All of the sport's problems are yet again on display this week. Huge sums of money are thrown around as teams participate in an increasingly-unwinnable financial arms race. Every year, it feels like the rich get richer, and the gulf between have and have-not gets wider - and yet every year, there are more teams that are clamoring to participate in the big time. There are five big leagues, and while the teams at the top of the pile in those leagues are known far and wide, every area - and in big cities, seemingly every neighborhood - has its own team.
You tell me - am I describing European soccer, or American college football?
On the American sports scene, college football is the best analog for the tradition and pervasivness of European soccer. Unlike professional sports leagues in America, college football isn't a closed franchise system. The same 32 teams will compete for NFL glory, this year and next year, but 128 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision schools start the year this week searching for national glory.
Just like European soccer, programs rise and fall over the years. Minnesota's past glories, and current struggles, call to mind English soccer teams like Nottingham Forest, which won an English championship and two European Cups in the late 1970s, but has languished in the lower divisions for much of the past twenty years.
Between the three NCAA divisions and the NAIA, there are nearly 800 college football teams in the United States. It must be said, though, that not all 800 are playing the same game - and that the five divisions between the teams is probably too few. It's tough to argue that Minnesota and Ohio State, despite being in the same conference, are really competing for the same things; the Buckeyes have won six conference titles in the past dozen years, including a national championship, while the Gophers haven't won the Big Ten in four decades. Similarly, not every small-college team is aiming for the same thing; St. Thomas is now annually competing for the national championship, while winning MIAC games by scores like 80-3 and 78-7.
Do the Gophers belong in the same league as Ohio State - or, for that matter, Maryland and Rutgers, schools that share absolutely nothing at all with Minnesota? Should the Tommies stay where they are, beating up on Carleton with an eye towards the national playoffs?
I love the tradition and history of college football as much as anyone, and I really don't want to get rid of what's existed for years... but maybe something like promotion and relegation isn't a terrible idea. College football has spent years trying to escape tradition, anyway - and the Big Ten's at the forefront, in the ranks of those who are wadding up the history book and throwing it in the garbage. Minnesota won't play Michigan for the Little Brown Jug this year, but it will play Maryland and Rutgers. The folks at the Big Ten office don't care a bit about tradition, but they do care about staging a conference championship game. Why try to hold on, when the conference itself doesn't care?
The NCAA exists to try to level the playing field between schools, and at least in football, it has failed entirely. Coach contracts keep growing, TV revenue keeps going up, and even now, some SEC school is probably plotting to put in personal waterfalls for each player, all because they heard that Phil Knight is hiring three grotto designers for Oregon.
It all feels very much like European soccer, where the rich keep building towards the Champions League, and only a few, rare others - Leicester City being the only example that immediately comes to mind - ever manages to break the big clubs' grip on league titles. College football is more even than European soccer, but that's only because NCAA rules force players to (mostly) stay with their original teams - and even then, how many teams have an actual chance at a national title this year? A dozen, perhaps, if they get a few breaks?
Maybe, then, it's time for college football to consider promotion and relegation. Give each school a chance to find its own level. Let North Dakota State or St. Thomas move up; let schools that can't compete in their league (Vanderbilt, for example) move down. The financial rat race, and ever-shifting conference alignments, mean that tradition is dying off anyway. Maybe it's college football that really needs to look to European soccer for a solution.