Is there a “College Football Bubble” and is it about to burst?

This March, ASU announced a “game changing” $268-million stadium renovation which included a “118,669-square-foot building at the north end of the stadium.” Not our ASU, of course, though the athletic department has been working on a North End Zone Project since at least 2012. Nope, this $268,000,000.00 check was written by Arkansas State’s wealthy cousin to the West, Arizona State. “A lot of great donors and supporters have provided this for us,” said Todd Graham, AD for the Sun Devils

Arizona State is far from the only university spending obscene amounts of money on college football.  Oklahoma is forking over $370M on its stadium renovation. Clemson dropped $55M on a new facility that included laser tag, an indoor slide and a nap room. Arkansas State’s buddy to the west, University of Arkansas, shook the state government for $113M in bonds to fund a $160M expansion of a beautiful stadium that rarely sells out.

When will college football fans have enough of this shit?

Let’s revisit Mr. Graham’s statement again: “A lot of great donors and supporters have provided this for us.” What is happening here? What compels people to bypass thousands of charities and organizations that need funding in favor of wealthy athletic programs that already rake in enormous piles of media and merchandising cash?

And for what? Look again at how Clemson spent its wad. Laser tag. Miniature golf. A barber shop. A nap room! This is what your hard earned donation gets you, Clemson fans. But at least you’re not a Texas fan who gets to chip in for $10,000 lockers that look like convenience store ice boxes.

The wasteful avarice of Privileged Five programs is dragging Group of Five programs into the cesspool. When the Big XII made its shamelessly bogus attempt at conference expansion, contending G5 programs like Colorado State, Tulane and Memphis immediately pledged millions of dollars for upgrades. The Tigers were going to spend $500M to join the Power 5. Half a billion bucks! 

Arkansas State is playing the game, too, recently adding a new indoor facility and renovating Centennial Bank Stadium. But unlike the University of Arkansas, which enjoys lucrative media and merchandising revenue (in addition to a generous state government), A-State’s ambitions are both modest and appropriate. For example, Centennial Bank Stadium is 43 years old and has received modest updates in four decades of use. The indoor facility needed a “student activity center” designation before it could be fully funded. The North End Zone Project, first announced in 2012, is still awaiting funding from “private donors.”

Is participating in this expensive arms race good for Arkansas State? Is it good for college football? Keeping up with the well-funded programs in the Power Five is necessary for any Group of Five program willing to remain relevant. Programs like ULM and its cartoonishly small athletics budget are quickly fading out of the conversation. Arkansas State, guided by AD Terry Mohajir’s enthusiasm and system president Chuck Welch’s ambitions, can manage these relatively humble upgrades.

As for college football, this pace of spending is untenable. Already, the dollars that once propped the system is crumbling. ESPN’s recent round of layoffs suggests that $3B media contracts like the one it signed with the SEC is a thing of the past. Where will P5 programs get their millions when ESPN is no longer bankrolling expenses? (A: fans).

The $160M expansion of  Donald W. Reynold’s Razorback Stadium adds about 4,800 seats, but it mostly offers amenities to the well-heeled fans.

When will fans grow tired of these obnoxious displays of wealth? When will we rebel against rising cable subscriptions and ticket price increases? When will fans realize that many of the stadium upgrades they’re funding are meant to enhance the experience of only the wealthiest patrons? Will fans grow weary of watching assistant coaches draw million dollar salaries (while being constantly pressured to spring for season tickets)?

There has to be a tipping point. Eventually, fans will want real value for their donation. Fans may realize that there are more worthy causes to support than luxury locker rooms and athletic facilities that resemble vacation spas.

Be cheered. Arkansas State fans receive good value for their donation. The current remodeling plan for the program is long overdue. The results shows on the field with victories, and off the field with growing fan pride.

But is this sustainable? Should it be?