminoles and the Alabama Crimson Tide, respectively. The playoffs have finally arrived for major college football, but what took them so long?

College football has a storied past littered with complications and controversies. Crowning its national champion has always been one of them. In over a century of competition, college football’s leaders have held a variety of different views on postseason play and employed several methods in selecting its national champion. These approaches have been influenced by multiple forces deeply embedded in the history of college athletics and its uneasy alliance with mass media. The media was instrumental in creating college football’s popularity and transforming it into big business. In this brief historiographic post, I want to explore the push and pull relationship between college football and mass media, highlighting important changes that led to the creation of the college football playoff.

Any serious study of college football must begin with Michael Oriard. In Reading Football, his first of three important books on college football, Oriard tells the story of how football and early sport journalism fed off of each other during the late nineteenth century and together became big-time businesses. Led by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper revolution of the late nineteenth century capitalized on the game’s popularity to boost circulation numbers. Pulitzer introduced the first separate sports section in the New York World shortly after he purchased the paper in 1883. He equipped his “sports page” with its own editor and watched its circulation grow from 15,000 to 150,000 by 1885. This was done by crafting multiple narratives of football that appealed to a variety of audiences, thus spreading the appeal of the game. Pulitzer claimed that the paper had 2 million readers in 1892 and owed its success to its fusion of entertainment and information as well as its increased use of images. Likewise, as circulation number increased, historian Charles Ponce de Leon notes many newspapers assigned their best writers to sports pages because of their economic importance. Essentially, Oriard suggests that mass media created college football and, in some ways, continues to control it.

Building off of Reading Football, Oriard’s next book King Football shows how new media helped expand the audience for football narratives through television and radio broadcasts as well as pulp magazines in the twentieth century. While new media followed a similar narrative structures from the earlier period, its focus and style began to evolve and concentrate on new experiences and individuals. In this way, football evolved from a cultural text into a consumer product. It became embedded in American culture. College football consumers, or fans, developed loyalties to players, coaches, teams, and, in recent years, conferences. Radio and TV helped distribute the product and allowed fans to watch or listen to games extending the spectacle beyond the stadium. Alumni no longer had to leave behind the pageantry of college football, an integral part of “the college experience.” As those Dish Network commercials say, fans could go back to college every Saturday from their living rooms.

This evolution of mass media coverage and the increasingly democratic nature of the game also led to a blending of higher education with the media, that further perpetuated a middle-class sports culture, where star players and coaches represented the ideals of masculinity, class, and American values. In The Rise of Gridiron University, Brian Ingrassia calls this “middlebrow culture” and traces its origins to early academics and university leaders who thought college football “would help to disseminate academic lessons or ideals to the American people” blunting the perceived disconnect and snobbery of the Ivory Tower. By the 1930s, many began to regret this uneasy marriage.

But, despite reformers’ best efforts, there was no going back. As Ronald Smith outlines in Pay For Play, there were multiple attempts at reform. Restoring sanity to college athletics proved increasingly difficult. As Kathleen O’Toole explains, the Great Depression put pressure on schools for profits and motivated them to transform the game’s relationship with radio. This created more money and pushed the sport further into the big-time. Universities and conferences began shifting their college football broadcasts from educational to commercial radio. By 1936 most of the educational stations had folded or given up their licenses. With the writing on the wall and commercial sponsorship as a forgone conclusion, the NCAA declared that was it was now “entirely ethical” for colleges and universities to sell their broadcast rights and solicit commercial radio sponsorships. O’Toole suggests that this push for media money was not unlike the current preoccupation with conference-wide television networks.

By the mid-1950s, the NCAA’s modern infrastructure and position of power was secured. Rules and regulations regarding recruiting, scholarship, professionalism, and television were seized from universities, and their various conferences, to create a national standard. The NCAA controlled all broadcasting rights and limited the number of games on TV each week — something unthinkable today. The NCAA justified its actions by claiming it was looking out for small colleges by spreading the money around instead of letting them slip into anonymity on the open market. Much of this power grab was based on Progressive concerns about amateurism, safety, and preventing the influences of evil vices such as drinking and gambling. It can also be seen as a pushback against radio.

