Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bigger Concerns Than Conference Expansion

Take a deep breath and put it all in perspective: By sometime Friday, the Big 12 Conference, a league formed in the early 1990s when four schools located in Texas and a part of the then disbanded Southwest Conference joined the eight members of the Big Eight, may be history, or at the very least on the way to major renovation. It appears Nebraska has been invited to join the 11-school member Big 10 and has accepted.

If that happens, there’s a huge possibility that Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and either Colorado or Baylor will bolt to the Pac-10 to form a mega conference with 16 universities, leaving the Big 12 with just five: Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri and either Baylor or Colorado.

With apologies to the multitude of college basketball fans, especially those in the Durham and Chapel Hill backcourt, it’s all about football and its relation to television and contracts thereof. While North Carolina and Duke rake in mega dollars because of basketball, the football program of the Texas Longhorns produces that much green in a couple of games. And, it takes a lot of green to support the college athletics habit. It was football dollars that encouraged the ACC to expand to 12 members a few years ago.

The idea of mega conferences for mega dollars scares some, especially those who believe conferences should be somewhat regional. The states of Texas and Oklahoma would be contiguous to an expanded Southeastern Conference (imagine the football schedule if the SEC added Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State), but not to the Pac 10 since the state of New Mexico is not represented in the 10-member Pac 10 which wants expansion to gain the football championship game, just as the Big 10 does in adding Nebraska.

To those who dislike the idea of a 16-team league (and even those who despise a 12-team conference), take a look back at the formation and expansion of what is usually referred to as the “old” Southern Conference, not today’s collection of “minor” schools but an impressive list of majors. It started with 14 members, expanded to 23, reduced to 10, increased to 17, dropped back to 10 and from there, it’s changed a lot. From the free, on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia:

The (Southern Intercollegiate) conference was formed on February 25, 1921 in Atlanta as fourteen member institutions split from the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Southern Conference charter members were Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Washington & Lee. In 1922, six more universities - Florida, LSU, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tulane, and Vanderbilt joined the conference. Later additions included Sewanee (1923), Virginia Military Institute (1924), and Duke (1929).

The SoCon is particularly notable for having spawned two other major conferences. In 1933, thirteen schools located south and west of the Appalachians (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Sewanee, Tennessee, Tulane, and Vanderbilt) departed the SoCon to form the Southeastern Conference (SEC). In 1953, seven schools (Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina, and Wake Forest) withdrew from the SoCon to form the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

Other former members (in addition to those listed above) include East Carolina (1964–76), East Tennessee State (1978–2005), George Washington (1936–70), Marshall (1976–97), Richmond (1936–76), William & Mary (1936–77) and West Virginia (1950–68).

And, that’s just the movement of the Southern Conference. The Southeastern Conference has changed a little over the years; the ACC has changed a lot. So, what’s happening today in college athletics association is not surprising. And, that television is a driving force is not startling or a concern. College athletics, much to the dismay of college academicians, is the singular most driving force for recognition of colleges around the world, and that’s somewhat directly related to the media, yet the increase in media popularity is also related to the success of sports.

In newspapers, there are sections devoted to college sports. There are radio networks broadcasting athletics contests statewide, nationwide, and worldwide. There are television stations, channels and networks that emphasize college sports. When any university wins a national championship, especially in football or basketball, interest in attending that university, even if just to study and learn and not play on a sports team, increases. Ask any college president and, though they may not want to admit it, they’ll tell you that college athletics is important to the financial stability of their college even with the huge expense of operating such.

With Nebraska’s shift and the movement by the others, there’s more discussion about possible expansion of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference to get to 16 teams. But with TV contracts in place or very close to completion, it’s just not necessary for those two intercollegiate aligned associations to increase their membership rolls, unless, for some odd reason, the Texas group turns to either and shows immediate interest in moving east instead of west. In that case, all bets are off.

On the other hand, if Nebraska goes to the Big 10 and the others join the Pac 10, there will be five mid-land colleges wandering in their own wilderness. I can’t imagine the ACC or the SEC being interested in Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri and either Baylor or Colorado, but stranger alliances in collegiate athletics have come before now.

The death of the Big 12 is at hand unless the leftover nucleus can convince Notre Dame and a few others of join their cause. Confused enough? Me too. Do you care? Me neither. Let’s just wait and see and not worry. Talking heads will keep talking and bloggers will keep writing, and, long after this time’s conference realignment is over, much bigger issues in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and on the lands of the Middle East will remain.

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