A foreign entity is trying to buy up the talent in a particular sport, and you’re wondering if that can happen in college football …
Let’s say a Saudi prince decided he’s a huge UMass fan. How much would he have to invest and how long would it take for them to get to the College Football Playoff? — Josh
Fun fact: Jeff Bezos was born in Albuquerque, where his father attended the University of New Mexico. Let’s say that, in honor of his dad, Mr. Bezos decided to pour a large portion of his nigh-unlimited resources into a NIL group whose only goal would be recruiting elite players to his father’s alma mater. In this very hypothetical scenario, how long would it take for the Lobos to win the CFP? — Jason
Ari Wasserman posed a question on the podcast recently that was similar to those asked by Josh and Jason. Basically, could someone rich enough come in and buy a national title? The answer is probably yes, but it would take a lot more money than most would think, the money wouldn’t all necessarily be going to the players and it still would require a few breaks along the way.
This concept of using a giant, seemingly bottomless pot of money to influence a sport is in the news because of LIV Golf. This is a new series of tournaments sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government’s Public Investment Fund, a massive trove of money earmarked to clean up the country’s image on the world stage. The league is guaranteeing reported nine-figure annual sums to golfers such as Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Phil Mickelson to play in small-field, no-cut tournaments and hoping their star power will produce favorable coverage.
Spoiler alert: So far, it has not.
The questions from Josh and Jason also have parallels in English Premier League soccer. The league formed in 1992, and three years later Blackburn Rovers — which had finished 19th in the second division in 1991 — were celebrating a title. That title was bankrolled by local steel magnate
Who could? A Russian oligarch or an Emirati billionaire.
Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, and the club won the league five times between 2005-17 — despite an atmosphere that made firing managers as normal as breathing. Abramovich was recently forced by the British government to sell the team following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but he spent more than $2.5 billion in transfer fees — the amount paid to other clubs to sign their players — during his time as Chelsea’s owner. In 2008, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan bought Manchester City. Man City has won six titles since 2012, including the most recent one.
So yes, it’s possible to buy dominance in a league that doesn’t have an effective salary cap. That certainly describes college football in 2022. But what would it take to fund the ascension of a UMass or a New Mexico to the top of the sport?
A lot, but definitely not as much as it would cost to buy Premier League titles.
Let’s start with infrastructure. A fancy stadium isn’t a top priority. Fans won’t come until the teams start winning. But having day-to-day facilities that rival the programs you’re trying to match is necessary if only to convince recruits that you’re serious. And that will cost serious coin. A state-of-the-art football operations center with an attached indoor practice facility probably will cost at least $150 million. Our hypothetical prince probably will want that done within the next two years, so he’s going to have to pay a premium. So that pushes the price closer to $225 million.
Next, these teams will need coaches. Thanks to Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher, Mel Tucker and Brian Kelly, we know the top of the market at the moment is about $10 million a year, guaranteed for seven to 10 years. Because neither of these teams are established college football powers, they’ll have to drastically overpay. Like LIV Golf, they need to offer so much money that the targets can’t help but say yes. To guarantee they do, let’s double the going rate for an elite coach. They’ll need to guarantee $20 million a year for 10 years. So that’s another $200 million.
That head coach is going to demand elite assistants. The top programs have an assistant salary pool of about $8 million. Let’s double that to guarantee the targets say yes. So each year, the coaching and support staff will cost $16 million.
Now, let’s get some players. As you noticed above, Chelsea and Man City didn’t win the Premier League every year. Manchester United remained a powerhouse. Arsenal routinely finished in the top three through 2016. Liverpool, which is owned by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, has become a power. This is a long way of saying Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State aren’t simply going to cede dominance to the Minutemen and the Lobos just because they started throwing around cash. Ditto for Texas A&M, Tennessee, Nebraska and the other programs that have shown they have no trouble spending money even if it doesn’t bring them championships.
