Home > College Football, Div-I FBS > The Big East is as Good as Ever: Why Conference Re-Alignment isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

The Big East is as Good as Ever: Why Conference Re-Alignment isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

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When schools across the nation went in very public search of more dollars for their already wealthy athletic programs, a very vocal minority feared for the continued existence of their sense of college football history.  Indeed, the development of the “Super Conference” was going to take it’s liberties with history, and in some cases, common sense (Texas schools having to travel to Pullman, WA for fairly regular intra-conference matches), but the overriding principle in the madness was survival, not greed.

Football-first conferences like the Big Ten, Pac Ten and Big 12 are only barely relevant today.  That’s not because of the fact that the conferences of the pacific and of the midwest tried (and in select cases, succeeded) at taking the useful pieces with loose Big 12 North affiliation, but because tradition established over fifty plus years of athletic competition have only sentimental value, which is an excellent talking point — until someone shows up with a bigger, better television deal.  This is why the Pac 10 had the right idea to pillage the Big 12 South for all of it’s top football programs, and it’s also why the ten-team Big 12 eventually wins in the end: they — not the Pac 10 — landed the big television revenue.

In the end, no one lost.  The Pac 10 failed to pull off the biggest conference ripping in the history of college athletics, but is still in good position to start their own network to cover that expected gain in revenue.  The Big 12 needs not it’s own network because Fox has ponied up a record deal surpassed only by the SEC’s deal with ESPN in it’s value.  The Big Ten remains a cash cow, despite a 12 team conference where at least four of the member schools are athletically irrelevant, and decreasing academic standards.

In the future, survival is going to be more about bigger, bolder moves, than any sort of tradition, or perhaps, even money.  Only one trend that seems obvious to me, at least, is that the most successful conferences are not the ones looking to be bold and aggressive, but rather the smaller-sized conferences that have a few member schools with strong facilities and academics, and can still build around the concepts of parity and competition.  Superconferences seem to work on a geographic level: the south (both near the gulf and on the coast) has been able to handle the structure of power — in football, at least — and are better for it.  However, the northeast, the west, plains, and (in particular) the midwest cannot seem to adjust to the same disparity.  For these groups, pursuing a Super Conference is an active exercise at the self destruction of a brand.

If the Big 12 had a shortcoming, its that it was too large for it’s own good.  It had included doormats like Iowa State and Baylor since its inception in the mid-nineties, and as Texas rose as a power (and to a lesser extent, Texas Tech under Mike Leach), a really obvious disparity developed between the North division and the South division.  The Big Ten is going to have to make a similar split in order to achieve the conference-game-that-they-need, but beware of a west division that features the Wisconsin-Iowa game to decide a Big Ten championship participant every year.  What works in the SEC where there’s a national power in each division, and what has pretty much always worked in the ACC doesn’t seem to work elsewhere, where football powers exist, but aren’t so highly concentrated.

Which is why the most successful groups of schools have not pushed towards a super conference, rather, the focus has been on fewer annual losers.  The Big East has won more games in the last five years, since losing Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College, than at any point in it’s history, which is astounding.  It’s winning percentage is on par with that of the SEC and Big 12 over the same timeframe, and well ahead of the Pac 10 and Big Ten and ACC.

Good academic facilities, tightly knit (and most importantly, active) rivalries, reasonable travel expectations, and a smaller conference have all assisted the Big East in remaining a football powerhouse without having any football powerhouses.  Also, the fact that losing powers is never a zero sum game.  When Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech bolted to the ACC, they have helped to join a previously basketball-intensive conference and make it a true powerhouse of football, more than offsetting the decline of Florida State.  But it’s the opportunity created in the Big East that has improved it.  Without losing those programs, Cincinnati is probably still a Conference USA team being eyed by the Big Ten, Louisville doesn’t have those seasons it did under Bobby Petrino, and South Florida is still a young, anonymous program with no national following.  College Football is better with a strong ACC, and an up and coming Big East.

All of this is why the Big 12 is probably better off with a single-division conference that features 7 teams who can win the conference in any year, plus a K-State program that will improve, someday.  There’s no lack of national powers there now that Oklahoma and Texas has been retained, and the competition really does matter.  While the Big 12 and the Big East have yet to discover the formula for making money long-term via its brand, college football is better with those conferences which produce the best week to week match-ups with the strongest teams this side of the American south.

It’s something that the revenue generating conferences out west and up north don’t quite seem to grasp, at least to this point.  However, if it comes down to making as much money as possible for the academic institutions in your locality, and fostering the long term growth of competition and overall improvement in the quality of Division I college football, there’s little doubt that the traditional power conferences are going to see the dollar signs before they realize there’s a choice to be made.

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