Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Irony of College Conferences

What a roller coaster week of college football--and no one even put on pads.  Well, maybe Nebraska and Texas did, but who wants to see Dodds and Osborne go at it?  If you weren't glued to ESPN or over the past week, then you probably aren't a college football fan and that is alright.  But for us die-hard followers of the amatuer pigskin classic, it was a wild week bordering on apocalyptic proportions.  That is overstatement, to be sure, but the topsy-turvy world of conference alliances was on the verge of a drastic change that would have meant the loss of a major conference and the fattening of another. 

To me, it was odd to note all the ironies that developed or that almost developed. 

All of this change was predicated by the rise in interest of college football.  More people watch, more people buy tickets, more people diligently follow college football now than ever.  As more alumni graduate, as television draws in the masses of Americans dedicated more to pursuits of entertainment than any other single thing, as the pockets of universities, television networks and marketing companies are filled with more money than anyone ever dreamed, "more" has become the buzzword of college athletics. 

Six major conferences (Big Ten, Big Twelve, Pac-10, Big East, SEC, and ACC) hold the keys to the National Championship vehicle.  They also hold keys to television revenue vehicles.  Some, like the Big East, are driving a late-model Cadillac, while others like the Big Ten, are driving a brand new Aston Martin.  So, as the television contracts for the Pac-10 and Big 12 end in 2011 and 2012, these conferences (as well as the SEC and Big 10) are looking to draw in more television sets to sweeten their deals.  The logic is that if a conference can draw 10% more viewership, the payoff could be exponentially larger than the previous television agreement. 

Two ironies occur in this thinking.  First, although a larger conference may be able to attract a larger television agreement, the pie is being cut more times.  The second irony is the assumption that adding a Nebraska to the Big 10 would drive more revenue than the Big 10 Network is currently getting is a large risk.  The same would be true for almost any one university to any particular conference.  For example:  Colorado is not going to financially improve a television network deal when they were more than a non-factor in the Big 12. 

So, besides the television money, what else is at stake here?  Well, the NCAA requires that a conference have twelve member institutions in order to have the privelege of hosting a conference championship game.  The Big 10, Pac-10 and Big East conferences have been criticized over the last few years for the lack of a "title game."  After Alabama earned a national championship berth through winning the SEC championship game against Florida, conference commissioners saw the wisdom in pairing the best two teams in their conference.  The formula would seem to be:  Conference Champion = National Championship Game= more money for the conference.

The irony of this, of course, is that the formula doesn't always work. If Ohio State plays Penn State or USC plays...wait, that won't work for another three years.  The point is, sometimes the way the conference divisions are laid out, the best two teams in a conference may be in the same division.  In addition, if multiple conferences have undefeated teams that go on to win the conference championship, we still may not have a concensus.  Take for example the 2003-2004 season when Oklahoma played LSU for the national title. OU actually lost their conference championship game for their first loss of the season and USC played Michigan in the Rose Bowl.  LSU beat OU handily and USC complained that they (at 11-1) were more deserving to play LSU than OU.  But a better example was in 2004-2005 when Auburn, USC and Oklahoma were all undefeated.  Auburn and Oklahoma won their respective conference tournaments but the championship game was decided to be OU vs USC, a game that due to NCAA rules violations, USC had to vacate the win and no champion was awarded.  Ironic, huh?

If all of this isn't enough to make your head swim, this week has probably done it.  The aggressive growth of the Big 10 to incorporate 12 teams and the surgical removal of two teams from the Big 12 to bring the conference to 10 teams has created yet another irony.  Due to the "branding" of these two conferences, it is likely that neither will change their name. 

So, this all boils down to money, really.  Even though the Big Twelve is sticking together right now and saying it is to ensure regional rivalries, in the end it was the promise of money and preferential treatment of the conferences two biggest revenue earners that was the glue that adhered these universities.  And, money will continue to drive the decisions from here forward.  If the SEC is as aggressive as the Pac 10 and the Big 12, it will raid the poor ACC or Big East and take as many televisions and revenue as it can.  It already has a championship game, but adding regional rivals like Virginia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina or Louisville to the mix would certainly improve their lot. 

The landscape of college athletics has not changed as dramatically as the prophets and pundits had predicted, but I can still see Kansas from here and Colorado is still wrapped in its mountain fog (or is that cannibis smoke?).  Note that during much of these discussions, dollars were what moved universities to sit, think about moving or go away.  Very little was thought of competition or titles.  And almost no consideration was given to why these schools exist in the first place:  education. 

We may see more movement in years to come, but I doubt it will be movement toward equity.  Money will still be the impetus and irony still the humorous backdrop.