How the Rise of Superconferences is Killing the Soul of College Football

Thursday, June 30, 2022 may go down as the day college football as many fans knew it officially died, as that was the day the Big Ten stunned the college football world, as the addition of USC and UCLA to the conference went from being reported by various reporters, initially with the clarification that it wasn’t a done deal, to being officially announced in the space of a few hours. It’s easy to see the move as a desperation bid by the Big Ten in response to the SEC poaching Texas and Oklahoma a year earlier, which created the first sixteen-team “superconference” in college football, crippled the Big 12 and left them in a liminal state where they’re likely to be seen as only barely a power conference at best, and threatened to create a gap between the SEC and other conferences that might be insurmountable. None of the other schools in the Big 12 could bring nearly as much of a brand name or fanbase to any of the other conferences to even be worth splitting the pie more ways, let alone make up the gap to the SEC, and the Pac-12 and ACC seemed to be cohesive enough conferences, with strong relationships between their member institutions, as to be off-limits to be poached by the Big Ten or each other.

The Pac-12, though, had one big weakness, and its name was the Pac-12 Networks. Former WTA chairman Larry Scott became the commissioner of what was then still the Pac-10 in 2009 with a plan to position the Pac-12 better than any other conference to take advantage of the economics of the cable bundle, then at their peak: get ESPN and Fox to pay the same for a smaller share of the conference’s content, then create a series of conference networks to house the remaining content, without help from any other company. It might have worked, if the conference Scott was taking over was the SEC or Big Ten. But the Pac-12’s schools don’t have nearly the same level of passionate fanbases, nor are those fanbases particularly widespread outside the conference footprint, unlike the Big Ten. The Pac-12 Networks struggled with carriage from the start, never being picked up by DirecTV with that company’s merger with AT&T seeing the networks dropped by U-Verse rather than being added to DirecTV, and never achieved the kind of revenues Scott envisioned. Worse, this coincided with a period where the Pac-12 was, increasingly, the least successful conference at making the college football playoff, especially as the SEC’s Alabama, the ACC’s Clemson, the Big Ten’s Ohio State, and the Big 12’s Oklahoma increasingly could be counted on to snag at least three of the four spots, and USC, probably the conference’s most prominent football school, spent an extended period in the doldrums. As the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten raked in profits from their respective networks, the Pac-12 threatened to fall almost fatally behind.

Still, it didn’t seem like the Pac-12 was in short-term danger of completely collapsing. Eight of its members had been members since at least the 1920s, with a hiccup in the 50s and 60s as the former Pacific Coast Conference disbanded and was replaced with the forerunner to the modern Pac-12, with the Arizona schools joining in 1978, and only two schools from the former PCC, Idaho and Montana, didn’t remain part of the Pac-12 to this day. The conference has always been relatively geographically isolated, effectively holding a monopoly on power-conference schools on the West Coast, and only with the 2011 expansion did it add any schools that didn’t start the season on Pacific time, or in the case of Colorado, were east of the Continental Divide. On top of that, all of the Pac-12’s schools took pride of their leadership in academics, as well as their focus on “Olympic sports” outside the revenue sports of football and basketball, where their schools had racked up most of the championships that allowed it to call itself the “Conference of Champions”. Prior to the 2011 expansion the conference consisted of five natural geographic rivalries (which were partly used to help set the schedule in sports outside football) and plenty of strong rivalries between those regions, such as Oregon-Washington, Stanford-USC, and Cal-UCLA. In short, the conference had plenty of reasons for its members to remain loyal to each other. But in the end, USC and UCLA became concerned that the revenue shortfall compared to its brethren was becoming unacceptable and didn’t like its chances of getting better with a new TV contract to be negotiated for 2024. By all accounts they reached out to the Big Ten about membership, and with a new athletic year officially beginning July 1, they sped through negotiations over the course of the month of June to be able to issue a two-year notice to the Pac-12 in time for their withdrawal to be effective as soon as their current grant of rights expires.

