There is nothing quite like the pageantry of college football. The bands, cheerleaders, students, alumni, and loyal fans provide an atmosphere you can’t quite get anywhere else. For a long time the college game also had an innocence about it (at least compared to pro football) but that has slowly faded away. With the advent of cable sports networks, especially ESPN and Fox, the culture has changed where money now rules the sport.
I’ll be the first to admit the idea of “innocence” in college football is basically a myth. The notion of the pure “student-athlete” is a rarity among football players. It is also true that under-the-table payouts have been around probably as long as the NCAA. In the early 1950s people joked about an All-American running back taking a pay cut when he turned pro. Even if the purity of the game was a myth it still seemed like the unseemly side of the game was on the periphery rather than in the middle of it.
A generation ago college football games only appeared on ABC. You were lucky if your school was on a national or regional broadcast unless you attended a traditional power such as Alabama, Michigan, Texas, Ohio State, Nebraska, Oklahoma or USC. Those schools were on more often than not.
Today, thanks mostly to the rise of ESPN, practically every school is on cable or network TV. The rights fees paid out are in the billions. The networks decide game times so fans don’t know until a week ahead of time if their game will be on Saturday afternoon or evening. Schools gladly sacrifice their fans’ convenience for the money and the prospect of showing off their product in prime time.
The added exposure produces a domino effect where schools pay out big money to lure marque coaches with the somewhat twisted (but apparently accurate) logic that a successful football program will enhance a university’s academic reputation. It’s the same logic that applies to cities that suddenly feel “major league” when they land a professional sports franchise.