June 16, 2010
To one line of thinking, the lesson of the Pac-10's bid to initiate the long-foretold era of the "super conference" in college sports is in its failure. In fact, the new, slimmed-down Big 12 will apparently become even richer by virtue of contraction, splitting up significantly more money among fewer teams following the departures of Colorado and Nebraska to other leagues. (Collecting a few million in withdrawal fees doesn't hurt, either.) Couldn't Texas' parlay for more money, more power and an easier road to the national championship be a sign that the future is in the most powerful teams' ruthless maneuvering for fewer mouths to feed, rather than more?
That's one way to look at it. But the more relevant lesson, in keeping with the decades-long march of consolidation among conferences, is just how close the Pac-10 came to making the vision of a 16-team colossus a reality. It's an idea whose time has come: The nation's top teams have been aligning themselves into increasingly exclusive leagues for most of the last century, beginning with the Division I-A/I-AA split in the early seventies, through the expansion of the SEC, death of the Southwest Conference and formation of the Big 12 in the early-to-mid nineties and most obviously in the emergence of the Bowl Championship Series, with its officially designated Haves (the "Big Six" conferences and Notre Dame) and Have-Nots (everyone else). Further merging of the Haves (in this case, the prospective Pac-16) and exclusion of the Have-Nots (the Big 12's "Desperate Five") was the next logical step in that trajectory.
It took an outsider – Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott, an Ivy-Leaguer straight from a pro tennis league who hadn't attended a college football game in more than a decade, and even that was Harvard-Yale – to make that move, pushing for the big score that more entrenched, tradition-bound power brokers either couldn't see or wouldn't dare attempt. Success, in all likelihood, would have meant a vast, rapid reordering of the landscape by the Big Ten and SEC as they scrambled to build around the carcass of the Big 12. I can't be the only who imagines Scott feels a little like Luke Wilson in Idiocracy right about now, surrounded by people repeating "I like money."
But where the Pac-10 fell short, someone will eventually succeed: The Big Ten provided the financial model with its lucrative cable network, and the Pac-10 has demonstrated the will. All that's left, for better or worse, is the execution.
If you want to look far enough into the future, it's not difficult at all to imagine the eventual convergence of the most powerful, profitable programs into a single "conference," a kind of NFL-Lite that operates outside the strictures of the NCAA – it's so easy, actually, that USA Today's Michael Hiestand conjures up just such a future today as the ultimate end game to the sport's longstanding expansion madness. Note, too, that Kansas senator Pat Roberts saw the untethering of the biggest programs from the NCAA as one of the inherent dangers of the breakup of the Big 12 during his pleas to Nebraska to keep the old gang together last week.
But it would really only be a threat to the schools that find themselves left behind, as Kansas and most of its Big 12 North mates very nearly did last weekend; for the Haves, it would only be another stage in the evolution to claim what's rightfully theirs. The stadiums would still be full, the tailgates raucous and the ratings through the roof. As Hiestand's article suggests, the "One World Order" would only be a fuller realization of the cultural and economic reality right now, sans the vestigial tails (academics, rivalries, "tradition," even geography) that insist on grouping programs with vastly different goals and resources as the same species.
If there's a threat to that narrative, it's probably the pending all-Texas network, the most attractive of the carrots that ultimately kept the Longhorns out of the clutches of the Pac-10/16. It's the decentralized, entrepreneurial answer to the collective prosperity of the Big Ten, an appeal to old-fashioned monopoly over the strategic partnerships of the cartel. Texas' approach seems to be the more appealing model to the SEC, which has resisted throwing in for what would surely be an instant blockbuster of a network. If the school-specific approach works at Texas (and possibly Oklahoma), the long-term trend toward greater consolidation of power and resources among the top programs could give way to individual schools scrambling to stake out its own fiefdom of media rights that it doesn't have to share with anyone.
If the Big Ten model works on the West Coast, though, don't expect the Pac-10's abortive march on the Heartland to be the last you from the "super conference" anytime soon. More likely, it's only the beginning.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.