However, it’s also been speculated that the real force behind USC and UCLA reaching out to the Big Ten was Fox, and that’s where the desperation aspect comes into play. With ESPN holding at least some rights to every power conference and being the SEC’s exclusive partner after taking over the rights currently held by CBS, an SEC that was far enough ahead of the other power conferences and threatening to open up an insurmountable gap would, in turn, establish ESPN as the undisputed king, and possible Godfather, of college sports and reduce Fox and any other rightsholder to second-class citizen status. Fox would need another conference to be able to boast the same sort of tonnage of high-value schools the SEC had, and if the Big 12 didn’t have any schools left that could deliver on that, then the Big Ten would just have to poach the Pac-12 or ACC.

Under ideal circumstances, the Big Ten might have decided to poach Florida State and Miami: two of the biggest, if not the biggest, football brand names outside the SEC and Big Ten (and Notre Dame, possibly the biggest brand name in all of college football but a school whose football independence is enough a part of their identity that they’d likely only join a conference permanently if independence became literally untenable), relatively close to the existing Big Ten footprint, that would give the Big Ten a foothold inside the recruit-rich state of Florida. The Big Ten, though, tends to value academics more than the SEC (having a long-standing academic alliance between its schools), and Florida State and Miami are not members of the AAU, which includes all but one of the existing Big Ten members (and Nebraska was a member at the time they joined the Big Ten). Perhaps more importantly, the ACC is smack-dab in the middle of a grant of rights agreement, first signed in 2013 and updated with the creation of the ACC Network, effectively binding its schools to the conference all the way through 2036 by attributing each school’s TV rights to the conference even if they leave, meaning the only way the Big Ten could poach Florida State and Miami and get anything out of it would be to amass an army of lawyers to sue the ACC and/or pay them a hefty bribe to get out of the grant of rights. The Big Ten would have to turn its attention to the Pac-12, and while the Arizona schools would be closer to the Big Ten footprint and give the conference a presence in a growing state, the most valuable and prominent schools in the conference were clearly the ones that would complete the Big Ten’s trifecta of presence in the country’s three biggest media markets.

In so doing, the Big Ten broke the mold in conference realignment in a way not yet seen. The SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma was shocking in that they poached the Big 12’s two biggest-name schools without taking any of the other schools in those states that had been thought to be tied with them at the hip; that’s why the then-Pac-10’s attempt to add those schools during the last round of conference realignment would have involved expanding all the way to 16, to take in all the Texas and Oklahoma schools that would have had to come along for the ride. Geographically, though, Texas and Oklahoma were natural additions, Texas joining from an existing SEC state and restarting its old rivalry with Texas A&M, and Oklahoma joining from the state next door. West Virginia may have seemed a geographic outlier in the Big 12, sitting 734 miles from the nearest conference school and over 1100 miles from the average Big 12 school, but the LA schools will be over 1200 miles from the nearest Big Ten school. Previous rounds of realignment allowed conferences to at least claim to continue to be based in particular regions, but the map of the Big Ten in 2024 bears more resemblance to the map of Major League Baseball in the late 50s, after the Dodgers and Giants moved to California but before expansion, than to any “regional” conference. The core of the Big Ten remains in the Midwest, but its overall footprint now stretches from coast to coast.

What’s more, the Big Ten may not be done. In an interview last week on HBO’s Real Sports, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren suggested that he could foresee the conference expanding to 20 teams in the future. There have been somewhat conflicting reports on whether the conference is expanding further sooner rather than later; when the Big Ten announced its new TV agreements with Fox, CBS, and NBC, there were reports that escalator clauses would result in the conference automatically being paid more if it adds more teams, and later that Oregon, at least, had initiated “preliminary discussions” with the conference, albeit without any of the key decision makers on either side, but later reports indicated those escalators applied only to Notre Dame, with any other expansion only resulting in “good-faith conversations” about renegotiating the contracts. More recently, on Tuesday the San Jose Mercury News‘ Jon Wilner indicated that Ohio State would be opposed to any further expansion, and as one of the two most powerful schools in the conference, that might well put the nail in the coffin of further expansion in the short term. But it’s not clear that it’ll stay that way, and if it does it’ll likely mean any conference games pitting USC and UCLA against anyone other than each other would require a long-to-medium distance flight, leaving them sticking out like a sore thumb.

