Throwing The Baby Out With The Bathwater: R.I.P. EA NCAA Football

In the October 2013 Media Post, SLRG’s Jon Last laments the death of EA Sports’ college football game franchise as a possible foreshadowing of how the legal turmoil swirling around the NCAA could erode the brand’s equity.

Call me old school, but for a long time I’ve been less than comfortable with the proposition of paying college athletes. That’s not to dismiss the salient arguments that, particularly at elite D-1 programs, these athletes generate significant prestige and revenue for their schools, but I would cling more strongly to the belief that the opportunity for these athletes to advance themselves afforded by a scholarship and the life lessons and maturation process provided by competing at such a high level is undervalued in the debate.

But my thesis this month is less about the overarching arguments raised in the O’Bannon suit and the recent settlement with EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Company. Rather, it’s to lament the demise of one of my personal guilty pleasures, and how that cruel fact could foreshadow the erosion of one of the unique selling propositions for college sports. I want my EA NCAA College Football ’15 video game, and I’m angry that it has become a legal and political football in the larger debate about compensating college athletes.

I’ve used this space in the past to marvel at the unique and magical environment one can find across college sports stadiums and arenas. To see and hear 60,000 gold-clad West Virginia fans sing “Country Roads” after the Mountaineers’ upset victory over Oklahoma State two Saturday’s ago literally gave me chills, and I am not even a WVU alum. So perhaps it’s my D-III and Ivy League pedigree that has enamored me to the big-time D1 experience that I did not have as a student. More than that, I believe, is the allure that for the most part, these athletes are truly part of a “brand community,” and that creates a special bond that is less prevalent in today’s professional sports reality of rampant player movement and “rooting for a shirt.”

EA’s college football game, forgetting the obvious parallels between its player avatars and the real-life counterparts, did an excellent job in replicating the unique college football environment. For an older guy like me, the game has served as both diversion and immersion into the pageantry, tradition and merchandising that have helped grow interest in college sports alongside the performance of the athletes themselves.

For the next generation of fans, the coveted younger demographic more prone to be playing sports video games than training to ultimately become a collegiate athlete, I surmise that games like EA NCAA College football provided a marketing ROI that far exceeded the approximately $500 million in revenue generated. Yet, for an estimated $40 million settlement, a significant portion of which will go to the attorneys that negotiated the class action, we’re losing a powerful marketing vehicle. The Chicago Sun Times’ Rick Telander did the math, and estimated that the average former and current college football player, who will “benefit” from the class action, will pocket between $133 and $200. So for that pittance, we deprive kids and big kids like me, of an immersive experience that helped grow the brands of 126 universities and college sports as a whole.

Now, clearly there’s much more to this than just the fate of a video game. And one could correctly argue that the absence of an NCAA-branded college basketball game has certainly not hurt the popularity of that sport. But the bigger point of all of this, whether you believe that college athletes should be compensated or not, is that this argument shouldn’t be confined to a courtroom or the bigger visions of sugar plums like the potential redistribution of rights fees dancing in the heads of those behind the larger class action suit against the NCAA.

Rather, the combatants in this growing battle need to see the forest through the trees and be careful what they wish for. They need to understand marketing basics like product differentiation and consumer need states. If the line between professional athletes and college athletes is blurred, there’s risk that the very foundations upon which college sports have been built can be ripped from beneath the “equitable” distribution of revenues and destroy a brand. After all, if there’s ultimately little difference between athletes donning the “flying WV” or an NFL uniform, I might as well just play Madden.