We must stop calling it a “reorientation” or “enlargement” conference. The more accurate word would be “consolidation” – at least for the people who actually control what we currently know as college sports.
it’s coming Maybe in a couple of years. Maybe in a decade or two. But there is no stopping now. With USC and UCLA moving into the Big Ten, a year after Texas and Oklahoma accepted invitations to the SEC, the College Super League(s) are on the way. College football as we know it is on its last legs. It’s finally being replaced by an NFL Jr.-type sport, and the television execs who’ve long dreamed of it will finally get their wish for an easier-to-package product. People in the right schools will make big money and fans in the wrong schools will be left behind.
College administrators spent more than a year telling the public they were concerned that the name, image and likeness would ruin college football’s purity and turn fans away. Many did so while chasing every extra dollar they could find, even if it meant ending century-old rivalries and conference affiliations. Concerned about insecurity in college athletics? Who do you think caused all this? look in the mirror Don’t miss the fact that this is coming from “non-profit” organizations as well.
There would never be NIL and a handful of million dollar deals for players to turn off fans. Rather, it was about slowly taking away everything that gave this sport its charm and moving toward a national business model, changes driven primarily by money, particularly television dollars. It’s like any other business now.
ESPN and Fox will never say they were involved in these moves, but you have to be aware to avoid seeing the part they play. In 2011, then-Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo said ESPN told the ACC what to do about the realignment, before later backtracking and apologizing that it was a misunderstanding. Last year, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN (his conference own Media Partners) worked to destabilize the Big 12 by shoving teams to the SEC and AAC and issuing a cease and desist letter. (ESPN denied the claim.)
ESPN will soon own all of the SEC’s media rights. Fox owns 61 percent of the Big Ten Network and has reportedly closed half of the Big Ten’s next media rights deal and is participating in the league’s discussions with other potential media rights partners. It has already been forecast that the Big Ten and the SEC might double the televised revenue of the other Power 5 conferences by the end of the decade. That’s why it all happens.
While ESPN and Fox don’t say “add this team” outright, they make it clear who they’re paying more money for and who they’re not. These conversations happen all the time. It’s a basic business.
“I think they’re quiet behind the scenes,” said an FBS athletic director the athlete. “They really don’t like being known for deciding who’s in which league, but don’t you think there aren’t talks of, ‘If we take this property, how much value are they going to bring?’ We don’t choose random schools. … They just don’t want the looks to decide, but the money comes from them. They have to tell the league or someone (the schools TV value).”
That’s why we lost the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia. That’s why we lost the Kansas-Missouri border war. That’s why we lost Nebraska-Oklahoma. That’s why we lost Duke-Maryland. That’s why we’re going to lose so many more rivalries. (And yes, that’s why we’re getting Texas-Texas A&M back.)
We’ll be getting Big Ten games from Saturday noon ET through Sunday morning. ESPN will have the SEC in everything except the 10 p.m. kickoff window. Even without the money, the other conferences on the biggest channels will be pushed out of the big TV windows.
It may feel like we’re headed for an ESPN conference and a Fox conference, although Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has been a proponent of having multiple media partners. After all, it takes competition to drive up the price. Maybe it’s CBS, NBC, ESPN and/or Apple. But Fox still wields power. Ultimately, it’s two television organizations that are focused on the most valuable thing left on television – live football – leaving all kinds of changes in their wake.
This is all short-term, but let’s step back for a broader view. What are the long-term effects? A few generations grew up with the Southwest Conference. My generation grew up watching Big East football. Both no longer exist. Change in college football has been constant. So it’s not hard to imagine younger generations growing up with just two big conferences.
This move doesn’t just affect this generation of fans, although the immediate TV money will be huge. It’s also about the next generation. How do you explain this move to Washington State fans? Or Oregon State fans? Or fans of Iowa State? Or Kansas State fans? You can not. They hope they are still watching and waiting for the next generation to grow up.
When college football reaches the inevitable end of that road and only 30 to 40 teams remain at the top level, those in power won’t want you to pass your Washington State fan base on to your children. You’ll want your kids to bond with USC or Texas or Alabama much like the Golden State Warriors or the Kansas City Chiefs have fans around the world. It’s about brands now, because brands can be sold to anyone.
This is the ultimate endgame of realignment and why it really isn’t realignment. When it gets big, it shrinks. Whether the superconferences are kicking out members or the biggest brands taking off on their own, they will eventually drop the dead weight that hurts TV value, even if they’re in the Big Ten or SEC today. It may not even be a decision made by someone currently in a position of power, but once you’ve embarked on the corporate restructuring path, you’ll always reach that stage and the true charm of the sport will be gone. It’s already happened in baseball when the minor leagues were shrinking.
What is college football at this point? If the SEC and Big Ten have their own playoffs, will Texas Tech or Oregon State fans care? Will NFL fans see more college football organized in a cleaner and more accessible version of the NBA G-League?
I do not know. It’s not hard to see squadrons of hardcore fans backing out when their team is kicked out of the major leagues. Maybe not all at once, but slowly over time. Or maybe there’s enough casual college football fandom out there for an NFL Jr. to survive and thrive. That’s the bet that’s being made now through television.
In the end, the SEC and the Big Ten have the most passionate fans. That’s what matters. No amount of maneuvering by the commissioner could change that. Eventually, the schools would join the others with their own large fan bases outside of these leagues.
Maybe there was no way to stop this. Perhaps the biggest schools would always end up being merged and more than a century of regional college football would always die and be replaced by a national sport. It has become primarily a television product. This has been evident for more than 20 years, from late kick-offs to last-minute tee-time announcements to endless TV breaks. It runs the sport.
The question now is whether fans still care if this big money game thinks enough of them.
I grew up in the land of the Big Ten. I rooted for Michigan as a kid and then attended Michigan State University. As far as I can tell from my Big Ten circles and from what I’ve seen elsewhere, the general reaction among these fans after the initial shock to the USC/UCLA news was mostly apathy. Sure, some are excited. Some hate it too. Most felt powerless to do anything about it, a grim acceptance that no matter how they feel, the sport they grew up with is changing. And these are fans of the winner in this game of musical chairs.
This sport has always been unique. That’s why we fell in love with her. The huge pool of teams follows. The regional flair. The small towns. The states that do not have professional sports teams. The intensity of the rivalries. The generation change. The connections to a school as an alumni. The clutter and nonsense was what made it so appealing. The largest stadiums in this country host college games, not professional ones. Few NFL fans care about league history ahead of the Super Bowl. College football fans can tell you a story about a game from 1917.
It’s clear now that much of the charm that draws us to college football is on the way out. All in the name of finding that last dollar. So pour one out for the 2007 season. For Boise State-Oklahoma. For shared national titles. For Appalachian State Michigan. For the rose bowl.
I will still watch. So will millions of others. The sport will not die. It just won’t be what so many of us fell in love with from the start, and many fans will be left behind.
(Photo: Richard Mackson / USA Today)