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College Football’s Final Fantasy

Len Perna
The think tank is trying to ideate around a single college football league that could better handle some of the changes being forced on college athletics—from dealing with players associations to matters surrounding how players are compensated. Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
John Ourand
March 14, 2024

Without being hyperbolic, the slow and steady exploitation of college football—N.I.L., playoff expansion, power-grabbing by the Big Ten and S.E.C., the increasing flaccidity of the NCAA, among innumerable micro-developments—has become the leitmotif du jour in professional sports. At some point, it seems increasingly clear, the economic realities of college football will offer their own sort of manifest destiny—leading, perhaps, to a divorce from the rest of college sports. Indeed, as forces from mediacos and private equity watch the scenario unfold, it’s increasingly impossible to fathom the notion that the toothpaste can be put in the tube. One day, we will consider it quaint that Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams only appeared in a few Wendy’s commercials rather than launching his own Kardashian-sized branding enterprise based on the consumer whim of the moment. That all seems like a foregone conclusion, one way or another, leading us to the world that the Fab Five first presaged all those years ago.

Alas, we’re at the beginning of a Silicon Valley-sized economic shift in sports, and it’s probably better to be open about it. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that a group of the most powerful figures in the sports business—people like the NFL’s Brian Rolapp, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, and 76ers owner David Blitzer—have come together with the expressed intent of fixing college football. This informal group, which has been described to me as a “think tank,” also includes former NBA player Grant Hill, former MLS president Mark Abbott, Syracuse University  president Kent Syverud, University of Oklahoma president Joe Harroz, University of Florida president Ben Sasse, West Virginia University president Gordon Gee, University of North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham, and University of Tennessee A.D. Danny White. Perhaps not all that shockingly, the think tank’s efforts to meet decision-makers in college sports have been rebuffed. None of the conference commissioners have met with them.