Besides Oregon, a four-team expansion that didn’t include Notre Dame would likely include Washington, Stanford, and Cal – Oregon and Washington being probably the most valuable schools left in the Pac-12, while Stanford and Cal occupy its biggest, richest remaining market, and bringing them in would mollify the concerns of Cal’s regents over UCLA leaving for the Big Ten without them (which is why they’d likely be taken over the Arizona schools that might be more valuable and do more to bridge the geographic gap between LA and the rest of the conference). That would at least make the LA schools a little less isolated, but it would probably be the death knell for the Pac-12, which might have survived the loss of the LA schools as long as it had Oregon and Washington, but no longer. At that point the best path forward for the remaining schools could be an effective merger with the Big 12, to create a conference not quite at the level of the SEC and Big Ten but a clear contender for the #3 spot with the ACC. While the Big Ten would have suggested that leaving all 18 teams in the merged conference would be at least a somewhat viable course of action, they might still decide to leave at least two schools out; if the Pac-12 schools still have the power in the merger, perhaps they leave out Baylor and BYU, as the Pac-12’s culture is such that they’d likely be reticent to bring in two schools notorious for their sometimes-restrictive religious rules (despite Utah’s long-standing rivalry with BYU and Baylor being the most successful non-Texas/Oklahoma school in recent years in both football and basketball), maybe with TCU (as another religious school) and West Virginia also getting the axe. (UCF is a bigger geographic outlier but access to the fertile recruiting grounds of Florida might be too valuable.)

(Had word of USC and UCLA’s defection come sooner, within a couple months of the SEC poaching Texas and Oklahoma, a merger of this sort might have been a more natural course of action, and then if the Big Ten went ahead and took half of the current Pac-12, even leaving all the existing Big 12 schools intact would have resulted in a 14-team conference that might have looked better top-to-bottom than a merged conference would look now. Instead the Big 12 backfilled after the loss of Texas and Oklahoma by poaching four schools from the American conference, and now barring any further expansion by the Big Ten, both the Pac-12 and Big 12 are in a weird place, not only behind the SEC and Big Ten but probably also behind the ACC, the Pac-12 probably having the edge over the Big 12 but only so long as Oregon and Washington remain part of the conference, the Big 12 not really being in position to poach more schools while teetering in a liminal space between continued power-conference status and being left out, while the Pac-12 doesn’t have an obvious path to expand beyond ten with the Mountain West schools, especially Boise State, being substantially less valuable than they used to be.)

All this, incidentally, would arguably would do more to kill the Rose Bowl’s traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup than anything the BCS and CFP have done over the years, if half the Pac-12’s current membership could end up representing the Big Ten in the game with what’s left of the conference barely even justifying calling itself a power conference. Indeed, the Rose Bowl’s “East vs. West” gimmick, even more fundamental to the game’s identity than the specific conferences involved to the point of being the original impetus for its creation, might be impossible to preserve on conference lines alone; as is just the notion that the game’s hometown teams, including the team that plays its regular season home games in the stadium, could represent the Big Ten in the game renders the whole idea a farce.

Meanwhile, a 20-team Big Ten would put the ball back in the SEC’s court. The Big Ten might have resorted to desperate measures to answer the SEC’s addition of Texas and Oklahoma with the ACC off limits, but the SEC might not have any choice but to either wait out the ACC’s grant of rights or, more likely, attempt to raid the conference despite that. In the aftermath of the Big Ten announcing its lucrative new TV deals, Florida State’s president indicated that it would be “very aggressive” about “how we remain competitive”, indicating it may be laying the groundwork for finding another conference regardless of the challenges involved. The SEC may have an easier time getting around the ACC’s grant of rights as both conferences are tied up entirely with ESPN for their media rights, and ESPN, which didn’t necessarily want to start the ACC Network in the first place (without which the grant of rights would only expire in 2027), might be inclined to blow up the ACC as a football conference to consolidate its school/conference-specific network operations to a single network and maintain its college sports pre-eminence in the wake of the Big Ten signing the most lucrative TV deal in college sports history without them.

