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National Signing Day is proof there is no parity. Can that be fixed? Should it?

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

I feel like enough has happened over the last few days to fill six different newsletters. I’d love to talk more about the MWC TV deal, or Jim Delany, But alas, we only have time for one right now.

Let’s skip right to the one that impacts what we see on the field the most.

Wednesday was the real National Signing Day

I mean, sure, there’s another signing day in February, and some recruits will sign today and tomorrow, but the bulk of the fax machine activity happened on Wednesday morning, the first day members of the 2020 recruiting class could officially sign with a college program.

This is a massively important part of the college football calendar. Recruiting evaluation services are imperfect, but there’s no better single predictor of team success out there. You may want to believe that your coach is special, you can coach players and and find diamonds in the rough and your particular geography is under-evaluated and blah blah blah, and on some levels, that may be true…but if you want to win national titles, you need lots and lots of blue-chip players. Every team in the modern era that’s won a title has signed more four and five-star recruits than three stars.

And who added most of the best players in 2020? Well, the same schools that signed the best players in 2019. And 2018, generally.

Rivals.com has 33 players in the Class of 2020 rated as five-star recruits. A whopping 22 of them have either committed, or are predicted by Rivals experts, to sign with just five schools: Clemson (6),Georgia (6),LSU (4),Ohio State (3)andAlabama (3).

Top end recruits have generally flocked to the best, most prestigious programs since the 1900s, but there’s an argument that in the playoff era, we’re seeing an even greater separation between a half dozen programs, and the rest of the really good college football teams, like Florida, Penn State, Michigan, Auburn, etc. The reason why the playoff always feels like some version of Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and LSU is because those schools are signing the best players.

Wetzel argues this stratification is bad for college football, although he acknowledges that there isn’t a real legislative remedy:

It isn’t good for the sport to have so much talent coalescing around just a few programs that top players believe can win a national title. It certainly doesn’t help that four of them are tucked into the Southeast part of the country.

That’s reality, though. Just about everyone else is boxed out right now, stuck in a circle where success begets success.

There is no quick fix or easy legislative solution. Nor should there be. Players should be able to attend any school they wish. Besides, the last thing college athletics needs is another rule.

That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for college football in general, where more spread-out talent would likely equate to a nationally competitive sport.

I’m not so sure I agree with this. National broadcasters and media outlets would certainly benefit from college football being a nationally competitive sport, but the truth is, this is a regional sport, and interest is not uniform throughout the country. The southeast, Texas, and the midwest simply care a lot more about college football, and mostly, that’s been the case for the last several decades. It’s probably fitting that the biggest power programs right now are all southern schools, and Ohio State….a school that’s basically an SEC school with worse weather, worse clothes, and a bad goatee.

In another column for Yahoo, Wetzel lays out a familiar argument…perhaps a liberalized NIL market could spread out the talent a little more:

You want to know what would level that playing field, even to the point where it would make perfect sense for not just Michigan to beat Ohio State for a recruit, but Purdue or Illinois or even Boise State?

Name, image and likeness.

In other words, money, which is the great equalizer for pretty much everything in the United States of America. Only this case, it’s money directly to a player.

Right now if a high school player is choosing between Ohio State and Purdue, he’ll almost always pick the Buckeyes. It's been that way for generations.

The hysteria against NIL is that if enacted, Ohio State would be able to dial up one of its local Ford dealers and have a recruit agree to a sponsorship/endorsement deal prior to signing to assure the recruit is well-paid while at OSU. If so, Purdue would be locked out.

Fine, but Purdue is currently all but locked out.

Besides, they also sell Fords in Indiana. It's not like Purdue doesn't have money. They have alums and fans that own businesses too. The program would have more than enough resources to smartly build a team.

You’ve probably seen at least some version of this argument. In a world where local businesses (or national ones) can pay players, a recruit could theoretically make more money as a big fish in a small pond (Purdue, Illinois, Mississippi State, etc) than he might as the 12th best guy in Ohio State’s recruiting class.

I think this scenario is possible, but I suspect it’ll be unlikely.

For one, there’s no guarantee this particular scenario will be legal, as least as far as NCAA rules are concerned. Depending on what the federal government decides to do, the new policy could very well limit sponsorship deals to players already on campus, exactly to avoid this exact scenario. I don’t have a problem with an over the table bidding war for recruits, but I suspect some lawmakers really do.

