OT: Analyzing NCAA conference realignment

As NCAA conferences realign, traveling will look different for student-athletes. Photo courtesy of rollbamaroll.com.


Overtime, or “OT”, is an opinion column series where the Collegian takes national sports headlines or polarizing topics and gives them a Butler-centric angle

The landscape of college sports is changing right before our eyes. Prior to the 2024-2025 academic year, both the Big Ten and ACC will be expanding to 18 members, and the SEC and Big 12 will be expanding to 16 members. There are talks of these conferences looking to expand even more in the future, and we could very well be entering a new mega conference era. Before diving deeper into why this is happening and the effects it could have on the future, it’s important to understand the context of where the conferences currently sit. 

Conferences serve a variety of purposes. They are formed by a group of teams that agree to play each other every year. Members of the conference split profits from TV contracts, which provides stability since teams that are underperforming still have a baseline income that allows them to stay competitive. 

Coming into this year, the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 have 14 members. Similarly, the ACC has 14 members — Notre Dame is the 15th member during basketball season — while the Pac-12 has 12 members. All of the power 5 conferences are relatively balanced in terms of members, and it has been this way for roughly a decade. So why would members choose to leave and create an imbalance among the power 5 conferences? The main reason is money. 

The conference suffering the most from this realignment is the Pac-12. The downfall of the Pac-12 began last July when UCLA and USC announced that they would be joining the Big Ten, and a year later Washington and Oregon also announced that they would be joining the Big Ten. To make matters worse, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah have made agreements this summer to join the Big 12. 

As of September 1, Stanford and California will be joining the ACC prior to the 2024 season as well. That leaves just Oregon State and Washington State remaining in the Pac-12, and it seems inevitable that these last two members will join another conference sooner rather than later. This realignment comes after the Pac-12 was unable to reach a media deal that could compare to the other four power conferences. 

According to CBS Sports, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff proposed a subscription-based media deal in partnership with Apple TV that would pay member schools roughly $23 million per year with potential for increase depending on the number of subscriptions. Compared to this, the Big Ten just signed a 7-year, $7 billion dollar media deal with Fox, CBS and NBC. The SEC also signed a 10-year, $3 billion dollar contract with ESPN in 2020 that will begin next year. 

As it stands currently, the Big Ten and SEC will have average payouts ranging from $90-100 million per year per member by 2028. The Big 12 and ACC both have member payouts that currently sit right around $40 million and this number will increase over time to roughly $50 million. The Pac-12 could not offer members anything close to the payouts of the other conferences, and that is ultimately the reason why their conference is crumbling. 

From this perspective, it makes complete sense as to why arguably the four most important members of the Pac-12 would choose to join the Big Ten. They will be making far more money, and will have more exposure since they’ll be on national television networks rather than a streaming service that people would have to pay separately for. 

It also makes sense from the Big Ten’s standpoint, since new markets will open up for them in the West coast. The Big Ten will now be able to cover top schools from the Midwest, and both the East and West coasts. USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington all have very strong resumes in both football and basketball among other sports, and the addition of these four teams will make the conference an even bigger powerhouse. 

Jordan Anderson, a redshirt freshman running back at the University of Illinois, is excited to welcome USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington to the Big Ten. 

“The conference expanding and having the opportunity to play different teams throughout the country and traveling to different stadiums and seeing different places will be thrilling,” Anderson said. 

The adjustment from Pac-12 football to Big Ten football is one that will likely take some time for these four schools, and Anderson thinks this could be an advantage for teams like Illinois. 

“Going against the same teams that we’ve played already in our conference for many years and knowing what their atmosphere is like will serve us well,” Anderson said. “It will be interesting to see their game plan against an original team from the Big Ten.” 

Four of the other parting members from the Pac-12 will be joining the Big 12. After the announcement that Oklahoma and Texas would be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC in 2024, it seemed that the Big 12 could be going down a similar path to the Pac-12 where we could see the conference fall apart. However, last October the Big 12 notched a critical $2.3 billion dollar media rights deal with ESPN and Fox that will run through 2031. They also made the move to add three schools from the AAC to go along with BYU and the four new additions from the Pac-12. Although the Big 12 won’t be the powerhouse that the SEC and Big Ten are in terms of media, they have a stable future and should continue to field top end athletic programs. 

