When Ohio State president Gordon Gee admitted last month that there seems to be “movement towards three or four super-conferences that are made up of 16-20 teams,” he was stating what many already suspected. While some may envision a sporting landscape that includes four conferences of 16 schools each, there’s absolutely no reason to believe leagues will stop growing when they hit that imaginary ceiling. If a conference believes there’s more money to be made with 17, 18, 19, 20 or more schools, you can be sure that conference will expand accordingly.
Over the past three years, we’ve seen as much movement, as much shuffling as the college sports world has ever known. A chart of this evolution would show a slow rise from ape to man from the early 1900s to the 2000s… and then a huge leap forward to a man with both gills and wings in the 2010s. For the geeks out there, consider these the X-conferences. And the mutants are taking over.
Here’s a look at what’s transpired since 2010:
* The ACC has lined up Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville, but it’s lost Maryland.
* The Big Ten has added Nebraska and it’s scheduled to add Maryland and Rutgers.
* The Big XII has added TCU and West Virginia, but it’s lost Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri.
* The Pac-12 has added Colorado and Utah.
* The SEC has added Texas A&M and Missouri
* The Big East, well, that list is too long to mention. Ditto those poor, poor leagues smaller than the Big East.
With the exception of the Big XII and the revolving door that is the Big East, the biggest conferences have been getting even bigger. Money is the obvious motivation. Conferences are adding schools so they can make more television dollars off an increased amount of content (games). Schools are switching conferences in order to find a better pay day.
But if history is a guide, don’t expect any super-conferences currently on the horizon to stick together for too long. Contracts, grant-of-rights agreements, and exit fees be damned… those leagues expanding to 18, 20, or more schools will eventually splinter right back apart.
1. A Lack of Solidarity
The most stable conferences today — the Big Ten, the Pac-12, and the SEC — have long embodied the “all for one, one for all” motto attributed to the “Three Musketeers” by writer Alexandre Dumas. Less stable conferences have been hurt by internal conflicts (the ACC) and power struggles (the Big XII).
In the Atlantic Coast Conference, it is claimed there is a rift between the league’s few “football schools” and their basketball-loving brethren. There have also been rumblings that some schools located outside of North Carolina believe those schools located inside the state are looked upon more favorably by John Swofford and his Greensboro-based league office.
In the Big XII, Texas — and to some extent Oklahoma — have long held more sway with the Big XII office than their rivals. Heck, the league office itself moved from Kansas City to the Dallas area in 1996 when Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor merged with the old Big Eight. Since then, no Big XII school has done more flirting with other conferences than Texas. And it was Texas that kickstarted its own Longhorn Network and drove a final wedge between itself and several other ex-Big XII schools.
Even the league’s attempt to glue itself back together was nearly hijacked by a rogue institution. A call from Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell to David Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma, led to a late, unsuccessful bid by Louisville to sneak into the Big XII ahead of West Virginia.
All the while, the schools of the Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC spent much of their time yielding to the common good of their conferences. Whether there’s debate over a scheduling issue or a revenue-sharing plan, backstage battles rarely fall under the spotlight. Those three leagues handle their disagreements internally, peacefully, and then their schools march lockstep forward.
Take for example the SEC’s attempt to limit the amount of oversigning its schools can do. When the league’s presidents overruled their football coaches and implemented a soft cap on football signees two yeas ago, Mike Slive let everyone know — even those who were against the move — that once their voices were heard, the final vote on the matter would be unanimous. There was a debate. And then the final vote tally was 12 yays, zero nays.
But Slive was dealing with a group of just 12 presidents.
How easy will it be for mega-leagues to keep 18 or 20 presidents on the same page? The ACC, Big XII, Big East and others have shown that it’s awfully difficult to keep just 10 or 12 people singing from the same hymn sheet. And no one in the SEC knows exactly how easy it will be for Slive to keep 14 presidents representing 14 different schools with 14 different agendas in line for the long haul.
So good luck to those conferences that end up needing to hold their spring meetings in an aircraft hangar. The bigger the group, the harder it will to maintain unity.
2. Class warfare
The haves and the have-nots. The proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It’s Karl Marx meets college athletics.
Not everyone in a given league will have equal funds. Even in a league like the SEC where television revenue is split equally, there will always be high-earners and low-earners. Once the SEC kicks off its new television network and acquires all or most of its schools’ Tier 3 broadcast rights, there will still be high-earners and low-earners.
Some schools simply spend more on athletics than others. Those schools tend to earn more revenue in return.
Currently, the Alabama football program inhabits the same league as the Mississippi State football program. Yet Bama has a stadium that seats 100,000. MSU is expanding its stadium to finally top the 60,000-seat mark by 2014. In gameday revenue alone Alabama nearly doubles what Mississippi State can make on a given Saturday. Now multiply that number by seven or eight Saturdays. Throw in merchandise sales, donations from boosters and the like and it’s easy to understand how Alabama brought in $124 million in athletic revenue in 2011-12… while State pulled in just $54 million.
These issues have led schools like Maryland to seek more cash in new leagues. But how long before Maryland tires of being one of the poorest athletic departments in the Big Ten? And it’s one thing for a Maryland, an MSU, an Ole Miss, or another financially-handicapped program to swim in a 12-school pond. Who knows what life will be like in a 14-school lake? Or in an 18- or 20-school ocean? If you’re the runt of a 12-team league that’s one thing. It’s quite another to be at the bottom of a 20-team league, outspent by your 19 rivals.
