Explaining conference realignment from the 'inside'
Xs and Arrows
August 19, 2023
Most fans are simply perplexed about the stage of intercollegiate athletics now that the once proud "Conference of Champions" the Pac-12, has been gutted and reduced to four teams in 2024-25, thanks to the exits of most of their programs to other national conference over the last several weeks. As a former college athletics administrator, I can shed some light as to why this is all happening. It's a two-part answer: money and television.
Streaming rights are important, but as the Pac-12 proved several years ago, spending millions on your own networks doesn't help if linear television does not pick up and distribute your content. And while you may get some eyes on some second-tier football games and the occasional volleyball and basketball contest, you must fill the air with other things, and usually airing those sports does not cover the production costs associated.
Linear television however is getting smaller, with the death of many Fox Sports and Bally Sports regional networks, teams and conferences are left to scramble to try to get limited slots on ESPN, Fox, CBS and NBC. Those games are valuable to the networks not only from an ad revenue standpoint, but it is a chance to promote the next season of "NCIS" or whatever other produced show is coming to the Fall lineup.
But this problem was not created by the television networks, it was created by large power conferences and the NCAA who opened this pandora's box years ago and national revenue splits from football deals became the bread and butter to fund these massive football programs. Throw in the decision to allow athletes to take endorsement deals, known as N.I.L. (name, image, likeness) and you have programs like USC and UCLA looking for more national eyes on their players (television deals) to get them compensated via the NLI process. If I can guarantee a recruit that most of the Big 10 schedule will be on national television, not a regional or streaming network like the Pac-12, that means more potential exposure and more potential revenue for the school and the players who are more likely to play for my program.
Is it right? No. Is it legal? Absolutely. Is it the fall of collegiate athletics? Not necessarily, but it is the beginning of a cosmic shift that is leaving once large and powerful schools and conferences on the brink of collapse.
I have lamented before about the rigors of national travel. It is starting to come to light that while it is not a big deal for football to travel once a week and play a game across the country, what about baseball, softball, volleyball and soccer? Teams that play multiple games a week? I lived that life while Cal State Bakersfield both competed as an NCAA Division I Independent and a member of the Western Athletic Conference when the last round of realignment almost killed the WAC so they expanded to get any team they could to stay afloat. Our travel budget exceeded $3 million a year and the schedule was brutal, both for yours truly, other staff and the student-athletes.
That is not being taken into consideration here as this entire process is being driven by football, the sport that frankly pays the bills for many athletic departments, or at least keeps some just below breaking even. Without the pigskin, these national deals would be less lucrative and programs less cash heavy.
What we are seeing here is the beginning of something that has been discussed and worked on in the background for several years. The "Power 5" conferences (SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC) have been grumbling about splitting off from the NCAA and doing their own thing in the football arena. Matter of fact they already play for the "Bowl Championship Series "national championship, a separate group of NCAA football, a championship that is not even an NCAA title. They have wanted to leverage that into a separate organization entirely, and now they are on the brink of doing so.
This latest realignment frenzy was the beginning of putting that plan into motion. What will happen is this, the large national conferences with teams flying across the country to participate in a soccer match or volleyball game will lead to economic issues for many programs. Chip Kelly, head coach of Notre Dame referred to this the other day, and it makes sense. Football will ultimately split away from any conference model; they will all play an "independent" schedule so to speak against other approved "BCS" schools meanwhile regional conferences for all other sports will return. Football will continue to generate TV dollars and subsidize their other sports on campus and non-revenue sports get to play against their regional rivals once again in a more cost-effective manner.
It might take a few years in this latest NCAA social experiment, it will impact some young people, but in this imperfect system created by the drive for the dollar and the desire to appease a small segment of student-athletes demanding compensation (outside their scholarship, tuition, rent money, and meals), that structure of splitting off BCS football is the only hope left to save college athletics.
The alternative is to cut sports and reduce scholarships, and everybody loses in that scenario. We have seen this massive dumpster fire coming for years. Now the can is ablaze, and we can just hope to limit the damage before it is all simply ash.
Corey Costelloe has covered NCAA, professional and local sports for more than 20 years as a reporter, broadcaster and athletics administrator. He advocates for the value of athletic competition and serves as the President of the Tehachapi Warriors Booster Club. He can be reached at email@example.com.