Once upon a time, I was an NFL fan.
I grew up rooting for the Dallas Cowboys in the era of Tom Landry, Danny White and Tony Dorsett. In high school, I had a Moose Johnston jersey that hung off my wiry frame touching nothing but the shoulders. I mired through 1-15, reveled in three Super Bowls.
I followed Arkansas football, too, of course. But Saturdays were just an appetizer for Sundays back then, and the biggest Razorback event on my October calendar was Midnight Madness.
Then around 1998, proselytized by Houston Nutt and Clint Stoerner, I converted. Slowly, but fully, my attention and devotion was seized by college football.
What I found in the college game was a different kind of fandom; something more participatory, first surrounded by fellow Hog fans, then by other fanbases as I ventured out of the state. My in-laws are LSU people. I had coworkers and friends who attended Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Traversing interstates across the Southeast on a golden-hued autumn Saturday, I found myself surrounded by vehicles flying their schools’ flags, heading out to follow their teams to Columbia, Nashville or Lexington.
I found workplace banter, and a shared distaste for Saturday weddings.
I found a common culture.
Arkansas might still have been relatively new to the SEC, but these were — at least in one domain — my people.
I also found a sport with stakes unlike anything I’d experienced as a spectator. For professionals, a handful of defeats every season are expected. No big deal.
In college football, a single loss could torpedo six months of excitement and leave a person verging on catatonia for an entire Sunday. You lived and died with every game — and so it follows, sometimes with every down.
You might find that in the playoffs for the pros, or in March Madness, but with college football, you got it for 12 consecutive weekends, because even after your wildest optimism had been grounded, pride was still on the line and only slightly less meaningful than a championship.
This was not a lesser version of the sport, played by amateurs. This was something else entirely.
Over time, the NFL became little more than fodder for fantasy leagues for me, and these days I’ll go entire seasons and only see a few professional snaps.
Living in SEC Country, the question doesn’t come up often, but when I’ve been asked why I prefer the college game, I’ve always had an easy answer.
See all of the above.
Now, though, I’m worried.
I’m worried about what I see as the speeding transformation of the weird, regional, unique version of football that has comprised the college game into something more akin to NFL Lite.
That feeling was exacerbated by the news that Texas and Oklahoma are joining the SEC in 2025 (if not sooner), but what I fear most is that this is only the next step — not the first or the last — toward a more homogenized made-for-TV version of college football.
And it just makes me sad. Or at least wistful. The stakes aren’t that high, after all. But it does feel like we’re in danger of losing something vital and precious. Something that may not be recoverable if it’s lost.
Not that I fully blame SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. It’s not his job to look out for the best interest of college football as a whole, and he made the conventionally smart business decision. When two of the most marketable brands in your industry come knocking, it wouldn’t make much sense to take away the welcome mat and deadbolt the doors.
By bringing in Texas and Oklahoma he strengthened what was already the nation’s best football conference and secured millions more in television dollars for its member schools. He may have even improved the on-field product — though that’s debatable and clearly a secondary concern.
Because while it might be a leap to assert that ESPN is driving expansion, it’s less of one to imagine the sport’s various television partners serving as navigators to conference commissioners.
This is where the lack of central agency looking out for greater good becomes worrisome. You might think that responsibility would fall to the NCAA, but it doesn’t. The NCAA is there to govern and regulate competition, but it doesn’t even administer the College Football Playoff or its predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series.
Member institutions are free to align themselves as they see fit — and with increasing frequency, those decisions are seemingly guided by television executives.
For proof, consider why no conference has swooped in to grab the University of Kansas and its historically great basketball program. Ditto, Oklahoma State and its football team, which has finished over .500 every year since 2006 and won 10 or more games six times in the 2010s. These might seem like valuable properties, and if the primary concern is what they add within the boundaries of competition, they undoubtedly are.
But part of the reason Texas and Oklahoma are departing the Big 12 — and why no other major conferences are showing much interest in the schools that remain — is that the leftover Big 12 programs don’t get great Nielsen ratings, and therefore don’t add value to prospective TV deals. After revenue sharing, they’re viewed as net negative.
Still, if we stopped here, with a super-charged 16-team SEC, three other power conferences, and the remnants of the Big 12 floating in the ether, I guess that’d be fine. We still need to see how the new SEC is aligned (eight-team divisions? No divisions with three permanent opponents? Four-team pods?), but the Saturday product wouldn’t be fundamentally altered.
The problem is, I don’t think we’re stopping here.
As an attempt to counterbalance the SEC’s growing power via market share, the ACC, Big Ten and Pac 12 recently announced an “alliance,” which will include inter-conference scheduling.
Meanwhile, the NCAA has called for a constitutional convention in November and appears ready to yield more power to the individual conferences.
Left to their own devices, it looks like there’s just too much money on the table for conferences to turn down further expansion or consolidation.
In December, prior to adding Oklahoma and Texas, the SEC signed a new TV deal with ESPN worth $300 million for 10 years of television rights. According to those who follow the sports broadcasting industry closely, the average annual payout to SEC teams could go from $45.5 million in 2019-20 to up to $70 million when Texas and Oklahoma join.
What happens if/when ESPN determines they can help bump that figure up another 60 percent if the SEC can poach Florida State and Clemson?
Just conjecture, but from where I’m sitting, it looks like we’re heading for a college football SuperLeague — or at least a two-conference solution with the SEC and some combination of ACC, Big Ten and Pac 12 filling the roles of college football’s American League and National League, airing on Fox and ESPN, respectively.
And that, to me, sounds an awful lot like the professional league I once loved, but now find to be a bore in comparison to the Saturday game.
Of course, it’s possible I’m being pessimistic, soured by half a decade of Arkansas’ lack of football relevance.
Maybe I’m just getting older and unwilling to roll with the changes.
Maybe I’m romanticizing the past.
Maybe segregating the top 30 programs and making the annual Game of the Century a weekly event will be good and fun and the sport will thrive in ways we can’t imagine.
But inherent in that word is uncertainty.
Maybe it’s a little less fun when a top-10 matchup becomes significantly less rare.
Maybe the rivalries that the sport thrives on will diminish in meaning when expanding conferences scramble the schedule every few years.
That said, the diehards among us are here to stay and even if individual fanbases shed population, the loss will likely be marginal.
But what if Arkansas is the one left behind in the next round of expansion/consolidation? Does anybody in this fanbase really want to put their unqualified trust in the SEC treating Arkansas fairly?
Or what if college football’s middle class continues to wither?
Or if the losses don’t matter quite as much as they used to, and we lose the stakes that distinguish college football from its professional counterpart?
What if — spread out from sea to shining sea — we lose some of the culture that unified us (at least on weekdays)?
What if the pride that a 6-5 team plays for matters a little less than it used to?
Those are the things that have separated and elevated college football fandom for as long as I’ve been a devotee.
Once upon a time, I had unmovable faith in their permanence. Now, I’m not as sure.
It’s no certainty they’ll erode in the new era of college football, and even if they do, I’m sure I’ll still be there on Saturdays calling the Hogs.
I’m just worried that if that day comes, the sport itself will feel a little less like what it used to be — a little less special, a little less unique — and a little more like Sunday’s appetizer.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.