We’re back with some more thoughts in the aftermath of Friday’s realignment news that saw Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah leave the Pac-12 for the Big 12 and Oregon and Washington leave for the Big Ten. There have been thousands of these types of stories and all the major news outlets have picked up on the story along with the usual doom-bait headlines. We provided some initial thoughts before the dust settled and we encourage you to read that article for additional context. Now that more time has passed and the initial surprise has worn off, we wanted to provide additional thoughts. We will cover topics not discussed in the first article while also looking at some of the narratives that have emerged from the national outlets. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.
The Consolidation of College Football Narrative is Not New
The media has really honed in on the idea of consolidation in college football as if it’s a new concept. It’s not new and perspective is needed because consolidation has been happening for at least the last 50 years in college football and college athletics as a whole. Yes, consolidation looks like the future path but let’s go back in time to look at some key events that led to this point.
2023: Death of the Pac-12 and consolidation to Power 4 conferences? We’ll see what the Pac-X has in store for the future (if any).
2004 – 2013: The original Big East Conference was torn apart over the span of a decade thanks to realignment and we’ll look specifically at football changes. Miami (FL) and Virginia Tech left in 2004 with Boston College following a year later in 2005. All three schools left for the ACC, which, ironically, is having its own problems as some members are unhappy with how realignment is currently unfolding. Temple also left in 2005 but they ended up becoming an FBS independent team before going to the MAC.
The Big East added Connecticut in 2004 and Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida in football for 2005 to offset the losses but it was a temporary stop-gap for a few years. West Virginia left in 2012 for the Big 12 while TCU originally had plans to join the Big East but opted to move to the Big 12 instead. Pittsburgh and Syracuse would leave the Big East in 2013 to join the ACC while Rutgers was headed to the Big Ten starting in 2014. The Big East was able to recruit other smaller programs but the Big East to replace the losses but the conference as it was best known was dead resulting in five major conferences instead of six. The Big East would reform in 2013 as a non-football conference while the remaining football teams ended up in the newly created American Athletic Conference.
1993: The NCAA mandated that athletic programs had to have all sports teams at the same division level with an exception for sports that have a single tournament covering all three divisions. This caused a massive influx in football teams at the FCS level (then called Division 1-AA). This rule helped establish the Pioneer Football League, which is a non-scholarship, football-only conference that still remains as of 2023. (We’ll discuss a tangential idea related to the PFL later in the article when we propose possible solutions).
1978 – 1982: In 1978, the NCAA split Division 1 football into two categories: 1-A (now FBS) and 1-AA (now FCS). The split wasn’t fully realized until 1982 as some conferences like the Ivy League managed to remain in the FBS for a few years. Why did the NCAA split Division 1? You guessed it: money and power. The larger schools didn’t want the smaller schools to have an equal say in how the sport was run. They got their wish, which also included the easily manipulated minimum attendance requirement, which the NCAA recently proposed be removed along with implementing additional FBS requirements.
1973: The NCAA splits its memberships into three divisions: 1, 2, and 3. The NCAA wanted to group like-minded schools together in the classifications for athletic purposes. Instead of having 1,000 schools dictate rules for everyone, now only a few hundred will do that in each division. It sounds like the beginning of the consolidation we are seeing now albeit with one sport (football) dictating the future in current times.
We’re not saying some of these steps weren’t necessary or positive. It makes sense to have separate divisions especially if D3 schools want to focus more on academics than athletics. Of course, these aren’t the only reasons why college football is the way it is but a history of moves helped get us to where we are and highlights that consolidation has been around for many decades.
We Are All To Blame as Consumers of College Football
When there are major realignment changes like the ones that will happen in 2024, it’s natural to assign blame. In this case, there’s plenty to go around. Yes, the schools and conferences are to blame because they’re chasing the dollar. TV networks are greedy because they’re offering the top dollar for college football games. The NCAA is to blame because they’ve done nothing to quell the realignment. It’s a vicious cycle of myopic, shortsighted thinking at the top leadership levels that is driving the changes.
Then we have the fans of college football, who shoulder some blame although not nearly as much as the schools, conferences, and TV networks. If there’s one way to stop this realignment, it’s to give up watching the FBS. Don’t attend the games, don’t watch the networks showing the games, and don’t associate with the sport. Simply put, if the latest moves of realignment have become too much to ignore then do not continue to support the FBS. Money talks the loudest in the world and the only way to prevent teams from chasing the money is to make sure there’s less of it to chase. Alternatively, other college football options exist at the FCS, Division 2, Division 3, and NAIA levels that are not driven by realignment and provide a quality college football atmosphere.
