What the heck is wrong with College Athletic Conferences?
November 28, 2012 10:00 AM   Subscribe

What is wrong with college sports? Why is everyone changing conferences?

It looks like there's about to be about 15 teams in the Big TEN. The Atlantic-10 has 16 teams. The ACC is adding Louisville (they aren't even on the Atlantic coast!)

Why is this happening? I know. Its about money. But, specifically, how is it about money? TV rights? I don't remember a time in recent history when the conferences got shook up so much.

While I'm guessing this isn't as complicated as concisely explaining "Obamacare" I feel like it could be. Any MeFites think they can concisely explain this?
posted by teriyaki_tornado to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
TV Rights, Number of Games played, the bowl game, exposure.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:02 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

More teams = more money.
posted by alms at 10:05 AM on November 28, 2012

It's the guaranteed money that schools in the big name conferences are pulling in from their own TV Networks. The Big 10 Network spins off some serious cash to the Big 10 schools. It's free money from the POV of the schools.
posted by COD at 10:10 AM on November 28, 2012

More teams = more games = more money. Also, if you add decent teams, that = more money because of conference revenue sharing from bowl games.

The big money / big power conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, etc.) have recently added teams in a bid to make more money.

They took teams from other conferences, which then had vacancies just to get back to their old status-quo. Unfortunately (for them), the teams they brought in as replacements were not as good as the teams that left, so about the only thing they could do to make a gain would be adding more teams.

tl;dr: There's been a bit of a domino effect from the initial expansions, which were bids to get more money.
posted by toomuchpete at 10:11 AM on November 28, 2012

As I understand it, TV markets are the driving factor behind everything. The Big 10 wants Maryland and Rutgers because they bring TV markets in DC and New Jersey. When the Big 10 goes to sell rights to their games, they'll bring in more money because there are games being shown in more and bigger markets.

There's other stuff that's basically domino effects of that. So the Big 10 snatches up Maryland, and, then the ACC adds Louisville because they need to replace Maryland.* Similarly, UConn and Cincinnati are desperate to get out of the Big East because the Big East is falling apart.

Also, the worst name is now clearly the Big East which will soon include Boise State and San Jose State.

*Louisville Athletics make a ton of money, but they don't add a valuable ACC TV market; they do add a good football team (by ACC standards, mind), which probably means more money down the line because a the rights for ACC football would be more valuable.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:13 AM on November 28, 2012

Football, and the TV revenue derived from said sport, is the primary driver behind conference change. This great article on Maryland's athletic department states:

When Maryland joins the Big Ten in 2014, it is due to make $12 million more than it would have in the ACC. With an expanded cable market for the Big Ten Network following its eventual contract renegotiation in 2017, Maryland is looking at a $43 million boon in 2017 alone.

Having at least 12 members means conferences can hold a conference championship and the extra game means extra revenue. There's also a minimum number of members necessary to be considered a conference so you see a lot of movement as conferences and universities try not to be stuck without a chair (e.g. Idaho).

I recommend looking through Stewart Mandel's archives at SI.com, he's written extensively on conference realignment.
posted by llin at 10:15 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

TV Money driven by FOOTBALL.
posted by sandmanwv at 10:20 AM on November 28, 2012

//The Big 10 wants Maryland and Rutgers because they bring TV markets in DC and New Jersey. //

I'm a Big 10 school alumni, and although I agree this is what the Big 10 was thinking, I'm not sure it will actually work as well as they think. First of all, how many people in the NYC market really care about Rutgers sports? Or college sports in general? NYC is a pro sports market.

I live in the DC area and I don't get any sense that there widespread interest in Maryland in this market.

That said, I'm pretty damn excited about my Alma mater playing the occasional away game 90 minutes from home at U of Maryland.
posted by COD at 10:21 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's mostly football-related, and a lot of that comes from the BCS system, or at least was initiated by it. Comments saying "money" are generally correct, but how they plan on getting money is another matter.

Under the BCS system, there were a few conferences that got automatic BCS bowl bids (generally, the good bowls that give the best money to participants). Quite a bit of the jockeying around with conferences was schools in non-BCS conferences trying to get into conferences with automatic bowl bids (e.g. SDSU joining the Big East, Utah joining the Pac-10), and then teams trying to escape a conference that was imploding, like the Big East, which has now been plundered of almost all of its football schools. There was also a drive to make conferences big enough that they could measure up to the SEC, whose champion is decided by a game between the winner of each of its divisions. So, conferences like the ACC, which formerly had 9 members, raided Va Tech, Miami and Boston College to get to 12 members and have enough teams to have two divisions and then a championship game. The SEC also has had a TV contract with CBS, and other conferences were envious of that as well.

Now that the BCS system isn't going to be a thing, the championship game doesn't mean that much for BCS rankings, and it's more about market share.
posted by LionIndex at 10:30 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

TV Money driven by FOOTBALL.

That's worth remembering as well, this is basically football's show and basketball is a bit player at most. If basketball were a major factor, the Big East, which was a terrific basketball conference, wouldn't have gotten carved up like it has. The ACC is targeting basketball more than other conferences (as you'd expect), but basketball is second fiddle.

