What’s in a Conference Name … Increasingly Less
The latest round of conference shifting creates many angles for discussion. One question that a business school colleague posed is, why even have conferences anymore? That’s a very good question. For the top shelf conferences who have or are moving above 12 teams, the infrequency of play across conference divisions (or, single game scheduling in basketball) diminishes the common schedule aspect that has historically defined a conference. It resembles some aspects of the conference and divisional splits in the NFL. Even with diminished play between many teams, the conference/division setup provides some structure to the scheduling process. Probably more importantly, it improves the bargaining power of the members in TV and bowl rights negotiations versus attempting to bargain as independents (unless you are Notre Dame).
Moving down the conference revenue pecking order, bargaining power diminishes and a real question arises as to the benefits of conferences. Yes, Middle Tennessee is seemingly “moving up” to Conference USA, but one can just as easily view it as Conference USA is moving down to the Sun Belt level. MTSU averaged 17,000 per game in 2012. Florida Atlantic, who is making the move also, averaged 13,000. Of course, one might contend that “moving up” will help bring in more fans. This theory extends not only to fans in seats but extending the stadium to the large numbers of TVs in these metro areas. Maybe that idea will work for Rutgers and Maryland, but it’s a pretty dubious notion for FAU. Will SMU and Houston coming to town boost attendance and viewership by thousands? And, while East Carolina draws a sizable number, 47000 per game, many schools such as SMU, Rice, and UAB at or below many Sun Belt (or WAC or MW …) schools.
Bill Parcells like to say, “you are what your record says you are.” A twist on that for the conference shuffling is, “you are who you invite”
In essence, Conference USA is becoming the Sun Belt or vice versa which is becoming the WAC which is becoming the Mountain West. Hitching on to a “bigger name” isn’t much different than the EPL’s First Division changing it’s name to the “Championship Division.” Schools at this level of FBS might be better off forming a big alliance of independents, negotiating bowl and TV deals.
In the middle, the ACC and the Big East find themselves looking a lot more like Conference USA of a few years back (at least in football). Yes, they still are part of the BCS system but is the setup really stable. If ACC teams start taking spots from other conferences in the semifinals or finals, will the higher revenue conferences sit still? Also, will BCS bowls like the Orange Bowl continue or with big payouts given likely matchups — particularly if Florida State bolts the ACC — which raises the questions as to why the Big 12 has not pulled in FSU and BYU already.