Personally, the latest realignment changes are bothersome beyond the money aspect. Yes, the money aspect is absolutely ridiculous and we’re guilty of using that ad nauseam in our articles so we don’t need to belabor the point. The student-athlete is the biggest gripe because the travel distance for some sports will be insane. It’s one thing for football because there are fewer games and the number of missed class days will be relatively low. However, for sports that have mid-week contests such as softball, the travel and welfare won’t be easy to manage.
We provide a solution below for this so it’s not as if we’re bemoaning the plight of the student-athlete without presenting realistic alternatives. It’s not just the money that is the issue, it’s that schools make these unilateral decisions without considering the true impact. But if any athlete wants to make their own unilateral decision like earning money from their NIL or transferring schools without sitting out, then all of a sudden it’s become a problem.
Another issue is the national media’s coverage of realignment. They’ve had a long fascination with college football and coverage of sport has never been higher. Through that coverage, they helped pump up the valuations that TV Networks are throwing at the conferences by providing constant news and opinions. Of course, the media did this to gain their own viewership and increase revenue. Did the people covering college football really believe that the status quo would remain once money flowed into college athletics? It’s one of the aspects of realignment that is often overlooked. The media helped fuel the money that led to realignment without holding themselves accountable when they perceive realignment to have gone off the rails.
The last point is that college football doesn’t feel “right”. This is highly subjective but some of the future matchups like Arizona State versus Central Florida or Rutgers versus UCLA are simply uninteresting. Every conference has or will have games like that but the latest realignment changes will see these matchups occur more frequently. From a neutral viewpoint, that’s… not great but you can already see how the next realignment shift happens. Rutgers-UCLA isn’t driving interest? Well, the conferences can remedy that by removing the weaker programs and trying to bring in new ones. Or they continue consolidating high-value programs into a few smaller conferences. Sorry Rutgers…
The Rose Bowl Game
We didn’t talk about this in the first thought piece because it didn’t cross our minds. Why? The Rose Bowl hasn’t been the sacred game for a while and that’s not a bad thing. No, it will no longer be the traditional Big Ten versus Pac 8/10/12 matchup but things have changed with the Rose Bowl before. In 1998, the BCS came along and since then, 25 Rose Bowl games have been played. 8 of those 25 were the non-traditional Big Ten-Pac-X matchups including one of the greatest games in college football history: 2006 (USC–Texas). When the BCS began with the 1998 season, there were some who decried the Rose Bowl becoming part of the BCS and the non-traditional matchups that were about to happen. Without the BCS, the 2006 game wouldn’t have happened had the Rose Bowl traditionalists gotten their way. If anything, the fact the 2006 National Championship game was played in the Rose Bowl adds to the lore around it. The Rose Bowl Game will remain part of the College Football Playoff and the CFB Playoff will be better for it because of the history, tradition, and beautiful setting.
The College Football Playoff
Speaking of the College Football Playoff, that was another topic we didn’t cover in the original thoughts article. Why? The CFB Playoff isn’t going anywhere and the expansion will still happen. The only issue might be how to divvy up the bids if a Power 5 turns into a Power 4. The new format calls for the top 6 conference champions to be ranked followed by the next highest 6 at-large teams who aren’t in the top 6 conference champions. Does the format really need a massive overhaul?
The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and SEC will likely be the top four teams and the fifth and sixth seeds will fall to two of the champs from the American, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt. The Group of 5 may gain a bid if the Pac-12 dissolves but that also means the six at-large bids will most likely end up going to Power 4 teams. This scenario also assumes the Pac-12 will dissolve but if they merge with the Mountain West or add new teams, they’ll still have a good shot at being one of the six highest-ranked conference champions. The calculus doesn’t necessarily change if the Pac-12 does not exist with the future CFB Playoff format.
A Proposal: Decouple Football From the Other Sports
We’re not the first to call for football to be separated from other sports but we think it addresses some of the concerns raised with realignment. The idea is simple: the NCAA should allow FBS teams to create football-only conferences. Currently, that is not allowed in the FBS even though it is permitted at the FCS level. Three conferences in the FCS are football-only: the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the aforementioned Pioneer Football League, and the newly formed United Athletic Conference.
