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The Slow Death of Televised Sports Continues

After a week where a lot of NCAA business news was drowned out by SEC Media days, why does the future of college athletics look so unhealthy?

What about this picture could possibly make you think of a bubble?
What about this picture could possibly make you think of a bubble?

It was a little over two years ago that I first voiced my opinion that we're in a college football bubble, and that the torrent of television money fueling it would collapse some day, leaving the sport in the lurch. Since then we've seen one football conference go under, a great deal of realignment, and a lot of renegotiated TV deals The money still gushes forth, and I keep writing about how ridiculous it is.

The divergence is, a lot more people are writing about whether college football is heading for a fall, to the point that folks are arguing about what ail kill the sport. Jon Johnston wrote a thorough article this week for Corn Nation about the multiple threats against the sport — concussion damage, the dependence on television revenue, and the player likeness lawsuit proceeding against the NCAA among them — before raising what he believes will truly take the sport down, the rise of online education. Now I think he's overstating this particular problem, and can direct you to this rebuttal from Ohio State blog Land Grant Holy Land as a good starting point. Basically, Massive Open Online Courses are more difficult to establish than the boosters will have you believe. San Jose State University just suspended their offerings after seeing high failure rates, and university teaching in general has proven to be very resistant to reap the benefits of technological advances that the corporate world has. That is, in part, why tuition costs have outpaced the rate of inflation so dramatically the last twenty years.

(I personally took a distance-learning class while at UNC, a semiconductor course split between Chapel Hill, NCSU, and UNC-Charlotte. Although, by no means a failure, the course was not dramatically improved over what you could learn from a single professor that the model has been adopted in the fifteen years since.)

True, Georgia Tech is offering an online masters in computer science beginning this year, under the innovative model where the courses are free but the awarding of a degree will set you back $7,000. It gives off the same vibe as the corporate MBA degree programs most business schools now offer, UNC included. A good way for someone with an established career to add to their skills, often on their company's continuing education dime, but not something that replaces the current education model. And needless to say, people are skeptical about its worth.

What's more, should online education take hold, it's going to attack from the bottom up. The schools to go bankrupt won't be the ones that top the magazine rankings every year. The Ivy League and the big BCS schools offer a prestige and atmosphere that will buffer them from any sort of change at first. It will be the small private schools that go under first, followed by the minor state schools. And even in the worst case, where higher education collapses completely, in the absence of other forces college sports will continue, just divorced from their initial sponsors. Should a tide of professors speaking into webcams become the norm, we will still be cheering for Tar Heel athletics even if the folks in uniforms are no longer taking classes in Chapel Hill.

No, I think the money that is reshaping the college sports landscape is the bigger short-term concern, and there were a couple of articles this week that should draw more worry. First was a Wall Street Journal piece, helpfully summarized in The Verge, that dropped the scary statistic that only 4% of households watch any sports outside of the NFL. Toss that in with other statistics put forth in this Sports on Earth piece, and you realize that media conglomerates are building a large house of cards on a very small foundation of sports fans. Fans who are beginning to wise up and walk.

ESPN, having now spent an astronomical sum to broadcast nearly everything, and are looking to expand the markets for the product they have on the shelves. They're throwing every resource (short of hiring commentators who know what they're talking about) into making college baseball the new college football in order to keep precious SEC eyeballs trained on their networks, but that's not bringing new viewers into the fold. In schools' efforts to ensure they're in the right conference/lifeboat, we've already killed off a lot of historic football rivalries, to the point that athletic directors are trying to swing the pendulum back. At the moment networks are spending record-setting amounts for games, they're getting games of less interest than ever before.

My now-wife, not long after we started dating, dropped cable and sold her old CRT TV, using the savings to buy an iMac that with Netflix and Hulu served as the TV for her studio apartment. We only have cable since we moved in together for Carolina sports, but after a year in an apartment where my cable offerings were limited to non-HD ESPN one and two, we eve question that. I have a magic sheet of glass that I can watch ACC network broadcasts on, even though I'm in the very periphery of the conference's new broadcast area. I can get much more ESPN content than my current two channels provide on that same piece of glass, or the tiny box attached to my TV, or said wife's iMac than I ever could with cable. Sure, two of those options still require a cable subscription and password, but even there the Worldwide Leader is betting on a level of fanaticism I and folks like me might not have anymore. I have a family, and other interests, and I'll miss the less exciting games if their too difficult or too expensive to catch.

It's worth noting that the NCAA, an organization that constantly fights to stay relevant in college athletics ever since the TV football money walked away, voluntarily decided to not renew its contract with EA Sports this week. Video games are obviously a big part of the organization's strategy to groom new generations of fans, and the fact they bowed out indicates the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit has them scared. In fact, two days after the announcement six current players joined the suit.

The fan response to the thought of no NCAA Football '15 were a few !!!s on Twitter followed by the immediate assumption that EA will just license rights from individual universities and market the game as College Football '15. And they've already signed an agreement with the Collegiate Licensing Company. That doesn't cover all the BCS schools, however — N.C. State for one isn't a member. And schools will have the option to review and back out on an individual basis. I'm betting there will be at least one medium-profile school defecting from this. Only 23 of 228 athletic departments turned a profit last year; somebody's bound to ask for more money than EA thinks is viable. Think one school won't go it alone? They'd probably never form their own network or grab their own contract with NBC, either. Someone will hold out.

That's how all endings begin, don't they. One school will be a little too unreasonable. Or one conference. One school will overspend, or make a bad business deal, and eventually the bill will come due. A program will go under. A small one, and one that won't particularly be missed. But it'll be a start. And then when the money dries up, what is the landscape going to look like?