September 14, 2011
As you're probably aware, the SEC wants to expand — its commissioner is beginning to sound very, very certain about it — and when it does, certainly you have been made aware by now that Things Will Never Be the Same. Once the dominoes begin to fall, no one can be certain where or when they're going to stop, or who they're going to flatten in the process.
If you've followed the sport for the last two decades, you're also aware that things have never been "the same" in college football for very long, turmoil and change being two of the hallmarks of an unstructured, unwieldy, Darwinian ecosystem completely lacking the central brain and top-down logic that's defined every other sport in America, save maybe professional wrestling. Schools and conferences have always been in it for themselves — the NCAA, too — and the next phase of that evolution will be every bit as pitiless on those that are slow or ill-equipped to adapt as all of the previous phases. The fact is, the dominoes have never stopped.
Within that dynamic, there is one constant, central narrative in the business of college football over the last half-century: The ongoing stratification of the "Haves" and "Have-Nots," and the ever-increasing stakes of falling into the former category. The specifics of the relationship between the profitable, behemoth programs and the aspiring middle class have changed to a degree; there's far more money to be had today than in the past, and more competition for it. Scholarship restrictions and increased exposure for smaller schools via mid-week games on ESPN and a sudden glut of bowl games have helped distribute talent more evenly. The "Have-Not" schools have more access to a fraction of the loot thanks to BCS payouts and "guarantee" games that keep the lights on for another year in exchange for (usually) a sound beating in front of a packed house at Juggernaut U. But the big trend — the steady consolidation of money and power among fewer programs — is only just reaching another critical juncture in a long, 40-year arc that's made the notion of the all-encompassing superconference almost inevitable.
That's not a nod at fate or conspiracy. (As a rule, people are not competent to organize and execute master plans over many decades). Consider, though, that every major structural upheaval in college football over the last three generations has served to further separate the elite from the chaff — or, to put it bluntly, to bring the archaic structure more in line with the longstanding competitive and economic realities.
In 1978, the NCAA drew a sharp (though easily crossed) line between the really serious football schools and those just playing to play when it separated its new "Division I" classification into I-A and I-AA. In 1984, universities beat the NCAA in the Supreme Court for the right to negotiate their own broadcast rights, overthrowing decades of restrictive "Game of the Week" deals controlled by the NCAA, which distributed revenues to big and small schools alike. Within 10 years, every major Eastern independent except Notre Dame — Miami, Florida State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia — had leapt at the chance to get in on one of the major conferences' television deals (or, in the case of the Big East, to form a new one of their own), and the SEC had hit upon the golden idea of splitting into two divisions and staging a championship game between the winners. To get to the requisite 12 teams, it added independent South Carolina and poached Southwest Conference heavyweight Arkansas, confining the SWC to the state of Texas and hastening the implosion that would send its remaining "Have" members (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and, for political reasons, Baylor) to the new, SEC-modeled Big 12, while leaving its Have-Nots (TCU, Houston, Rice and SMU) scrambling for cover.
The Big East only narrowly avoided the same fate barely a decade into its football existence, when the ACC nabbed its two most prominent programs, Miami and Virginia Tech, along with Boston College in 2003. By then, the nascent postseason cartel that had begun with the Bowl Alliance in 1992 had morphed into the Bowl Coalition and finally the full-fledged Bowl Championship Series when the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl swallowed their traditionalist pride and signed on in 1998, formally dividing Division I-A into the "Big Six" leagues with automatic bids to the prestige games — along with the full-fledged payouts that came with them — and everyone else.
In all of those cases, the number of teams that can claim to play in the top tier of college football -- structurally and competitively, at least, if not always in terms of money, attendance or exposure — has gotten a little smaller. Fewer programs have been able to claim a formal affiliation (Division I-A, "Big Six") that clearly separates them from the Have-Nots, with the attendant economic and recruiting advantages. By getting bigger, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and now the SEC threaten to make that number even smaller.
