Change makes a lot of people really nervous, but fans of college athletics are getting a crash course in how to cope with it. And the latest round of conference realignment is just part of the inevitable move to four superconferences that will total around 64 teams and control all of big-money football and basketball.
As of now, we still have the "big six" conferences, which all get automatic bids to BCS bowls, and they are the ACC, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. Of course, in the superconference world, it seems likely only four of these leagues will continue to exist. And when we break things down conference by conference, it becomes clear that the Big East's days are numbered.
This league was innovative, proactive and forward thinking in adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh. It was a bold stroke that expanded the ACC footprint up and down the entire eastern seaboard and put the league in a commanding position as lucrative media contracts come up for bid over the next decade. The ACC is now the most powerful basketball association in the nation, and that hardwood power can help leverage football into a better position. And the conference is not done expanding. The next move is to solidify the New York market. Whether it is UConn, Rutgers or both, the ACC has positioned itself to take advantage of the Big Apple market.
The big prize for the ACC would be Notre Dame, and even though the Irish seem more willing to give up Catholicism than football independence, the school will someday join a league, and the ACC is the best option. The ACC's move was about the future of college sports: market geography, households, subscriptions and principles of economics. It was about the maximization of resources over fewer units, and the ACC showed foresight and leadership to realize that bigger and more powerful associations among the teams with resources is inevitable, and the ACC positioned itself first and arguably best. The conference's move was made for football, but it leverages basketball to help football. By making the league the strongest in hoops, the ACC has a shot at lifting up the collective strength of football.
Texas A&M just joined this conference, and there are more schools to come. While it was certainly part of the calculus of A&M to get away from Texas, it makes very good business sense to split up those two institutions into two different leagues. Instead of market redundancy, that market will essentially be sold twice. It may take a period of years to get there, but the SEC is going bigger, too. Sixteen makes much more sense than 13 or 14, and the SEC can split into divisions (whether two or four divisions) and hold its own "plus one." One could argue persuasively that the SEC is in the strongest position going forward.
The Big Ten beat everyone to the subscription model for its TV network, and acknowledged the fact college sports held far greater value than prior models allowed. Given their past groundbreaking, whether the Big Ten expands now or later, it will happen.
Everyone knows the Pac-12 is not staying put at a dozen, even though it stopped the carousel for now. The Pac-12 presidents gave commissioner Larry Scott the authority to "explore" (which is a nice way to say "cut a deal") adding four more schools, as long as one was Texas. The Longhorns wouldn't give up the ESPN-operated Longhorn Network or disproportionate revenue sharing, so Oklahoma was unable to move west because it is tied to Texas in Pac-12 expansion. However, expansion out West is inevitable.
This league is as flammable today as it was a week ago, and whether or not there is an agreement to share some revenue for a few years, none of the Big 12 institutions will keep that league together if the institution is invited to a more stable situation in one of the four leagues listed above. The Big 12 presidents can agree to a deal to share money for a few years, but that is a blip on the radar screen in the long run. The Big 12 cannot stand pat with a flimsy agreement and stay at the big table later on.
So, what is the Big East to do in response to the changed landscape, and the inevitable change that is coming? The truth is, the league lacks good alternatives, and there are few, if any, legitimate options to keep the Big East at the big table among the big four major conferences. The Big East has many divided interests between football-playing schools and basketball-only schools, and an association of such differing institutions is difficult given where we are headed. Heck, it was difficult before.
The only real question that remains is whether the Big East has any moves to be able to survive as a lesser league, or lesser version of a superconference that could align with the Big Four.
The Big East has floated the possibility of adding Navy, Army and Air Force, but that will not get the league into a significantly better position relative to the Big Four. Army does not want the move because it does not believe it can compete on that level, and Air Force has been competitive in football but a disaster in every other sport in the Mountain West. The addition of the service academies will not change the Big East footprint, or its ultimate fate.
The Big East could raid Conference USA again, but that would mean taking in Central Florida, Memphis or East Carolina. UCF offers a destination market in Orlando, but none of the three, or any combination of them, has the power to make a difference for the Big East. The primary worry of the Big East is that it will become the equivalent of the Atlantic 10 -- a good league, but not a player sitting at the big table largely due to the lack of a significant football presence. The Big East could raid the A-10 and solidify its basketball base, but that would not solve the football problem, or the different interests of its members. And, again, it would not put the Big East at the big table with the Big Four.
The Big 12 may be able to hold it together for a while, but it does not seem like a long-term survivor among the better-positioned giants, and will likely divide itself up among them. And this may be the Big East's best opportunity to act. If the Big 12 were to implode, which is a distinct probability given how combustible that situation is, the Big East could merge with the remaining Big 12 teams as was planned when it looked like the Pac-12 might take Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. That may ultimately be the best option for the Big East, but it still wouldn't be getting the two biggest football names in the Big 12, Texas and OU. The addition of Kansas would certainly help in basketball status, however.
I have heard it floated that perhaps the Big East could go "all in" on the basketball side and form a superconference for basketball only. Could that happen? It is possible for the Big East to go back to the future and put its entire emphasis on hoops, but that wouldn't put the Big East at the big table. Could the conference go out and get Xavier and Butler and add them to the other basketball-only schools? Perhaps, but that doesn't help the schools that play football, and it doesn't allow the Big East to compete favorably with superconferences that will control not only football revenue but basketball revenue, as well. Think about it. If football is controlled by superconferences, why would those conferences choose not exert their market power over basketball?
Don't be fooled, this isn't just about greed or ego. This is about inevitable change, and it is about the fiduciary responsibility that each league commissioner has to his institutions, and that each institution has to itself. It is about forward-thinking and proactive leadership, and about positioning for the next round of negotiations over the next decade. The NCAA president can try to put athletes and other considerations up front for reasons of perception, but the business of college sports and the educational mission of each institution can coexist. Just like a hospital can be run like a business and still provide excellent patient care, so too can schools make business decisions and educate their students. (Wait, do sick patients need to be amateurs in my example? I digress.)
The Big East may very well survive this inevitable change, but it will survive as a lesser league, not as a major power player in the future of big-time college football and basketball. The Big East never really fit together like other conferences, and conference realignment has been coming for a long time. The Big East just wasn't built to deal with it as well as other leagues were. Sadly, it appears likely that the Big East as we have come to know it is simply gone.