The Next Step In College Realignment

The press around college athletics went into a semi-meltdown when USC and UCLA announced that they would be leaving the Pac 12 and entering the Big 10. What does this mean for the rest of the teams in the Pac 12? What does this mean for the Rose Bowl? Could the ACC lose Clemson and Florida St to the SEC? Well a few weeks have gone by and nobody else has quaked the earth by making a surprise announcement. But there is a question the three top conferences outside of the Big 10 and SEC should ask. Is this really the end of major conference expansion? My guess is no.

In the past when a conference lost a team or teams, it would take a look at what else was out there within its footprint or in a place that would expand its market and recruiting and make an invite. And at the time there was a more abundant selection. The ACC for instance did so when it added Louisville from Conference USA after losing Maryland to the Big 10. The Big 12 added TCU in response to losing Texas A&M and so on it goes. Often the targets were major programs that headed up mid-major leagues. But Conference expansion has reached a point where there are no more powerful independents to add and no more mid-majors that would count as a shot in the arm to a conference hoping to bring in a big new TV contract.

If the ACC, Pac 12 and Big 12 are going to compete monetarily with the SEC and the Big “10” (which will have 16 soon enough), they have to do something nobody would have considered a decade ago. They should merge into one nationwide mega-conference.

The idea sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But consider this. The Big “10” has a team in New Jersey, a team in Maryland, and two teams in Las Angeles while the bulk of its teams are camped in the mid-west, from states like Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota etc.  The SEC will soon stretch from Florida to Texas and Oklahoma. The SEC is at least still southern and the Big Ten is certainly big. But neither are what they were 50 years ago. Regional partnerships. There are people who see both conferences eventually becoming 20 members each. The SEC will have 16 when Texas and Oklahoma join. If there are four more teams joining each conference it is not likely that either are going to extend invites to the East Carolina’s and Fresno States of the world. They are going to recruit 8 more major name programs from other conferences. That could mean that Clemson, Florida St. Miami, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, UNC or Kansas St, Oklahoma St or other schools might be extended invitations to join one of the top two shows in college athletics leaving those who are left behind worse for their ware.

Now, what if that was no longer an option. What if the remaining Pac 12 teams after the departure of USC and UCLA, (Of which there will be 10) the remaining Big 12 members of which there will be 8 and the current ACC, which has 14 members, just instead jumped the gun and became a national college athletics conference with one TV contract and 32 teams? The Big 12 plans to add four more to the mix in the future. Add them in too. We are talking about a 36-team league that stretches from coast to coast with the potential for amazing inter-division play. A big question is, would the scope combined with the lack of being able to play other conferences off each other comand a huge TV contact that would allow member schools to make money comperable to the 100 million or more per year expected within the Big 10 and SEC?

UNC Football coach Mac Brown had a possible telling moment on the subject of conference alignment. He told that when he was the head coach at Texas, he had a plan in place for a year and a half to take the program into the Pac-12, but the calculus changed when ESPN created the Longhorn Network and Texas stayed in the Big 12. Note the bolded text (bolding is ours)

“We had a recruiting area set up, we had a schedule. We had travel, all of this, and I wasted all this time,” Brown said. “What coaches have decided is it’s not us. We don’t know what’s going on. Nobody knows for sure what’s happening. I need to put all my energy into coaching this team. And I’ll worry about that later, and whatever happens probably isn’t going to happen for three years, anyway, so most of the kids we’re recruiting, they’re going to be seniors before it even changes.”

Does Brown know something about future plans? It should be noted that the Pac 12 and Big 12 had recently been in talks to put together a collaborative partnership together but ended the conversations abruptly. Included in the talks were conversations about merging the two conferences.

The thing is, two years from now, 2024,  is when the Pac 12 TV deal and grant of rights deal (which ties a school’s media rights to the conference regardless of what conference they compete in) expires. The Big 12 deal is up in 2025. So, three years from now, the big 12 will be done with its TV deal.

College sports fans should pay very close attention to what happens with Pac 12 negotiations over the next 2 years. If the conference continues to work with Fox Sports on a Pac 12 TV deal then the chances to start building the TV contracts together is pretty small, but on the other hand, if the Pac 12 agrees exclusively with ESPN something could be in the works.