The Big East, having narrowly avoided the guillotine earlier this decade, could clearly read the writing on the wall for its existence as a major football conference last year, when the Big Ten appeared to be on the verge of gutting its neighbor in the name of increased exposure for its new, in-house television network. As it turns out, the sword was pointed instead at the Big 12, which lays prostrate from the major players in all directions: The Big Ten poached Nebraska with virtually no resistance, and could have easily had Missouri if it wanted, robbing the Big 12 of two of its most important markets in Kansas City and St. Louis; Colorado eagerly defected to the Pac-10, with the that Texas, Oklahoma and the rest of the Big 12's South Division would be right behind it. Instead, rejecting the uneasy compromise that briefly staved off collapse in 2010, Texas A&M is about to follow Arkansas in the opposite direction, setting the stage for a replay of the drawing-and-quartering of the old SWC. Only this time, it will Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State left for the vultures, just like their discarded predecessors in the Lone Star State.
True, the remnants of the Big 12 may yet find shelter in the Big East, whose sense of self-preservation has already sent it reaching across the Mississippi for TCU. But eventually, its days as a major football conference are numbered, too, both by its lackluster performance on the field and the growing pressure on the Big Ten and ACC to keep up with the Joneses. If its a 14 or 16-team "super conference" they want, it's from the Big East — Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse, West Virginia — that it will come.
That sort of end-game, whether played out relatively quickly or over decades, is precisely the landscape Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick imagined last year when describing the catastrophic scenario that might force the Irish to bite the bullet and join the imperialist race (emphasis added):
"The only things that could make it happen are the sorts of radical change in the industry that would cause upheaval and impact a lot more (schools) than Notre Dame," he says. "You wind up with only three conferences. You wind up with two tiers of conferences. Now, all of a sudden, it's not three divisions in college; it's four. It's the big change."
The big change: A future of three or four swollen conferences — the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-10 and possibly the ACC, likely under different names — controlling all of the strongest, richest programs in the country (alongside a few vestigial tails from the Dark Ages, when schools like Northwestern, Stanford and Vanderbilt could compete without compromising academics), standing astride a land littered with castoffs that have coalesced into respectable but decidedly second-rate leagues that no longer have their place alongside the behemoths at the adults' table.
Of course, a swollen conference of 14 to 16 teams — by all accounts, an increasing likelihood for the SEC and Pac-12, and probably the Big Ten and ACC behind them — isn't really a conference at all, in the traditional sense. It's a conference in the sense that the NFC or AFC is a conference, a collaboration under a large umbrella with scheduling and revenue-sharing agreements among teams that may only play one another once or twice a decade. That's the really dystopian apocalypse at the end of the track: A pro-style "league" among the top three or four dozen programs in three or four power conferences, eventually shorn even of their academic vestigial tails, with a few power brokers at the top pulling the strings exclusively in the interest of TV contracts, merchandising deals and maximizing revenue. (And yes, with a playoff, albeit one that's likely even more hostile from Have-Not interlopers than the BCS is now.)
Note that Swarbrick also says, "I don't see that happening," and as a short-term vision over the next 10 years or so, there's no way to present a radically reconfigured future without seeming a little heavy-handed and slightly unhinged. In many ways, though, that scenario — 30-40 of the strongest, richest programs standing astride the rest of the country, concerned mainly with TV contracts, merchandising deals and maximizing revenue — already exists in practice, and has for a long time. When it comes down to it, the obsession with the emergence of the "super conference" is a desire for a governing structure that reflects the reality of the sport, in which 30-40 of the strongest, richest programs actually are standing astride the rest of the country, concerned mainly with TV contracts, merchandising deals and maximizing revenue. Except that, for now, they remain bound to a chaotic remnant of an era whose most sacrosanct assumption about the game as an amateur pastime restrained by an academic, university-oriented structure faded into oblivion decades ago. The ongoing upheaval of the last two years is only another step toward a prevailing order that openly acknowledges that reality.
As the stakes increase and the economic bar continues to rise, the sport has been moving slowly, often painfully in that direction for decades. Eventually, it will get there in some fashion or another, and it probably won't be pretty, in the same way that Pop Warner and Fielding Yost would probably contract diphtheria on first sight of the game in the 21st Century. But that's the thing with radically reconfigured futures: They always seem like the apocalypse until they finally arrive, and by then you usually don't even notice them.