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On Conference Realignment

Today's Post and Courier prints a conversation I had with Travis Sawchick, their Clemson beat reporter, under the banner "Two Minute Drill." This piece was triggered by media speculation over the last couple of weeks, particularly with regard to the prospect of Florida State and Clemson leaving the ACC for what remains of the the Big 12. Since there's a limited amount that one can say in a "two minute drill," I thought I'd add a few more points here at TSE.

First, it is a misconception to think that conference realignment is a 21st Century issue. The college sports landscape has experienced many periods of transition, and schools are forever adapting to changes in the marketplace. Chicago was once a football power in the Big 10, Brown once played in the Rose Bowl, and Clemson was a charter member of the Southern Conference, and two conferences before that, before joining (some might say led) a breakaway with six others to form the ACC in 1953. South Carolina left the ACC in 1971, Georgia Tech joined in 1979, and Florida State joined in 1990. As a student at New Mexico in 1978, I saw Arizona and Arizona State leave the WAC (est. 1962), transforming the Pac 8 into the PAC 10. The Southwest Conference (which had my allegiance as a kid) broke apart in the early 1900s, and New Mexico itself left the WAC in 1996 to help form the Mountain West Conference. Changing incentives and interests, and thus affiliations between schools, are a regular feature of the college sports landscape.

Second, the most important driver of change in recent decades is an increase in the scale and scope of the sports marketplace (here's an essay I wrote on this a few years ago). Significant decreases in the cost of travel and increases in media opportunities have transformed what was a local and regional market into one that is national in scope. Today's higher revenues derive from nationally relevant teams playing each other on national television. That's today's market. It's not the same as your father's market, and adapting to it, especially in determining how revenues will be distributed among institutions, is not as simple as you might think. The Big 12 failed to reach agreement on this important issue, and as a result lost four significant institutions, Colorado to the Pac 12, Nebraska to the B1G, and Missouri and Texas A&M to to the SEC. The Big 12 may yet recover from these defections, but it is a weaker conference today as a result.

Given this history, an announcement that Clemson and Florida State had found a new set of partners for their sports program would not be a big surprise. The increase in the size of conferences from 8 to 10, 12, and 14 members implies that there will be fewer quality conferences in equilibrium. The first casualty in this process was the Southwest Conference. It is now clear that the Big East has slowly but effectively been relegated from the top level of college football. Is the ACC the next casualty?

It's possible, at least from a football perspective. The Big East and the ACC can both remain nationally relevant in basketball, and rationally choose to forgo the revenues, expenses, and trappings of big time college football. Losing two southern football schools would remake the ACC into an entity much like the Big East of old. But it is not clear to me what Clemson and FSU (or Virginia Tech for that matter) stand to gain in the long run from leaving the ACC, unless the configuration of the national title chase were to eliminate their prospects. It is the post-season configuration which holds the key here. Have Clemson and FSU put the ACC on notice that an agreement which effectively excludes the ACC champion from a post-season playoff would lead to their exit? Nobody likes this game of musical chairs, but it's more of a permanent feature in college sports than a transitory one.