Is There a College Football Bubble? A Review of “Billion-Dollar Ball”

billion dollar ball
As I look around the college football landscape as another season is about to begin, it looks like everything is going great for the sport. Attendance is up, revenue is up, high profile coaches like Jim Harbaugh are leaving the NFL for college teams, and stadiums are getting bigger and more luxurious. What could anyone involved possibly worry about?

A bubble.

And I’m not talking about the kind that create excitement prior to the NCAA basketball tournament when teams are considered “on the bubble.”  No, I’m talking about the economic kind that date back to the Tulip bulb bubble in Holland back in the 1600s, to the stock market crash of 1929 to the more recent housing bubble crash less than 10 years ago. What do all those things have to do with college football? Well if you read Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football by Pulitzer Prize winning author Gilbert M. Gaul, you’ll see that the same “this party will never end” attitude is just as ripe on college campuses as it ever was in any of these other previous bubbles.

Now, I’m not going to go out on a limb and say WHEN the party will be over, but anyone who has paid any attention to the money arms race going on in college football has to at least–one in those quiet moments we all have–ask themselves, “How can they keep spending all this money?”  Gaul does a great job of delving into the background of the modern college football machine, with interviews of specific schools and athletic directors to give you a great overview of how we got to this point. And I include myself in the “we” here because I think college football is exciting a sport as there is in the entire world, especially watching it live.  I live within walking distance of Spartan Stadium, home to Michigan State University, and have probably visited a dozen of the larger stadiums in the Midwest.  All are impressive and, it seems, they keep getting bigger and more lavish each year. But can that continue?

That’s the point of Gaul’s book and it makes for an interesting read for fans and even those who are just friends of colleges and universities. Yes, in most cases, the athletic departments at the big football schools have budgets separate from the rest of the university and also generate additional revenue to support the “smaller sports” including most women’s sports. Kudos!

But exactly what schools are raking in the dough? According to the book, the top 1 % (where have I heard that before?) have received 90% of the revenue from college football the past few decades. That means the LSU’s and the Notre Dames. The Texas’ and the Oregons.  There’s about 15-20 schools who really play at the highest level and could survive, as many pundits are suggesting now, that college athletes be paid.  It would be just another “cost of doing business” and be tacked on to your ticket price. But what about the other programs, the Ball States, the New Mexico States and the Florida Atlantics?  Likely they would not survive and you’d see college football split further into the haves and have nots.

But even then, even with some kind of 20 team super conference that would rival the NFL, would younger fans keep paying to watch games live and will TV ad revenue continue to climb year after year?  People who don’t believe in bubbles always think that the good times will never end, but somehow they always do.

Don’t believe me, check out the book.