Conference Realignments: (Some) Order out of Chaos
The poaching of past Big East schools by the ACC and Big East and similar events in other conferences has engendered accusations of greed, disloyalty, and nastier things. Jilted institutions and league officials have sounded a lot like spurned lovers. While soap operas have appeared as little more of than a mad scramble for cash, a degree of order has emerged. In fact, the latest headlines pointing toward Xavier and Butler joining the “Catholic 7” Big East basketball schools demonstrate a sorting out apples with apples and oranges with oranges – call it the “eHarmony” model of relationship matching where “underlying compatibility” matters.
Money, of course, has driven decisions. That’s not exactly a bombshell, and it didn’t start in the last decade as the initial formation of the Big East in 1979 bears witness. The landmark 1984 Supreme Court decision striking down NCAA restrictions on televising football started a snowball moving that has gained speed and size over time. Prior to that decision and for a while after, the formation of conferences like the Big East, Metro, and Sun Belt reflected basketball-centered schools coalescing and seeking market shares. Ultimately, the unleashed football genie began to dictate alignments and re-alignments. The 1991 Notre Dame contract with NBC marked a watershed. It nudged other broadcasters into more lucrative contracts with conferences, enhancing major conferences as key bargaining units and making them more attractive to major independents like Penn State, while encouraging existing conference members to explore new relationships.
The affinities in the new relationships reflected underlying similarities in the size of the fan base (or potential base), sport of emphasis, academic standards, and geographic settings. Arkansas and South Carolina went to the SEC. The SWC married the Big 8. These seemed like big shifts at the time, but the matching process was just getting rolling in the 1990s. Many potentially advantageous relationships went undeveloped. Texas A&M, for instance, while in many ways fitting much better with the SEC than the Big 12 did not make the move until 2012.
Assorted political obstacles and school-specific interests, such as longstanding rivalries and local interests, restrained movements as with Texas A&M. In other cases, these obstacles persist and won’t likely vanish anytime soon. A fortunate few institutions benefit from “grandfathering.” For example, if the SEC were starting from scratch today, Vanderbilt would be looking for an association with other private schools, and it’s very doubtful that two Mississippi schools would be invited. Northwestern would not be in the Big Ten. In other cases, the mix of football and basketball influences decisions. The basketball-rich tradition of North Carolina has kept it linked to other ACC schools when it could likely have jumped to a more prosperous league. Turf protection keeps some schools out of conferences where they would seemingly fit well. Some of the current matches reflect conferences picking from the leftovers to fill out their roster such as the Big 12 picking up West Virginia. Why the Big 12 hasn’t gone for BYU (or the other way around) or Florida State is hard to understand.
Yes, outcomes in big revenue college sports will always be convoluted. After all, the structure couples essentially professional sports entertainment enterprises with not-for-profit academic institutions wrapped in the antiquated vocabulary of amateur sports. Nonetheless, business relationships are most stable when the objectives, revenues, and cost structures are more in line with each other.
The 7 Big East, urban campus, private, basketball-centered schools gravitating toward each other and a couple of other similar schools and away from football-centered, large state universities makes sense. It makes a lot more sense than these schools adding another dissimilar institution from across the country like Boise State.