I haven’t joined in the rampant speculation about conference expansion that’s engulfed college football blogdom since the Big Ten’s announcement that it would analyze the possibility of adding another school (Texas!Texas!Texas!) to the conference, mainly because nobody speculating has much of a clue about where things might be headed.
What is striking about what’s been posted for the most part, though, is the focus on the business end of what may drive the changes.
Money is the driving force behind decades of incremental change in college sports. Conferences have been changing from the time college men first put on sweaters and kicked around a pig bladder. The evolution has accelerated in the age of television, leading us to a perfect storm of economic factors that could bring about massive realignment across the landscape. It has been foretold for decades, and laid out as manifest destiny as soon as Georgia and Oklahoma won television independence for college sports via the Supreme Court in 1984.
Why is that striking? Because it’s what gets ignored or brushed over in the push for a football playoff.
Here’s the truth, or at least the closest approximation to it:
If the power conferences – and more importantly, the TV networks — saw value in any teams not currently in the BCS conference power structure, those teams would already be in it. The truth of the matter is that there are no teams outside the current BCS conferences who can add to the money pot. Any realignment scenarios that mention any non-BCS team as a likely candidate are grounded in wishful thinking but not much reality. Oh, perhaps a couple might get in simply to balance divisions or fill a particular regional gap in TV markets, depending on how the dominoes fall. That’s you, Utah and perhaps BYU. That’s you, TCU. That’s probably not you, Boise State. Only if you get lucky with the way things break, UCF. Everybody else? Better just focus on the mirror instead of that pie in the sky…
I’m going to confess that this doesn’t sadden me in the slightest. In fact, it’s kind of exciting. If what we wind up with is a concentration of power in a grouping of superconferences, it seems to me that it becomes much easier to design a postseason that makes a majority of college football fans much happier than they are now.
Who says there will even BE a BCS when this reaches its conclusion? Or if there is, it won’t radically change things. Superconferences based on mega television deals only ENHANCE the value of the regular season. Rather than spur playoff push — which could happen certainly, — it might actually strengthen the BCS with fewer conferences requiring automatic bids. The regular-season and conference championship games become even bigger.
It also makes it easier to design a playoff comprised of conference champs only, if the powers that be are so inclined. Schwing!
The question at that point will be how happy the Orrin Hatches of the world will be watching the Boise States and Utahs get swept into the Dipshit Division with the remnants of the Big East and the Big XII, which look to be the most vulnerable to the (potential) expansion tsunami. Well, maybe two questions: could they move fast enough to stop it?
The only thing stopping the inevitable cartel cannibalism has been the fact that college presidents didn’t have the courage to make the moves – to go all in. Oh, and the money. It hasn’t been quite the right time, and the dollars not quite right. But the day may soon arrive when the dollars cannot be ignored, and even the politicians cannot stand in the way. Perhaps the presidents will again explore the options and take the conservative approach of past expansionist periods. A move here, a move there, and we’re done for a while, until the next ripple. Maybe. History says that will be the case. But if they conclude otherwise — and they are certainly going to hear otherwise from the networks and their conference commissioners – then America will be stunned at how quickly the dawn of the superconferences arrives.
My guess is not.
UPDATE: Michael Elkon riffs off my post. I don’t disagree with what he has to say, except that I think he’s reading my “truth” comment a bit overbroadly. I doubt any power conference taking on schools will be kicking any out. That’s why the debate is focused on superconferences comprised of 14 and 16 schools. The “truth” my post refers to is that the conferences adding on won’t be looking at what Boise State brings to the table from a competition standpoint. (If they cared about that, you would see Washington State depart the Pac-10.) It’ll be driven totally by the dollars. And that’s where the WAC schools and most of the MWC schools fall woefully short.
What the Orrin Hatch-types refuse to accept is that the same mentality drives the decision making behind the D-1 college football postseason.
UPDATE #2: I swear, I wince every time I read one of Andy “Trustbuster” Staples’ attempts to pontificate on economic/legal issues affecting the game.
Today, he advises the BCS schools that they can have it all by following these three simple steps: (1) create four sixteen-team superconferences; (2) leave the NCAA and form a new governing body; and (3) relinquish their tax-exempted status as non-profits. This is dumb and it gets even dumber when you read some of his specific comments.
… if you’re in charge of an athletic department that brings in more than $40 million a year in revenue, you don’t appreciate the NCAA’s pesky habit of distributing money you played a larger role earning to programs straining to keep their noses above the poverty line.
Um, the NCAA doesn’t touch D-1 football money, Andy.
And, my favorite part:
Since the CASH would pay taxes, the president couldn’t threaten its tax-exempt status. Since it would produce the same product as the more-established NCAA, it wouldn’t be a monopoly, either. Instead, it would be the NCAA’s direct competitor. If consumers chose to spend more money on the CASH’s product, so be it…
First off, there’s a much bigger stick than tax exemption which the government could wield if it wanted to threaten the schools, and that’s financial aid to universities, which runs in the multi-billions. Yielding tax exemption doesn’t get these guys home free and it costs them major bucks (which undercuts the point to this exercise, doesn’t it?). So what’s the use of giving it up?
Second, the “product” isn’t owned by the NCAA. It’s owned by the conferences. And any other conference can go out and compete with them right now in a BCS world in exactly the same way that Staples is suggesting for his new paradigm. So if his example gets the BCS schools out of antitrust jail, why does he believe that they deserve to be locked up in there in the first place?