Where does Butler fall into the equation of conference realignment? Butler is no stranger to conference realignment, as they have been a part of seven different conferences dating back to 1932. Most recently Butler has been a part of the “new” Big East conference, and since its inception in 2013, the conference has remained stable as all 10 of the founding members are still in the conference to date. 

The addition of Connecticut in 2020 has made the Big East even stronger, as both their men’s and women’s basketball teams have consistently been among the best in the nation. With that being said, there are currently rumors spreading that UConn is looking to leave the Big East for a power five conference, specifically the Big 12. While this deal is currently not in place to happen, it would make sense for UConn since they are the only Big East school to field a Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football team — they are currently playing in the AAC. Between that and the prominence of their basketball programs, they could very well choose to seek out higher financial payouts that the Big East cannot provide. 

Regardless of what happens with UConn, it would make sense for the Big East to consider expansion at some point to try and keep up with the other high level conferences. 11 members — 10 if UConn leaves — in this day and age is very few, and without expansion, the Big East could fall behind. While it doesn’t look like the Big East is currently planning to expand, do not be surprised if there is some shakeup within the coming years. 

Clearly, this has been a very hectic time for NCAA realignment, and the future of college sports remains cloudy. This realignment process has exposed several issues with the current conference system. 

First of all, large mega conferences lower the quality of other conferences and reduce their ability to profit. Take the AAC for example, who have already lost Houston, Cincinnati and UCF to the Big 12 and will be losing a fourth member next year when SMU joins the ACC. In order to make up for those lost members, they have added six members from Conference USA. CUSA then had to add members from other mid-major conferences just to stay afloat with nine teams

When one conference gains, another conference loses, and this is a cycle that could ultimately result in the discontinuation of many mid-major conferences. If it can happen to the Pac-12, it can happen to anyone. 

College sports are appealing because hundreds of teams are competing for the same goal, and mega conferences make that number feel smaller. On top of that, having all of the top teams in the same conference is redundant, since the playoffs already feature the best teams playing each other. 

It’s promising to see major conferences making moves to counter each other rather than all joining the same group. 

However, at the end of the day, there is nothing stopping the best programs from joining one or two big mega conferences so they don’t have to share profits with lesser programs. This is a scary reality that could happen in college sports sooner rather than later. 

Sophomore sports media major Daniel Miller, an avid college sports watcher, believes that the latest wave of conference realignment is bad for the future of college sports. 

“With conferences like the ACC adding teams such as Cal and Stanford, both teams based less than 25 miles from the Pacific Coast, the conference name doesn’t even hold true anymore,” Miller said. “In the Big Ten, the conference I grew up on, teams such as Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA have infiltrated the conference much too far West in my opinion, after already arguably going too far East with Rutgers and Maryland in 2014.” 

Miller also provided an interesting view regarding the travel aspect of conference realignment. 

“After 2024, with the introduction of all these new teams, traveling the perimeter of the Big Ten will now take almost five days, if driving by car,” Miller said. “These college athletes will now have to take more time out of their days to focus on being athletes. For most of these college athletes, they participate in non-revenue sports, where they will rely more on the education they achieve more than their athletic ability in their future career. The expansion of conferences creates less free time for college athletes, less enjoyability for fans across the country, and is overall bad for the future of college athletics.” 

Fans could also see rivalries become less and less meaningful, which is arguably the best part of college sports. 

Conferences began based on geographical location, which created local rivalries such as Indiana vs. Purdue in the Big Ten. Previous realignment has already put an end to fan favorite rivalries such as Missouri vs. Kansas and Nebraska vs. Colorado, and there is no telling what other rivalries could be discontinued as a result of future realignment. Conference expansion also means that teams will play each other less frequently, so long-standing rivals will have less of a chance to play against each other going forward. 

There isn’t a clear solution to solving these issues because as long as TV contracts are made at the conference level, teams will be incentivized to form a conglomerate. Unless there is an overhaul in the way money is distributed throughout the NCAA, it will remain this way for the foreseeable future. 

At the end of the day sports are a business, and these conferences are looking to profit more than they are looking to appeal to tradition. 


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