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Powerhouses stumble on level field

Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen tries to recover a fumble against Michigan on Sept. 15

KAI RYSSDAL: Time now for the business of sports...

It might be a little early in the college football season to pay much attention to polls and computer rankings, but one thing is very clear already: This season is anything but normal. Notre Dame is 0 and 3. Mighty Michigan was beaten by tiny Appalachian State. And last week UCLA got whipped by Utah, 44-6. It might just be a reaffirmation that on any given day any team can beat any another team. But our business of sports analyst Ed Derse's here with some thoughts about how the business of college football might just be adding a little parity to the game.

Hey, Ed.

ED DERSE: Hi, Kai.

RYSSDAL: So you check the AP poll, the coaches' poll on a Sunday morning, a Monday morning, and you see schools like Rutgers, Hawaii, South Florida. Those are not football powerhouses.

DERSE: This is not exactly the days as we knew them. What's even more glaring are the schools that are not in the top 25: Notre Dame, Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Florida State, UCLA, Arkansas. Those eight schools over the years have been voted in some poll or another the top team in the nation 35 times, and none of them are in the top 25.

RYSSDAL: All right. Well then I leave it with this question: What the heck happened?

DERSE: Well, the question is, Is this a techtonic shift, or is it sort of a cycle where some of the good schools are down. But, let's make the argument that there might be an actual shift, a power shift, in college football. First of all, a number of years ago they reduced the number of full scholarships from 98 to 85. That means that a number of these mid-level schools now can get some of the talent that the top schools used to get. And, in addition to that, I think you have better high school development -- scouting, recruiting. And you're getting a better quality of overall or average college football player.

RYSSDAL: Get me to the money here. What's the business twist that's making all this happen?

DERSE: Well, a lot of this is about the growth of sports as a business itself. So there are 120 schools playing big-time college football. There's a lot more cash in the system. There's sports marketing, sponsorship. I mean, mid-level schools like Central Florida are selling naming rights to their stadium. And then, of course, there's a lot more television coverage. And TV coverage is very important for recruiting because kids want to see themselves, and want their relatives to see them play on national television.

RYSSDAL: You hear "cash in the system" when you're talking about college sports and I know it's supposed to be oxymoronic but there is a whole lot of cash going on.

DERSE: Oh, there's a ton of cash in the system. Right now there are $2.1 billion of stadium construction projects slated out through 2010. And football, alone, you've got schools -- Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas -- generating about $61 million in annual revenue.

RYSSDAL: There's something I've actually never understood, though. Why is it that football is so lucrative for these schools?

DERSE: Well, you know, first of all their labor costs are incredibly low.

RYSSDAL: Yes, they are.

DERSE: I mean, you're basically paying a college scholarship to 85 players. The other thing is that, you know, it may not be lucrative in the overall sense, but it is very lucrative for the university in terms of its fundraising and sort of the marketing of the school itself. It gets its name out there by having a big-tiime college football program. And where else can you bring that many alumni in to campus and try to get money out of them. I mean, you might have a Nobel Prize-winning economist but his lecture on globalization and price theory is unlikely to get 100,000 people paying $35 a ticket.

RYSSDAL: That is probably true, but let me ask you this, then: How much longer are the crowds going to come see Notre Dame when they're 0 and whatever it is.

DERSE: Well, you know, Notre Dame has a long tradition. The alumni are very loyal. Obviously, you're not going to be very happy with the coach right now. But I think part of the problem is, you know, kids are different today and the attraction of regional schools like Boise State, Fresno State, South Florida -- when they can be on television close to home -- appeals to a lot of them. And then of course some of those kids just don't want to get stuck in South Bend, Ind. I mean, I grew up there but I chose to live in L.A.

RYSSDAL: And here he is. Ed Derse from Fox Sports International. He's a vice president there. He talks to us about the business of sports every now and then. Ed, thanks a lot.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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