Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 3, 2022

The Real Powers In The Power 5

When this post was still just an idea, it began with “here we go again.”  But implicit in the familiar phrase is a suggestion that the event in question is returning after a period of absence.  That makes the wording inapt, for the recent history of college conference realignment is a story of nearly continuous movement of big-time collegiate athletic – which is to say, football – programs.  Looking back, what seemed in the moment like occasional periods of stability have really been only brief chances for the major players – athletic directors, university presidents, conference executives and television network heads – to catch their collective breath.

Once upon a very long time ago, collegiate sports were structured around conferences that were largely regional in nature, as evidenced by many of their names – Southwest Conference, Pac(ific) 8, then 10, and eventually 12, Southeastern Conference, and so on.  Whether identified by a region or its number of members, like the Big 10, the conferences fostered athletic rivalries that engaged both students and alumni, typically in multiple sports.  A lacrosse game between Ohio State and Michigan might not be played in front of 100,000 fans, but the competition was no less intense for the vastly smaller crowd.

Then in 1984, the Supreme Court tossed out the NCAA’s longstanding limitations on football broadcasts.  The more prominent conferences and especially their members that were football powers had chafed under the Association’s restrictions on both the number of games that could be shown nationally and the frequency of regional broadcasts during the season.  The 7-2 decision, authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, held the NCAA’s policy violated antitrust laws and freed conferences and individual schools to negotiate their own TV contracts.  The very next season the number of games broadcast jumped from 89 to almost 200.  While the tidal wave of college football games on television initially sent individual ratings down, the ruling strengthened the hand of conference directors and made possible the massive contracts for broadcast rights that now play an outsized role in college football.

At about the same time, the Texas-based Southwest Conference was gradually falling apart because so many of its members were constantly on NCAA probation and thus barred from appearing on television.  In 1990, scandal-free Arkansas departed for the Southeast Conference, and within a few years the other Southwest Conference members migrated to either the Big 8, leading it to be renamed the Big 12, the Western Athletic Conference, or the newly formed Conference USA.  In the same timeframe, not wanting to miss out on the TV riches of regional broadcast contracts being negotiated by newly empowered conferences, independents Pitt and Penn State joined the Big East and Big 10, respectively.  The age of realignment had begun.

While there have been multiple changes since, the one constant over the past thirty years has been the strengthening of the so-called Power 5 conferences.  The SEC, Big 10, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC have long been home to virtually every top-level football program except independent Notre Dame, and to many of the NCAA’s leading basketball programs as well.  But it now appears that realignment has moved into a new stage of consolidation that is reshaping even the familiar contours of the Power 5, as evidenced by last year’s joint decision by Texas and Oklahoma to leave the Big 12 in favor of the SEC, and this week’s announcement that UCLA and USC will decamp from the Pac-12 to become members of the Big 10.

Naming conventions aside, these moves will create two superconferences with 16 members each.  The Big 10, formed in 1896 as the Western Conference by seven universities all of which were within a few hours drive of Chicago, will stretch from sea to shining sea, from the two new California members near the beaches of Malibu, to New Jersey’s Rutgers, just a short commuter rail hop from the towers of Manhattan.  The SEC, formed in 1932 when the southernmost members of the old Southern Conference chose to form their own league, will cover that part of the country most enamored of college football.  Their size means these two conferences will account for essentially one-quarter of all the teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.  

More important, the Big 10 and SEC will count as members a dominant number of participants in the College Football Playoff.  The four-team CFP has been in place for eight season, so a total of thirty-two teams have played in it.  Twenty of those appearances have been by schools that are or soon will be in either the SEC or Big 10.  Since the ACC’s Clemson has six appearances of its own and despite a down year in 2021 should continue to be strong, that obviously leaves very little room for the now weakened Pac-12 and Big 12.

In the days since the announcements by UCLA and USC, that reality has led several commentators to predict the demise of one or both of those conferences.  Such a dire outcome seems unlikely, at least in its specificity.  Instead, the Pac-12 and Big 12 will refill their membership roles with schools from the mid-majors and other lesser leagues that are part of the Football Bowl Subdivision.  The Big 12 already responded to the departures of Texas and Oklahoma in this way, announcing that Cincinnati, Houston, BYU, and Central Florida will join the conference next year, and the Pac-12 will surely do the same.  But moves like that in turn marginalize conferences further down the collegiate sports food chain, and in the end, further conference consolidation appears inevitable.

That of course will be of no concern to the members of the two new superconferences.  With massive broadcast contracts, a lock on slots in the Football Playoff, and the lion’s share of athletic programs with large national followings, the Big 10 and SEC have set themselves apart from the rest of collegiate sports.  Now, perhaps, the music in the long-running game of college conference musical chairs can finally stop.

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