Why you should care
Because whoever wins tonight’s College Football Playoff National Championship will have company in UCF.
An all-SEC national championship knockout kicks off at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN tonight, and when the dust clears, one college football powerhouse will reign supreme.
Just don’t tell the University of Central Florida.
UCF was left out of the College Football Playoff, but after the Knights dismantled Auburn — the only team to topple both Georgia and Alabama this season — in the Peach Bowl, all hell broke loose. With a final record of 13-0, five days before the national championship, UCF declared: “The 2017 national championship is ours now.” Athletic Director Danny White has tweeted plans to raise a national championship banner, the team’s new Twitter name was changed to reflect the proclamation, and assistant coaches have been given a total of $300,000 in championship bonuses.
If mid-major programs can be creative with technology moving forward, that could be a major lifeline for them.
Former NFL linebacker Ryan Nece
Claiming titles has long been a peculiar tradition in college football, but that was in the archaic, pre-playoff days. We can figure out who’s champ, right? No longer must we stand for the championship declarations of a program scorned. Nay, after tonight, it’s time to play one more game of college football. But this time, let’s invoke some independence. Let the NCAA decide how to best fix the playoff by 2030. In the meantime, the ultimate crowning — a face-off between the playoff champion and the highest-ranked remaining undefeated team — should be sponsored and broadcast by a major tech company. (Here’s looking at you, Amazon). And hey, to cover for the additional risk, maybe we’ll even compensate the players. The NCAA will surely balk at forced adaptation, but once it gets on board, collegiate athletics will finally be positioned for future success.
The College Football Playoff still operates in beta. Each year, like the annual debates that raged during the BCS era, an undefeated team or Power Five conference champion is left to wonder, “What if?” This might not be a problem for networks like ESPN, which broadcasts the playoff and produces weeks of debate content specifically on this topic, but it is for fans and players of the teams brushed to one side. Speaking on his radio show last week, even ESPN Radio host Dan Le Batard agrees: “This whole system is a giant fraud when an undefeated perfect team isn’t allowed, by rule, to even compete for the championship.”
And new playoff system or not, isn’t it finally time to serve the players a piece of the pie? According to a new poll from OZY and SurveyMonkey, 30 percent of responding football fans said they would be less likely to watch college football if the players were paid, but a whopping 58 percent were indifferent to the idea, and 10 percent said they would even watch more. And would naysayers change their minds if compensation came in the form of gifts for winning a dramatic final title sponsored by an outside source? A quarter of respondents said that they would be happy with a combination of scholarships, gifts, endorsements or revenue share.
Former NFL linebacker Ryan Nece believes that the shifting television market is key to player compensation. “We’re looking at a near future when fans can order content a la carte,” says Nece. “Once that happens, the money that will flood in from major technology companies will trickle down … and increase our understanding of how to make things more fair and balanced [for players].”
Nece’s prediction that technologically savvy streaming services may burst the cable bubble is also key to this proposal. As the next round of cable network contracts expire, conferences like the SEC face a dilemma: Do they re-up lengthy contracts with networks that are hemorrhaging viewers, or test the waters with rapidly growing streaming providers like Amazon and Netflix? That initial risk might feel heavy, but Nece says that non-Power Five programs, like UCF, could benefit greatly. “We hear a lot about how college football could leave smaller schools behind,” Nece tells OZY. “But if mid-major programs can be creative with technology moving forward, that could be a major lifeline for them.”
It’s not hard to imagine that UCF — a school desperate to consistently compete with more historically significant programs in its talent-rich home state, and one that has already claimed a rogue 2017 national title — would jump to compete against the College Football Playoff victor in a contest streamed by millions of viewers.
Perennial title contenders like Alabama would be a harder sell, but they could benefit too. As major college football coaches face increasingly high job turnover rates, the need to stay ahead of the curve is greater now than ever before. Boosters and athletic directors won’t be content if their national championships are continually diluted by the claims of small fish like UCF. Plus, the most powerful man in college football, Alabama head coach Nick Saban, relishes his status as agent for change, often calling for advances to the game. “[Saban] always takes advantage of his pedestal,” says ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. “He realizes how America, how the media and the fans of the sport look at him.”
The intrigue of one final matchup would surely speak to Saban’s competitiveness, and the impact that the move would have on college football would cement his legacy as the most monumental figure in college football’s storied history. Saban’s 222 on-field victories are great. But pushing the NCAA to embrace modern technology while getting players paid? That’s the stuff of legend.