The Future of Conference Realignment

19 Mar

(This post is also available on NoCoastBias.com)

Another week, another round of news in the ever-changing landscape of conference affiliations.  On Wednesday, Creighton University will leave the Missouri Valley Conference to join with the so-called “Catholic Seven” (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Villanova) along with Xavier and Butler to form a basketball super conference retaining the prestigious Big East name.

The Big East is coming to the Midwest (map from Omaha.com)

Meanwhile, while the buzz has have died down a little, rumors continue to swirl around North Carolina leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference for the Big Ten.  Adding Tar Heel hoops would be a big boost for the Big Ten, who is already enjoying a banner basketball season.  (Plus, it would set the stage for the addition of a 16th team, making the conference’s “B1G” logo – which has always resembled the number 16 – a visually accurate representation of the league.

As always, these big moves will likely trigger additional moves as the conferences who lose teams look to smaller leagues to fill their vacancies.

The biggest reason behind these moves?

Money.

Fox is reportedly lined up to give the new Big East schools a big TV contract.  The Big Ten’s TV deals expire in 2016, and having a stable of big name schools and schools from big TV markets would set up the Big Ten for a very big payday.

For the cash cow sports at these schools (basketball for the Big East, football in the Big Ten), the TV deals will be a tremendous source of revenue.  Unfortunately, for pretty much every other sport at a school, conference realignment is somewhere between a nightmare and a train wreck.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Here is how I see the future of conference realignment playing out:

We will end up with four, 16-team super conferences.  I assume the Big Ten, Pac 12, and SEC will make up three of the four.  The fourth?  Two years ago, I would have bet the house on the ACC over the Big XII, but now it looks like the ACC is the one with the shaky foundation (especially if North Carolina leaves and Florida State continues their on-again/off-again flirtation with the Big XII).

Today, none of these leagues are currently at 16 teams, so they’ll get to that magic number by picking off the pieces from the conferences that don’t survive (Big East and potentially the ACC) as well as taking the upper tier of C-USA, Mountain West, MAC, WAC, and other smaller conference schools.  This leads us to the second prediction:

TV sets trump geography, history, or anything else when it comes to conference expansion.  We’ve already seen this with the Big Ten’s addition of Rutgers and Maryland.  Neither school is particularly close to the Big Ten’s geographic core, nor does either school do much to enhance the football prestige of the conference.  But they were added because they represent entries into large TV markets.   there will likely be some head-scratching choices made.

What does that mean going forward?  Instead of the SEC going after a seemingly natural fit like Georgia Tech or Clemson (good programs, geographically central, great rivalry with an existing SEC school) I would not be surprised to see the SEC expand into MAC or Big East country, pulling a program that lacks the prestige of Tech or Clemson, but one that opens up a new region of viewers.

I know this is starting to sound like a doomsday scenario for a lot of schools and conferences, but here is one of the key predictions:

Schools will belong to multiple conferences.  I really only see the super conference affiliation being in effect for revenue producing sports (i.e. football and men’s basketball).  For them, being in a league with a fat TV contract is a smart move to maximize their potential revenue.

But for the smaller, non-revenue producing sports (i.e. pretty much everything else), realignment is a potential fiscal fiasco.  Look at Creighton:  all of their MVC foes are within 600 miles of their Omaha campus.  In the Big East, Creighton’s soccer, baseball, and other Olympic sports teams will now just one conference opponent (DePaul) within 500 miles of home.  Instead, they will be making multiple trips to the East Coast to play their new Big East rivals.

At some point, college Athletics Directors are going to wonder why they are throwing money away (and pulling student-athletes out of class for days on end) to travel halfway across the country to compete with schools they have little in common with – especially when there are other programs right in their own backyard.

I predict that in addition to the football/men’s hoops affiliation, schools will also belong to smaller, regional conferences for Olympic and other non-revenue sports.  These conferences will greatly resemble the old leagues we grew up with (Big Eight, Pac 10, Southwestern Conference, etc.) where geographical proximity is a primary consideration.

It just makes financial sense:  Schools can dramatically cut travel costs and operating expenses for sports that already lose money.  TV networks don’t get burdened with a bunch of lower end TV rights for volleyball matches, wrestling duals, and gymnastics meets that the average fan does not want to watch.  If there is an audience for SEC baseball or Big East lacrosse games, the smaller leagues can sell those rights independently.

Yes, it may be a little confusing for fans who have always identified their school with a single league to have to familiarize themselves with two different sets of conference rivals, but it sure beats cutting the baseball team because your new conference foes up north don’t play or losing the gymnastics team because it is too expensive to fly them all over the country for meets.

The one thing I don’t know is when schools will start breaking their sports out into multiple conferences.  I would not be surprised if it happens in the next few years as university budgets continue to tighten, and athletic departments realize the insanity of driving through the campuses of two former conference rivals to play a school that nobody cares about.

Regardless of what happens, the next few years will continue to be an exciting time of conference upheaval.

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6 Responses to “The Future of Conference Realignment”

  1. Laura R March 21, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    Analysts, sports beat writers, bloggers and ultimate sports fanatics may find conference upheaval exciting, but most of the chatter I hear from the common fan does not seem to share that excitement. I personally am tired of conference raiding and realignment, having to keep track of what school is in what conference. The idea of having schools in various conferences based on sports sounds tedious. If that’s the case I’d rather do away with conferences alltogether and just let teams play who they want to play. It would do away with ranking-bias based on conference, so that would be a plus.

    Schools may eventually reap in major profits, but it could come with a dip in fan attendance at some point – and the schools will have themselves to blame. Some fans love the stadium/arena experience of watching a game, others can take it or leave it. If they can see every game your school plays on TV or the internet for a far cheaper price (price of cable or satellite service), they will likely forgo attending the games. That will (or has for some schools) cause a dip in attendance and prices for tickets will go higher to make up for that, which will put the cost of attending games out of reach for fans who love it, but just can’t afford it. The end result, alumni and fans will be able to see all of their games on TV… with partially filled stadiums. Rah-rah.

  2. Derek Johnson April 21, 2014 at 10:27 pm #

    I don’t think this will happen for at least another 15-20 years when certain TV contracts expire, but I think it will be a viable conversation. In the case of Nebraska and Missouri, their third-tier rights (which I am given to understand includes non-revenue sports) are pledged toward their respective conference networks. But Nebraska, Mizzou, Iowa State, Creighton, Colorado, Kansas, and Kansas State are all on their respective conferences’ edges, so it could happen.
    Don’t forget though, the WAC and the Mountain West have always been far-flung conferences, and they find a way to make it work with their non-revenue sports. Still, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Husker Hot Takes | Feit Can Write - May 15, 2014

    […] it comes back to something I’ve believed for a while:  eventually, schools will belong to multiple conferences.  There will be a football/basketball conference that is tied to a big TV contract and may span […]

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