Jayhawks and Trojans and Bruins, oh my.
Forget the Lions and Tigers. In fact, with the headlines screaming about USC and UCLA leaving for the Big Ten, and with reports mighty Kansas is discussing taking its basketball talents to the Big East and going independent on the gridiron, forget about the NCAA controlling football.
It’s over. Time’s up. Everybody out of the pool.
Let’s also not worry about whether the Rutgers volleyball team will have to fly to Los Angeles for games. Or whether the Trojan soccer team should play in State College on a Tuesday night. If the USC and UCLA presidents are getting north of $54 million a year from the Big Ten offices in Chicago (and by adding the LA market it will soon go north of $60 million), someone will figure out how to make sure the college athletes—who have free agency and agents for their NIL rights—are getting enough liberal arts or sport management “education” for the brief time they are in Westwood or Ann Arbor.
Let’s not worry about what the ACC needs to do keep up with the SEC or Big Ten, and let’s not fret over whether the Big 12 can keep replacing hallmark programs like Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. They can’t … but nonetheless, they will try. At least for a while.
Bring on Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston. Or Memphis, Boise State, Brigham Young and Wichita State. Chop and change. Re-draw the districts. The circus is in town. As Bob Dylan once sang, “here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance. One hand is tied to the tightrope walker, the other is in his pants.”
I’m assuming that last reference involved checking to see how fat his wallet was getting. Or if his wallet was still there.
Because, at the end of the day, this is about money. Not education. Not the academic mission. This is not a teaching moment. This is a land grab in the truest fashion of the long-ago Sooners.
“Look out over those plains,” say the speculators. “What do you see? College towns. Valuable real estate. And if your network contract and streaming rights are large, the best schools are there for the taking.”
So, does this preemptive move by the Big Ten (snatching the Los Angeles market away from the SEC) mean the gold rush is over? Far from it.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. One would suppose the ACC and SEC have no choice but to react. They have to add schools that matter. Quickly. Or keep key schools from defecting.
If this is unreservedly about acquiring large sport-loving populations, the Big Ten has, in theory anyway, locked down New York (Rutgers), Chicago (Illinois, Northwestern and Wisconsin) , Washington, D.C. (Maryland), and now Los Angeles—four of the nation’s top 10 media markets. And still out there for future poaching are rapidly growing top-16 markets San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle and Denver.
Said another way, are we headed toward three 20-team super football conferences? If the Pac 12 dies at first and the Big 12 does the same, all that’s left is deciding whether the ACC, Big Ten or SEC want Stanford or Oregon (for the Nike love), Colorado, Washington and the Arizonas.
Will it bother anyone if the Cardinal or Ducks join the ACC? Or the Huskies seek out the Big Ten? The Sun Devils sign on with the SEC? And how valuable does Notre Dame suddenly look? That’s a global fan base.
Can the ACC officially get the Irish football team into the fold? Or could the Golden Domers sense the time is now to finally pick their conference? Yes, the NBC money is good… but what if someone offered more? Is it possible the ACC needs to “break the bank” to bring ND in?
Odds are the answer is “yes” if the ACC is locked into a long-term deal with ESPN and the Irish are the only team that can drive ESPN back to the negotiating table. Speaking of the ACC, could they finally break down and revisit adding Baylor, West Virginia, TCU, Texas Tech and Cincinnati?
And who exactly is supposed to care about these tectonic shifts? The college presidents? The conference commissioners? The athletic directors? The NCAA office in Indianapolis? The faculty reps?
Let’s answer that quickly. No one. Or at least no one should spend a lot of time wailing or gnashing their teeth on Twitter.
No one should care other than the schools about to get hung out to dry and the conferences that don’t move quickly enough. No one should shed crocodile tears for the bucolic past because this capitalistic consolidation (even if this “capitalism” is undergirded by all manner of government subsidies that are supposed to enhance higher education) is logical and predictable.
The unbalanced market must correct. The ungoverned market must enter the vacuum it abhors. The undisciplined market invites speculators.
As schools jump ship and conferences go raiding, as the “haves” poach (or welcome) and the “have nots” holler (or backfill), this is not about student-athlete welfare and long-term career preparedness.
This is what the circus does. It pulls into town, sets up the big tent and sells the tickets. Send in the clown cars and tightrope walkers. The NCAA, and maybe a few really big conferences, are headed down Desolation Row.
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and SU’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) to the ACC and NCAA. His new co-authored book, Business the NHL Way, will be published by the University of Toronto Press in October.