Things that are uninteresting and interesting about conference realignment

With the news that Pittsburgh and Syracuse have applied to join the ACC, the conference realignment discussions have taken on a whole new character, namely, the potential destruction of the Big East. I personally don’t enjoy talking about conference realignment, and I think most players and coaches don’t care — just tell them who they’re playing.

But there are some elements more interesting than others, and there is significance for many when it comes to how their team will fare as the old order is unsettled or simply what rivalries will be retained or destroyed. Here’s a non-scientific list of things I do not find interesting in these discussions and things that are interesting.

Not interesting:

  •  The daily grind of the news cycle. One team applies, another team threatens to leave a conference, another threatens to leave and then says they don’t want to leave, and so on. Given the tectonic shifts in the distribution and amount of football revenues with TV contracts and their attendant revenues, exclusive TV networks (like the Big 10 Network and the Longhorn Network), conferences with equal revenue sharing or proportional revenue models, conference championship games and so on, all this is going to take years to sort out. I think it’s safe to say that in two years, we’re still going to be talking about realignment. We may even be seriously discussing it in five years. This is a very significant time, but the interesting parts won’t be apparent As The World Turns on a daily basis.
  • Sportswriter moralizing. To the fan, football is not about how much money comes in or out of the program. They want wins on the field, the see their enemies (rivals) vanquished, and to see the players they cheer on victorious on the battlefield. So I understand that sportswriters want to stoke the flame and try to pick heroes and villains, but they should know better and it’s mostly futile. As I said above, this is about money, both on a short term and long term basis, and the stakes are high. Sportswriters should know better.
  • Mealy mouthed conference commissioners and university athletic directors and presidents. I guess I should cut sportswriters some slack though because the university officials can talk a good game while playing another. Part of this is that there is real legal liability for a conference commissioner if, say, he actively advocates for the dissolution of a conference so he can cherry pick the preferred members (the unwanted members could sue for business inference for their lost revenues), but these guys love to moralize about the sanctity of a conference and its history while negotiating a soft landing spot for your school. Again, more reason to avoid the daily news cycle.
  • While the day-to-day might be infuriating/nauseating, these are interesting trends. A lot of money has moved around and will continue to do so, and conferences have discovered new income streams from these new TV contracts and revenue streams. There was an old order that worked when the BCS was formed but it’s not clear those relationships are stable — if you’re school X and some conference says your athletic department will make millions more dollars every single year by switching conferences, no rivalry or historical precedent will keep you there.
  • This is particularly acute because of the unique nature of college football as a big business. The NFL (other than from a labor perspective with respect to the players, not something college football has to worry about….) has a very stable system. To oversimplify, there are 32 teams, they equally share revenues, and they strive for parity across teams, figuring that the best way to profitability is all-for-one and one-for-all. College ball can never be as stable because the teams are not equal and no one thinks they should be: You can argue about whether the Cowboys deserve more money than the Bengals because it’s better for the game, but no one will successfully argue that Texas and TCU are equally valuable. Moreover, while in the NFL the league as a whole can negotiate its deals, in college ball the conferences are the centers of power for negotiation, and, because teams are not equal and they are entered into voluntarily, the schools will only delegate that power to conferences and the commissioners so long as it is beneficial to them.
  • Which leads me to the most interesting aspect: The game theory aspect. It’s arguable that stability is best for everyone, but once instability is the lay of the land — as it is now — the payoffs to realignment are highly variable: There will be winners and there will be big, big losers. A school like Texas is probably fine no matter what happens; a school like Baylor faces either the status quo or oblivion. The result is that there are schools that, at least arguable, would be fine staying where they are (or conferences keeping their lineups as they are), who nevertheless seek to make moves to ensure that they are not left in the cold.
As I said, there are interesting and uninteresting aspects to the whole thing. I much prefer football than this stuff. But, for better or for worse, this isn’t going away. There are still contracts to be negotiated, schools to move around, and relationships to be settled. The reality is that these conferences, the BCS, and so on, were and have never been as iron clad as was presupposed. There is only power — economic and reputational — and, like any other charged entities, it will take some time for these schools to find stable resting places.

  • What is the chance that with a long dragged out annoying realignment process and a few more college football scandals thrown in that public opinion or congressional opinion shifts enough to seriously disrupt the structure of football with respect to its relationship with the goals of higher education?

  • Anonymous

    Check out the Atlantic’s cover story on college sports this month. I think it’s possible but very slim: the increased amount of money and influence here is evidence of a stronger, not weaker, hold by college football on the public’s imagination and the dominant influence of athletics on the university campus. 

  • The King is dead. Long live the King. Time to start paying the athletes. 

  • Hemlock

    I have to agree with Chris, unfortunately – and this is coming from somebody who has worked on both sides.  I used to coach college ball and now I teach at UW-Madison.  The grip that college football, or should I say, what ESPN and the other networks are transforming into “college football” is incredible. 

    Unfortunately, most “consumers” of sports know painfully little about the game they are watching, which makes it easy for the networks to transform it into a form of low grade entertainment.  It’s not so much the sport itself that interests fans but the “idea” of the sport that networks conjure.

  • benl712

    It’s interesting to see what is going on in college football, especially as it resembles what is going on in college hockey.  Money is definitely the motivating force even in the smaller sports, regardless of what “true” fans would like to believe.  My old alma mater, Alabama Huntsville, is seriously considering dropping its D1 hockey program despite a history of wins and broad community support.  As much as I would hope that the realignment process in football would eventually create a playoff system, I expect it would more likely be the case that the current post-season bowls will simply become even more conference-aligned and -dependent.