We need to stop calling it conference “realignment” or “expansion.” 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 few years. Maybe in a decade or two. But there’s no stopping it now. With USC and UCLA moving to the Big Ten, one year after Texas and Oklahoma accepted invitations to the SEC, the college Super League(s) is on its way. College football as we knew it is on its last legs. It will eventually be replaced by an NFL Jr.-type sport, and the TV executives who have long dreamed about this will finally get their wish for a simpler product to package. The people at the right schools will make a lot of money, and the fans at the wrong schools will be left behind.
College administrators spent a year-plus telling the public that they worried name, image and likeness would ruin the purity of college football and turn off fans. Many did so while chasing any extra dollar they could find, even when that meant ending century-old rivalries and conference affiliations. Concern about the uncertainty in college athletics? Who do you think caused all that? Look in the mirror. Don’t let it be lost that this is coming from “non-profit” organizations, either.
It was never going to be NIL and a handful of million-dollar deals for players that turned off fans. It was, rather, slowly taking away everything that gave this sport its charm and moving toward a national corporate model, changes fueled primarily by money, especially television dollars. It’s like any other business now.
ESPN and Fox will never say they had a hand in these moves, but you’d have to be oblivious not to see the role they play. In 2011, then-Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo said ESPN told the ACC what to do in realignment, before later walking it back and issuing an apology, saying it was a misunderstanding. Last year, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby alleged ESPN (his conference’s own media partner) was working to destabilize the Big 12 by nudging teams to the SEC and AAC and released a cease-and-desist. (ESPN denied the claim.)
ESPN will soon have all of the SEC’s media rights. Fox owns 61 percent of the Big Ten Network and reportedly locked up half of the Big Ten’s next media rights deal and is sitting in on the league’s conversations with other potential media rights partners. The Big Ten and SEC had already been projected to perhaps double the other Power 5 conferences in TV revenue by the end of the decade. That’s why this is all happening.
Even if ESPN and Fox don’t directly say “Add this team,” they make it clear who they’ll pay more money for and who they won’t. Those conversations happen all the time. It’s basic business.
“I think they are quietly behind the scenes,” one FBS athletic director told The Athletic. “They really don’t like to be known as deciding who is in what league, but don’t think there aren’t conversations of, ‘If we take this property, how much value are they going to bring?’ We’re not picking random schools. … They just don’t want the optics of them deciding, but the money is coming from them. They have to tell the league or someone (the TV value of schools).”
It’s why we lost the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia. It’s why we lost the Border War between Kansas and Missouri. It’s why we lost Nebraska-Oklahoma. It’s why we lost Duke-Maryland. It’s why we’ll lose so many more rivalries. (And, yes, now it’s why we’ll get Texas-Texas A&M back.)
We’re going to get Big Ten games from noon ET Saturday until Sunday morning. ESPN will have the SEC in everything but the 10 p.m. kickoff window. Even without the money, the other conferences are going to be squeezed out of the main TV windows on the biggest channels.
It may feel like we’re heading toward an ESPN conference and a Fox conference, though Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has been a proponent of having multiple media partners. Competition is needed to drive up the price, after all. Maybe it’s CBS, NBC, ESPN and/or Apple. But Fox still wields the power. Ultimately, it’s two television organizations going all-in on the most valuable thing left on TV — live football — and leaving all kinds of change in the wake.
That’s all in the short term, but let’s step back for a broader look. What are the long-term effects? Some generations grew up with the Southwest Conference. My generation grew up with Big East football. Neither exists anymore. Change in college football has been constant. So it’s not hard now to imagine younger generations growing up with just two major conferences.
This move is not only about this generation of fans, even though the immediate television money will be enormous. It’s also about the next generation. How do you explain this move to Washington State fans? Or Oregon State fans? Or Iowa State fans? Or Kansas State fans? You can’t. You hope they still watch and wait for the next generation to grow up.
When college football reaches the inevitable end of this road with 30 to 40 teams left at the highest level, the powers that be won’t want you to hand down your Washington State fandom to your children. They’ll want your kids to latch on to USC or Texas or Alabama, much like the Golden State Warriors or the Kansas City Chiefs have fans all over the world. It’s about brands now, because brands can be sold to anyone.
That’s the ultimate endgame of realignment, and why it’s not actually realignment. After it gets big, it’ll shrink. Whether the superconferences kick out members or the biggest brands go off on their own, they’ll eventually drop the dead weight that hurts the TV value, even if they’re in the Big Ten or SEC today. It may not even be a decision made by anyone currently in a position of power, but when you’ve started down the road of corporate reorganization, you always reach that stage, and the real charm of the sport will be gone. It’s already happened in baseball with the shrinking of the minor leagues.
What is college football at that point? If the SEC and Big Ten have their own playoff(s), will Texas Tech or Oregon State fans care? Will NFL fans watch more college football if it’s organized into a cleaner and more accessible version of the NBA G-League?
I don’t know. It’s not hard to see swaths of hardcore fans bailing if their team is left out of the top tier. Maybe not all at once, but slowly over time. Or maybe there’s enough casual college football fandom for an NFL Jr. to survive and thrive. That’s the bet being made now through TV.
In the end, the SEC and the Big Ten have the largest quantities of passionate fans. That’s what this comes down to. No amount of commissioner maneuvering could change that. Eventually, the schools with their own large fan bases outside those leagues were going to join the others.
Maybe there was no way to stop this. Maybe the biggest schools were always going to be pulled together in the end and a century-plus of regional college football was always going to die and be replaced by a national sport. It’s become a television product first and foremost. That’s become evident for more than 20 years now, from late kickoffs to last-minute start time announcements to endless TV timeouts. It runs the sport.
The question now is if fans will still care, if this big-money play will keep enough of them around.
I grew up in Big Ten country. I rooted for Michigan as a kid and then attended Michigan State. As far as I can tell from my Big Ten circles and what I’ve seen elsewhere, after the initial shock, the general reaction among those fans 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 the sport they grew up with is changing no matter how they feel. And these are fans of the winners in this game of musical chairs.
This sport had always been unique. It’s why we fell in love with it. The huge pool of teams to follow. The regional flair. The small towns. The states that don’t have professional sports teams. The intensity of the rivalries. The generational upsets. The connections to a school as alumni. The messiness and nonsense was the charm of it all. The biggest stadiums in this country host college games, not professional. Few NFL fans care about the league’s history before the Super Bowl. College football fans can tell you a story about a game from 1917.
It’s clear now that a lot of the charm that draw us to college football is on its way out. All in the name of finding every last dollar. So pour one out for the 2007 season. For Boise State-Oklahoma. For split national titles. For Appalachian State-Michigan. For the Rose Bowl.
I’ll still be watching. So will millions of others. The sport isn’t going to die. It just won’t be what so many of us fell in love with in the first place, and a lot of fans will be left behind.
(Photo: Richard Mackson / USA Today)