If you think most schools of the Big XII are jealous of Texas and Oklahoma now, just wait and see how schools like Iowa State and Texas Tech will feel if more big-money programs land on top of them in a new wave of expansion.
3. Outside Influences
In October of 2011, shortly after the ACC had announced it would raid the Big East for Pittsburgh and Syracuse, Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo put his foot squarely in his mouth. “We always keep our television partners close to us,” he said. “You don’t get extra money for basketball. It’s 85% football money. TV — ESPN — is the one who told us what to do. This was football; it had nothing to do with basketball.”
DeFilippo quickly backtracked and said that he’d spoken “inappropriately and erroneously regarding ESPN’s role in conference expansion.” BC’s AD retired last September, but his words live on.
Make no mistake, all the major conferences are speaking with their television partners, potential television partners, and advisers who used to work for those television entities as they try to figure out which realignment moves to make next. With ESPN serving as a partner to so many, it must make for some interesting wheeling and dealing in Bristol, Connecticut.
For now, leagues are bulking up their rosters of schools in order to grab more cash from TV. If a 20-team league is formed, you’ll basically have what would amount to two old 10-team leagues partnering up under one roof. Together, 20 schools have more content to sell and — if that content is good — those schools will have more bargaining power than two of the old-style 10-team leagues would have on their own.
But that’s now. What about the future?
If we’ve learned anything since the College Football Association went to court with the NCAA and won schools their own broadcast rights in 1984, it’s that the landscape is ever-changing. Over the past 30 years we’ve seen hundreds of more channels spring up. ESPN is now a multi-channel empire. Mergers and acquisitions (like ABC/ESPN and Comcast/NBC) have impacted the marketplace. The Turner networks now own a large chunk of the NCAA basketball tournament. Millions of Americans now receive their television signals via home satellite systems. Schools like Texas and BYU have own networks. Conferences have their own networks. Notre Dame’s home football schedule is aired on NBC.
Change, change, change.
So what the devile will the media universe look like in 2023? Already people are watching games via the internet or even on their smart phones. In 1984, TV on a handheld mobile phone would have seemed just a half-step shy of “Star Trek.” And most people would have asked, “What’s an internet?”
Schools and conferences today are making decisions based on current technology, but technology has never evolved more quickly in human history than it is right now. And what content-provider — be it a television network, an internet company, or something we haven’t even dreamed up yet — will be trying to create a foothold for itself ten or 20 years from now by getting in on the college sports industry?
It’s not only possible that new media entities might try to bust up a few conferences, it’s probable. “Come with us, dump the losers in your league, and we can make you even more money!” Television is pulling some of the strings today. There’s no telling what will be pulling strings — and paying billions of dollars for the right to do so — tomorrow.
In 1894, a chemistry professor at Vanderbilt helped found an organization called the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. That forerunner of the modern conference began with seven member institutions — Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Sewanee, and Vandy. A year later, Clemson, Cumberland, Kentucky, LSU, Mercer, Mississippi State (then known as Mississippi A&M), Ole Miss, the University of Nashville, Rhodes College (then known as Southwestern Presbyterian), Tennessee, Texas, and Tulane joined in on the fun.
By 1921, the SIAA had grown into a 30-school monstrosity. So 14 of those SIAA schools met in Atlanta on February 21st of that year to discuss setting up a new, smaller conference. Part of the reason — schools wanted to play their conference rivals more often, which was impossible in a 30-team league. Also, the SIAA’s presidents couldn’t agree on freshman eligibility or whether or not athletes should be allowed to make money playing summer baseball. (Re-read Reason #1 above.)
In the fall of ’21, the Southern Conference kicked off on the football field with 14 members (Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, NC State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Washington & Lee). But once again, school leaders voted again and again to expand. By 1928, the Southern Conference was up to 23 members, including Duke, Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Sewanee, South Carolina, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and the Virginia Military Institute.
Wanna guess what happened next? Yep, in 1932, at a meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee, 13 Southern Conference schools announced they would be leaving to form a smaller conference. The 13-school Southeastern Conference was born. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Sewanee, Tennessee, Tulane, and Vanderbilt were the original members. By 1966, Georgia Tech, Sewanee, and Tulane had left, leaving a 10-team SEC in play until 1992.
As the SEC put down roots, the enormous Southern Conference continued to shed schools like a tree losing its leaves. Seven members left in 1936. Then the eight-team ACC was formed from former SoCon schools in 1953. That split was precipitated by a debate over whether Southern Conference schools should lift a ban on postseason play. (Did we mention Reason #1 above?)
You see, many of the same schools expected to end up in a super-conference by 2014 or 2015 have already experienced life in such enormous amalgamations. No one at those institutions seems to remember that because those primordial behemoths were relatively short-lived. Schools would form conferences. Those conferences would grow. Internal rifts would form. Schools would break away to form smaller leagues.
Life is easier when you’re partnered with a smaller group of like-minded people. And today’s presidents will eventually learn that lesson just as their predecessors learned it between 1894 and 1953.
So if you don’t like the idea of 16-, 18-, and 20-team conferences, just be patient. For as surely as we’re about to see a few of those super-conferences emerge, we’re just as sure to someday see them break apart again.
You’ve now seen the reasons why we believe that will happen. Here’s guessing philosopher George Santayana would ask you to pay special attention to Reason #4 on our list. After all, it was Santayana who wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”