College Athletic Conferences and Hypocrisy

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In terms of thinking of a State that would be synonymous with “big,” Texas comes to mind (other than California for big regulations and taxes).  The Lone Star State… Don’t mess with Texas (originally an anti-littering slogan)… Everything’s bigger in Texas… 

The University of Texas certainly qualifies as “big” in terms of Athletic Department revenue.  It ranks #1 in football revenues and profits year after year, taking in $87.5m in gross revenue for a tidy $65m profit in 2008-2009.  My favored Clemson Tigers, by comparison, “only” took in $35.2M in total football revenue, about half of what Texas pocketed after expenses.  In any case, Texas is big enough that “unknown sources” and/or journalist speculation points towards Texas leaving the Big 12 Conference to become an independent.  And why not?  They entered into a 20 year contract for their own TV deal, the Longhorn Network.  Not surprisingly, co-partnering this is ESPN with $15M per year to UT.

Without Texas, the Big 12 would more closely resemble the Medium 12.  Thus, Texas A&M has looked ahead and sought to join the Southeastern Conference and, with some delays, will soon get there.  ESPN happens to have a 15-year deal with the SEC worth more than $2 billion.

And therefore, the SEC needs to add another team to balance its divisions.  Will they settle for 14 schools?  Or step up to 16?  Suddenly, “four 16 team super-conferences” seems to be the buzz words circulating on talk radio, newspapers, blogs… and ESPN.

That’s 64 teams of 126 colleges currently engaged in Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), formerly and still better known as Div. 1A, or, 64 teams who would have a widely marketed and negotiated edge towards competing in major bowl games and the BCS Championship.  Ah, interesting that.  ESPN has a contract for $125 million for the championship game.

The Texas A&M shift has caused rampant speculation on how the athletic conferences might adjust to “compete” with the SEC, generally recognized as being the best of the best.  The Big 12 would be fractured, absent Texas and A&M, with schools looking for new homes.  The Big East, with 9 teams, might look to take on several, as might the Big 10.  But there will be leftovers.  The Big East may also look to raiding the ACC for a school or two, or the ACC may raid (again) the Big East to inflate to 16.  It all depends on what school(s) the SEC chooses to round out its conference, as its doubtful anyone would say “no.”

There was a time not too long ago when Conferences maintained a geographical sense of self (Pacific, Atlantic Coast, Southeastern…).  This benefitted the schools in terms of nearby rivalries and less expensive transportation costs for competition.  The SEC, flush with cash, has decided that it’s not in their interest to add schools for television markets in which they already have members.  Teams like, oh, Clemson, who otherwise would be perfectly suited for the SEC, are reportedly off the table – as are Ga Tech and, possibly, Florida State.  Instead, they’re talking West Virginia.  When I think southeast, I think West Virginia… Not. But then, if Texas Christian can join the Big East…  Anyway, Va Tech is also of interest because the SEC doesn’t have a team in Virginia.  Or UNC or NC State for the NC market… etc.  Good for the SEC; bad for whomever loses a school(s).

The Conference alignments affect basketball and the non-revenue sports.  But the market pressures are entirely about football… or, more specifically, the money.  So, University Presidents are meeting with their Boards of Trustees, and Athletic Directors, and their boosters, and Conference Commissioners, because, if you’re not in one of the Super 16 conferences, and you’re not the Bank of Texas or the Bank of Notre Dame, you’ll have a very uncertain future. 

Think about it.  How many independent teams or teams “stuck” in lesser conferences are going to be invited to play “the big boys” in the Super 16s?  Those Super 16’s are already going to have 7 games within their divisions, plus likely 1-2 others due to traditional rivalries or fan interest.  That leaves 3 games for regional charity games – they have no need to schedule better teams from elsewhere because their path is already paved through difficult enough schools.

And if you’re not in a Super 16, why would you expect a star athlete to come to your school?  Why would pollsters rank your school knowing that, at best, you’ll likely finish outside the Top 10?  And why would ESPN show your games?  They only have so many channels.  Given a few years of the great divide, Fox will be there for you with chump change, which you’ll gladly accept so that you can afford Title IX obligations.

ESPN is driving this.  And they’re committed, as follows (contracts are for varying lengths):

ACC – $1.86B (billion)
Big 10 – $1B (+$ from Big Ten Network)
Big 12 – $480M (+ $B from Fox)
Pac 12 – $3B
SEC – $2B
Big East – $200M

Sucks to be in the Big East, but they’re about to renew their contract.

So, recognize it for what it is.  It’s a chase for money.  The same University Presidents who are offended at paying athletes because it may compromise the amateur integrity of college athletics, are literally selling out other University Presidents who happen not to be in the right TV markets. 

Or, the same University Presidents that abhor a playoff system because of the supposed impact on student-athlete life (uh-huh) or the impact on traditional bowl games ($ are found here, so more likely) have found a way to be true to what they say while at the same time setting up Super 16s that, in essence, give them a payoff playoff and the cash, and leave the little bowl games alone.

Does anyone hear University Presidents complaining about the potential impact?  Of course not.  They’re all rattling their Conference sabers… which is fine until SEC makes it's choice and the scramble begins.

Why doesn’t the NCAA step in and mandate some sanity to the evolution of Conferences?  Because 1) they’re apparently not chartered to do so and 2) the Presidents who measure themselves by their ESPN bank accounts hold sway over those with lesser funds, even though some may find that ESPN doesn’t love them as much as they would think.

My opinion #1: Change is good, but building Super Conferences is more deconstructive to the landscape of college athletics, for all sports, alumni, and fans… even for some of those in the Super 16s who sell their souls to stay financially viable.

Because my opinion doesn’t matter, my prediction is that the money will continue to manufacture the results.  The upcoming Big East contract should send a clear signal as to where ESPN wants things to go.  I’m thinking that the number will not be as large as the other conferences, because even though the conference covers desirable TV markets, there are no teams that are consistently great or compelling.  However, if it is a big number, then perhaps ESPN is thinking that the Big East will win out over the ACC as a Super Conference.

My opinion #2: Where did the notion of 4 Super 16s come from?  ESPN? Why not 5? or 6?  6 x 16 = 96 teams, and, to be fair, any outside that number shouldn’t be in Div-1A anyway.  Why aren’t the media questioning this rather than just running with the idea of four?

My opinion #3: A forward thinking ACC Commissioner would be mindful of the SEC and likewise targeting teams in large media markets.  The current Commissioner, unfortunately, isn’t that person.

My opinion #4: Clemson really, really belongs in the SEC.

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