About 30 minutes into episode two of the Amazon Original series LuLaRich – the latest addition to a growing catalog of popular documentaries and exposes exploring the compellingly kooky, if ethically dubious, world of multi-level marketing – viewers are finally clued into the unsettling logic at the center of this most American of business models. In the world of MLMs, success has very little to do with selling products (in this case colorful leggings produced by a California-based company called LuLaRoe), and everything to do with selling a promise. One that, by design, must go mostly unkept.
“There was always a huge push to recruit, recruit, recruit,” relates Courtney Harwood, one of a handful of affable former LuLaRoe retailers who provide the narrative heart of the series, referring to multi-level marketing’s characteristic focus on enlisting new members over simply selling product to a third party. “Buy, buy, buy. Recruit, recruit, recruit,” she adds “you will get there.”
What makes LuLaRich, and other MLM-based content, so irresistible to viewers is that the ‘there’ Harwood references is too often an illusion, one typically peddled by a hypnotically charismatic founder whose rhetorical and aesthetic approach is a grim mix of the evangelist Billy Graham and 1970s consumer electronics maven Crazy Eddie. Watching the con at the center of the entire enterprise slowly unravel is good television as it turns out.
In any case, what we learn along the way is usually some variation on a theme: The wealth and prestige promised to everyone who signs on with a multi-level marketing company will only ever be enjoyed by a tiny cadre of elites, whose continued success is nonetheless reliant on an army of enthusiastic underlings continuing to chase the dream. They’re the ones propping up the system, the ones generating the riches enjoyed by those at the top.
“If you look at a multi-level marketing scheme you will see that over half of all the money goes to the top 1%,” MLM expert Robert Fitzpatrick interjects, like most of those interviewed looking directly into the camera. “Over 80% have nobody below them. They have to lose. So, the structure itself dooms the vast majority.”
If any of this sounds familiar – a system set up to favor a tiny elite class, preternaturally upbeat crackpot leaders speaking in self-help cliches, exploitative labor practices … recruiting – you might be a college football fan.
It’s worth saying out loud, for everyone’s benefit, that half the teams taking part in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision have no chance of winning the competition in which they are competing. This is not a bit of punditry mind you. When I say they have no chance I mean that, regardless of their on-field performance, they will likely not be able to gain access to the playoff that crowns a champion.
It’s a matter of simple arithmetic, really. Only four teams of the 130 who compete at the FBS level will be selected to participate in the College Football Playoff, and decisions regarding who deserves those coveted spots are left to a 13-member panel that acts as sole arbiter. So unlike its basketball counterpart, where winning your conference tournament earns you an automatic bid and the selection committee argues over which of two or three mediocre teams deserve the last of 36 at-large spots, you’re parsing the relative strengths and weaknesses of programs that have won all, or all but one of, their games. It’s incredibly fine margins, and the result is that schools from what are known as ‘Power Five’ conferences – the SEC, the Big Ten, the ACC, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 – enjoy an overwhelming advantage, especially those with massive stores of cultural and economic capital like Alabama, Ohio State or Notre Dame.
In my many years covering college football, this rather banal unspoken truth about its underlying competition structure never failed to amaze me. It is both astonishing and singular in American and world sports that teams would willingly take part in a competition whose very framework does its level best to deny them the opportunity to win it no matter what they do, and that includes ending their season undefeated.
The list of schools that have finished with perfect records since the turn of the century but been frozen out of whatever half-baked playoff or championship finale was in ascendance at the time is long and may well be longer by the end of this season. Utah in 2004 and 2008, Boise State in 2006 and 2009, TCU in 2010 and Central Florida in 2017 all finished their seasons with perfect records but could get no closer to a shot at the national title than a trip to a more lucrative, but ultimately meaningless, bowl game. The competitive equivalent of a condescending pat on the head.
They were celebrated by fans and media alike to be sure, but because they hailed from outside the aforementioned Power Five, gaining a seat at the high table of college football was the longest of longshots. As is the case with LuLaRoe and other MLM schemes, it’s this titillating proximity to success that ultimately reveals the swindle.
The most prominent of this season’s aspiring outsiders come from the American Athletic Conference in the form of the University of Cincinnati. Soon enough the Bearcats will enter the Big 12, a Power Five perch from which an undefeated record would come closer to guaranteeing them a spot in the playoff. But for now, they remain members of college football’s proletariat, meant to serve as little more than grist for the mill.
If fans had forgotten this, they received a rude reminder on 2 November when the first College Football Playoff Rankings were released and Cincinnati found themselves in sixth position, on the outside looking in at the four-team playoff. This despite an 8-0 record, a number two ranking in both the AP and the Coaches Poll and a road win over then undefeated Notre Dame.
Three weeks on, however, things are looking up. With a little help from (ironically) the University of Utah, the Bearcats have cracked the top four and find themselves on the cusp of becoming the first non-Power Five school to make the playoff, but their position is hardly secure. They could lose one of their remaining two games of course, but regardless, the odds are always stacked against those from outside college football’s aristocracy. Given the opportunity, there seems little doubt the committee would break Bearcat hearts.
Whatever happens, it should be obvious that the problem here isn’t effort. Besides succeeding on the field, Cincinnati have enthusiastically engaged in the college athletics arms race as well, spending eye-watering amounts on stadium renovations and coaches’ salaries. All as the athletic department required, according to one report, $250 million in subsidies from university coffers over the last decade plus.
This to take part in a competition that guarantees them nothing, even if they win all their games. As Fitzpatrick might put it, they are part of the vast majority who are “doomed to fail.” Like a LuLaRoe retailer who buys box after box of leggings on a promise that they too might end up on stage with the founder, showered in glitter and celebrating their financial independence, FBS schools from outside of the Power Five are being scammed.
You could be excused for thinking that the Bearcats imminent ascension to the Big 12, or even a fluky appearance in this season’s playoff, would prove college football’s egalitarian bona fides, but you would be wrong (just ask 11-0 Texas-San Antonio who are a distant 22nd in the latest CFP rankings). One outsider crashing the party in the 23 years since the Bowl Championship Series was introduced – and with it some pretense of a coherent competition structure – is hardly proof of anything. Except that occasionally, or maybe necessarily, there must be the appearance of parity.
As with so many facets of American life, the have-nots of the college football world are a feature, not a bug, of the system, acting as fodder and providing the illusion of a robust competition, one which will inevitably produce another Gatorade bath for Nick Saban. They offer up the bodies of their “student-athletes,” the resources of their university, the hopes and dreams of their alumni and fans for just the faintest sniff of the riches and prestige bestowed on their gridiron betters.
If momentum means anything we may one day get an expanded playoff format, hopefully one accessible to all FBS programs. In fact, it may be even more of a foregone conclusion should Cincinnati finish undefeated and miss out. Either way, it can’t come soon enough for me. There are many problems with college football, and while we can’t fix them all in one fell swoop, we could start with the most fundamental. We could make the competition itself, well, an actual competition, instead of a pyramid scheme.