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College football ‘super league’ proposal has merit but significant obstacles remain if restructuring sport


The idea of creating a “super-league” format in college football is doable and brilliant … in 2031. 

That’s right in the timeframe where current media rights contracts for major conferences and the College Football Playoff will be expiring. It’s called “coterminous,” which is derived from the Latin word for “sharing a common boundary.” 

It would be the perfect time to restructure college football to where the sport is owned by the schools and their media rights partners. 

Now is just not even close to the right time to implement those changes. 

That’s one conclusion reached after CBS Sports spoke with sources at the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona, the past several days soliciting opinions of stakeholders regarding discussions of a potential “super league,” which was first reported last week by The Athletic. A group consisting of college leaders developed an idea to transform college football into a single-entity league, similar to what the NFL morphed into in the 1960s.

Back then, former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle successfully lobbied his teams to share revenue equally under what was called a “single-entity” structure, a model which has survived into today while withstanding even Supreme Court challenges. 

With college sports strapped to a rocket heading toward an uncertain future, the 20 people involved in the venture dubbed “College Sports Tomorrow” are girding for what seems to be a showdown against a future trying to be created by the Big Ten and SEC.

“I do not believe that leaving it just to commissioners and athletic directors [is the way to go], because when you do, you do not get the view of [the university as a whole],” West Virginia president and CST member Gordon Gee told CBS Sports.

“I think the university presidents have been the root of the problem here,” Gee said. “We have ignored. We have not been engaged. We have not paid enough attention. And I am the poster child because … I paid a lot of these coaches millions of dollars. We just thought life was going to go on.

“We should have been thinking more progressively for a long period of time. My view is that is to stimulate the conversation, get enough university presidents together to solve this problem.”

The history of presidential involvement in NCAA reform has been uneven. It goes back to 1984 when the Presidents Commission was established to oversee things after a series of high-profile enforcement cases. The corruption persisted, and so did the money. 

When college football commissioners were unable to agree on a 12-team playoff model, it took the CFP Board of Managers  — specifically Mississippi State president Mark Keenum — to get it done. FBS commissioners continue to drag out discussions on what the playoff will look like in 2026 and beyond under the new media rights deal. 

College sports is at a point where the money is about to run out. When that happens, the stakeholders always find a way to get more. The schedule moved to 12 regular-season games in 2006. Games were played on Friday night. Don’t forget, the College Football Playoff and all its riches are only 10 years old.

Now, schools are preparing for what might be an eight-figure budget hit in upcoming legal settlements. That may lead to hard decisions on whether to cut other sports within the athletic department. 

College football itself is also undervalued, at least in terms of what it could be as the nation’s second most-popular sport. One CST member projected annual revenue of a “super league” at between $3 billion and $16 billion annually. 

All of this is preliminary, but it’s clear there is a line to be crossed in the future.

At its core, a “super league” would cause a de facto alteration of the Big Ten and SEC (among others) dividing the game at the top into 10, seven-team leagues. It would require the Big Ten and SEC’s powerful commissioners — Tony Petitti and Greg Sankey, respectively — to at least consider relinquishing some of their power if college football was to be overseen by an overarching commissioner and a board of directors.

That’s a deal breaker before the first meeting. 

Also, the new CFP contract wouldn’t have been agreed to last month if a “super league” was on the table. Unsurprisingly, the Big Ten and SEC have yet to take a meeting with CST. 

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Any structure can be altered. Anyone can be bought out. (Remember what the bowls used to be?)

This is a discussion being had, and it’s not like the commissioners have all the answers. 

One powerful Power Four administrator, when asked about a “super league,” said, “We have to keep an open mind.” That’s not just about potential “super league” but also the future of college sports as a whole.   

“People have talked for years about the possibility of creating a separate structure for the schools,” NCAA president Charlie Baker said this week. “It’s probably a decision that should be made by them [and not the NCAA].” 

That makes the topic something you can’t ignore. The concept of a Division IV for college football is at least a decade old. The Knight Commission proposed a separate governing body for FBS 3 ½ years ago.

Based on the conversations, revenue generated from a “super league” would help fund the minor sports at risk. The money would account for compensating players in some fashion. A single entity with which to negotiate gives players, with or without a union, an easier route to collectively bargain.

“What I’ve heard both sides say is if you aggregate it, the value is going to go up and it’s going to be more valuable for the networks,” said one CST member. “We all know a monopoly is more valuable than not. That’s why they don’t allow it.

“You’d have to get a Congressional exemption [for such a league], show them you’ve got enough money [to pay for everything].”

It’s not that easy, of course. When hearing of the “super league” proposal, one TV executive had a wry observation: The schools of two of the leaders involved in this endeavor — West Virginia (Gee) and Syracuse (chancellor Kent Syverud) — might be left out. 