Having football on its own would solve the travel issues for non-football sports. Imagine the Pac-12 teams sharing the same conference for softball as opposed to the future Big Ten geography. It would be a vast improvement in terms of travel and student-athlete welfare with a more regional alignment. As mentioned before, the travel in football is a slight concern for the student-athlete but it would be for roughly half the games played. If that kind of travel for football isn’t a problem now, there’s no reason it should be an issue in this scenario. We could take this a step further and allow each sport to have its own conferences created but it’s much more efficient if the non-football sports are grouped together.
The NCAA can still mandate that teams participating in an FBS football-only conference must meet the same criteria of at least 6 men’s sports, 8 women’s sports, one football team, and men’s and women’s basketball. We’ve seen a similar scenario play out before with the re-founding of the Big East in 2013 with men’s basketball as the main catalyst. Sure, football wasn’t one of the sports offered but it’s worked well with the Big East claiming 4 National Championships in men’s basketball since the reformation.
The potential sticking point here is the TV rights being split. Some schools and conferences probably wouldn’t like the idea of having to negotiate separate TV packages for football and non-football sports. Having one network carry football games and two or three others carry basketball isn’t ideal. Oh wait, that’s pretty much how it is now. For 2022-23, Pac-12 men’s basketball had games on ABC, CBS, ESPN, Fox, FS1, and the Pac-12 Network. For football in 2023, the Pac-12 will have games on ABC, CBS, ESPN, Fox, FS1, Pac-12 Network, Peacock, and SEC Network.
The other issue might be where to keep the inventory. If you’re a football member in the Big Ten but all other sports play in the Pac-12, then the conferences have to determine how the game inventory will work. The easiest option is that the football content stays with the Big Ten and non-football is in the Pac-12 but it’s not hard to envision some big-name schools disliking the idea of content with two conferences. The costs of producing live events for non-football sports can be split equally among the teams in each conference. This shouldn’t be an issue with the amount of money football generates but nothing is a given when money is involved. The split conference idea is part of the reason why we’re in the position we are. Schools want to keep everything in one conference but it’s gotten to the point that doesn’t make sense anymore.
Ultimately, this proposal would see the return of regional travel for non-football sports without negatively impacting the football team. The majority of student-athletes would benefit from this proposal more than the current arrangement. If college football is going to dictate which conference a school joins, why not simply let college football loose on its own for membership purposes? It’s already gone coast-to-coast to the detriment of the other sports.
Long-Term Conference Realignment
We discussed over the course of a few paragraphs in the previous article but it’s worth another mention here. It’s tough to get a read on exactly what happens outside of the feeling that college football will become a Power 2 or 3 conference scenario. Maybe the Power 4 is where it stops but given Florida State’s current unhappiness, a whole new set of realignment is on the horizon. The biggest question is when will all this happen? Well… it depends. If FSU manages to break the ACC’s Grant of Rights, then it’s likely to kick off. The real question is how that happens because if it’s in court, it will be years. It seems more plausible that the ACC and FSU come to a deal where FSU pays a few hundred million that they can’t afford to leave. At least JPMorgan will be there to finance their escape.
The Big Ten’s next TV rights deal is in 2030, which means we have another 5 years or so before they start assessing the core membership. Of course, if the ACC situation changes then they might expand sooner. The SEC’s TV deal expires in 2033 but if the right teams come along they’d change the deal in a hurry. Of course, maybe the ACC GoR is truly ironclad and no one leaves the ACC until 2036. That seems doubtful given the penchant for litigiousness in the US.
The really interesting aspect is what happens to the Group of 5 conferences and the FCS. The gulf between the Power 5 and Group of 5 is growing and the prospect going forward is a bigger gap. If there’s a break of the top 60 or so teams, will the leftovers be the new Group of 5? Will the current Group of 5 become like the FCS? What happens to the FCS? What about the non-football members of Division 1? There are tons of different possibilities to think about with future realignment moves.
That concludes our thoughts on the latest realignment changes involving the Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12. There’s plenty of blame to go around and the sport will be changed but it’s not beyond saving. Well, maybe football is beyond saving but the rest of college athletics are redeemable. The solution is relatively easy to benefit non-football sports but given this is the NCAA we’re talking bout, a logical outcome shouldn’t be expected. This isn’t the last time we’ll have some thoughts and ideas because, with realignment, the wheel is always spinning.
Image courtesy of Stanford Athletics