After months of speculation, earlier this week the Big 12 Conference announced it would not expand the membership, opting to maintain the current membership at 10.
This course of direction will continue the conversation and speculation about the future structure of college athletic conferences. So what happens now, is conference realignment over? What is going to happen to the Big 12? Will Power 5 membership grow?
Conference realignment is far from over. The realignment world is a place where anything can happen at almost any time. The reactive nature of realignment makes long-term planning and prediction very difficult. Having said that, my impressions of this week’s Big 12 decision leads one to believe that Power 5 membership is not going to grow, but rather continue to consolidate its power, strength, and wealth.
Again, in a world where all things are possible it should not be a surprise if the Big 12 eventually dissolves, leaving four major regionally related conferences. The ACC in the east, the SEC in the south, the Big 10 in the north, and the Pac 12 in the west. Each of these conferences would then expand the membership to absorb the Big 12 members, putting membership around 16 for each of the remaining four conferences. Members of the Power 5 do not want to dilute their power and influence by adding to their membership. They want to concentrate that power and influence by consolidating membership.
One of the undervalued assets of the SEC and some schools outside of the SEC is the passion fans have for their schools, especially in the form of regional rivalries. Many SEC schools have more than one major regional rivalry game on their schedule. This kind of regional connection helps to drive fan interest which contributes to TV ratings, ticket sales, and other forms of school support, giving these schools a huge financial footprint within their region. With four major conferences, this would give each conference its own massive regionally connected TV market that would generate millions upon millions of dollars in advertising, with an incalculable level of exposure for each school.
To take all of this a step further, what about Norte Dame? At the moment Note Dame plays football as an independent with a large independent TV contract and a scheduling arrangement with ACC, the same conference where they house all of their other sports. Can Notre Dame get the College Football Playoff without a conference championship? The answer is “yes,” however it might be easier to get to the playoffs within the confines of a power conference. If in the future ND finds it necessary / beneficial to be in a conference, it would most certainly be considered a major move in college football which would have an effect on conference realignment.
When talking of schools switching conferences, the terms of conference “realignment” or conference “expansion” are the terms most commonly used. Considering the recent actions of the Big 12 and all that could potentially happen, the term conference “consolidation” is more accurate and indicative of what we will see in the future.
By Chris Coker
Chris Coker is the Director of Continuing Education at the United States Sports Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.