In major college football, there are two subdivisions within Division I: the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). Since 1978, the FCS has determined its national champion through a playoff, which currently includes 16 teams. Recently, the FBS announced it was beginning a four-team playoff beginning in 2014. The participants in the four-team playoff -- called the College Football Playoff -- will be determined by a selection committee. The details of the selection committee have not been finalized, but strength of schedule will be a primary consideration.
Major college football conferences have taken different approaches to improving their strength of schedule, in order to improve their chances of qualifying a team in the four-team playoff field. Teams in the Big 12 Conference (Big 12) and Southeastern Conference (SEC) have had the most difficult schedules in recent years, due to the strength of the teams in each conference. Teams in the Big 12 play nine-conference games per year, while teams in the SEC play eight. The conventional wisdom is that if you play more conference games, it will improve your strength of schedule. With the five "best" conferences: the Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 Conference (Pac-12), Big Ten Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), this is true. Along with the Big 12, the Pac-12 plays nine conference games, and the Big Ten will begin playing nine in 2016. Currently, FBS programs play 12 regular season games, including conference games. So, playing more conference games limits the amount of out-of-conference games a team can play.
In the past few months, the Big Ten has stated that it intends for its programs to cease playing FCS opponents. FCS schools give out fewer scholarships to players than those in the FBS, and are consequently deemed inferior competition. In turn, playing FCS schools hurts Big Ten programs' strength of schedule rating.
In antitrust law, a group boycott is a concerted refusal to deal among competitors. Here, the Big Ten has flatly stated that it intends to refuse to play FCS schools. A huge portion of yearly football revenue for FCS schools comes from playing major conference FBS schools, like those in the Big Ten. So, if Big Ten schools no longer play FCS schools, it will inhibit FCS schools' ability to compete.
Other teams and conferences have hinted at the notion of refusing to play FCS schools. University of Alabama head coach, Nick Saban, recently stated that he would like the five major conferences within the FBS to only play each other. This would mean that not only are FCS schools cut off from major college football, but FBS schools not in those five major conferences are as well.
Without more, this would be the definition of a classic group boycott: concerted action among major conference schools in refusing to play other Division I competitors. This is a very similar situation to what was criticized with the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). With the BCS, the criticism was that smaller conferences did not have access to lucrative BCS bowl games. Here, the same criticism could be leveled, because the smaller conference schools would not be able to access the lucrative four-team playoff.
The legality of the exclusive scheduling model (excluding smaller FBS and FCS schools) ultimately depends on the definition of the relevant market. If the market is defined as all Division I football programs, then the exclusive scheduling model is probably illegal because all Division I football programs are "competitors" of each other. Accordingly, agreeing with other conferences to cut off competitors is an illegal group boycott.
If the market is defined as all FBS programs, then the scheduling model may be illegal, because all FBS schools, including those in smaller conferences, are "competitors" of each other. If the market is defined as only major conference FBS programs, then the scheduling model is probably legal, because only the major conference programs are "competitors" of each other, and there is a corresponding justification for treating smaller FBS and FCS programs differently. If this issue becomes disputed in the future, the crux of the legal battle will concern how the relevant market is defined.