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What college football executives should learn from the demise of newspapers

Jan 15, 2016

Last week, MLive.com laid off 29 more employees.

On Monday, Alabama beat Clemson for college football’s national title.

These might seem unrelated to you, but not to me. I see a pattern here – and a warning for college football, if it’s smart enough to listen.

In 1835, local citizens who cared about Ann Arbor started a newspaper. It survived a civil war, two world wars, the Great Depression, radio and TV. It was still going strong well into the 1990s, producing a robust 20% annual profit.

Did they put the money into the product, or the future?

No, they cut reporters and travel budgets, and sucked out the profits for the owners and executives, while they scoffed at the Internet.

In 1998, The Ann Arbor News still didn’t have email addresses for its employees, and had exactly one computer with Internet access. Your home probably had more. 

... they cut reporters and travel budgets, and sucked out the profits for the owners and executives, while they scoffed at the Internet.

  When one of the corporate executives visited another paper in the chain, he saw a friend of mine doing research on their only Internet computer.

The executive joked, “Ooh, you’re looking at porn!”

He then compared the Internet to the CB radio craze in the seventies. He pointed to the computer. "Exactly the same thing. The Internet’s a fad."

The executive soon retired with a golden parachute, leaving my friends to suffer the consequences of his ignorance, arrogance, and greed.

The leaders of The Ann Arbor News weren’t from Ann Arbor, they didn’t like it, and they didn’t live here. Their paper reflected that.

They didn’t care as much about their employees, their readers, or their product as they did about profits. They never grasped that those things are all connected. 

So what’s this have to do with Monday’s college football game?

Last year, college football set up the first four-team playoff in the sport’s 146-year history.

The games were great, the ratings spectacular, the profits enormous.

This year, they held the two semi-final games on New Year’s Eve – and the ratings plummeted by 40%. Okay, the games were blow-outs, so they blamed that, but on Monday night, Alabama beat Clemson in a 45-40 thriller – and the ratings still dropped 23%.

Now what do you blame? I can answer that.

They used to play the best bowl games on New Year’s Day, from noon to night. This year they kicked off at 8:30 p.m., on Monday, January 11th, a school night. The game ended after midnight.

How many kids stayed up that late to see the game end?

You can only trade tradition for novelty once.

College football is also losing future fans by playing their regular season games at noon, or 3:30, or at night – or on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

The networks don’t move around your favorite shows like that, for a reason: they’d lose their audience.

Guess what’s happening to college football?

"I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying -- it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off." - Molly Ivins

Ten years from now, the people running college football will be shocked to discover its audience is dying off, younger people are failing to replace them, and attendance and ratings have swooned.

They will blame it on apathy or cell phones or the Internet, or just about anything other than themselves – just like the former newspaper executives do now.

But when that happens, please don’t tell me it was inevitable, or unavoidable.

Instead, remember what the great Molly Ivins said about the demise of newspapers: “I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying — it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”

And that’s how I feel about the people who are ruining college football.