Envisioning the Future of College Football
Already a big business, college football promises to become a professional sport employing professional athletes, much like the NFL.
- A new ESPN survey of college football players and coaches predicts future directions for college football.
- An imaginary journey to 2032 reveals how current trends will play out in the coming decade.
- We see two major powerhouse conferences, millions earned in endorsements, and even some colleges paying players.
- All these changes threaten to radically alter the sport, for better or worse.
A new ESPN survey offers a glimpse into college football's future. Peeking inside this crystal ball reveals a sport markedly different from what we've come to know and love for more than 150 years.
Let's time travel to 2032, peer over the college football landscape, and see how these predictions turned out.
Two Superconferences . . . and Everyone Else
Gone are the Power Five conferences, which already had consolidated football dominance among 65 schools. Most of those programs never truly stood a chance at winning a national title anyway.
In their place now stands the Two Titans: the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Big Ten. Both have spent a decade gobbling up schools, Pac-Man style. Things kicked into high gear when Texas and Oklahoma bolted the Big 12 in 2024 to join the SEC. So much for the "E," though geographic logic never was baked into conference realignments.
To counterpunch, the Big Ten extracted the University of Southern California and UCLA from the Pacific-12 (Pac-12), adding some Cali panache to the rust belt. Always a misnomer in its own right, the Big Ten now has 20 schools, including Notre Dame, the prized free agent it landed in 2026 amid a reshuffling of television contracts. The conference hasn't changed its name because there's too much brand equity built into its clever logo.
The now-defunct Big 12 and Pac-12 eventually merged into the Western Intercollegiate Football Alliance—commonly referred to as "wiffle"—featuring also-rans unlucky enough to be excluded from the Titans. Applications to those schools have dwindled, as have alumni donations.
Meanwhile, frustrated after losing the Notre Dame bidding war, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) won a court battle to dissolve its media contract, disbanded, and left its teams to maneuver for conference inclusion. A lucky few, such as North Carolina, Clemson, and Virginia, joined the Two. Others found shelter in the American Athletic Conference or Conference USA, catchalls for castoffs. The ACC can at least bask in the former glory of its basketball supremacy.
Not that any of this comes as a surprise. A decade ago, more than a quarter of coaches, players, and athletic administrators participating in an ESPN survey recommended a complete reorganization of teams based on resources and revenue.
And many foresaw the emergence of the Two Titans, though nobody predicted the adoption of such a spiffy moniker.
An Expanded yet Limited Playoff System
Back in 2022, critics of conference realignments and the emergence of the Two Titans feared parity would suffer. What they seemingly ignored, of course, was the simple reality that parity had never existed in the first place. The SEC had long dominated the sport, with the Big Ten and Clemson (now in the SEC) intervening from time to time.
Still, almost 80% of respondents in that year's ESPN survey suggested that a playoff expansion could address parity issues.
And the playoffs did indeed expand. Yet by the time the extant College Football Playoff finished its run in 2026, the Two Titans had emerged and assumed hegemony over the sport. Today, the revamped playoff system includes the six SEC and Big Ten division winners, along with six wildcard teams drawn from the two conferences.
The playoffs extend for almost two months. Meanwhile, lesser teams still compete in meaningless bowl games for the heck of it.
Driving this expansion was, of course, money. Networks battled for exclusive broadcast rights, a bidding war that resulted in a $1.5 billion contract between CBS and the SEC and made the richest programs even richer. Back in the day (2022), 64% of ESPN survey respondents said revenue disparities were one of the "biggest threats to college football's long-term health."
That depends on whose health is in question. Teams among the Two Titans are certainly healthy, raking in more than $100 million each per year from TV contracts alone. Coaches command eight-figure salaries.
As for the rest of college football? Well, they play for the love of the sport, not for princely sums. Alumni still return to campus, especially where long-standing regional rivalries still exist. Games are streamed online for free.
Governing the playoff system is a committee comprising athletic directors from all the Titan schools. This group, presided over by an executive director, sets all the rules for the sport and runs the playoffs. The NCAA no longer has any jurisdiction over college football.
