- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
As long as you are willing to be general in your use of the word "historic," last week marked a historic change in college sports.
Whether you knew it or not, when you went to bed on June 30, you tucked in and said farewell to a familiar collegiate landscape, one only occasionally and incrementally modified in the past 30 years. When you woke up on July 1, approximately three years of stop-start conference realignment officially became a reality.
Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame became members of the ACC. Butler, Creighton and Xavier joined the "new" Big East, an amalgam of seven basketball refugees who escaped the old Big East with naming rights intact. Something called the American Athletic Conference was born.
How did we get here? It's been more marathon than sprint, as they say, and the breathless day-to-day developments of the past three years have been difficult to follow for even the hardiest of college basketball junkies. For casual fans, well, honestly, who has the time?
That's why, as part of our Realignment Reality series this week, we decided to put together a handy list of frequently asked questions to help guide you through this bright future and/or terrifying dystopia.
First things first: Which schools are in which conferences, now?
All told, 50 -- yes, 50 -- basketball programs will play under a different conference name than they did last season. We could copy and paste this entire list, but it's much easier for everyone if you click the link. You might also save it to Evernote, print it off and, if you are so inclined, have your local print shop create a wall-sized poster, which you can then hang above your favorite Internet commenting portal. Remember: Knowledge is power.
That's a lot of changes. How did this happen? And why?
The short version, in no particular order: TV money, greed, football, crippling intra-institutional insecurity, and the Big Ten.
Don't worry, there's a long version.
For all intents and purposes, the wave of realignment that brought us to the radically remade landscape July 1 began in 2007, in the Chicago offices of the Big Ten. It was around that time that the Big Ten made a prescient and all-important move: It decided to create its own conference TV network. Thanks to the conference's vast swath of major-market-residing alumni -- the type of folks who demand to see even the most minor of regular-season games -- what began as a maligned experiment quickly evolved into a cable success story. That quickly made the Big Ten wildly profitable -- in 2012, the league distributed about $25 million to each of the 11 member schools (with Nebraska receiving a partial share until 2017) -- and the vanguard of everything that would follow.
In 2010, the Big Ten realized something else: The best way to grow its network was to add new teams whose fans would clamor to watch the Big Ten Network. When word leaked of the league's desire to expand -- before "realignment" became en vogue, "conference expansion" was the popular term -- everyone kind of freaked out. News reports describing the jockeying of various school presidents were a sudden daily ritual. Rumors that Texas would join the Pac-10 or Big Ten nearly caused the collapse of the Big 12. "Geographic footprint" and "market share" entered the lexicon. Other "power" conferences took note, reconsidering what made their leagues valuable and assuming an acquisition-as-defense strategy not dissimilar from Silicon Valley's never-ending patent wars.
So came the early swaps: Colorado and Utah jumped to the Pac-12 and Texas A&M and Missouri found a new home in the SEC -- merely the first salvos, but important ones all the same.
The effects, both real and imagined, rippled endlessly outward. The Big Ten likes to act as if it was an innocent bystander to the hysteria, but after the Big Ten Network, there was no going back. Even when the league eventually played it cool -- adding only Nebraska as its 12th school in 2011, after the insatiable Texas leviathan got its godfather deal to stay in the Big 12 -- the narrowly averted Big 12 panic and the resulting scramble made it clear that from then on, things were going to be different.
OK, but still: If things were so calm for so long, why so much sudden panic?
1. You know that queasy feeling you used to get on Friday afternoons in high school, when it seemed like everyone had awesome plans, and you weren't invited? University presidents and athletic directors may be learned dignitaries poised atop the vaunted American education system, but they are also human beings, and when human beings feel excluded, they start taking drastic measures to stay in the sun.
2. It was a pretty scary time. What if the Big Ten became a "superconference"? What would that mean for the rest of the country? How quickly could each league catch up? How far would schools go to secure their futures? How quickly could league-specific networks be formed and new network deals signed? What did self-preservation require? What made a school -- and thus a league -- attractive in the first place?
It begins with f and ends with ootball, and I'm not talking about the English Premier League.
Though it has always been a popular sport, for much of the past 50 years, college football's appeal was more provincial than national. In the 1980s and early 1990s, college basketball far outpaced football in cultural import. Things done changed: Many sports marketing experts believe college football will overtake baseball as the nation's second-most popular sport in the coming years (if it hasn't already). In general, football is more watched and more beloved than ever before -- the NFL has grown into a fantasy-nerd-embracing, "Sunday Ticket"-living, ratings-goosing, world-devouring Galactus of live entertainment -- and the college game has come along for the ride.
The "live entertainment" part is especially important. Football's rise in popularity has come at a desperate juncture for TV networks, which face more eyeball competition than they could have imagined even 10 years ago. We used to see ourselves in our favorite television characters every night; now we literally see ourselves on our computer screens every day. We once celebrated massive cultural success; now we nestle into a comfortable niche. We once gathered for appointment television; now we time-shift.
Innovation is disruption, and we've disrupted the only mainstream business model TV has ever known. Must-see-live events remain the last guaranteed money-maker in the business -- the lone surefire edifice protruding from the rubble. Selling the rights to these games has never been more lucrative.