“I know we all say we don’t have any money,” said North Carolina athletic director and CST member Bubba Cunningham. “I look at Stanford. When COVID hit, they dropped 11 sports. They brought them back, but when money gets tight, you’re not looking at [taking money from] football and basketball. If we really want to maintain the Olympic sports, we need more money. No one else has said, ‘Here’s a plan.'”

Let’s have a look at some pros and cons surrounding the basic issues of a “super league” changing the landscape of college football. 

Significance of 80 teams

Pro: More noses under the tent with what was reported to be eight, 10-team divisions. Given the recent Big Ten and SEC power grab, such an arrangement would seem to be more equitable to the rest of the FBS. There’s a real possibility a “super league” could initiate some version of Pac-12 reform on the West Coast.

Con: Considering realignment happened because the SEC and Big Ten were able to assemble the game’s top brands into two leagues (give or take a handful of others), why dilute the pool?

“[Eighty teams is] a floating figure,” Gee said. “We are talking at 10,000 feet. When we get to 1,000 feet, all those questions you have might [become clearer].”

In reality, only a handful of schools would need to be added for an elite league’s formation. Think of Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Miami. That’s about it. If you want a nice, tidy “super league,” think of somewhere in the area of 50 schools. 

A long-time TV consultant told CBS Sports last summer that the top 40 teams could be worth $1 billion as a single entity. That figures to $25 million annually. Other sources of income would exist, but the current SEC ($60 million) and Big Ten ($75 million) media rights are far greater. 

Promotion, relegation

Pro: This idea has been gaining traction, and it makes sense. A Boise State assistant athletic director drew up a detailed promotion/relegation system last year. In this “super league” model, the eighth division of 10 schools would change members from year to year. Schools that aren’t necessarily additive to the elites would still have access through a promotion/relegation system similar to European soccer. 

The composition of that eighth division would be based on annual accomplishment. Imagine a series of Conference USA/Sun Belt/AAC showdowns with the winners remaining at the top level of college football and competing for a 16-team playoff.

That cutthroat game of football musical chairs would be fascinating. 

Con: What about teams being relegated? There would be about 50 left over annually who would have to play for something — and it wouldn’t be a CFP berth. In the “super league,” that eighth division would provide two qualifiers into the 16-team field; however, those Group of Five leagues might push back because of the guaranteed access granted in the current expanded playoff format.

Promotion/relegation is tradition in European soccer. In fact, a European “super league” similar to the college football’s proposal was discussed in 2021. 

“I think that would be so elite,” said Alabama basketball consultant Michael Schwimer, who’s also a minority owner of English Premier League club Leeds United. “I think people would watch.”

Private equity investment

Pro: The “super league” may provide the opening for private money to invest in college football. How would that work? Think of Goldman Sachs owning shares of the “super league.” There are major financial stressors on college sports at the moment. One Power Four AD told CBS Sports that if schools are on the hook for a settlement in the upcoming landmark House v. NCAA trial, “That’s going to define a new subdivision.”

Private equity would address that shortfall. One person close to the situation called such investment “stop-gap funding” to keep athletic departments solvent. Having a “super league” would enhance a portfolio’s worth. Imagine a powerful investment house such as RedBird Capital having access to brands like Michigan, Texas, Alabama, USC and others. The big private equity firms are interested. Done right, they would be funding the transition from the collegiate model to a world where college athletes are compensated. 

Con: Of course, the CFP, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 all recently signed media rights deals that extend to either 2030 or 2031. The ACC’s current deal goes to 2036. That leads to the biggest hurdle in establishing the “super league” … 

Untethering media rights deals

Pro: Yeah, about that. The process of unraveling these deals to account for a new entity almost makes this discussion a non-starter. However, there are two look-ins in the new CFP contract that account for more realignment before 2031. Those look-ins probably didn’t account for the emergence of a “super league” but could ostensibly be used for it. There’s already speculation that a “super league” is a look at the next round of consolidation. Instead of realignment, conferences would “cut” existing members not up to standard.

Example: What happens if, at one point, Alabama questions why Vanderbilt is pulling in the same amount of revenue?

Painful? Yes. But we’ve already seen the Pac-12 collapse with Oregon State and Washington State cast aside. The Big 12 almost died after Texas and Oklahoma announced their intentions to move to the SEC. The “super league” takes those cuts to the next level, putting in question whether the Vanderbilts, Syracuses and West Virginias would be in that top 50. It’s a ruthless world. At some point, it’ll get even more ruthless. 

Con: There are billions of dollars wrapped up in those TV deals running into the next decade. FBS commissioners aren’t likely to surrender power or money anytime soon. We already know that group isn’t known for their consensus and ability to pivot.  In fact, the over/under for time needed to order appetizers at the next CFP meeting is about six hours. Unofficially.


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