As it stands Florida State and Miami are already the most valuable schools not yet in the Big Ten or SEC not named Notre Dame, while Clemson is probably the school with the most recent success; the SEC would likely want to take Florida State and Clemson, two schools with existing geographic rivalries with SEC schools, and at least one of Miami or Louisville; the former would be the better choice on paper, but Florida is reportedly opposed to adding the Hurricanes. (As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver suggests, North Carolina is probably the most valuable school outside the Big Ten or SEC not named Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, or Clemson, but even with all the rivalries this round of realignment has shown can be broken up, I don’t see any way they join another conference without Duke at bare minimum, and the SEC can probably do better than that, at least from a football perspective.) My inclination is that after adding Miami (if they can) or Louisville (if forced to settle for them), unless a fourth ACC school would make it easier to extricate the others from the grant of rights, the fourth spot would likely go to Oklahoma State, which would restore the Bedlam rivalry and might be the most valuable remaining school in the Big 12 as it stands. That, in turn, would lead the Big Pac-12 to either jettison another school, bring back a jettisoned school, or bring in a non-member like Boise State, San Diego State, or Memphis.

The result: two enormous 20-team superconferences with almost all the biggest brands in the sport between them. With Virginia Tech, North Carolina, NC State, and possibly Miami in the ACC, and Washington State, Utah, Arizona State, and possibly Baylor in the Big Pac-12, both conferences would have just enough claim to power conference status that the CFP would probably still have to pay lip service to them and the Group of 5 schools, for now, and as long as that’s the case Notre Dame wouldn’t be inclined to give up its independence, but the gap between those schools and conferences and the new superconferences would be clear and large enough (all but two schools to ever so much as participate in the College Football Playoff would be superconference members) that their continued presence and access would feel incongruous and only barely tolerated by the superconferences, and the gap might only widen with all the money the Big Ten and SEC schools would be raking in. Perhaps the SEC and Big Ten end up jettisoning their respective least valuable holdovers, deadweight left over from when they were smaller and more regional, or those schools voluntarily left rather than try to keep up with the ever-more-voracious money pit that is major college sports – Vanderbilt in the SEC, perhaps Northwestern in the Big Ten unless its direct Chicago presence is too valuable, potentially Mississippi State in the SEC again – to make room for more high-value schools, or just expand further to bring them in (or even both), further weakening the other conferences’ claim to be playing on the same playing field, and bringing the two conferences closer to the point where they decide they don’t need anyone else, opt out of the CFP, and either set up their own playoff system between them or just play a single bowl game between their respective champions to declare their own national champion (the threat, at least, of which might be what it takes for Notre Dame to give up its independence).

I call these conferences, but 20-team superconferences, when there’s no precedent for teams playing more than nine conference games, would be “conferences” in name only – more like vague scheduling alliances to bundle their member teams’ game slates for sale to networks and streaming services. The NCAA repealed the rule requiring 12-team conferences to split into divisions to hold a conference championship game, and it’s likely that even as conferences get bigger, which would on paper only further justify the use of divisions to provide some sense of structure to the conference, the new superconferences would in reality do away with divisions entirely – after all, at these sizes, with 16-team conferences already being twice as big as most conferences were before the 90s, splitting the conference into divisions would effectively split them into almost entirely separate conferences, defeating the point of expansion, and would limit how often teams play the most valuable and popular schools in the conference, diluting the value of conference membership for the lower-tier schools. Who cares if teams don’t play half the teams they’re competing for spots in the conference championship game(s) with, with little rhyme or reason to which teams they do play? The idea that schools should form actual conferences doesn’t matter nearly as much as whatever makes them the most money.

