New Alliances Reshaping College Sports
The first ripple in a money-driven, potentially seismic shift in college sports came Thursday when the Pacific-10 Conference announced the University of Colorado will become its 11th member, beginning with the 2012-13 school year.
The Big Ten Conference, which has had 11 members since Penn State joined in 1990, could be next with a major move. Regents at the University of Nebraska - which like Colorado has been a member of the Big 12 - could announce as early as Friday that the school is joining the 114-year-old league.
The moves, aimed largely at increasing television revenue from the schools' football programs, are a signal that the landscape of college sports could be reshaped this summer by dramatic realignments that could jeopardize longstanding regional rivalries and raise a range of questions.
Among them: Where will the University of Texas and Notre Dame - considered the crown jewels of college sports because of the huge revenue their programs generate - end up? Will the Big 12 Conference (which also includes Texas) survive? As Colorado and Nebraska depart the league, its viability is in doubt. Will a domino effect - driven partly by expansion plans of the Pac-10 and Big Ten - create chaos in any other leagues, such as the Big East?
Those with a stake in college sports have been waiting for such events to unfold since the Big Ten announced in December that it was studying expansion.
Conference expansion is largely about hooking up with brand-name football programs with heavy followings that are the basis for lucrative TV deals. There is little room for sentiment with millions of dollars on the line.
"This is now about the number of households; it's not about geographical location, traditional rivalries or any of the other traditional reasons when you think about conference alignment," said Karen Weaver, athletics director at Penn State-Abington who recently wrote a doctoral thesis on the launch of the highly successful Big Ten Network. "It's about who brings the most value to the table."
Said former Purdue football coach Joe Tiller: "Who are we kidding? It's all about the money. It's not necessarily what's good for the sport; it's all about the money."
Established in 2007, the Big Ten Network already is churning a profit, drawing envious looks from many other conferences. Big Ten schools equally split $72 million in network revenue for the fiscal year that ended in June 2009.
Other leagues see similar potential for a financial boon. By moving into Colorado, the Pac-10 hopes to corner the Denver market as it prepares to negotiate a new TV deal and examines launching its own network.
That league could add more teams - possibly up to five more members of the current Big 12 besides Colorado, a move that would kill the league that began play in 1996 as a merger of the Big Eight with four schools from the old Southwest Conference.
"There are still several different scenarios that could play out," Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott said in a teleconference.
Ideally for the Pac-10, those scenarios would include Texas.
"I think what they really want out of this is Texas and the Texas schools that go with it," said Barry Frank, executive vice president of IMG Media, which recently negotiated a deal between the Atlantic Coast Conference and ESPN.
From other Big 12 members to the Pac-10 and Big Ten, it seems everyone wants the Austin-based university. Texas is a football and financial behemoth with enormous clout; its program raked in $138.5 million in 2009. Texas' TV drawing power is so significant that its athletic department has floated the idea of starting its own TV network to cover Longhorns sports - and keeping all the money it makes.
If Texas were to bolt the Big 12 in light of the defections by Colorado and Nebraska, it could take Texas A&M and Texas Tech with it. Those schools ride the coattails of Texas, but there have been reports by OrangeBloods.com, a Web site that covers the Longhorns, that Texas A&M could be considering a move to the Southeastern Conference.
Texas officials appear to be cool to the idea of joining the SEC, so such a move by Texas A&M could threaten a rivalry with the Longhorns that is more than a century old and is ingrained in the state's culture.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed.
The push for Texas
Meanwhile, the Big Ten has reached out to Texas, perhaps with a willingness to also accept Texas A&M. But it apparently is reluctant to accept another Texas school in the Big 12, Texas Tech, because of concerns about its quality of academics.
The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch recently obtained an e-mail exchange between Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, in which Gee mentioned a "Tech" problem. Texas Tech isn't viewed as a fit for the Big Ten because it is not part of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a group of 63 major research institutions that includes all Big Ten schools as well as Nebraska. Texas and Texas A&M are members of the AAU.
For all its clout, Texas - a publicly funded school - likely would feel some heat from the Texas Legislature if it changed leagues without taking Texas Tech with it.
But Texas easily could find a home in the Pac-10, which also could welcome Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to create the nation's first 16-team super-conference in football.
Another option would be for the Big 12 to remain intact after Colorado and Nebraska leave and add two or more schools. It's unclear whether such an arrangement would yield the type of massive revenue forecast for the Big Ten and SEC for any school other than Texas. The Associated Press reported that Texas and Texas A&M officials met Thursday and that the schools remaining in the Big 12 was still among the possibilities.
Significant realignment of college sports would have a broad impact. For starters, fans would have to adjust.
"Whenever you expand the footprint of a conference, you are losing some traditional rivalries," Wake Forest athletics director Ron Wellman said. "Under most competitive models, you won't play those rivalries as much as you have in the past. That's a rather significant change for the fans."
Another worry is that the rich conferences will get bigger, stronger and richer while others will meet their demise.
Even a proud, tradition-rich school such as Kansas could be left scrambling for a new home. The school has won three national championships in men's basketball and boasts basketball founder James Naismith as its first coach, but its football program isn't attractive on a national scale, and the state's population is too small to add value to a conference cable network.
That's the harsh reality of today's college sports.
"We have one of the top followings in the country, and I feel helpless," Kansas men's basketball coach Bill Self said. "We're on the outside looking in. There are so many components in conference expansion. Basketball is not one of them.
"This is not panic mode, but it's a big, big deal. It certainly can change the whole climate for your university for the next 30 years."
On many levels, expansion and realignment are nothing new. The SEC took Arkansas and South Carolina in 1990. The ACC grabbed Florida State in 1991, and Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech during the past decade.
But the number and scope of the potential shifts at one time seems unprecedented. The Pac-10, for example, had not added a school since 1978.
And no one is sure where this is all headed.
"There is anxiety associated with any type of change," Wellman said. "It remains to be seen if the changes that may or may not occur will be beneficial to college athletics overall. I would say the changes made in the past have been beneficial. I don't think we need to fear change. I think we need to make sure the changes are appropriate."
Is it really about academics?
While acknowledging that the flourishing Big Ten Network is one reason to expand, Big Ten Commissioner Delany has said expansion is one way the league's schools can counter a general population shift to the South from the Midwest. He also has said that academics are a top priority, emphasizing AAU membership as a requirement for Big Ten membership.
An exception would be Notre Dame, not an AAU member but strong academically and long coveted by the league. Notre Dame turned down the league for membership in 1999.
"Of course they're going to say that," Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist said of the Big Ten's repeated emphasis on academics. "What are they going to say? 'We're going to prostitute ourselves?' "
If the Big Ten truly valued academics, it would not pick Nebraska, Zimbalist said. He notes the school's academics aren't on par with those of Michigan, Illinois and other Big Ten schools.
"What's happened over the decades, more so in the last two, commercial value has trumped academic value, and that's decidedly wrong," he said.
Yet in a slumping economy, it stands to reason that schools are looking to improve their bottom lines.
"It's understandable there are certain financial pressures and they're trying to sustain themselves," Zimbalist said. "It doesn't mean it's the right thing to do to subject yourself to the needs of TV and media."
In the eastern half of the country, the SEC, ACC and Big East are cautiously eyeing developments in the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Big 12.
Last week the SEC's Slive, whose members include football powerhouses such as Florida and Alabama, said he was comfortable with the league's lofty status but could be strategic to counter a significant shift in conference paradigm.
For now, that depends on the Big Ten and Pac-10, and how large they grow.