So, to review: Massively increasing college football popularity + TV networks that need live events to survive + an old-world college landscape reorienting itself to the new reality = conference realignment.
It really has been a wild few years.
How does any of this explain what happened to the Big East?
I'll tell you!
The old Big East was a basketball conference with a few so-so football teams, especially since the ACC lapped up Miami and friends in the Minor East Coast Realignment of 2005. As it became clear that the old Big East was a hoops conference in a football world -- with football money being seen as necessary to subsidize basketball success -- it became less attractive to its network partners, which include ESPN. For most of 2011 and 2012, the already watered-down (see: South Florida) Big East desperately clung to life, treating new acquisitions less like universities and more like network affiliates. Memphis and Temple were sensible additions, but Tulane? San Diego State? In the Big East? Really?
Then, this winter, a funny thing happened: The Catholic members of the Big East, basketball schools to their core, looked around and realized that the rush of new sports cable networks meant that these schools didn't necessarily need football to be financially viable. Do you need football to stack Ohio State racks? Yes. Do you need it to maintain a solid middle-class college hoops existence? Absolutely not. If you've got a storied brand name and a great (even if niche!) product, the market is there.
And the rest of what was the Big East became the American Athletic Conference. Wait -- why did they pick that name?
Something something national conference something something brand leverage something something … it's best to not think about it too much, honestly.
Yeah, speaking of which -- what does this mean for college basketball?
The early days looked grim. Take Kansas. The Jayhawks lost Missouri — their century-old, historic sociocultural rival borne of real bloodshed on the old plains. They also suffered an extended indignity: For about a year, it looked like KU, whose first basketball coach invented the sport, was going to have to beg its way into the Big East or land in the Mountain West or, well … it was all very strange. The Jayhawks' shame was the sport's writ small: All of a sudden, it felt like college basketball didn't matter.
Lately, things are tentatively looking up. As Dana O'Neil wrote Monday, for all of the whining (guilty as charged) about college basketball's place in the wider sporting landscape -- particularly relevant to the big-money movers on the football side -- the current landscape is actually not all that bad. The new ACC is going to be a beast. And, as mentioned above, the reformed Big East seems to have figured out how to make basketball the main attraction in a post-realignment world.
Wait, if Kansas and Missouri don't play each other, how do they process their mutual hatred?
Last we checked, it wasn't going well.
What about the NCAA? Can't it do anything?
Ha, no. The NCAA is merely the centralized bureaucratic spine of the NCAA schools doing all of this shifting in the first place. The tail can't wag the dog.
But it must be uncomfortable for the NCAA to argue in U.S. District Court that athletes have no right to their likenesses when schools are switching leagues for more TV money every two weeks.
That's not a question … but yes. Oh, yes. Quite deliciously so.
Is this over now? Can we stop?
Maybe! Maybe? OK, probably not.
Last fall, when ACC charter member Maryland became the latest addition to the Big Ten's diabolical plan to forcibly bundle its network into every American cable subscriber's home, John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus penned a convincing argument that post-Big Ten Network realignment is now a product of the ongoing systemic fear of getting left in the revenue dust. This is what happens when conferences that compete against each other negotiate their own television deals separately. Anytime things seem unbalanced, or one conference sees itself falling behind, realignment will follow. Perpetual war is upon us.
Besides, it's not as if conference realignment is a new thing. In 1930, the Southern Conference was 23 schools strong. In 1932, it split in half, and the modern SEC was more or less born. This has been going on -- albeit in less accelerated fashion -- forever.
Maybe we shouldn't have to ask … but perpetual war is bad, right?
Yes and no. Yes, because realignment destroys deeply rooted rivalries in the shortsighted chase for more money. Georgetown-Syracuse, Kansas-Missouri, Maryland-Duke and others have fallen by the wayside. That has been the most decried aspect of all of this, and rightfully so. It is an objectively bad thing for anyone who loves college basketball, or sports in general. Rivalries make life better. The loss of rivalries makes life worse. That's just science.
On the other hand, evincing too much outrage about this means ignoring what college athletics actually is: a business. We all have to learn this sports-is-big-business lesson eventually, usually around the age of 10. Realignment is best understood when we untie our emotion from our fandom. But what is fandom without emotion?
Ugh. This is exhausting. Can we at least take a break?
Sort of. There are a handful of "high-major" schools that will be moving to new leagues on July 1, 2014 -- Louisville to the ACC, Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten -- and the jockeying among mid-majors likely will continue. Still, part of the reason last week felt even remotely "historic" is because it seems hard to imagine how, after three years of manic movement, another sudden rush like the one we just went through could occur.
When war is peace, a ceasefire is the best-case scenario. But for now, we'll take it.
I guess that covers it?
Let's hope so!
One last thing …
Really? The American Athletic Conference? Why?!
That's one question I don't have the answer for.
Editor's Note: To catch up on all of the conference changes, read our realignment primer here. And then check out Dana O'Neil's column on why the new college basketball landscape might not be all that bad, and Jason King's winners and losers from the shakeup.
7dAndy Katz and David Purdum
6dESPN The Magazine