By the 1960s, as Kurt Kemper and Donald Mrozek explain, the ritual of college football became an integral part of Cold War America. Jeffrey Montez de Oca further suggests in his book Discipline and Indulgence that it served as a political technology and was aided by notions of consumerism codified by the media, instructing Americans, particularly white-males, how do perform “fortified masculinity.” Fortified masculinity, according to Montez de Oca, was tied to the unique nature of the Cold War, forcing an intense focus on masculinity and physical fitness into a predominantly domestic setting, making the home the frontline of defense. It allowed men to preserve their virility by participating in the ritual of college football and exercising to stay physically fit, while also living a suburban, consumerist life. Sitting on the couch, drinking beer, and watching college football exemplified the American male’s masculine and consumerist duty. It was patriotic.

Patriotism, of course, encompassed loyalty and discipline, particularly during the Cold War. In Oriard’s third book, Bowled Over, he explains how the Cold War and the student protests of the 1960s pushed college football towards an authoritarian structure ruled by coaches and administrators. These administrations then cashed in on the sport’s popularity. During this conservative turn, “jocks” became tools to disperse protesting crowds and demonstrate discipline and loyalty. Coaches demanded they adhere to their rules, and administrators used them as ideal examples of peaceful students. Many coaches resisted change as they tried to maintain order and seize control of the sport from the NCAA.

Ronald Smith’s Play-by-Play, explains complexities behind the changing relationship between college football and mass media. Smith’s book is a behind the scenes look at the machinations of administrators and institutions as they negotiated new policies to advance big-time college sports. During the late 1960s and early 1970s disagreements emerged among NCAA members about its Television Committee and the sharing of wealth amongst its members. Described as a “Robin Hood” plan, the major college football conferences rebelled and formed the College Football Association to lobby for their interests. The NCAA split into three divisions in 1973 to ease some these tensions and allow similar sized institutions to better govern their athletic teams.

Also in 1973 the NCAA decided to change the structure of athletic scholarships, which Oriard believes further helped facilitate the transfer of power to administrators and coaches. The decision made scholarships into renewable one-year contracts instead of being guaranteed for four-years. This shifted the power from the players to the coach. The denial of worker’s compensation to players augmented the decision, continuing to perpetuate the amateur myth and deny athletes the spoils of their labor. Title IX also briefly threatened college football and the business-style structure of college sports, but because many football coaches were also Athletic Directors they were able to protect the sport and maintain their control.

The end of the NCAA’s stranglehold on college football TV contracts came in 1984 with the University of Oklahoma v. the NCAA. The Supreme Court Case, and the addition of corporate sponsorships to bowl games in 1987, cemented football as big-business and ushered in a new era of commercialization. The case revolutionized college sports by allowing universities and their athletic conferences to negotiate their own broadcasting contracts and reap the financial benefits. The mood of deregulation in the 1980s also helped pave the way for the rapid expansion of Cable TV and new networks like ESPN. Combined with a series of bowl agreements that eventually led to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), the traditional powers were able to consolidate the money for their programs. ESPN became a major player as various networks competed for broadcast rights, pushing the dollar amounts higher. Driven by the race for bigger and bigger television contracts, every major conference went through a realignment.

The College Football Playoff is a part of this trend and a product of the long-lasting marriage between college football and mass media. Firmly implanted as a central part of American culture, the sport has found a new way to cash in. It’s abandoning years of controversy in order to quench fan desires for a consensus champion and ramp up revenues. ESPN has agreed to pay $7.3 billion to air the playoff games for the next twelve years, an increase of $113 million per year over the BCS. And college football gets to add this money without sacrificing the history and tradition of the bowl season. Although only 4 teams made the playoffs, an additional 72 teams played in 36 other bowl games. Americans have had 38 opportunities to sit on the couch, drink beer, and consume college football this winter. Tonight is number 39.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His dissertation explores the impact of Bud Wilkinson and college football on Oklahoma. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

One thought on “The Road to the Playoffs: College Football, Mass Media, and Money

  1. Pingback: Blogging & the College Football Playoff | Andrew McGregor

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