It's also worth noting that a lot of these moves are still on paper only and the money to be made from them is still potential rather than actual; it'll be interesting to see if there's actually as much money here as the colleges clearly think.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:31 AM on November 28, 2012

First of all, how many people in the NYC market really care about Rutgers sports? Or college sports in general? NYC is a pro sports market.

Nate Silver did an article on this that tries to figure out the numbers.
posted by smackfu at 10:34 AM on November 28, 2012

I think the Big 10 has very little to gain from adding Maryland and Rutgers, but I'm also a curmudgeonly ACC fan who wants to see a return to a nine team conference and a true round robin in basketball, so I'm biased.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:37 AM on November 28, 2012

The ACC is targeting basketball more than other conferences (as you'd expect), but basketball is second fiddle.

No, I think that's more of a bonus and that they've actually targeted football teams; it's just that there's not many more decent programs that they're able to get at this point. In the early rounds of conference shuffling, they got Va Tech, BC and Miami, which have generally good athletic departments across the board but are really known for football success. Syracuse and Pitt aren't quite at the same level, (and neither is UConn or Louisville historically) but it's about numbers at this point.
posted by LionIndex at 10:38 AM on November 28, 2012

Actually NCAA sports conferences have always been somewhat dynamic. Here's a list of defunct football conferences.

What's going on now is the consolidation of teams into conferences. The independent schools are looking to get into a conference to get a revenue share. This list shows the former independents who've gone over the conference side of Division 1.
posted by 26.2 at 11:08 AM on November 28, 2012

What's going on now is the consolidation of teams into conferences. The independent schools are looking to get into a conference to get a revenue share. This list shows the former independents who've gone over the conference side of Division 1.

For the most part, that already happened years ago. Lately, the big moves have all been schools moving from one conference to another. The ACC has taken (or is in the process of taking) Miami, BC, Va Tech, Louisville, Pitt and Syracuse from the Big East. Nebraska switched from the Big 12 to the Big 10, and Texas A&M and Missouri both left for the SEC. Colorado (formerly Big 12) and Utah (formerly Mountain West) moved to the Pac-10 (now the Pac-12). SDSU and Boise State left the Mountain West for the Big East (and there are rumors that they're reconsidering that), while TCU left for the Big 12. West Virginia left the Big East to join the Big 12.

All those moves are by schools formerly in seemingly stable conferences switching over to new ones. While switching conferences has been going on forever, the recent (like, last 7 years or so) rash of it is pretty unprecedented. Notre Dame is really the last big football independent (not counting BYU which just left the MWC to become so), and even their football program is going to be much more closely aligned with the ACC for the near future. A lot of the larger former independents were swept up in the creation of Conference USA back in the 90s.
posted by LionIndex at 12:41 PM on November 28, 2012

I would add a bit of history. First of all, conference membership has always been in flux and there have been large conference before (see the Southern conference which split to become the SEC and ACC).

In the 1980s the NCAA kind of quietly put a rule on the books that if a conference has 12 members they could hold a conference championship. At the time no major conference had 12 members and the rule was for Division II schools. But in 1990-1 the SEC decided to take advantage. This worked out pretty well for them and kicked off a slow movement of teams through the 90s and early 2000s.

Then two more factors came to play. First, the old bowl system was modified to incorporate the BCS championship game, which was basically just a way to identify a #1 and #2 team and let them play in a game. Under the old system, in many years you would have the top teams not play each other because of the way the bowls were structured to play certain conference champions. (The Pac-10 and Big 10 champs always played in the Rose Bowl, for instance). The BCS was the brainchild of the major bowls and the top conferences. They were necessarily involved because they were the ones involved in the existing bowl contracts that had to be ripped up, and thus it is no surprise that the new system had aspects that benefited the incumbent power conferences. Keep in mind that in top division football, the NCAA does not run the championship, it is done through this other system. The rules that will take effect in a few years just modify this from a 2-team to a 4-team playoff, but continues to favor the top BCS conferences. Thus teams just outside of those conferences now had an incentive to move up and join the BCS conferences.

Second, the money pouring into football through TV contracts started going up exponentially*. Conferences went from being an athletic club of sorts to business entities that were negotiating TV rights. The conferences have discovered that their interest lies in creating a product of interest to the TV networks or they have created their own TV network. And their product is better if they have more teams. This creates more games to sell and assures the TV network that at least a few teams will be good each year to create the marquis games that will drive ratings. Further, the conferences are giving much more consideration to the kind of TV audience that each school can command.

Thus, there has been a pull and push effect moving teams into progressively bigger and bigger top-tier conferences. There is however, a natural brake on this. The more teams that enter a conference, the smaller the slice each existing team will get. So at some number, conferences will reach a tipping point where it does not make sense to add more members. The question is whether that number for most conferences is 12, 16, 16, or 20+ teams. Time will only tell.

* As for the money, one of the biggest factors is the money that ESPN can pay. ESPN in turn has this near-monopoly power over cable sports which means that they can extort more and more money out of cable companies. This is enabled because cable companies currently mostly have tiers, not a la carte choices. So each time you hear about a record-breaking football contact between ESPN and a football conference know that you will see that reflected in your own cable bill.
posted by Tallguy at 2:22 PM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

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