Is a Super League the Answer to College Football’s NIL and Transfer Portal Problems?

    A massive change is coming to the college football landscape. What that change will look like has yet to be seen, but could a "super league" work?

    Since June 2021, collegiate athletes have been able to earn money from their personal brands. That money has come from boosters, fan donations, and sponsorships through NIL collectives, as schools are not allowed to pay student-athletes directly.

    However, a donor/fan-led model is not equitable nor sustainable, and that’s not even taking into account the House v. NCAA lawsuit, which is seeking NIL revenue denied to athletes prior to the new policy. Change is coming to the college football landscape — and soon. How will it look?

    Revenue Sharing, a Super League, and the Future of College Football

    The Athletic’s Andrew Marchand and Stewart Mandel recently discussed one option that’s gaining steam: a college football super league. College Sports Tomorrow, a 20-person group that includes Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud, West Virginia president Gordon Gee, and NFL chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp, among others, has been campaigning for the idea since its inception nine months ago.

    According to Marchand and Mandel, the CST’s current super league outline is as follows:

    • The league would be comprised of 70 “permanent” members — every program in the Power Five conferences, as well as Notre Dame and SMU.
    • The top 70 would be placed into seven 10-team divisions, with an eighth formed out of teams that would be “promoted from the second tier.”
    • The remaining 50+ Group of Five teams would be allowed to play their way into the eighth division, similar to the promotion system implemented in European soccer leagues.
    • The 70 permanent teams would not be in danger of moving down, but the rest of the FBS programs would have the “incentive of promotion and relegation.”
    • The playoffs would constitute the eight division winners and eight wild cards from the “top tier” (the top 70 teams), eliminating the need for a selection committee.

    While the idea is interesting, The Atheltic reported CST has struggled to “gain traction with the schools that would play” in the league. The ACC board of directors sat down for a presentation from the group in February but planned dinners with the Big Ten, SEC, and Big 12 all fell through.

    Sources told The Athletic that the meeting cancelations and hesitancy from the other conferences stems from their unwillingness to upset their current broadcast partners, primarily ESPN and FOX.

    Billion-dollar TV deals have been locked in with ABC, FOX, NBC, and CBS, and the FBS agreed to a six-year, $7.8 billion extension with ESPN for exclusive rights to the newly expanded College Football Playoff.

    And those TV deals aren’t ending anytime soon, with the Big Ten’s running through the 2029-30 season, the Big 12’s through 2023-31, and the SEC’s through 2033-34. So, if this super league were to come to fruition, it likely wouldn’t be able to come into play until the early 2030s.

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    Nevertheless, CST believes negotiating TV deals as one entity and unifying broadcast windows, like the NFL, brings value to all involved. As for how the money would be distributed, the model follows the MLS, with universities owning a percentage of the league.

    However, the revenue distribution would not be even, with top institutions, such as Alabama, receiving a larger cut.

    That’s important, with colleges worried about the fallout from the House v. NCAA suit. If the ruling favors the plaintiffs, the NCAA and all the power conferences would be liable for billions in damages, leading Syverud to say, “I really think conferences in the NCAA are at a very significant likelihood of going bankrupt in the near future because of the lawsuits, both the ones that are going to trial soon and those that will follow.”

    The federal antitrust lawsuits, both current and future, are related to athlete employment rights and NIL compensation. Thus, the rising belief that revenue sharing is the future of college football.

    Creating a Super League Is Not a New Idea

    Last year, NCAA president Charlie Baker proposed a new subdivision (a different take on CST’s super league, if you will) in the wake of the lawsuit announcements. It would consist of high-resource schools and be separate from the rest of the FBS and Division 1 football, having its own rules and regulations. Yet, the schools that didn’t make the cut would still play in the College Football Playoff.

    The subdivision would allow schools to arrange NIL deals for athletes with no compensation cap, signaling an unrestricted pay-for-play model. Schools would then be required to invest $30,000 annually — at a minimum — in an “enhanced educational trust fund” for at least half of their athletes.

    KEEP READING: Dan Mullen on NIL, Transfer Portal, and the Future of College Football — “It’s Gonna Lead to Free Agency”

    This is a complete 180 from where the collegiate landscape was just five years ago. What used to be close to a death sentence for programs (actively paying players) would now be the norm — as it should be. But would schools be able to afford Baker’s proposal?

    Currently, athletic department budgets range from $15-250 million among all 134 FBS programs. The 69 Power Five schools (plus Notre Dame) would make up the majority (if not all) of a super league, reducing the financial gap between the highest and lowest revenues. But there would still be a disparity worth noting.

    According to USA Today’s database, Cincinnati ($83 million) and Houston ($78 million) have the two smallest athletic budgets among public Power Five programs, making it difficult for them to compete with the top of the league.

    To that point, blueblood schools would not want to carry others, causing headaches for potential revenue sharing. Essentially, the high-level programs, that rake in the most money would be pulling up those who struggle to do so, but to what gain?

    What’s Next, and How Will NIL and the Transfer Portal Change?

    The births of the FBS and FCS occurred 46 years ago, as larger schools grew frustrated that smaller schools could block NCAA legislation that they needed. It appears further division is around the corner.

