The Far-From-Tenuous Future Of College Sports

  • by , Columnist, September 12, 2023

Maybe I overreacted as I watched the dismantling of the Pac 12 Conference and the massive upheaval that has pervaded college sports over the last few months.  It’s more than obvious that the proliferation of television dollars has spawned the money grab that has brought us to where we are today.  Still, a cultural construct potentially bodes well for growing fan engagement in a college sports landscape that has subjugated regional rivalries for Super Conferences that no longer have natural boundaries.

Having personally attended colleges revered more for their academics than athletics, what was initially alluring to me about NCAA sports was the game-day phenomenon that saw unfathomable hordes of fans double the natural populations of college towns, decked in the colors of their alma maters and funneling all their vitriol against the conference rival from just down the highway.  I was entranced by such a community.

Not to say that these personal connections are now absent as a differentiator for college games.  We have data that can show this factor is as high it has ever been. But the line between amateur athletics and the pro game is gone.  And blowing up traditional rivalries is merely a manifestation of a greater phenomenon in sports, and society in general: an acute focus on the individual at the expense of the greater whole.



It’s easier and quicker to promote connections with superstar athletes than it is to grow an appreciation of the finer nuances of teamwork and strategy as the multibillion-dollar enterprise of sports chases a broader and more casual fan base.  One can argue that the introduction of NIL (name image and likeness) contracts and the evolution of the transfer portal into what now equates to free agency in the NCAA has roots in fairness and equity.  We’ve all heard the arguments that it is the athletes themselves that are the products, so it is only right that they are well-compensated.

Whether I subscribe to that assertion or not is irrelevant here.  Rather, my point is that in the current ecosystem, this new reality adheres well to the marketing lever that is the creation of mercenary super-heroes: fleeting, yet easier to grasp in an attention-deficit world.

And if you’re looking for evidence that all will be OK despite the upheaval, I need only turn to recent fan research that we conducted in late August.  Here we found that a majority (53%) agree that “The net impact of Name, Image and Likeness deals in college sports has been a net positive.”  A similar 52% believe that the PAC 12 Conference will survive despite the mass defections.

Concurrently, only a quarter of fans strongly agree that “College athletics are in a state of disarray.”  That last data point marks a meaningful decrease from the third of fans who felt the same when we posed that same question a year ago.

Like me, you may not fall into those majority opinions.  But as sports marketers, we’d better be mindful of them.

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