Once again, our upstarts will have to pay a premium for players. Recently, Ohio State coach Ryan Day estimated that it would cost $13 million a year in the new world of Name, Image and Likeness deals to keep a championship-level roster together. That’s probably true if you’re Ohio State or Alabama and you can show players a proven track record of alums going high in the NFL Draft. UMass and New Mexico won’t be able to reasonably promise that — at first — so once again they’ll have to embrace the LIV Golf model and offer so much that the targeted players simply can’t say no. So we’ll channel our inner sliced bread and set the payroll at $30 million a year.
This still guarantees nothing. The coaching staff will have to choose the correct mix of players who fit the schemes the coaches choose to run — not simply the highest-rated collection of recruits who will take the money. This probably can be accomplished faster on the transfer market. Older players will have shown how effective they are while playing in specific schemes. They would be easier to target, but probably more expensive to lure away. So maybe we bump the payroll figure to $35 million a year. Again, these programs need to make sure the players can’t even think about saying no. Also, these teams are going to have to tamper like crazy. Good thing the NCAA will never do anything about tampering because, as The Athletic’s Max Olson so astutely pointed out, “Coaches like to reserve the right to tamper.”
Do all that, and I think it’s possible to get a team in the CFP by the end of the fourth season. So how much would that cost?
Facility: $200 million
Head coach: $200 million (Remember, the contract is fully guaranteed. You’re paying regardless of what happens.)
Staff costs: $64 million ($16 million times four years)
Player payroll: $140 million ($35 million times four years)
And let’s tack on another $10 million a year in various logistical costs.
All in, that’s $644 million to turn UMass or New Mexico into a national title contender within four years.
If any billionaires feel like becoming the most popular person in Amherst or Albuquerque, step right up. I, for one, can’t wait for the upcoming UMass-New Mexico national title game.
Andy, what is the value of special teams in college? I offer you the greatest college kicker of all time, a four-year starter who is the best in the nation every year. Would you rather have him or a five-star QB recruit? A five-star interior defensive lineman? What five-star positions would you take over the GOAT kicker?
What about for a punter of the same caliber? — Phillip
Special teams are extraordinarily valuable. Just ask any Nebraska fan who suffered through last season.
Personally, I would favor a punter over a kicker. If my offense is good enough, a replacement-level kicker should be fine. But an all-world punter changes how I play defense — because opponents change the way they call a game when pinned deep in their own territory — and changes how I play offense. I’ll have no qualms about taking chances down the field when in the middle of my own territory because I know we won’t sacrifice any field position if we can’t get closer to midfield.
So what would I give up for a guaranteed punting ace? If I’m reading Phillip’s question correctly, it’s a five-star recruit whose success is not guaranteed. Meanwhile, choosing the punter or kicker is a sure thing.
Given those parameters, I’d still want a five-star quarterback. Hitting on that signing would dramatically change the fortunes of my team. I’d also still want a five-star interior defensive lineman or edge rusher. If either of those players lives up to the hype, it changes how opponents call plays when they’re on the field.
But for every other position, I’d happily trade for the guaranteed GOAT punter. (And no, I didn’t let Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz guest-write this answer.)
The year is 2030. The playoff has been expanded to the exact right number of teams. Conference scheduling has been modified across the board to ensure a steady stream of diverse conference opponents. The NIL market has settled down to affect the same level of “parity” that existed when payers were paid secretly instead of publicly, and the transfer portal now has open and closed windows.
What major off-the-field topic will we spend all summer discussing? — Harris
Last week at the SEC’s spring meetings, conference public relations pro Chuck Dunlap reminded me of 2014, when the most contentious issue was whether the league would allow Mississippi State fans to ring their cowbells at conference games. I like to imagine that the most pressing issue anyone would have to worry about in this utopian 2030 is some stereotypically appropriate noisemaker.
But it’s college sports. There will be something to complain about. Maybe it’s the reliability of the GPS-loaded balls that determine for the officials whether a ball carrier scored or made a first down. Maybe it’ll be a looming lockout in advance of new collective bargaining negotiation.
Still, I’m hoping for more cowbells.
