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  • Writer's pictureBud Sanders

College Football Imitates Business


If you’re any kind of sports fan like me, this weekend is one of the more important ones of the year – the start of college football season! (Yes, I know there have already been a few games played, but you’ll see in a moment why I don’t consider those the official “start” of the season.) For many, it’s also the unofficial start of Fall. And let’s face it, if that outdoor project you planned in Spring hasn’t gotten done yet this summer, the odds of it getting done at this point diminish greatly!

College football has changed a great deal in recent years, it’s different than it used to be. I read an article the other day that pointed out some of the reasons why. Jason Gay, in his Wall Street Journal article[i], used a good bit of humor to highlight some obvious problems with today’s game, or at least the “business” that the game has become. While reading it, it got me thinking about some parallels to what I’ve seen take place in the business world, specifically the playing field or marketing research and consulting. (I use this example because it’s where we play, but it surely extends to other industries as well.)

At its purest, college football is supposed to be about the fan – and the fan, going back to the sport’s roots, is supposed to be the students, staff and community of the college or university. Saturday afternoons would revolve around the big game. You would plan your fall weekends when the schedule came out, making sure you were home for those five or six games you didn’t want to miss. It brought the community together with a common bond and a shared goal – to beat the opponent! And enjoy a fun-filled afternoon in the process.

Over time, starting with the largest schools, this experience started slipping away. As the years have passed, the demise of the game day outing for the “regular” fan, has come upon smaller and smaller schools. Twenty-Five years ago, I lived in Bowling Green, OH. I was there for a couple of years of graduate school and then my family stayed a few more, as we transitioned from “students” to “Townies”. It was a great little midwestern college town. And Saturdays were for college football, and everyone knew it. That’s what we did. We enjoyed “MAC”tion, before that was even a thing. And that leads us to where the problem began…

It seems that no one wanted to watch a Bowling Green vs. Toledo football game on television, great rivalry that it was (and still is). But, so what? There were plenty of other games to watch, and the game is for the community anyway, right? Well, until TV networks decided that live sports was the best kind of “content”. And that’s when you probably started watching BG play Toledo, or Ohio, or Northern Illinois… on a Tuesday or Wednesday night! Wait, what? Why? Because there was money to be made. And suddenly it was no longer about the original core “consumer” of the game, but rather, the entities that broadcast the games and capitalized on the advertising revenue to be had.

Let me be clear about something at this point, there is nary a non-capitalistic bone in my body – I’m all for capitalism and entrepreneurialism – but sometimes we need to check ourselves and see what we’re destroying when we start building. And we need to check our motives… but that’s another article for another day.

And this is where the business of college football starts to imitate business in general – or maybe vice versa. I’ve watched the industry we play in consolidate greatly over the last 20 years. So much so that the first company I worked for, which I left after a few years to move to Atlanta, was eventually bought by the company I was then working for at the time. And I was only working there because they had purchased the smaller company for which I was previously working. The joke at the time was that no one was actually hired by this company, we were all “acquired” through their many mergers and acquisitions. I ended up working with some of the same people, on the same newly formed team, 10 years after I had left them and moved away. My story is not unique.

I’m sure this is in part why I had so longed to start a small company of my own. I had seen what these larger companies were doing to their clients. There was no relationship with them, just a transaction. The client came along with the acquisition, just like the employees. The larger the company would get, the more emboldened they would become with how they treated the client, as well. The client was force-fed into the latest branded tool, or solution. Nothing was custom anymore. It was always, “Oh, we know what you need, you need our Strategizer 2.0 solution. It works for everybody!” If I can tell you anything, it’s that no client wants to be told that their issues are just like everybody else’s.

I remember sitting in a meeting in Kansas City many years ago, while working for one of these large companies. We had a large study that we performed every year, and every year we visited the client to present the results and suggest improvements for the following year. At the time I was the lead statistician on the project. The sales partner and project managers had changed multiple times in the previous three years. During this visit, our client called it out, by asking why, if he was as important as we were telling him he was, did the team change so much? He commented that he and I were the only two people that had been in every meeting those few years. He said this was a problem. He understood that he was no longer a valued client or partner with our firm, he was just a revenue stream. And that was the last meeting we had with him. We lost the account. We had already lost the relationship. They tend to go in that order. I’m grateful that the client and I are still connected. He’s actually one of the more stand-up, honest and respectable folks with which I’ve ever done business.

Fast forward to a lunch I had the other day with another small business owner in our space. We were encouraging each other about the importance of actual relationships in business. We talked about the consolidation that has taken place in our industry. But then, we both expressed our belief that the tide is turning. Turning, in that the small shops that focus on relationships, that provide excellent research and consulting services, are on their way back. Even the largest of companies that have a need for what we do are starting to realize that the bigger providers do not always have their best interest at heart.

OK, you ask, weren’t we talking about college football? Yes, yes we were. And the parallel between losing sight of the fact that the local college football fan should be who college football is played for, and the client should be who the consultant is focused on pleasing. Neither should be considered merely revenue generators. Because when that happens, only a few people win, and it’s typically not the people for whom the game should be being played.

Now, root on your team or teams this weekend (Go BG Falcons! Go Jackets!) and remember why you’re really doing business – and for whom.

~ Bud Sanders

Chief Lightkeeper, President and Founder



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