NCAA Power Conferences Snap Up Schools in a Game of Risk

Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.

On a recent vacation to Montana, our adult family sat down to play the game Risk. That’s the one where two to six players engage in “diplomacy, conflict and conquest” on a world map featuring 42 territories. As one source notes, “players may form and dissolve alliances” while trying to “occupy every territory on the board and eliminate the other players.”

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Except for the 42 territories, it sounds like this month’s version of the NCAA.

Hasbro might even think of coming out with an NCAA version of Risk to go with their Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Star Wars special editions. Instead of six continents, they would only need an illustration showing five big conferences.

Or, perhaps by the time you read this, four.

Given the Pac-12’s recent defections, including USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon to the Big Ten and Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado to the Big 12, the players controlling the Pac-12 just got crushed by a couple of big dice rolls.

Add to that, Florida State is apparently considering exiting the ACC if it can sort out the grant of rights contract it signed (binding it through 2036). That could lead to strategic moves by Clemson, Miami, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Virginia.

Viewed with a board game mentality, it probably isn’t easy assessing unsupportable infantry pieces at Oregon State, Washington State, Cal, Stanford, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Wake Forest, Pitt, North Carolina State, Syracuse and Virginia Tech, to name a handful.

You can almost hear certain college presidents frantically calling for reinforcements or making clear they will defect if given the right offer.

Make no mistake, this is not, for the moment, about educating young men and women. This is all about branding, prestige and millions in media rights fees. We’ll get around to the business of educating folks later.

I write the above with some NCAA familiarity.

For eight years (2014-2022), I served as the Faculty Athletic Representative (FAR) to the NCAA at Syracuse and sat on a variety of NCAA, ACC and SU committees while attending annual national or conference meetings. Along with 14 other ACC academicians, I watched NCAA rule changes and Supreme Court decisions unfold.

Name, image and likeness (NIL) and free agency (disguised as the transfer portal) were two of the biggest upheavals, but others came down as well. In every case, there were bigger economic forces at play.

The University of Texas and Oklahoma wanting to exit the Big 12 for a more lucrative situation in the SEC was seismic. It placed then new commissioner Brett Yormark on notice. Advance or go home.

On the surface, the Big 12 (minus the Longhorns and Sooners) looked like the island of unwanted schools. It had very few major media hubs, and pundits wasted no time suggesting the “12” was toast.

But when the Big Ten enticed USC and UCLA to join a conference thousands of miles away (a league now stretching from Los Angeles to Maryland and New Jersey), Yormark rolled the die and grabbed valuable territory.

Suddenly, the Big 12, with 16 teams, was more relevant. It featured population bases in Denver and Phoenix. It could survive with teams at Kansas, K-State, West Virginia and Iowa State.

Smelling weakness (or opportunity), the Big Ten presidents wanted more. So, last week, they took the Northwest and may yet acquire the Bay Area (Stanford and Cal) or territories on the Atlantic seaboard.

Their thinking on the latter? We’re a national conference and certain ACC schools will give us a Risk-like line of defense, in advance of the SEC’s next move.

One might wonder how this game ends? It depends on whose turn is next. Are we moving around the U.S. map clockwise or counterclockwise?

At a certain level, it doesn’t matter. Elite sport content sells well. College athletics is a multibillion-dollar segment of the trillion-dollar sports industry. The NCAA delivers superb national programming for nine months of the year.

One problem is the last ‘A’ in NCAA. It stands for “Association.” It’s a group of universities playing a different “board” game than the pros. Not one with plastic cannons and cavalry tokens but with boards of trustees who, despite their career accomplishments and achievements, traditionally influenced campus decisions, not domestic media packages.

That’s not a critique of these trustees. They have an obligation to protect academic entities operating in the education sector. What college sports reveal (and mandate) is how these boards (and their chancellors) must move decisively in the media vertical.

That challenge, manipulating content and entertainment, is incredibly difficult because the focus shifts from local or regional engagement (i.e., getting students to enroll at a fixed geographic location) to a global, cutthroat industry where eyeballs, subscriptions, downloads and clicks are all that matters.

The end of the Pac-12 or the immense challenges now facing the ACC do not signal the end of the NCAA. College sports is a lucrative battlefield. But the ACC is now on the clock.

At 14 football schools, the ACC has fewer “armies” than the Big Ten (18), SEC (16) and Big 12 (16). If it loses any members, the imbalance becomes more pronounced, and the value of its media rights will cause other schools to contemplate jumping ship.

Say this much … to have great athletic powers like Texas, Oklahoma, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, ASU, Colorado, Utah and possibly Florida State all switching conferences—in a single turn—makes the NCAA one very interesting board game.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor Sport Management at Syracuse University and COO of Playbk Sports. His co-authored books Business the NHL Way and 20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student-Athletes are available on Amazon.    

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