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Punt for power: why college football generates millions

Big business... the Championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Big business... the Championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Photo: Mike Ehrmann

During the run by the Sydney Swans to the AFL premiership last year their jaunty team song was heard often, ''Cheer, cheer the red and the white,

Honour the name by day and by night . . .''

Like so many subliminal American influences on Australian culture, most fans don't know the song is a knock-off of the most famous team song in American sports, the Victory March of the Notre Dame football team, a tradition since 1928:

''Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame,

''Wake up the echoes cheering her name,

''Send a volley cheer on high,

''Shake down the thunder from the sky.''

Just how popular Notre Dame is, and just how much shaking down goes on when the university's Fighting Irish football team is involved, is evident with a few simple calculations.

On Monday night, local time, in the Sun Life Stadium outside Miami, a capacity crowd of 80,120 people watched two ostensibly amateur teams play for the national college football championship. For the first time in 24 years, Notre Dame was playing for the title.

According to ESPN, which broadcast the game, the average ticket price was more than $US2000 ($A1900).

Leaving aside the tickets allocated to 5000 students from Notre Dame and their opponents, the University of Alabama, we are left with this sum: 75,000 tickets, at $US2000 each, equals $US150 million.

This for a single game, between ''amateur'' teams. The cost was probably higher. On the secondary market, nosebleed seats with a face value of $US350 were going for $US1800.

The best seats cost about $US4000. Tickets behind the Notre Dame bench were re-selling for twice the cost of tickets behind the Alabama bench, even though Alabama were the defending national champion.

Each university was allotted 14,500 tickets for the game. Alabama received 42,000 applications, Notre Dame received more than 100,000, despite the game being held 2000 kilometres from the university, in Indiana, and its biggest support bases in New York and Chicago. Notre Dame installed a lottery system and a non-refundable fee for each application and netted $US1.2 million from the process.

Parking was not cheap. The top fee at the stadium was $US500. Because the game was held far from both fan bases, the cost of hotels, air fares, hire cars, petrol and meals for travelling fans would have been as high as the $US150 million generated in ticket sales.

ESPN paid $US125 million for the broadcast rights. With the TV audience peaking at 27 million in the US, presumably the network covered its costs. Add it all up and this single game generated more than $US500 million in revenue. This might explain why in a poor state such as Alabama, which ranks near the bottom, 45 out of 50 states, in per capita gross domestic product, the coach of the University of Alabama football team, Nick Saban, is paid $US5.5 million.

It is not just because he has built the most powerful football program in the country, with his team thumping Notre Dame 42-14 on Monday to win the title again, but because the University of Alabama football team, the Crimson Tide, is the biggest thing in the state.

Tribal passions built around football can run deep in the deep South. In Alabama, the biggest event of the year, by far, is the annual game between in-state college football rivals, Alabama and Auburn, who between them have won the past four national championships.

In 2010, as Auburn was on its way to the national title, the oak trees near the centre of Auburn's campus, where fans gather to celebrate victories, were poisoned by a rabid Alabama fan.

Other questionable elements mark the competitive zeal. While Notre Dame has the highest graduation rate for its football players in the country, 97 per cent, at Alabama, the graduation rate is 75 per cent.

This is poor by normal standards but by the standards of college football it is very good, among the highest in the country. The big money sports, football and basketball, have compromised many American universities.

It is a layer of US society that is crucial to the character and traditions of the nation, yet is little understood in Australia.

We just don't have this college culture, with its incredible pomp and ritual, its precision marching bands, its passionate tribal followings among students and alumni and its connections to the military.

So different, and yet so many elements of this story are the path professional sports in Australia is following.

Whatever happens, it's all going to cost a lot more.

Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_

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54 comments

  • Yeah, ok the song is borrowed, but their game still makes less sense than ours.

    Commenter
    SteveH.
    Date and time
    January 10, 2013, 8:36AM
    • Your wisdom, SteveH, extends beyond the sphere of politics !

      "Gridirion" really is rubbish, 3 seconds of "action" and then several minutes of timeouts, TV commercials, adjusting jockstraps, endless slo mo replays of the non-action, and then another 3 seconds of "action".

      Repeat endlessly !

      Commenter
      JohnB
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 9:52AM
    • In the interests of context "SteveH." is speaking from a feminists view.

      I believe the cheer squads are quite proficient.

      But that is only my male perspective.

      Commenter
      J. Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 10:13AM
    • Are you kidding? AFL is about as confusing as watching an ants nest. There is clearly a goal but how it is achieved is mystery. However AFL is still a great watch even though there seems to eb a fair bit of scrapping that most sports wouldn't accept.
      One thing though NFL is more like rugby league with played with intelligence and once you understand the complexity and skill level required it is highly entertaining.

      Commenter
      jcpry
      Location
      New Zealand
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 11:09AM
    • In your OPINION! There are others who can appreciate ALL sports, for their skill and complexity.

      Commenter
      TommyP
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 12:24PM
    • "One thing though NFL is more like rugby league with played with intelligence and once you understand the complexity and skill level required it is highly entertaining."

      Haha, funniest I've heard this year, rugby league, used in the same sentence as intelligence and skill. The NRL has nothing on the NFL, and that's coming from an AFL fan.

      Commenter
      Bustin
      Location
      Earth
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 1:38PM
  • And the grand irony is that American football isn't even a watchable sport (all those ridiculous time outs, etc). Americans would freak out if they ever saw proper footy.

    Commenter
    Derek
    Date and time
    January 10, 2013, 8:37AM
    • Proper footy? Haha, are you living under a rock? There are plenty of codes of football... Don't discredit it before you give it a try.

      Commenter
      BigD
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 9:42AM
    • Is it the fact that Australian Rules is only popular in Australia that makes its fans so insufferably condescending when talking about other codes?

      Commenter
      Dan
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 9:43AM
    • I had a debate with a very wise (unusual for a Collingwood fan) colleague, a TV sport producer.
      I maintained that Soccer was the form of football with the greatest skill demands.

      "Terry" simply replied that of all the "Football" codes out there, AFL was the only one where the maximum score could only be achieved by the foot making contact directly with the ball with no other human interference on its path to the goal.

      Commenter
      JohnB
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 10:02AM

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