Right about now, assuming you’re reading this heading into divisional weekend, you’re prepping for four heavyweight NFL throwdowns. College football has been over for nearly two weeks, with most teams having wrapped their seasons well over a month ago.
But this time next year, we’ll still be awaiting the final game of the 2024-season College Football Playoffs, the culmination of the first 12-team tournament. College football’s championship-level games once served as a way to finish off New Year’s Day, and more recently capped off the NFL’s last regular-season week. Starting in 12 months, though, the CFP will extend well into the NFL playoffs, and college football will attempt what so many other leagues have failed to do: survive in the face of the mighty NFL’s attention-grabbing onslaught.
It’s a bold gamble that raises an even bigger question: Just how much does America love football, anyway? Enough to watch meaningful games five nights a week? Enough to sustain you-must-watch-this intensity for more than a month?
Will America fill up on football? We’re about to find out.
You can understand the math at work in the minds of NFL officials, broadcast executives and conference leaders: Americans love football. So why not just give them more football, and just sit back and watch the dollars roll in?
The danger here is familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a kid in the hours after Halloween. Having all the candy right in front of you sounds like a great idea in theory, but the peril of Too Much Candy is obvious.
Other sports have already run aground on their own variants of this inventory-overload problem. The NBA doesn’t start drawing casual eyeballs until after Christmas Day. Baseball always starts strong, then hits a lull during summer’s dog days before picking up for October. Golf tees off in January, but few pay attention until the azaleas bloom at Augusta National in April. NASCAR leads off with its Super Bowl — the Daytona 500 — but stretches nearly to Thanksgiving, buried in its head-to-head battles with the NFL.
Football maintains fan interest all the way through its season, and that’s because for most teams, the NFL season takes up only a third of the year. College football is even more rare, running for a mere three months, give or take the odd Week 0 game or bowl invitation.
There was a time when the NFL season would already be done. The first Super Bowl — held before it had even earned that name — took place on Jan. 15, 1967. Super Bowl XI, when the Raiders beat the Vikings, stands as the earliest-ever Super Bowl on the calendar: Jan. 9, 1977.
Ever since, it’s crept later and later into the year. The game first broke into February in 2004, when the Patriots defeated the Panthers on Feb. 1. This year, the game will be on Feb. 11, and come 2027, the Super Bowl will be on Valentine’s Day.
College football’s bowl season has culminated for more than a century with the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, but like a band coming out for multiple encores, the season has pushed ever deeper into January. Next year, the semifinal games will be held on Jan. 9 and 10, with the championship coming Jan. 20 in Atlanta.
Football isn’t just spreading up and down the calendar, it’s covering more days of the week, too. The NFL already covers three days of the week until college football ends, then it claims Saturday, too.
The pros have always left Fridays open out of respect to high school football, but college football made no such deal, and starting later this year, the College Football Playoff will kick off on some lucky campus on Friday, Dec. 20. Eleven days later, the quarterfinals will take place on New Year’s Eve and Day, which fall on a Tuesday and a Wednesday. Eight days after that, the college playoffs continue on a Thursday and a Friday … which is right when the NFL’s playoffs kick off.
Both college and the pros have left themselves room to expand, too. Adding two extra NFL playoff teams, and four extra college football teams, could be done without even expanding the season by a single day. (The best teams would lose their byes, but oh well.) On a larger scale, the NFL could add an 18th game, college football could push backward into Week 0 and forward into the traditional Army-Navy Game slot in the second weekend in December.
The upper limit for football consumption is going to be different for every viewer. After the Super Bowl, some fans are happy to pack the jerseys away until September. Others tick down the minutes to their university’s Spring game. But as other sports have shown, once a viewer hits that limit, there’s no more appetite for more games.
Granted, America’s hunger for football may in fact be insatiable. The NFL is pretty much the only viable and reliable entity now on TV. While every other form of televised entertainment is shedding viewers, the NFL is holding strong. The Super Bowl remains perhaps the last standing cultural monolith, one night where we can all come together in our shared loathing of the commercials … oh, and in the spirit of football, too.
But every all-you-can-eat buffet has to come to an end sometime. Somewhere, there will be a high-water mark even for football.