    While all the details have not been released, and things would be ironed out over time, there are a few major holes in CST’s iteration of a super league.

    The number of teams is the headliner. Having 80 guarantees a strong base, limits the number of lawsuits from programs and players, and secures interest from a significant amount of CFB fans. Yet, having so many in one league could leave some programs bottom-feeding.

    One solution would be to decrease the number of permanent teams, ensuring elite competition, trimming more volatile programs, and offering the chance for heated promotion/relegation bids.

    There is also the problem of what a super league means outside of football. Currently, conference consolidation forces most of a school’s sports teams to go where football does. However, dividing CFB from other collegiate athletics allows the other sports to do what’s best for their own programs.

    And last, but not least, there’s the negative impact on FCS universities. A super league puts pressure on all involved to focus on revenue, likely removing “money” games — matchups that see FCS teams travel to FBS programs, earning guaranteed payouts for doing so — for the oft-forgotten subdivision.

    Moreover, it would exacerbate the financial disparity already present between the FBS and FCS. Smaller programs struggle to gain media exposure and bring in top-tier recruits. Having 80 teams competing for one trophy and 50 others fighting for promotion would further marginalize FCS teams.

    So, what’s the solution? Brett Merriman developed his own idea with many of the pitfalls and particulars covered, but there are some tweaks I’d make.

    We already have the Power Five (really the Power Four with only Washington State and Oregon State still in the Pac-12) and Group of Five, so why not follow a similar model? There are 134 FBS teams, with more than a handful not pulling their own weight in their conferences.

    Form two new tiers (as suggested by the CST), but have both play for their own trophies, with the bottom squads in Tier 1 conferences playing the top of Tier 2 conferences for promotion/relegation at the end of both seasons. Instead of Tier 1 being 80 teams and Tier 2 being 50, let’s flip it, making Tier 1 more prestigious, with only the top programs making the cut by region to maximize fanbase reach. (Tier 2 would be made of the same regions, just with 16 teams per conference).

    West: 

    • Oregon
    • Washington
    • USC
    • Stanford
    • UCLA
    • Cal
    • Washington State
    • Oregon State
    • Fresno State
    • Arizona State

    East:

    • Penn State
    • Pittsburgh
    • Syracuse
    • Boston College
    • Clemson
    • South Carolina
    • North Carolina
    • West Virginia
    • North Carolina State
    • Virginia Tech

    North:

    • Wisconsin
    • Minnesota
    • Iowa
    • Ohio State
    • Notre Dame
    • Nebraska
    • Michigan State
    • Purdue
    • Michigan
    • Illinois

    South:

    • Texas
    • Texas A&M
    • Alabama
    • Georgia
    • LSU
    • Florida
    • Auburn
    • Florida State
    • Miami
    • Ole Miss

    Central:  

    • Utah
    • Colorado
    • Oklahoma
    • Oklahoma State
    • Kentucky
    • Kansas State
    • Arkansas
    • Missouri
    • Louisville
    • Tennessee

    A new governing body would need to be implemented, as megaconferences chasing TV deals will only destroy the sport (some would say it already has). Additionally, a player association would need to be created to counterbalance, as is the case in most professional sports. This entity would collectively bargain for and serve the best interests of the athletes responsible for making the money.

    Of course, some form of a soft salary cap would need to be put in place for transparency and parity. It’s a “soft” cap because we can’t have Georgia under the same restrictions as Cincinnati.

    The answer? A luxury tax, not dissimilar from the NBA. This allows top programs to load up on talent while giving non-offending teams additional revenue. Essentially, the more you violate the cap, the more you poney up.

    Players would need to be treated as professionals who can negotiate contracts (with maximum and minimum deals) and have actual agents. They could also earn cash through disbursements from jersey sales, autographs, and other school-related items through their university.

    NIL for individual marketing would still exist and could be a pain point for the governing body to monitor, as teams could theoretically hit the salary cap and circumvent it by paying players through sponsorships.

    As for the transfer portal, make it a once-a-year 30-day window (during the summer after spring ball), with the opening week seeing the top players move schools like NFL free agency.

    KEEP READING: From Big Bucks Boosters to Private Pennies, the Human Cost of NIL

    Every player would have one free transfer as an undergrad and another as a graduate. Once the window is closed, rosters would lock, with hardship waivers offered for coach firings and family emergencies.

    Now, this is not a perfect system; none of them are. The final product could look like an amalgamation of the CST, Baker, and Merriman proposals, or something entirely different. The path forward involves a delicate balance of financial disbursement, player rights, and competitive integrity.

    Regardless, it’s clear the sport will never look the same, and its patented parity and tradition are being challenged in unprecedented ways.

    College Football Network has you covered with the latest news and analysis, rankings, transfer portal informationtop 10 returning players, the 2024 college football season schedule, and much more!

    1 COMMENT

    1. NIL was suppose to be used to help the college players help their parents pay their bills because not everybody college player is offer a scholarship and that’s also why the college players leave for the pro’s early and these college players come from very poor neighborhoods next the reason for the transfer portal these college players want to start so they can get recognize by the N.F.L.

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