We’re going to do a non-insurance post today with football season approaching. The Saudis have “disrupted” golf and are looking to do the same to soccer.
Could they do the same to pro football? It seems impossible but…it’s actually not that hard once you take a moment to think about it.
First, notice I said pro football, not the NFL. College football has become pro football due to NIL payments, conference realignment, etc.
As the power teams have become more focused on maximizing dollars than their old mission of providing an opportunity for athletes to get a better education, they have made decisions that leave them vulnerable.
Interestingly, this turmoil creates the opening for the Saudis.
Flying Too Close To The Sun
The decision to become more pro-like has led to decisions that are inconsistent with the tradition of college football. The transfer portal means players are “free agents” every year rather than loyal to their alma mater like the alumni base rooting for them.
Recent conference realignment actions have exposed that the only thing schools care about is TV money. Nobody wants to see Oregon-Maryland or Arizona State-Cincinnati conference games. It’s ludicrous.
How is it better to go 7-5 in a mega conference than 10-2 in your old one and have a New Year’s bowl game?
It also moves us closer and closer to a soccer style Super League. Many schools will find themselves uncompetitive in their new leagues.
UCLA isn’t going to win the Big 10. Oklahoma won’t dominate the SEC. That will lead the very top teams to want to stop sharing money with some of the weaker conference members (nice knowing you Vanderbilt and South Carolina).
But where the colleges have miscalculated is the future Super League doesn’t need to be tied to universities anymore. This is where the Saudi cash enters the room.
The Saudi Super League
Rather than let universities manage a Super League, the Saudis should create their own one. It is a lot easier to outbid alumni for college players than billionaire owners for pros.
The mistake other recent new football league efforts have made is settling for players not good enough for the NFL. Thus, it is hard to build fan interest.
If you go back in time, the AFL and USFL challenged the NFL directly but that requires way too large a budget, even for the Saudis.
But a league of 16 teams filled with top college talent? That is affordable (at least to the Saudis) and would be a better product than the average college game.
Plus, by targeting players not yet eligible for the NFL draft, they will not be perceived as a threat. Instead of putting on the charade of players going to college and pretending to care about class in order to get paid, why not let them go to a pro league that prepares them for the NFL with no distractions?
Quality of Play
The Saudi Super League would be a much higher quality game than the average Saturday of college games.
You wouldn’t have weekends with Alabama whooping Missouri or Ohio State destroying Rutgers. There certainly wouldn’t be any cupcake games where it’s 58-3.
You’d have good games featuring future NFL stars. It would be the equivalent of having New Year’s Bowl games every weekend!
Unless you’re an alum of a top college program or live in a state like Alabama or Texas where people root for the college team more than the pro team, are you really going to feel bad about watching the St. Louis Arches vs. the Memphis Flying Elvis because it’s not a “college” game?
The Saudi league equivalent of Alabama and Clemson would be better than today’s Alabama and Clemson. They’d be able to pay up for star coaches as well.
It would become at worst a better minor league than college and at best a viable alternative like the old AFL.
For those unfamiliar, high school players now get paid to play in college. While the amounts vary widely, there are some players making millions from NIL (name, image, & likeness) payments.
While the Saudis might have to pay an NFL star $50+M to leave, they could likely get any star college sophomore or junior to leave school for $5M or less.
If they offer a top 25 high school recruit $1M/yr to skip college, how many would say yes? Probably most.
What if the Saudis offered Arch Manning (Peyton’s nephew) $10M/yr to skip college?
Think of all the college players unhappy with playing time who would be interested in a new pro league rather than transferring to a new college. Imagine if the Saudi league made the next Joe Burrow or Justin Fields a star. That would be must see TV.
If you’re a sophomore who is a projected first round pick, why not leave college for the Super League, get paid a lot, and play vs. better competition?
Most of the top returning college players would likely bolt for the money. College football would end up more like college basketball where the stars play for a year or two and then leave.
The difference is instead of going straight to the NBA, football players would go to the Saudi league before the NFL.
Advantages for the Players
In addition to getting paid more than in college, there would be other benefits. The coaching staffs would be more experienced and would specialize in developing players for a pro style game.
There would be some form of salary cap but no draft, so each team would have to “recruit” its own players which enables the better players to get paid more but the cap prevents super teams from forming.
From a fan interest standpoint, there would be a big “free agency” period every year where fans can speculate on which team will sign which players out of college.
One of the big failures of other upstart leagues is there is no interest outside the actual games. By comparison, the major sports generate as much attention for who might leave one team for another. Adding this recruiting element will create buzz for the league.
I’ve mentioned a couple times now that this league would be a gateway to the NFL. But would it stop there?
Might players want to stay in the Saudi league permanently? Absolutely. Once successful players reach the age where they are draft eligible, the Saudis could outbid the NFL to keep the players.
The Transfer Market
What if a player wants to leave for the NFL? There would be a transfer market like in soccer.
NFL clubs would pay the Saudi team a fee to get the negotiating rights to the player. Most players would probably choose to go this way, even if the pay is less, due to the prestige of the NFL.
But those transfer fees will help the Saudis fund continued salary expansion to the point where they can be more competitive at keeping young players from leaving for the NFL.
Also, they would be wise to not attempt to sign any established NFL players. Not only will this lead to all out war, it creates an incentive for the players to stay.
If a player decides to leave for the NFL draft, they will realize they can never come back for the higher Saudi money. This might entice some players to forgo the NFL if they feel they can get paid twice as much over their career staying with the Super League.
The New Status Quo
There are so many more ideas I can get into but I’ll try to keep this brief. What is the ultimate outcome of this new league for all parties?
College football returns to more of its original purpose. It is part of the college experience and still very profitable but no longer a professional organization in disguise and the size of TV contracts will decline.
The quality of play will decline somewhat but there will be more balanced competition as Alabama, Georgia, and Clemson won’t be half of the NFL’s first round every year.
Instead, it becomes more like college basketball where most of the best players won’t make the pros but will stay for four years.
The Saudis probably can’t be competitive with the NFL for TV ratings, but they will likely get some young stars to skip the NFL which will make them more attractive than college football and justify TV contracts at least as big as the SEC.
If they’re smart, they’ll play Friday night and eventually Saturday to steal some of the college audience but leave the NFL alone.
The NFL is largely unchanged on the field though they will lose some future stars. Economically, they will need to pay more in salary and profits will go down.
While the NFL will be annoyed to lose its monopoly on talent, the fact that most of the Saudi players are college age and draft ineligible means the NFL won’t try to put them out of business.
It is possible the NFL would lower its age limit to try to destroy the Super League but they have shown no interest in wasting roster spots on younger, developmental players so this is unlikely. It is more likely they would try to buy the Super League to control it.
In time, the two leagues can develop a beneficial partnership where fans know the young players better because they are spread over fewer teams. This means fan interest in the transfer market will increase rooting interest for the NFL and create a new market like what has happened with the draft.
While some will be offended by a large football league owned by the Saudis, others are similarly turned off by the commercialism of supposedly amateur college football. I don’t think either side has a moral high ground.
The college teams opened themselves up to this sort of challenge when they agreed to NIL money and rampant conference realignment that fed their giant TV contracts.
If they want to benefit from the upside of the free market, they also have to respect the threat of competition.
Will the Saudis decide to pursue this? There is no indication yet they will, but given their interest in gaining beachheads in professional sports, displacing college as the feeder league to the NFL seems like an obvious next move for them.