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National Championship Preview: How Ohio State can take down Alabama
Sports Pulse: Sports reporters Dan Wolken and Paul Myerberg give us their takes on how they think the game will play out
SportsPulse, USA TODAY
The national championship game Monday night between Alabama and Ohio State seems to have almost all the right pieces in place for a college football masterpiece – two undefeated teams in a matchup of bluebloods from the biggest hotbeds in the sport: the Midwest and the South.
The game will feature a Heisman Trophy winner, a star young coach for Ohio State and arguably the best coach of all time on the sideline for Alabama.
But something’s still missing in the bigger picture — roughly half the country west of Kansas.
This happens every year now: Powerhouse programs from the Eastern and Central time zones dominate the show, not just at the end of the season, but also in television viewership and getting the best players.
And that’s a problem, experts say. College football has become increasingly lopsided geographically, turning the sport into a sectional celebration in which the West is seldom if ever relevant.
“Just hearing that come out of your mouth makes me upset,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said in a recent interview with USA TODAY Sports. “We as a sport have got to be able to be a national brand, a national sport.”
Right now, it is not, according to several metrics, including the eastern migration of some of the top players in Monday’s game. Alabama running back Najee Harris, Ohio State receiver Chris Olave and Ohio State offensive lineman Wyatt Davis are all from California but chose to move across the country instead.
“I just feel like guys from out West, especially in California, if you’re going to go through college football and put yourself through the type of commitment that it is, why not go to a school that puts you in the position to play for it all?” Davis said Thursday.
He has a point. Since the College Football Playoff began in January 2015, teams from west of Kansas earned only two of the combined 28 playoff berths and none since December 2016. Teams from west of the Mississippi River earned only six of the 28 berths, including four defeats in four appearances by Oklahoma.
The last national title claimed by the West was in January 2005, when Southern California won the Bowl Championship Series title game against Oklahoma. This year, no team west of Chicago even got into the four-team College Football Playoff, adding to the evidence that the West has been left behind in a sport that lacks centralized leadership to look out for the sport’s national interest.
College football instead is dominated by five regional leagues looking out for themselves, only one of which is west of Kansas: the Pac-12 Conference. This in turn raises concerns about the future growth of the sport nationally and in the Pac-12 in particular.
If western teams are never relevant, children in California, the nation’s most populous state, might not build a lifelong interest in the sport.
“Think of schools like USC and UCLA and Washington and Oregon and Stanford – are you kidding me?” Herbstreit asked. “How can we not let those brands and that entire conference feel like they matter?”
Is it cyclical?
At issue is how much of the disparity is baked into the national football cake and how much is a temporary phase. The two easternmost time zones have roughly three-quarters of the American population and most of the sport’s biggest longtime brands, including Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Alabama.
But what if USC had played a little better to earn a playoff spot this past season, when the Trojans finished 5-1, or in 2017, when they finished 11-3? Would that kill the narrative of college football losing the West? The Pac-12 has taken that position.
“While the CFP unquestionably drives a lot of perception, I am confident in our football trajectory and fundamentals,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “Our schools and football programs are focused on improving every year and investing in success. Our league has both depth and elite teams, and we are confident that we will be back in the CFP.”
In the meantime, other markers highlight the continental divide.
TV viewers: The most-watched game between teams west of Kansas this season was the Pac-12 championship between USC and Oregon, which ranked 36th nationally for the season through Dec. 31 with 3.85 million average viewers, according to Sports Media Watch, which covers television ratings. The second-most watched western game was between USC and UCLA, which ranked 49th with 3.24 million viewers.
This was not just because the Pac-12 got a later start than other leagues because of the pandemic. Last year, the most-watched game between western teams also was the Pac-12 championship between Oregon and Utah, which ranked 32nd through Dec. 31, 2019, with 5.86 million viewers.
Consumer demand: The power brokers of major college football have capitalized on the regional popularity of their sports through their own TV networks on cable. After launching in 2007, the Midwestern-based Big Ten Network had an average of 54 million subscribers in 2020, with 59 cents in average revenue per subscriber per month, according to Kagan, S&P Global Market Intelligence. By contrast, the Pac-12 Network has 16.3 million subscribers bringing in 10 cents in revenue per subscriber per month.