The truth of the matter in college sports now, is that it’s not about regions, traditional rivalries or common academic pursuits. It’s about College Football TV contract money. It’s about the weekly TV show featuring the second most popular sport in the country. And there is something else that all three conferences should understand clearly. Without partnering and negotiating a powerful TV contract, all three of them are really just spinning their wheels waiting for the Big 10 or SEC to make various member institutions an offer they can’t refuse. If the Big 10 asked for Oregon and Colorado they would jump immediately. If the SEC invited Kansan and West Virginia they would leave so fast their eyes would have to catch up to the rest of their bodies like an old cartoon show character. But making a proactive move could actually restore some logic for the teams involved.

Organize based on regions
The coast-to-coast conference could break the conference up into divisions based on actual geography. This would keep longtime rivals together and is  What the heck, You can name some of the divisions after the original conferences for identity’s sake. The Pac whatever will be the west coast part of the league, the Big 12 would be the central division part of the league and the ACC would be the east coast side of the league. Some teams could be relocated so that divisions can make sense again. For instance, West Virginia, which was originally a Big East team, joined the Big 12 with a bunch of midwestern schools, and could have a schedule that fans could drive to for a change if it were put in the eastern division. BYU on the other hand could hop in with the Pac 12 division and Louisville could hop into the big 12. Three 12-team divisions may seem strange. Maybe they would be further broken down into 6 team divisions.

What will this mean to college sports?
To all the purists that say “well how do you get an even schedule with a conference like that when each team can’t play the other” answer this. How do you do that with a 16-20 team SEC or Big 10? Yu don’t. The closest thing you can come to would be some sort of conference playoff that ends with an official league champion. You can expect ESPN will eventually get what it wants on the national scene, an 8-12 team college football playoff. and the truth is at the moment we all know the College Football Playoff model is an eye test more than it is a merit-based model like the NCAA Tournament.  Once there are 3 major leagues with some type of Playoff or not in place all of the conversations about whether conference champions should have a shot at the playoffs or not will be mute because with 8-12 slots available it is pretty likely that the most deserving teams in college football will be represented.

What about non revenue sports?

Good question. Will the Florida State tennis team have road trips to Washington St? Will the Arizon Track and Field team travel to Boston College? No. The conference allignments are all about college football. Why should every sport have to worry about what is called a conference anymore. As stated earlier, there would be 12 team divisions based on logical geograpghic relationships. Oregon would play Washington, or Arizona, Cal etc, Oklahoma Sts womens softball would match up against TCU and Kansas etc. Problem solved. NCAA selections would could proceed based on the winners of various divisions instead of “league” champions.

Will this really happen?

This kind of arangement probably will not happen without some very selfless and forward thinking leadership on the part of multiple schools and conference administrators. And I have seen very little evidence that conferences and schools think in that way. But the world of college sports is going to change drastically whether the Big 12, Pac 12 and ACC want to plan for it or not. And the prospect of at least 8 more schools at minum from the Pac 12 and Big 12 leaving for the SEC and Big 10 could possibly destroy the negotiating power whatever remains of the Pac 12 and Big 12. This is of course assuming that the ACC can not be poached as well. It is believed that the ACC’s Grant of Rights deal protects its current setup until 2036. But it should think proactively about what the landscape of college sports/college football will look like in 2034. Will Arizona, Washington, Oklahome St, Kansas St, West Virginia, Oregon, Arizona St, and so on be avaialable once it gets its head around what has happened?

Why would this happen in the first place?
As we have been talking about this idea in general its all about money, but not just that. It’s about streaming revenue. Sports rights are seen as a key part of the future and clout of streaming platforms. At the momement people are closely following the story of who will be the distributor for NFL Sunday Ticket while other sports rights continue to make headlines, but a move to solidify college football conferences as a TV property instead of multiple unrelated properties would be more than a big feather in the cap for ESPN and its streaming ambitions. The Disney owned property has a strategy for the future of streaming sports and has been building the scope and content of ESPN+ since it lauched. There is reason to beleive that there is a time coming when ESPN will have a cable adjacent streaming offering much more like HBO Max then the traditional ESPN app that requires a pay-TV subscription. The question is whether it can put together enough money to make it happen.