Here’s an interesting fact: Between 1985 and 2010, average salaries at public universities in the U.S. rose 32 percent for professors, 90 percent for presidents and 650 percent for football coaches.
You don’t need to be Isaac Newton to work out from these figures that college football in America is a big deal. And, if like me you didn’t grow up in the U.S., it can be difficult to comprehend exactly just how big a deal.
For the uninitiated, trying to grasp even a basic understanding of how American college football works can be a daunting task. Similar to major league sports, college football teams are divided up into geographical conferences. However, things get somewhat confusing on closer inspection of said conferences. For example, there are 12 teams in the Big Ten, but only 10 teams in the Big XII. Matters are further complicated by the system by which a champion is determined. From 1998 to 2013, 10 teams were invited to play five match-ups in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), but only one game really mattered: the BCS National Championship Game. The two teams selected to play for the championship were chosen by an elaborate system of voters and computer algorithms that sometimes produced perplexing results. In 2004, for instance, Auburn won all 13 of their regular season conference games but were snubbed by the system and robbed of the opportunity to play for the championship. This convoluted and confusing process has long been the primary criticism of the game from most fans, leading many to call for reform.
And this year the call was finally answered. Beginning next fall, a new playoff system will determine the champion. A committee of 13 members (which for some bizarre reason includes Condoleezza Rice) will select four teams that will play two semi-final games with the winners of each advancing to play for the championship. No voters. No computers. But Condoleezza Rice.
However complex the system for deciding a winner may be, there is one thing that cannot be misunderstood: college football is rampantly popular in America.
The four teams with the highest average attendances—Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama and Texas—all averaged more than 100,000 spectators for every home game in the 2013 season. And last September, Michigan beat their own previous attendance record when 115,109 fans crammed into the stadium to watch them take on Notre Dame. That’s around 10,000 more than the record attendance for an NFL game. To put this in perspective, consider the average attendances of the four biggest European soccer clubs during the 2012-13 season: Borussia Dortmund (80,520); Manchester United (75,529); Real Madrid (73,368) and Barcelona (72,660).
With the exception of the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, intercollegiate athletics in the U.K. attracts little to no interest. You could go and watch a soccer match between the first teams of two British universities and be one of only a handful of people (and perhaps a couple of dogs) present. The reason for the indifference is that the route to being a professional athlete in Britain doesn’t go via college. European soccer clubs, for example, will scout players from an early age and sign them to their youth academy. (Last year Belgian club FC Racing Boxberg signed a 20-month-old toddler, making him the youngest professional footballer in the world.) If the player is good enough, they will be offered a professional contract somewhere around the age of 16, completely forgoing any further education.
For many students in America, getting behind the college team is an integral part of campus life. It’s the essential extra-curricular ingredient in the university experience and it often influences a student’s choice of academic institution. With it comes a feeling of tribal-like belonging and identity that they will carry proudly for the rest of their lives.
Another significant portion of the college fanbase is the wider community. There are 24 U.S. states without a major league sports team, and college football fills the void. Take Alabama: a state with five million people and four stadiums with capacities over 80,000. For people living here who want to watch competitive team sports, their only option is college ball.
Despite its popularity, college football has often faced heavy criticism from those who feel it detracts from the reason everybody is at college in the first place: education. There is no question that games are huge social events where, for a day or two at least, beer takes precedent over books. The knock-on effects of this are unsurprising. An eight-year study conducted by the University of Oregon found that when the school’s football team performed well, grades suffered. The study compared almost 30,000 students’ G.P.As to the win-loss record of the Oregon Ducks from 1999-2007 and found that for every three games won, the male students’ G.P.A. dropped 0.02. Women’s grades, on the other hand, never faltered. The upshot of all this was a widening of the G.P.A. gender-gap by a whopping 9 percent.
College football has come under further scrutiny because of the way it’s financially structured. Thanks to big television deals and gate receipts, millions of dollars in revenue are generated every season. Where do these dollars go? Well, last year, the three highest-earning college football coaches all took home paychecks of over $5 million, and the top 30 highest-paid coaches were all on salaries over $2.5 million. But the players receive no compensation other than a free education and a shot at the big time. (It’s a long shot, mind you: less than 2 percent of college players go on to play in the NFL.)
The United States is the only country in the world where college sports are as popular (if not more so) than the professional ones. This is a part of American culture that is difficult to appreciate if you didn’t grow up with it. Imagine 100,000 spectators turning up to watch a soccer game between Queen’s College London and Northumbria University. It’s unfathomable.