No President can or will eliminate athletics or deliberately downgrade the athletics by going to a lower status or less economically viable conferences. As Clotfelter’s book and the politics of athletics makes clear, the external constituencies are too strong and the benefits are quite real.
This is where conference affiliation comes in. Conferences control both money and media access and can confer stature.
Let no one romanticize conferences. They are plastic and porous voluntary associations of schools that have changed a lot over the years. The Big East was created solely to gain money for east coast basketball schools. The SEC only took final shape in 1991 after the Southwest conference broke up over Texas’ hubris. The Big 12 was a shotgun wedding of my old Big 8 and the Texas remnants of the end of the Southwest Conference in 1996. The Pacific 10 has permuted from 3 to 5 to 8 to 10 to 12, and even the vaunted stable Big 10 once kicked out Michigan and lost Chicago as well as letting in Penn State. So let us be clear, the conferences are voluntary associations for the combined advantage and regulation of athletics for the member schools. They have no sacred status and constantly evolve.
Thanks to Supreme Court decisions, Universities and Conferences control their media rights. Most of the possible increases in revenues that universities can attain to offset athletic costs are tied into conferences. Media companies care nothing about Olympic sports and barely care about basketball except to fill media slots; the real money is in football. The real football money lies in conference contracts.
Except for Texas and Notre Dame, the most successful and powerful schools have agreed to assign their media rights to conferences, and conferences negotiate the complex media deals and distribute the money among the member schools. Conferences also launch their own media networks. This economic structure launched the incredible wealth of the SEC and the Big 10 in the last ten years. It also drove the consolidation of the western teams into the new PAC-12. So moving conferences offers one major set of opportunities for schools to increase revenue and offset structural deficits and also increase their stature. Any president who seeks to protect their school must consider conference membership.
A clear hierarchy of status and prestige exists among conferences. This cachet is both about sport as in the SEC but also extends to academic prestige as in the Big 10 (even if it can’t count). So switching conferences presents a twofold opportunity to a university and its President. It can increase the revenue stream needed to minimize the internal subsidy; the freed subsidy money can be spent on other university activities. Conference membership can also raise the profile of the school in non-athletic areas.
If you look at recent alignment decisions, the Presidents made good calls for their schools. When Nebraska left the Big 12, it entered a better academic conference and better athletic conferences, a true win/win. It also escaped the suffocating arrogance and control of Texas in the Big 12. When Colorado and Utah jointed the PAC-12, they both experienced similar win/win. The most recent move of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC not only rationalized the ACC’s geography by connecting Boston College to the rest of the league, but served as huge prestige win/wins for both colleges.
This is not about greed or tradition; it is about financial responsibility, quality of competition and prestige. The Presidents are doing their jobs and should be praised for what they accomplished for their schools in terms of getting more revenue to close their subsidies, better competition and higher status.