By the time ESPN conducted its survey in 2022, the NCAA had all but lost its grasp on the sport anyway. No wonder nearly 60% of respondents said college football should "break away from the NCAA and form its own system of governance and oversight." And more than 60% said a "czar or commissioner" should oversee the sport.
They got what they wanted, though much to the exclusion of most of them.
Millionaire Student-Athletes Cashing In on Endorsements
You think coaches make a lot? Plenty of players make even more.
Everything changed in 2021 when a Supreme Court decision paved the way for student-athletes to profit from "name, image, and likeness" (NIL) deals. Historians refer to BNIL and ANIL as separate eras.
A year later, nearly 80% of respondents in the ESPN survey called NIL a "black-market pay-for-play system" used to "secure recruits and transfers." Boy, if they only knew. What began as a handful of athletes making a few bucks hawking products on social media grew into a cottage industry worth billions. Athletes now choose schools based largely on the likelihood of NIL deals.
You think the Big Ten had this in mind way back when it laid claim to the Los Angeles market?
Today, as spokesmen for big brands like Nike and Adidas, some college quarterbacks are earning more than their NFL counterparts. No wonder fewer players are leaving school early for the NFL draft. They're not eager for a pay cut.
Those unable to secure NIL endorsement deals find ample remuneration from groups of rich alumni known as "donor collectives." Boosters have always used their wealth to influence recruitment practices, but now it's legit.
What about the expectation, held by half of the ESPN respondents, that the federal government would "create a uniform policy" to regulate NIL activities nationwide? Congress got involved, but only to protect the free-market opportunities for athletes. Ultimately, regulatory decisions were left to the states, conferences, and individual schools.
And we can't forget about universities that pay players directly. Fear of such arrangements was evident among those in the ESPN survey, 54% of whom predicted colleges would be paying athletes within five years. Only 12% thought it would never happen. As if! With the NCAA a distant memory, colleges now can make their own decisions about player compensation.
Pair some sweet NIL deals with a hefty compensation package, and you have yourself a blue-chip recruit (as long as you're one of the Titan schools, that is).
Transfer Portals Enable Endless Player Migration
Athletes unsatisfied with their financial situation can always escape through the transfer portal in search of a better deal. At the time of the ESPN survey, the transfer portal had been in place for four years, and it had already wreaked havoc on college football. Almost 60% of those surveyed said the portal was creating a free agency system that would ultimately damage the sport in the eyes of fans.
Not really. Yes, player fluidity is the norm these days, but sports fans have become accustomed to free agency among professional leagues such as the NFL and the NBA. Fans root for the front of the jersey, as is often said, not the back.
As long as their team is successful, portal hopping is perfectly fine. Just win, baby.
The emergence of a free market—NIL deals and easy migration through portals—has ceded all power to the players. Not the coaches, not the schools, not the conferences. At the time of the ESPN survey, about 46% of respondents said players had "about the right amount" of power, while more than one-fifth said they didn't have enough.
One wonders what they'd think now.
The Professional Sport of College Football
Based on current trajectories, it's easy to imagine college football will look something like this in 2032. Competition for national supremacy is restricted to a handful of elite programs organized into superconferences. Governance and regulation are regional and institutional, not consolidated in one body such as the NCAA. And players are essentially professional athletes playing a professional sport.
"Players don't get paid for their name or their image or their likeness because they're good at math," Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano told ESPN. "They get paid because they're good at football. So we are in the world of professional athletics now."
That's today. What will the next decade bring? Will professionalization—the unfettered pursuit of money in a free market—turn the game into a minor-league version of the NFL? Perhaps that's how fans already perceive it and simply don't care as long as they're entertained and satisfied by the success of their team.
Purists clinging to romantic notions of student-athletes playing for the love of the game and the honor of their schools might decry this dystopian depiction of the future. But college football is more business than sport, and increasingly so.
Whatever materializes in the years to come will be undeniably different; that's certain. And the process promises to be bumpy. The ESPN report concludes that "the growing pains of the current era are causing serious angst for players, coaches, administrators, and fans."
Tighten your chin straps, folks.