Can't you remember it? The autumn air. The pageantry. Maybe having a pregame pop (or two) at your old fraternity house or at a tailgater beforehand. Reminiscing with good friends of good times gone by, and friends who've passed away. The cupped hands amplifying the roaring of 50,000 fans on a critical 3rd and long. Drummers' concussive cadences... Oh! The band is out on the field! The cannon went off... Touchdown!
"The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!"
The glory. Victory.
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Here at the Center for the Future of Work, we've long talked about "The Budding Effect". It's a simple way of explaining how technological invention and automation historically results in more jobs, not fewer. The story about the Budding Effect goes like this: In 1827, Edwin Budding invented a small, hand-pushed machine as an alternative to the scythe. Budding's "lawn mower" allowed grass to be cut easily and uniformly, resulting in a "playing field."
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the modern sports industry had been estimated north of $700 billion, worldwide (And not just for athletes that play on fields; that's hot dogs sold at games, beer vendors, sports marketing agents, TV rights, T-shirt sellers, the folks that mow the lawn, etc.).
Note: that's "Had been estimated..." (past-tense).
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What happens when the Budding Effect meets the COVID Effect? It's not good. It's the opposite of good, and lays bare everything that's NOT supposed to happen. Why? Because the careful linkages that constitute the chain of Budding's economics are shattered and scattered over the place. Here I write in July of 2020, and I should be firmly in front of my couch for two weeks for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In this alternate universe, I should have probably just finished a different fortnight of fun: Wimbledon. Maybe an MLB game or two. Getting ready -- as I have since I was 9-years-old -- for my beloved Cal Bears to usher in post Labor Day NCAA football glory.
Oh, did I mention the Olympics?
Think of all the jobs that depend on those frameworks, that stem from the Budding Effect. They're gone with the wind of COVID-19, like the rest of 2020, it seems. But the question lingers, (when) are they coming back?
Consider NCAA football alone. It's pervasive, at multiple levels, woven into the fabric of most every college town across the entirety of America. It's beloved. It's a feeder for a much bigger maw: the sport-that-became-America's-game, the NFL. And make no mistake, like the NFL, the NCAA is a business. And just about everyone - now maybe even the players, in some cases!- gets paid. Or at least they did, past-tense, in the beforetimes. In the times when the Budding Effect worked.
Today, not so much. The NCAA football season, really, might not happen. Like a lot of things related to COVID-19, the dire worst-case scenarios keep going from bad to worse.
And don't tell me- as futuristic and fun as they are- that if ESPN went all-eSports, all-the-time, it would compensate. At least for the Gen Xers among us, like me, it wouldn't.
What makes the NCAA football situation of 2020 even scarier are the dependencies that hang off of it (Unlike the NFL, which is really its own thing entirely- the buck stops, many big, big bucks, with the owners). The NCAA Budding Effect dependencies I'm talking about rely on the universities to actually be open as places of learning, to then, in turn, have games. And Fall 2020, at best, looks touch-and-go. Most schools will be glorified centers of e-learning, at a price point ranging up into $50,000 a head (thank you very much).
Nobody knows what infection rates will look like on any given Saturday. One vector of contagion could spoil the whole team. And a cast of characters that have to remain healthy, coordinated, and attest that "Yes, we're ready to go" ranges from coaches, players, to medical staff, to families, all the way to- yes- the guy who mows the stadium lawn with Budding's machine (or paints the logo on the Astroturf). And that's of games that might get played, sans-fans.
Layer on top of that, the administrators who greenlight the action: athletic directors, chancellors, state governors. The only predicate any of them have really ever had for this, hurricane postponements in largely Southern states, seems like child's play by comparison.
Because the Budding Effect works so well for NCAA football, it's the revenue flywheel that makes all other NCAA sports happen: men's wrestling, women's volleyball, swimming, gymnastics, baseball, rugby- even, for many schools, the so-called "other" revenue sport of men's basketball. Stanford, which has billions in endowments that would make King Solomon blush, just permanently axed 11 sports, citing the coronavirus as being the straw that broke the camel's back.
Or the straw that broke the Budding Effect.
So down with the COVID effect. Up with the Budding Effect. Believe me, I know what we're doing is critical to save lives, and, in the long-run, save our economy. But we have to get sports going again- someday. I miss it too much- and fear the continuity that might be lost with other sports in its wake. Because if you'll forgive the Animal Farm analogy, some sports, like NCAA Football, are more equal than others.
Budding... Budding... Where are you? Go Bears.