It is 2032. Eventually, humans landed on Mars.
Back on Earth, US sports fans have a simple question: Is the Mars colony in the Big Ten or the SEC?
Back here in 2022, the travel distances are already getting into the astronomical, and the gravitational pull of the college sports “megaconferences” is relentless. UCLA and USC (California’s, not Carolina’s, though the latter would make a bit more sense geographically) are leaving the Pac-12 – which is supposed to be for Pacific coast teams – to join the Big Ten is more inaccurately named. (which will have 16 members by the time UCLA and USC join in 2024).
It’s a movement driven entirely by marketing money. The Big Ten – which for most of its existence was based on Midwestern teams – is on the verge of some huge TV deals, and southern California is an attractive one.
And UCLA and the Big Ten need the money. The Big Ten pays its members more money than any other conference, according to research firm Navigate, but Covid has wiped out some schools’ slim budget surpluses. In 2021, many schools posted eight-figure losses, according to data compiled by the Knight Commission and Syracuse University. Meanwhile, UCLA lost more than $62m in 2021, bringing its three-year deficit to over $103m. (His books at USC, as a private university, are not available to Knight/Syracuse researchers.)
But who really benefits from this? And miss?
Winner: Big Football Budgets
Division I football, the highest level of the college game, has long been divided into two subdivisions. Formerly known as Division IA and Division I-AA, they are now known as the “Football Bowl Subdivision” (teams eligible to play in bowl games and national championship finals) and the “Football Championship Subdivision” (teams who can play in a lower tier national championship tournament). Division IA was then divided into the elite “Power Five” conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) and the “Group of Five.” It’s not an all-encompassing split, but Group of Five schools rarely split top bowl games or playoff spots, and Power Five schools have a level of economic independence that the others don’t.
Could we see a “Power Two” in the near future as the SEC – made up of southern powerhouses like Alabama and Georgia – and the Big Ten grow in strength? If the other three conferences can’t play defense, yes.
The SEC, which will add Texas and Oklahoma by 2025, is projected to pay $105.3m annually to each of its member schools by 2029, according to Navigate projections. The Big Ten is already projected to pay $94.5m before adding that lucrative West Coast interest. The other three “Power Five” conferences – the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 – were in the $51m-$57m range. The Big 12 is bringing three of the Group of Five top-earning schools in Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston, as well as private school powerhouse BYU. The ACC and Pac-12 are looking at some kind of partnership, according to multiple reports.
Loser: Everyone else who misses out on mega conferences
Not everyone wins in the game of musical chairs. The ACC has solid long-term deals with its members, but could those deals hold up if its current and former football powers (Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech) or its biggest basketball schools (North Carolina, Duke ) to sit? Does the Big 12 need to do more after losing Texas and Oklahoma, two of the only schools whose total revenue rivals their future SEC compatriots? And what would the Pac-12’s options be?
No school left in the doldrums of an isolated conference will have the revenue to keep up with big-spending teams on the football field. And a Group of Five school may have a narrow window to follow Cincinnati and company into the big leagues.
Football is expensive. The facilities, including huge stadiums rarely used outside of six home football games a year, are only part of it. The rest is staff. The Clemson football staff includes a senior administrative assistant to the head coach and an administrative assistant to the head coach. At Alabama, the offensive line coach makes $900,000 a year (the women’s soccer coach will get $162,000; the school does not offer men’s soccer). Florida State has six “senior analysts” or “analysts.”
Those who have money can spend money. Those who don’t can’t. In 2021, the typical (median) Power Five school spent $25.9m on the grid, according to the Knight/Syracuse database. The average Group of Five school spent just $9.4m. As the Gini coefficient of college sports climbs like an electric meter on a summer’s day, any school left out of the Power Five/Three/Two will have little chance of competing, meaning the team football is a millstone on the athletics budget. .
Winner: Airlines and charter flight operators
It’s not just the UCLA football team that makes the occasional trip to the East Coast to face Rutgers or Maryland. They are the basketball team, the volleyball team, the softball team, the baseball team and so on.
Loser: Class work
Certainly, the pandemic and remote working have helped us redefine what it means to attend class. But extended travel schedules in mega-conferences that criss-cross the US will be tougher for students trying to combine sports with heavy academic workloads in majors like engineering and pre-med.
Loser: Opportunities for footballers
Imagine you are a college president at a school that is not in one of the mega-conferences. You are looking at red ink from your football program. With Title IX gender equity lawyers shoving down your neck, you had to consider adding women’s rowing and women’s equestrian to balance the numbers. What’s to keep you from cutting the football team instead?
Mixed: Other sports
Unlike football, basketball is relatively cheap. Basketball teams, including a steadily growing women’s team, can be moneymakers, and schools like Gonzaga, Villanova and Butler have shown that smaller schools can play Big Basketball without Play Big Football.
But basketball usually doesn’t generate enough money to pay for everything else. Other than the Ivy League, which does not pay scholarships directly for sports, few schools outside of the Power Five have strong all-around sports programs.
As football money comes to the top of the pyramid, some schools may have to reevaluate the notion of giving scholarships or preferential admissions to athletes who contribute more to students than a journalist or cellist. College sports advocates will fear that student-athletes will have fewer opportunities to learn valuable lessons about teamwork and competitiveness, but those lessons can be learned in non-varsity club sports as well.
College sports are built on folklore and competition. In football, those rivalries can transcend the continent. But in basketball, a conference tournament used to be an event that dominated the conversation in its region. Imagine if North Carolina follows football money to a conference where its basketball team is separated from its old rivals, Duke.
So how do we preserve some semblance of what makes college sports great?
Let Peile Mór make his own map. Want a combined ACC and Pac-12 for football? Nicely. But then split back into smaller groups based on competition and regional travel for everything else.
Then fund Major Sports programs for Major Football. Let the top schools do whatever else they want as long as they are funding full Olympic sports programs, reversing the trend of cuts to men’s programs in particular and giving future Olympians a strong development platform at 50, 60, maybe 80 schools. . That could include a waiver of gender-balanced ratios in Title IX, allowing them to add men’s sports as long as all Olympic sports are offered to women.
That will ensure that college sports work for athletes – that’s the point in theory. And all the audiences these huge media conference markets depend on will be worth watching.