Based on simple logic, college football should not be as big as it is in the United States. There is a league of professionals who play the same sport for a living, providing a higher level of play for fans of the game to watch. So why has college football been able to carve out such a large niche for itself within the American sports market?
For one, the academic side of universities tend to understand the benefits that a good football program can provide to the institution as a whole. Another explanation is that college football benefits from strong regional foundations, so successful branding by high-level teams have played a major part in expanding the reach of college football.
All of these explanations are enhanced by the unique value of traditions and the resulting emotional attachments to the sport.
College football has long held a unique connection with higher education not found in professional sports. The two have a symbiotic relationship, both entities supporting one another. Ron Briley notes in his paper “The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education's Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football” that in the early twentieth century, both football and academics were going through their own individual periods of struggle.
Football had suffered multiple casualties of players due to the brutal style of play in that time. Academics had gotten away from their prior calling of focusing on fostering within their students “morality, discipline and character;” academics had become too focused instead on research and gaining the respect of other academics.
This increased focus on advanced research in a specific field resulted in alienating universities from the general public. It was believed by some that football, if changed to focus more on the physical and mental skill of the game, could serve the mission to produce well-rounded students and at the same time benefit academics by bridging the gap between universities and the public, by attracting potential students and potential funders for the university.
On a lot of campuses, especially in the Southeast, the football program is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a school. The benefit of a football team on the rest of the university is noted in a 2018 article by Forbes, concerning the University of Alabama since the arrival of football head coach Nick Saban in 2007.
In 2007, Alabama had 25,850 students, and by 2017, it had grown to 38,563. In 2014, the university had more out-of-state students than in-state for the first time in history, and by 2017, in-state students were down to 41%. This all coincided with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide team winning national championships in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2017, as well as being a national semifinalist twice and winning its conference six times in those years.
What those numbers show is that as the football team succeeded, the university’s national brand was enhanced, which brings in out-of-state students, who pay a higher tuition, which in turn raises university revenue. This is similar for other universities who play football, who can spread their brand around the country through the sport.
The organization of college football into conferences has benefited the sport and its success. In “Establishing Proper ‘Athletic Relations:’ the Nascent SEC and the Formation of College Athletic Conferences,” Ryan Swanson discusses how conferences played a major role in the early days of college football.
Quantifying this regional focus, Swanson notes that in newspapers written between 1905 and 1940, one can find seven times more mentions of Missouri Valley and the precursors of the Big Ten and Southeastern Conferences than the governing body of college athletics, the NCAA.
College football is unique from professional sports because of its emphasis on regions, which results in alliances between fanbases that can often be uncommon.
In professional sports, fans typically don’t support a team in their own team’s division, because divisions in professional sports are largely arbitrarily drawn and decided. In college football, conferences have mostly been formed for cultural fits between schools as well as other, smaller factors. The conference and regional bond, especially in the Southeast, has created even larger communities of fans who are often able to engage in more light-hearted rivalries.
Also, with team rankings being such an important part of success, and rankings relying on conference strength, fans have come to rely on fellow conference members. This gives fans a rooted interest in games not featuring their preferred team, which altogether helps foster conference pride, viewership, increased attraction to the sport and further success of college football.
College football teams at the top levels of the sports all share a common feature: strong brands. Schools can be recognized by the simplest of logos, including Tennessee’s “Power T,” Georgia’s oval “G,” Clemson’s “Tiger Paw,” and Texas’ “Longhorn,” to name a few.
Timothy B. Kellison discusses the importance of brand to a college football team. “In sport,” Kellison writes, “researchers have argued one of the most defining components of a brand is the team logo.” Different schools have made strong efforts to protect their brand from being distorted, mainly concerning how high schools and middle schools have a history of using the logo of a university for their own purposes.
When comparing Kellison’s article to data provided in a book called “Speak American Too,” by marketing expert Paul Jankoski, some of the strictest universities when it comes to brand protection are Florida and Texas, which ranked 6th and 1st respectively in 2013 college football revenues. These schools are widely known for a history of maintaining strong brands. This can be through logos, as previously mentioned, but can also something as simple as color and uniforms.
Two of the more well-known football schools, the Tennessee Volunteers and Texas Longhorns, are known for their respective shades of orange; “UT Orange” and “Burnt Orange,” respectively. The Alabama Crimson Tide and Penn State Nittany Lions are known for their simple uniforms, wearing white pants and a team-colored helmet every game, with colored jerseys at home and white jerseys on the road.
Many other schools have also worn the same uniforms for many years with little change. Keeping a traditional uniform design creates a strong brand identity for those schools alongside their logos. It seems those schools which protect and promote their entire brand are the programs that succeed most in college football.
The final and crowning explanation for college football’s success is its traditions. Traditions are what makes college football great. There are a lot of things in college football that don’t make any sense, but they continue, a lot of the time simply because they’re tradition.
Tennessee has a blue tick hound as a mascot, despite being called the Volunteers. LSU’s mascot, Mike the Tiger, gets fed meat in the shape of the logo of the Tigers’ opponent that week. Texas A&M has a dog cemetery for past mascots which includes — and this is completely serious — a scoreboard so that the deceased dogs can always see the score.
Matthew G. Interis and Naomi J. Taylor researched the monetary value of the tradition of ringing cowbells at Mississippi State football games. They found that the per game net value ranged anywhere from $671,000 to $1,193,000, based on polling from ticketholders. Those figures show the power of something as simple as everyone ringing a bell. It’s a shared experience that college football fans partake in, which adds a layer of entertainment to attending a game that can’t be replicated.
Other examples of shared traditions include Tennessee fans singing along together to “Rocky Top” in Neyland Stadium, or Ole Miss fans tailgating together in The Grove in their finest attire. Jankoski writes in his book that, for some fans, college football becomes more about “personal identity and hometown pride” than about the actual game.
College football becomes a part of its fans, and the emotional connection they have to it gets passed down to the succeeding generations.