Gene Smith Believes College Football Super League is Worth Considering But Revenue Model Must Make Sense for Ohio State

By Andy Anders on April 19, 2024 at 11:35 am
Gene Smith

The end of the Gene Smith era for Ohio State athletics comes amid the greatest era of change college football has ever known.

Liberties for players in both mobility and the ability to earn an income for themselves and their families have grown at a breakneck pace over the past five years and change. The transfer portal combined with the recent addition of unlimited transfers has created de facto free agency in the sport. NIL has opened the door for players to be paid and earn profit from their names, images and likenesses.

Those topics led to a conversation about the future structure of college football during Gene Smith’s appearance at the Fawcett Center on Thursday.

Smith oversaw changes to that structure in terms of conference realignment during his tenure. First came Nebraska to the Big Ten in 2011, then Maryland and Rutgers in 2014. The biggest additions will soon follow with Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA all joining the conference as Smith concludes his final year before retirement. The SEC will be adding Oklahoma and Texas this season as well.

With the ever-growing clamor for television money, what Smith described as a former “leadership void” in the NCAA and the continued separation of the haves of the sport from the have-nots, a broader vision for the future structure of college football has emerged – a “Super League” of the top teams. Smith believes it’s a concept worth considering.

“I don’t know if we’ll get there or not. I think we’ve gotta be open to that conversation and what the private equity people are talking about,” Smith said.

Conversations have ramped up nationally in the last few weeks about the potential for a Super League.

Sportico recently obtained a “pitch deck” circulated among college sports stakeholders in mid-February detailing a specific 80-team plan for how a new league could look. The model features 70 teams split across seven 10-team regional divisions, featuring each of college football’s power conference teams. Ohio State is in the Midwest division under the plan, joining Cincinnati, Illinois, Indiana, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri, Northwestern and Purdue.

An eighth 10-team division of smaller schools, determined by a system of relegation/promotion similar to how European soccer leagues function, rounds out the 80-school model.

Smith’s biggest concern with the concept is how money from TV contracts and the like will be split among such a large field of teams. While he doesn’t mind the fact that massive brands like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, USC and others will share those revenues equally among 18 teams – some of which clearly don’t hold the same stature as those brands – in the Big Ten, the numbers for a Super League worry him.

“I would be more concerned about the revenue share,” Smith said. “Seventy teams (is what) I think I’ve read about and heard about, but the Ohio States of the world aren’t gonna feed everybody.

“We’ve fed some of the teams in our league and they’ve fed us. We’ve gotta play somebody. So at the end of the day, you’re talking 70 versus 18 and you’re talking 16 in the SEC. So it’s simple math. And then, by the way, we’re not the only school in our league that feeds others. So now you’re talking 70. I struggle with that.”

Smith also acknowledged that perhaps there’s something he hasn't seen yet that the private equity side of a potential Super League could cover, one that ensures Ohio State is pulling in a similar revenue to what it is earning under the Big Ten’s current form. The conference started a new seven-year, $8 billion TV deal in 2023.

Structural change is undoubtedly going to keep happening in college football. And it may just have to come from outside the NCAA, whose power is continuing to wane. Smith feels that while at one time the organization did its job well and has tried to innovate in recent years, irreparable damage was done near the end of Mark Emmert’s tenure as president.

“I think it’s worked exceptionally well during my tenure,” Smith said. “What it didn’t do was shift. I think there was a period of time where the association was strong, where the governing structure was strong. But everything is about leadership. And I have a lot of respect for Charlie Baker, our executive director now, our president now. But he’s probably four or five years too late and he’s trying to recover. The organization didn’t shift with the times or the ecosystem that we served, which is why you have all these interest groups, pressure groups in it right now. Lawyers, politicians, everybody. When there’s a leadership void, people will step in.”

“When there’s a leadership void, people will step in.”– Gene Smith on why the NCAA failed to evolve

That’s the toll of toiling over what Smith felt should have been common-sense changes in the past.

“It took us seven years to get cost of attendance (paid for college athletes),” Smith said. “The only way that we could create the Student Opportunity Fund was through a negotiation with the NCAA Basketball Tournament and embed it in that revenue share model, which we should have been able to provide Pell (Grant)-eligible student-athletes with resources before that.”

Smith added that proposed guardrails around the allowance of NIL in college sports were removed after the legislation went to the NCAA Board of Directors when first instituted.

There are still concerns Smith holds around the current structure of college football and the expansion of the playoff, too, though he’s more worried about the number of practices than the number of games.

“I have a concern about the length of the season, and I’ve actually had concerns about the football student-athlete experience practice-wise overall,” Smith said. “I don’t worry about the games. Football players don’t play that many games, frankly. So it’s really about making sure that you have a culture where the coach and your support staff, everybody understands, you’ve gotta manage practice. You’ve gotta take care of their bodies.”

But as the Super League conversation continues, Smith believes it’s something that the powers that be have to be open to – with revenue considerations.

“We’ve gotta listen to that, we’ve gotta learn, because maybe that might be the right model,” Smith said. “I know this, I won’t be in the seat but places like Ohio State, if they’re in that model, it can’t be like the NFL model where revenue is shared equally. We don’t draft, we recruit. We chase championships and make investments to chase championships in football. Everybody else doesn’t do that.”

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