Is it simply hurt feelings that prevented the SEC from adopting the 3-6 scheduling model? From the outside, it appears that the most powerful conference in CFB is making this more complicated than they need to. — Andrew
The SEC absolutely is making this more complicated than necessary. As I noted in a column last week, loser thinking is the only thing producing support for the eight-game model. The schools that want to schedule for bowl eligibility instead of trying to compete for championships can’t see the big picture, and they are needlessly complicating what should be an easy decision.
That’s why the league didn’t vote last week. Those engaging in loser thinking are about to spend the next two months getting convinced by the people in charge that they’re wrong, and my guess is that at some point in the next few months, the league announces a 14-0 vote in favor of a nine-game schedule.
I listened to you and Ari discuss the question about what if there was never a rule requiring 12 teams and two divisions in a conference to stage a championship game. Here is my stupid attempt to write an alternative history that ends in four 16-team conferences. Apologies to Power 5 schools who get left behind.
Instead of joining conferences that sponsor football, six Metro members convince three high-level independent powers to form the National Athletic Conference. Florida State, Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Memphis, Louisville and South Carolina are joined by Notre Dame, Miami, and Penn State. The league rounds out by accepting Arkansas, which is looking to get away from the SWC.
The SWC collapses, and (like in our own reality) Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor join the Big 8 to form the Big 12. Unlike our reality, the National does not fear a conference with a far-flung membership. Seeing an opportunity, the conference adds TCU and Houston.
The ACC has held at eight members. However, they begin to feel unsafe. Denied their expansion into Florida, they turn north and raid the Big East. Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse and Boston College are added to bring membership up to 12.
The land grab expansion still happens, as well as the angst in the Big 12. Also in this timeline, without the Florida schools, the ACC is weaker and membership is less than thrilled with their expansion northward. The 10-member SEC strikes, taking Clemson, NC State, Texas A&M and Missouri. The 10-member Big Ten kills the ACC and adds North Carolina, Duke, Virginia and Maryland. The National cleans the bones, adding Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. The Big Ten is happy with its expansion, so Nebraska remains in the Big 12 despite being disgruntled. Colorado still bolts, joining Utah in the now PAC-12. The Big 12 is forced to add SMU to get to 10 members.
Nick Saban is inevitable. The SEC still rises and eventually adds Oklahoma and Texas to reach 16 teams. The Big Ten adds Nebraska and manages to poach Missouri (who aren’t as connected to the SEC without near-ish Arkansas in the conference) to get to 16 teams. The SEC brings along Oklahoma State to remain at 16. The Big 12 falls apart. The Kansas schools join the National Conference and Baylor, Texas Tech and Iowa St join the PAC-12 along with BYU to complete the PAC-16. Four 16-team conferences form a playoff that makes logistical sense, and everyone lives happily ever after.
National Athletic Conference: Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Penn State, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Arkansas, TCU, Houston, Kansas, Kansas State
Big Ten: Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri
Thanks for reading my inane bulls—. — Joseph
This is incredible. For those who haven’t listened to the podcast episode to which Joseph refers, Ari Wasserman and I tried to imagine an alternative history of college football conferences if the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference hadn’t originally included a membership total in its 1987 proposal for an NCAA rule to allow conference title games.
The PSAC only did that because it had 14 teams, and it landed on 12 only after the 12-team Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association asked if it could co-sponsor the bill. Take away that arbitrary number and history probably changes. The SEC wouldn’t have needed to add Arkansas and South Carolina or split into divisions to stage a championship game.
As Joseph notes, market forces were always going to push the conferences to be bigger. Television money still would have increased, and finding the right mix of schools to maximize TV money would have remained a priority.
But it’s only fitting that in this crazy sport, something as simple as including a number when no number need be included can change everything.
A random ranking
Reader Gary made the following request: “Uniforms and accessories get a lot of attention in college ball. Not so much in the NFL. To address that imbalance, please rank your 10 favorite NFL team helmets.”
Absolutely, but I reserve the right to rank helmets that teams never should have put on the shelf.
Dallas Cowboys — Current
New Orleans Saints — Current
Los Angeles Chargers — Current
Detroit Lions — Current
Minnesota Vikings — Current
(Top photo of Jeff Bezos: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File / Associated Press)