2019's biggest themes, and 2020's biggest questions

A look back at the stuff I wrote about again and again and again. Like UConn.

Good morning! Thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

I hope all of you, no matter what you celebrate, had a joyful, peaceful, and fulfilling holiday season. I certainly had a joyful and fulfilling one. Peaceful? Well, Santa brought a bunch of stuff that makes noise, so peaceful isn’t in the cards for me. But that ship probably sailed a long time ago.

Let’s talk about some college football stuff though, not my desire to chuck the Hungry Hungry Hippos game into the neighbor’s backyard.

I’ve been doing at least two of these newsletters since May, and I’ve noticed that I’ve touched on a few topics lots of times, and probably could have written even more about them. Since so many of you guys signed up during football season, I thought I’d take a second look at the biggest storylines of the Extra Points era, and hazard a guess for what 2020 might bring on those fronts

Conference realignment, or why I could have written even MORE about UConn

I was not expecting UConn to sneakily be one of the most interesting stories in college football in 2019, but hey, this was a weird year.

UConn’s decision to bail from the American Athletic was noteworthy for a ton of reasons. For one, the conventional conference realignment wisdom, branded into the brain of every blogger on the internet, was that television markets and FBS football were the most important things. But UConn’s departure blew that conventional wisdom to smithereens. Here was a team, near a huge market, with FBS football, deciding to blow that up to bet on basketball.

There aren’t many programs like UConn…schools whose Tier 3 rights actually have real value (which is why ESPN is tweaking that AAC TV deal), schools with a natural landing spot for other sports, and who have the political wiggle room to kneecap football. So I don’t look at this so much as a trend, at least in the short term, but it is worth monitoring.

It might yet trigger other realignment moves. Admins at UConn and UMass have publicly stated other schools are kicking the tires on independence, and the AAC only has 11 football teams. That’s fine for now, and maybe for the next several years, but I doubt they go the length of their current TV deal with this exact same composition. They currently face the same problem the Big 12 had a few years ago, ironically enough. None of the current expansion candidates are developed enough to make them more money right away…the most intriguing ones are bets on “potential”, rather than established infrastructure or success. Those bets don’t pay off that often, and when they do, it takes a while.

If I had to make FBS realignment predictions for the next 18 months or so, I’d sell on any big changes, especially at the P5 level, which I don’t think is coming at all. But I wouldn’t be shocked if another lower level G5 program decides to go independent in the next 18 months. If that happens…maybe keep an eye on the MWC or Conference USA. This old newsletter might explain why.

At the FCS level, I’d watch the Pioneer League (do St.Thomas or Augustana formally join? Does another school join Jacksonville, and drop their program), and the WAC. Don’t be shocked if the WAC ends up sponsoring football again at the FCS level.

The biggest financial story is still TV

I wrote a fair amount about TV in 2019. BYU and the MWC basically have new TV deals locked up. The CAA signed the first streaming-only TV deal. The Pac-12 is struggling to get on TV as much as they’d like, and now ABC/ESPN is poised to steal the rest of the SEC rights from CBS.

The latter is a huge deal for the sport. The SEC will almost assuredly snatch the revenue crown back from the Big Ten, which doesn’t matter to you as a fan, but matter a lot to administrators, especially west coast ones who are worried about revenue gaps. A huge rights fee increase is probably good news for the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, who’s next rights deals hit the market in the next few years, but the interested parties might be different. After all, ESPN can’t show all the games.

Does CBS make a big push for the Big Ten, to remain in college football? Can ESPN buy CBS out of their SEC contract a little early? Does a new tech player, like Apple TV or Amazon, finally make a serious TV rights push? Could a more conventional player, like Turner, or DAZN, try to enter the game?

For good or for ill, the closest thing college football has to a commissioner is ESPN. The Mouse going all in on the SEC will do little to quash fan concerns that their coverage, or at least, the coverage of their talking heads, is hopelessly biased (as a midwesterner, I hear this a LOT, even if I don’t really believe it). But breaking away from ESPN completely, as one of those other leagues might end up doing, could have unforeseen consequences.

TV money is how everybody pays for skyrocketing salaries and expenses. This gravy train won’t go on forever, and it carries significant costs, costs that depress attendance and make other parts of this game more difficult. But I’d bet the windfall continues for at least one more deal, and the stakes could get higher in 2020.

Politicians are getting involved

It’s a little hard to completely understand the impact of changes to likeness rights policies. We can interview lawyers and economists and other experts, and we can get good insights, but it’s hard to project exactly how college sports might be changed once players can monetize their likeness rights because we still don’t know what the rules of that marketplace will be.

California passed their NIL bill. Florida is pursuing similar legislation. Heck, dozens of other states are as well, and many of them are slightly different from each other. The NCAA is pushing for a federal solution, and more and more politicians are taking up the cause, not just of likeness rights reform, but of general reform of college athletics.

Rep. Donna Shalala, a former university president at Wisconsin and Miami, is proposing a two-year commission to completely reexamine the NCAA. That could potentially lead to a litany of reforms and recommendations, from an antitrust exemption to help with cost controls, to Title IX reforms, and more.

Rep. Mark Walker, of North Carolina, has probably been the biggest hardliner on allowing a more liberalized likeness rights marketplace. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a former wideout at Ohio State, is also expected to introduce legislation. There’s also a Senate working group, including Senator Mitt Romney and Senator Chris Murphy, investigating the issue.

Tracking federal interest in additional college athletics regulation is interesting, because it doesn’t really neatly fall across party lines, something that’s exceedingly rare these days. A wide range of politicians, from very progressive to very conservative, have signaled they’re ready to push for changes in the status quo.

But it isn’t clear how much the NCAA can successfully co-opt those reforms, or how aggressive those reforms might get as they progress through the legislative sausage-making. I’m also honestly unsure what the White House thinks about any of this stuff.

The NCAA doesn’t have the confidence of the public, but it just might be more credible in the eyes of regular voters than Congress. Will voters support additional forays in college athletics? Can they agree enough to reach at least a NIL policy, before CA’s state law goes into effect? What are the consequences if they fail?

I know a lot of fans like to think that sports are an escape from politics. That’s never been true, but it especially won’t be true in 2020, where I can see a lot of politician position papers in our immediate future.

Those aren’t the only potential storylines, of course

Just a few that were, in one way or another, a big part of Extra Points in 2019.

But so much else is going on. We could get a recession in 2020, which could impact construction, fundraising, attendance, and more. We could get a bigger push, either internally or externally, for cost control. We could see more changing legislation around the transfer portal, or how athletes can or should be able to transfer, generally. We’ll continue to talk about player health, both physical and mental. Attendance, demographics, campus culture and more will all shape our college football discussion, in some capacity, over the coming year. And there’s probably going to be a few curveballs to deal with as well.

I hope we can talk about them together, here, at Extra Points, and learn a little something along the way.

Thanks for making 2019 a great first year for this newsletter. I’ll catch up with you in 2020. We’ll talk about what’s next for this project, for me, and share some cool interviews and more.

Thanks for supporting Extra Points. If you haven’t already, why not subscribe, and get original interviews, columns, analysis and more, at least twice a week?

Questions, comments, mailbag topics, hot tips and more can be sent to Matt.Brown@SBNation.com and on Twitter at @MattBrownEP.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my kids are playing Hungry Hungry Hippos again.