Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Realignment Blues: What is a College Conference?

I grew up a Big 8 guy. The Missouri--Kansas Game was holy day at our house. I never did recover from when we moved across State Line Street into Kansas and suddenly I was supposed to root for the hated Jayhawks, but I knew my loyalties even if my younger siblings rooted for Kansas. This time of year I knew which bowl to follow because the Big 8 went to the Orange bowl. Not any more. Now I am watching the umpteenth bowl I don't care about and Missouri joined something called the Big 12 and now is on its way to The SEC.

The truth is my Big 8 was a figment of my imagination and misplaced loyalty. It morphed into something called the Big 12 then the Big 12 with only 10 members and it goes on. My old rivalry game no longer exists. College Conferences, in the great DeToqueville tradition, are voluntary associations that can mutate, grow, shrink or even cease to exist. They are voluntary associations created by colleges and their Presidents and Boards for their own purposes.

A college conference resembles the original Articles of Confederation with little revenue, members who can leave at will and no central identity to transcend college identity.Whatever purpose they have, it depends upon self interest and not abiding loyalty or heritage.

(And what is it with this BIG thing. I mean the Big 10, Big 8, Big 12 and even the Big East. I mean only guys could come up with these names!)

The original conferences grew by fits and starts. Many originally had an organic quality of regional proximity and traditional rivalries. In the forties and fifties as scandals sundered college athletes, the Conferences took on the task of regulating competition. It quickly became clear that conferences could not regulate themselves; there was too much conflict of interest when schools that played each other had to stand in judgment over each other. The few good conference commissioners that tried to enforce discipline soon found themselves without jobs.

Many conferences sponsored championships but this did little to enhance them. Most conferences were what organizational theorists would call loosely coupled systems, with little to hold them against centrifugal forces. In a number of cases, conferences signed exclusive agreements with Bowl Games like the Big 8 and Orange Bowl or Pac-10 and Big 10 for the Rose Bowl. There were not many bowls and this gave them cachet and importance.

Two watershed events transformed conferences.

First the NCAA basketball tournament grew in stature, visibility and wealth. The tournament gave preference to conference winners, and independents found themselves left in the cold. Schools scrambled to create conferences just to get access to the tournament and its visibility and revenue. The most successful and artificial of these conferences was the Big East, the first real conference created just for money and NCAA access.

Second,  in 1984 the courts ruled that NCAA could not exercise monopoly control over college football. This meant that TV contracts devolved to schools and conferences. Many schools stuck their own deals, but the networks wanted reliable and consistent offerings. Conferences stepped in and offered an entire package as well as quantity and quality of product. This began the era of fundamental economic inequality in college sports as the SEC and Big 10 garnered contracts and TV status that outstripped everyone else.
The basketball tournament and TV deals drove conferences to emulate the SEC to create a " brand" for their conference that could be as powerful as that for schools. The Big 10 soon followed suit. Very quickly the college landscape evolved into Division 1 major conferences and all the rest. Even in Division 1 many mid major schools did not have the visibility or stature to garner TV contracts.

The BCS did for college football conferences what the NCAA tournament did for college basketball. Without a national championship and with conferences controlling television and bowl deals  access to the mythical national championship or to the big money bowls depended upon being a member of a marque conferences. The rest of the schools were stuck with secondary and backwater bowls and contracts. Many of the secondary bowls cost more to attend than they paid out.

This led to the last seven years of consolidation and pilfering, so much so a micro-industry has grown up just trying to predict and follow it.  All the moves reflect efforts by schools to get access to football TV money. For example, the ACC, a basketball conferences with no real football cache beyond Florida State, stole Boston College and Virginia Tech. This year they dismembered the Big East by grabbing Syracuse. The SEC and Big 12 evolved in similar manners. TCU illustrates this new world order. Desperate to get into a BCS conference for its football team, it joined the Big East. As the Big East disintegrated, it jilted the Big East and joined the reconstituted Big 12. Just look at this map of the new Big East to see the real logic of conferences.

Modern conferences now have a  set of clear purposes.

1)        Maximize the revenue for all the schools to address the costs of college sports.
2)        Maximize television value by capturing top markets or schools with high viewership loyalty.
3)        Maximize TV exposure in football that generates revenue and enhances public visibility.
4)        Maximize the chance to get schools into the NCAA basketball tournament.
5)        Create a strong brand that enhances the reputation of any school in the conference to makes it a destination for schools and networks.
6)        Connect with schools that might share common goals or purposes academically or have geographic affinity.

Notice the original purposes are now last, and no one even worries about using the conferences as a tool to regulate competition.

It's not pretty, actually it is pretty ugly. But the Presidents and Boards face continuous budget deficits and hemorrhaging losses from sports especially football. They will pursue anything to increase the attractiveness of games to TV or get more teams into the tournament.

For most fans their loyalties lay with schools and this is a good thing. Keep them there. As the TCU saga illustrates, conferences may be brands but not objects of loyalty.


  1. Don't know which younger siblings you're talking about rooting for Kansas big brother, but once a Tiger, always a Tiger.