Second, and I’ll whisper this part a little bit…there’s nothing really stopping Purdue or Fresno State or whatever from trying to outbid for players now. Sorry to all the Michigan message board readers who also subscribe to Extra Points, but just about everybody has bagmen. If a mid-tier school can’t muster the local enthusiasm needed to win recruiting battles with big programs now, I’m not sure they’ll be able to do so if it becomes “legal”. The big programs not only have the resources, the facilities, the history and the momentum….their entire communities just care more. If you know what I mean.

And after all, even if Purdue “outbids” Ohio State or Clemson for a kid, it’s not hard for a coach to point to those NFL contracts. You want to make a decision where you make an extra $10,000 now, or wait, and make an extra $40 million?

Given the massive disparities between schools, I don’t really know how this changes, unless high schools in places like Arizona and Utah and Kansas and Indiana suddenly get much, much better and producing four-star football players.

But one AD has another idea.

What if we had a salary cap for coaches?

Dr.Kevin Blue, the AD at at UC Davis, wrote a very interesting post for AthleticDirectorU (edit: an earlier version of this newsletter mistakenly attributed this post to CollegeAD, because I am a nincompoop who had too many tabs open and not enough caffeine) a few days ago. It’s called “Why Congress Should Regulate Salaries and Spending in College Athletics” and it is basically catnip for the Extra Points readership, I think.

Dr.Blue argues:

Second, it describes how limits on spending would improve college athletics for student-athletes and fans by reducing the pressure on schools to generate incremental revenue. The revenue-maximizing tradeoffs that currently affect student-athletes and fans – such as inconveniently scheduled late night or midweek games that impact academics, and six-day TV selection windows for kickoff times – would occur much less often if spending restrictions were in place, since revenue generated above the spending limit couldn’t be used for competitive purposes.[3]

And third, it suggests that limits on spending would increase competitive balance in college athletics, thereby protecting long-term fan interest and commercial value. Spending limits (structured appropriately for each level of DI competition) would be in the competitive interest of all schools except the small minority who currently generate the most revenue, and thus ought to be supported by a majority of institutions and their fan bases.

I don’t want to quote the entire dang thing, so feel free to click that link and digest for a second. This tab will be open for you when you get back. If there’s interest, I can reach out to him and talk about these ideas more.

I think Dr.Blue has diagnosed a lot of issues correctly. The relentless drive to maximize revenue damages the fan experience, particularly out West, where conferences are forced to schedule games at inopportune times to placate TV partners. The coaching market is probably broken, leading to schools waaaaaay overpaying (especially in buyouts), sapping money away from athletes, general students, or other sports.

This idea also isn’t new. At SB Nation, we wrote favorably about the idea back in 2017. One ESPN writer argued for it back in 2011. It pops up every now and again, and I think it’s reasonable to think it could have a positive impact on competitive balance, and if nothing else, might slow the growth of outrageous buyouts for coaches who aren’t even coaching anymore.

The problem, of course, is that just instituting a coaching salary cap is almost certainly illegal. The 1998 U.S. Court of Appeals decision, Law v. NCAA essentially states that restricting coaching earnings violates the Sherman Antitrust Act.

I wonder if there might be creative ways to get around Sherman if there was any appetite whatsoever to try and forcible reign in coaching salaries within NCAA membership, but I doubt there is. It’s like I wrote earlier this month…fans and media and outside observers might care about competitive balance, but policymakers within the sport? They don’t.

Now, if I was suddenly emperor of college football, I don’t think I’d force my efforts on coaching salary regulation. If this somehow passed legal muster, I think it’d be more interesting, and perhaps more fair, to have a luxury tax on athletic department spending in total, rather than just on coaching salaries.

After all, that’s hardly the only place where expenses are skyrocketing and where waste happens. You don’t need to gold plate the locker rooms every decade, or build enormously expensive new football facilities all the time.

If, hypothetically, a school had to make a dollar for dollar contribution to the general scholarship find for every dollar above oh, $85 million, an athletic department spent, and if you included booster spends in that number too…I bet you’d see a little more skepticism about that next big coaching contract, or construction project, or anything. And you might see schools try to bring their accounting into something a teensy bit more standardized. Maybe you change how you’re account for scholarship cost, if pretending that every scholarship is full tuition, out of state…if that might lead to an increased luxury tax bill.

Would that create new incentives for wildly new, creative cheating plans? Of course. Is it realistic? Nah, probably not. But neither is congress formally restricting coaching salaries.

If fiscal restraint is going to happen, it’ll have to come from within the industry, rather than have it forced upon them by Washington D.C, or at least, in the near future.

So….yeah. It’s probably not going to happen.

Sorry if you’re tired of watching Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama win a whole lot of football games. Because I’m not sure if there’s anything external that could really shake that up.

Short of your alma mater getting way more serious about their bagman game.

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