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Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Why I don't care about realignment

By Eamonn Brennan
ESPN.com

There was a time when conference realignment would really wind me up.

It started in 2010, when this new era of shifting allegiances began, because it became very clear from the outset what all this talk of "football" and "TV revenue" and "branding" and "footprint" really meant.

As it unfolded, and the Big 12 came to the brink of dissolution, and one of college basketball's few blue-blood programs (Kansas) nearly found itself dangling in the wind without a major conference to call home -- people were talking about Kansas joining the Mountain West! -- I would occasionally become enraged.

It wasn't just about dissolving rivalries, or schools joining programs that made no geographic or traditional sense. I could get past that. What really stuck was that basketball had no real determinative place in this new landscape. It was a sideshow, a bonus, big-time second fiddle to a sport (college football) that honestly doesn't do anything for me.

Mike Slive
The folks who run college sports are catching plenty of heat for the recent explosion of realignment.

For people who love college basketball, it felt like everything we knew and cherished about the sport was at risk. The Big East was dying. The already-huge financial gap between mid-majors and power schools was widening. The NCAA tournament could go the way of NCAA-controlled bowls, and then what happens to Cinderella? And why? A bigger footprint? Billions more dollars, a cut of which the student-athletes themselves will never see? You know the drill.

Now, after three straight years of this nonsense -- of rumors and breaking news and tortured explanations of why San Diego State totally makes sense as a football member of the Big East -- I'm done being angry. I'm just done.

I'll admit that part of this "doneness" stems from the fact that I really can't get all that upset about Maryland moving to the Big Ten. The bottom line is the bottom line: Maryland needed the money. Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples did a fabulous job explaining it Monday, but it boils down to this. Maryland's athletic department was subject to the same devastating cuts permeating the state government's education budget. The school itself recently cut a score of non-revenue programs.

And now the Big Ten comes along with its Big Ten Network money -- as Staples put it: "a privately funded revenue stream that would bring in more money without asking taxpayers or students to foot more of the bill" -- and the Terrapins aren't supposed to cash that check?

Why? Tradition? Nostalgia? These things give me the warm fuzzies too, but they have no place in a clear-eyed analysis of conference realignment. They may as well not even exist.

Another reason I can't really get my ire up: Nobody is even trying to pretend this is about anything other than money. In fact, Maryland's might have been the most blatantly honest realignment move of all time. University president Wallace Low flat-out admitted the school needed money, and the Big Ten has lots of money, and at the end of the day "someone has to pay the bills."

Criticizing Maryland for that is like criticizing a new father for abandoning his dream of opening a ritualistic mud-dance studio in Wicker Park in favor of a desk job that affords him a livable income. In an ideal world, that dude's studio would be massively profitable, and he wouldn't have to trade his dream for stability. In an ideal world, Maryland could stay in the ACC. This is not an ideal world.

Nor is it clear this is a bad deal for the Big Ten, as some (including the always-astute Nate Silver) have claimed. On Monday night, The Wall Street Journal reported that News Corp. (which owns 51 percent of the Big Ten Network) is hoping to use its new minority stake in the YES Network to bundle the two sports channels with its other cable offerings, essentially forcing millions of cable-subscribing homes along the Eastern seaboard to receive the Big Ten Network even if they don't really want it.

So who cares how many people in New York really follow Rutgers? Who cares whether either school is good at football? Everyone will get the BTN in their home anyway! It's … actually sort of genius. The Big Ten is going to make a lot more money.

Want another reason I've decided to stop worrying about realignment? Because if we insist on getting angry every time a school trades conferences, and we pine for the day when all this movement just settles down (believe me, I'm there), we're going to be waiting for a very long time. From John Gasaway:

But it may turn out that realignment is now more systemic. Television dollars have been the mother's milk of college sports for decades, but the creation of the Big Ten Network in 2007 ushered in a new fear of and sensitivity to revenue disparities across the major conferences. It is now the case that a major-conference program can markedly improve their balance sheet through the simple expedient of switching to a different major conference. Once that happens in one instance, realignment exerts its own perpetual motion, just like the coaching carousel does. Every conference wants an even number of teams, and every conference wants enough football programs to sit at the grown-ups' table. One relocation made for reasons of revenue triggers other relocations made for reasons encompassing not only revenue but also simple housekeeping.

Maryland Fans
Maryland basketball fans who used to mock the Big Ten will now be joining them.

It is entirely possible that the famed "superconferences" will still emerge. But it seems just as likely that the inertia never truly stops, that we have now reached realignment as a perpetual state of being. Is that depressing? Sure. Is it the reality? Yes.

Unfortunately, whining about how truly sad the whole thing is, how much we just want the Big Ten (or the Big East, or whatever) to stay the way it always was -- the way we remember it in the halcyon days before greed dominated college athletics (which, hint, never existed) -- it's all totally beside the point. As Staples writes:

College sports are built on nostalgia. Everyone wants everything to be exactly as it was when they attended Old State U. That way, every Saturday is a trip back to the best time of their lives. When they flip on the television and see Utah playing USC in a conference game, it wrecks that nostalgia. Most people either can't or won't accept what big-time college athletics actually is. It is a big business that happens to be attached to mostly publicly funded universities.

Here's Grantland's Michael Weinreb:

Here's the thing: They've got us, and they know they've got us. There are millions of Big Ten alumni -- including me -- fanned out across America, burdened with positive feeling toward our alma maters, loyal enough to vast state institutions that we show up a hundred thousand strong on Saturdays in Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania, and we bleed out an extra six dollars to the cable company in order to watch two or three football games a year and 18 hours a day of high-definition propaganda on the conference's Riefenstahl-ian television network.

Don't like realignment? You have a very simple choice: Stop watching college football. Cease your allegiance to your former school. Leave the whole sordid mess that is collegiate athletics behind.

Don't want to do that? I don't blame you. I like college sports too. But when your mouth says one thing and your wallet says another, which do you think the nation's conference commissioners are listening to?

So you can fulminate and whine and cry foul and it doesn't matter, not at all, not as long as you keep paying for the season tickets. Because you'll still go see Michigan play Maryland at the Big House, because it's what you do on Saturdays. And we'll still keep watching college basketball, not because we love the leagues or the conferences, but because we love the game itself -- however arbitrary its organization may become.