This is a function of consumer demand and helps create a disparity between leagues in total revenue distribution: $56 million per team for most teams in the Big Ten and roughly $32 million per team in the Pac-12.
The best players: Of all western schools, Washington had the most players on NFL rosters in September with 28, according to NCAA data. But that only ranks tied for 12th nationally behind the powers of the South and Midwest. Alabama and Ohio State led the nation with 56 and 50.
The best football players per capita also come from the South, according to NFL data from 2020. The states with the most NFL players per capita are Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, based on players’ hometowns, not colleges. Each of those states produced one NFL player per 97,000 people or fewer, compared to the national average of one per 180,000.
To build their elite teams, Ohio State and Alabama didn’t even need to go far for players. Alabama’s roster this season lists 50 players from Alabama, 16 from Florida and three from California, among other states. Ohio State has 54 players from Ohio, eight from Texas and five from California, among others.
Harris, the Alabama running back, said Wednesday one reason he left California was to show “that West Coast people can play … that West Coast guys can play in conferences like this.”
If the Pac-12 wants to keep players like him home, it will have to change such perceptions. The question is how.
“Among the ongoing issues to consider would be expanding the playoff to increase the likelihood of capturing other markets, which just might help schools keep certain recruits closer to home given the heightened exposure they may receive,” said David Carter, a sports business consultant and associate professor at the USC Marshall School of Business. “Doing so may revitalize certain programs over time while stoking interest in emerging ones.”
Carter said geographic diversity is an important part of the equation for future growth, but the sport remains driven by its biggest brands and markets.
Most of that is in the Eastern and Central time zones.
‘Merit is what fans want’
Only 27 of 130 major college teams are west of Kansas (21%), a region where college football is much less ingrained in the culture and less of a priority. The population of the 13 states fully west of Kansas also comprises only about 25% of the total U.S.
On the other hand, the West includes the nation’s biggest economy (California), four of the nation’s 15 biggest metro areas (Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle) and several tradition-rich programs, including USC and Washington.
In November, USC and Arizona State even started a game at 9 a.m. local time in Los Angeles in an effort to reach more eyeballs back east.
As a national sport, college football should want more eyeballs on the West Coast, too. But it’s not a national sport, according to its governance. The Power 5 leagues make their own television deals and decisions on key subjects, such as when to start the season. That showed during the pandemic in 2020 when teams from the Southeastern Conference played twice as many games as teams from the Pac-12.
“One of the things that’s become very apparent during the pandemic is we don’t have one voice; we have lots of voices,” Herbstreit said. “We have the Power 5 conference commissioners that are all worried about their own backyard and their own constituents.”
Centralized leadership would help in theory. So would increasing the playoff field from four to eight teams. If college football wanted further parity, it could reduce each team’s scholarship limit from 85 to 75, preventing certain elite teams from hoarding the best players.
“We have too many voices, and we need to have those voices, but they need to report to one voice, and that one voice needs to care about (regional relevance),” Herbstreit said. “It needs to care about `What are we going to do about the postseason? How are we going to take care of, figure out a better way to crown a champion, but at the same time make all these other teams feel like they have a chance to one day be a champion?’ ”
CFP executive director Bill Hancock previously told USA TODAY Sports that the playoff has a reason for taking geography into account when selecting title game sites. One of the goals was to “move the championship game around the country, so people in different areas could experience top-level championship college football,” he said in 2019.
Los Angeles has been selected for the game in January 2023. He views the larger situation as cyclical.
The game wasn’t always dominated by Alabama and Ohio State, for example. Colorado and Washington won shares of the national titles in the early 1990s. USC reemerged as a national power about 10 years later. In the 2003 season, the Trojans even finished 12-1 while Alabama finished 4-9.
“Every sport, collegiate and professional, goes through phases in which one team is dominant, only to fade, and another dominant team emerges,” Hancock said in an e-mail. “Sometimes these cycles are short and sometimes they are long – but dominance is determined on the field. In college football, Nebraska, Southern California, Oklahoma, Florida State and others have been dominant teams in the past. Teams make the playoff based on merit, not geography. Merit is what fans want. Geography will rotate, as it always does, over time.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com