(Of course, the other problem from the “conference’s” perspective is that splitting into divisions means conference championship games themselves are more likely to pit a playoff contender against a far inferior foe, as opposed to pitting two playoff contenders against each other. I’ve defended conference championship games as a necessity when conferences get too big to stage a true round-robin, but this wouldn’t even be a way to structure the conference to produce a relatively objective conference champion despite the obstacles, as conference championship games have heretofore served as, as simply a way to extract more money from media partners and provide at least the opportunity to put forth a single champion in the event that a “conference” produces multiple contenders.)

And that’s just in football; I haven’t even covered how these bloated, expansive conferences affect basketball and other sports, where teams might be able to play more of the conference, but that just means they have to travel longer distances more often to play a sport that doesn’t make nearly as much money to justify it. When USC and UCLA’s volleyball and lacrosse teams regularly have to fly cross-country to play Penn State or Maryland, how long can those programs survive, especially given schools’ Title IX obligations?

Over the past year-plus, the concept of “super leagues” has gained momentum and media attention, as monied interests have sought to shake up the established, entrenched structures of various sports, and earning outrage from fans and institutions in the process. Last year’s bluntly-named Super League in European soccer fell apart almost as soon as it was announced, facing the wrath of fans, especially in England, who considered it a betrayal of the traditional merit-based level playing field created by the promotion and relegation system. The outrage surrounding this year’s LIV Golf league has more to do with its funders and creators, the Saudi-backed Public Investment Fund, and the perception that the Saudis don’t care about making money so much as deflecting from their human rights record, and have enough oil money to fund LIV Golf indefinitely, even if it ends up taking down the PGA Tour in the process. All of this has raised the prospect of what would happen if the idea of super leagues came to American team sports, and college football has been a prime locus of speculation.

Well, in effect, the Big Ten and SEC are stumbling into transforming themselves into super leagues, in an ad-hoc, unplanned, reactionary fashion, and producing inferior outcomes to what an actual super league would be like. For the moment, the Big Ten and SEC are stuck with their deadweight schools from the days when they were smaller and more regional, schools they likely wouldn’t have taken on board if they were built as super leagues from the start. (Besides the schools I mentioned earlier, Rutgers, and to a lesser extent Maryland, are also deadweight schools, but the Big Ten took them on more to spread the Big Ten Network to the big New York and Washington, DC markets than because of any value they’d bring on their own; perhaps if the day comes when the BTN becomes obsolete, and a streaming service people can subscribe to the same regardless of where they live takes on its rights, the Big Ten might see if they could jettison those schools as well.) Such conferences will increasingly become conferences in name only, existing primarily to pay off the member schools and give them matchups with the “conference’s” most valuable schools and those in the biggest markets and most valuable recruiting states – which could result in all but a handful of rivalries being sacrificed on the altar of the almighty dollar, as conferences might decide to give each school just one or two protected rivalries. The Rose Bowl is already on the verge of losing the one thing that, more than anything else, made it meaningful, and coupled with the increasingly meaningless “conferences”, the end result is to make college football into something unrecognizable from what it once was.

And that’s just in the sport for the sake of which all this is happening; student-athletes in basketball and other non-football sports, especially in the coast-to-coast Big Ten, have to travel long distances for the sake of maximizing the money their school gets from their football program – especially painful for sports outside basketball that are dependent on the money sports to subsidize them, likely resulting in lesser sports getting cut in the face of the impact of their parent conferences’ greed. And if all this doesn’t put the lie to the notion of college sports as an amateur pastime between regional rivals, as opposed to a bunch of professional teams that sold their names for a fanbase, Warren raising the prospect of the Big Ten directly paying players in the future in his Real Sports interview should be the final nail in the coffin.

And if the biggest, most iconic schools in college football had elected to form a super league from the start, not only could all, or at least most, of this have been avoided, it might actually have restored some portion of the soul of the sport that’s gotten lost in the pursuit of greed. At this point, I would probably prefer the advent of a super league to the alternative, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other fans felt similarly.

Considering that super leagues in other sports have the reputation of doing just the opposite, how can this be? Come back here next week to find the answer to that.

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