One of the major storylines during the college basketball off season over the last couple of years and for some years going forward will be conference realignment and its impact on the game. Realignment began in earnest last season when Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12 for the Big Ten and Pac-12 respectively. In addition, Utah and BYU left the confines of Mountain West for the Pac-12 and West Coast Conference. Boise State left the WAC for the Mountain West and South Dakota said goodbye to the Great West for the higher peaks of the Summit League.
With the next round of realignment set to become official in three weeks, what lies ahead?
Over the next three seasons (2012-2014) as of today 20 of the 32 NCAA affiliated conferences will be affected by realignment. That’s 37 teams moving to new homes, and some of them twice in the cases of Texas State, Texas-Arlington and Texas-San Antonio who will be playing 2012 in the WAC but then moving on in 2013, Texas State and UTA to the Sun Belt, while UTSA goes to Conference USA. Those numbers do not include the independents that will be shrunk to two (New Orleans and Cal-State Bakersfield) as former independents Seattle and Longwood begin affiliations with the WAC and Big South.
Confused yet? Me too. The question is why?
Here is where things get kind of funny. The main reason behind all the chair shuffling is what everyone would think it would be, money. But more specifically it is about schools, networks, the NCAA and anyone else that can, getting the biggest piece of the of television rights for FOOTBALL they possibly can. That’s right all of this is about football money.
In 2010-11 81% of the NCAA’s $845.9 million in revenue came from television and marketing fees a large majority comes from the 14-year $10.8 billion deal they signed with CBS and Turner Sports in 2010. 2011-12 projections had NCAA revenue at $777 million with $680 coming from the new television deal. Now I don’t know about anyone else but if someone asks me the first thing I think of when I hear CBS and NCAA it’s the Men’s Basketball Tournament. As the NCAA’s own release announcing the deal says March Madness was indeed the catalyst behind the NCAA’s shiny new deal, which was projected to be responsible for 87.5% of their revenue in 2011. But yet as realignment became the hottest topic across the college landscape there was little attention being paid to the ramifications all the movement would have on the cash cow of the NCAA, college basketball.
So as schools and conferences try to figure out which combinations unlock the largest safes in their football coffers, the sport that brings in the most money through the NCAA is left to twist in the wind and go along for the ride as if it were some 10-year old child walking a 100-pound dog that decides it wants that bright red car that just honked.
As conferences lose then add new members in a continuous game of “mind if I cut in?” what do basketball programs across the country think of all the realignment designed for football programs to cash in?
With that in mind I sent out interview requests to numerous schools big and small involved in different aspects of realignment hoping to find out. The response was lukewarm at best and varied from no replies to no comments from a couple of schools; Denver (WAC) and Texas-Pan American (Great West) that play in conferences that have been hit pretty hard by realignment and are struggling to stay viable.
I did however get responses from a mid-major school with good basketball and football programs in Marshall and a school that doesn’t sponsor football and plays in a conference that doesn’t sponsor it in Loyola-IL of the Horizon League.
I asked both schools how they felt about conference realignment as basketball programs given that football revenue is a driving force behind it.
Marshall Head Coach Tom Herrion says, “a lot of those decisions have great impact on college basketball and as a basketball coach you’re concerned about it but all you can really be worried about is the welfare of your own program.” As for whether he is thinks the Thundering Herd could be on the move at some point he calls their position in Conference USA as a “stable.”
Bill Behrns, the Assistant Athletics Director for Communications at Loyola says, “unfortunately, this is the current state of athletics and one that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. However, basketball-only conferences have proven that you can have success.”
At least for these schools realignment is a concern but one that they know they have little control over.
The Horizon League doesn’t sponsor football but the recently lost its marquee program Butler, who announced they would be joining the Atlantic 10 for the 2012-13 season.
Asked whether schools like his feels as though they are at the mercy of football programs, almost as if they were merely pawns in the realignment game Behrns said, “I wouldn’t necessarily say that we feel at the mercy of football schools, but in this day and age, it is critical for every university to monitor the ever-changing landscape of college athletics.”
As one school leaves any given conference the scramble begins to find a hopefully suitable replacement. Herrion says about that process, “you’d like to have more input, I think it is a trade off where in our case we lost some very very good schools with good basketball traditions.” “We are adding some schools that have had good basketball traditions, or have the potential to be a significant addition to our conference.”
In 2013 Conference USA will go through a major makeover as they lose Houston, SMU, Memphis and Central Florida but gain UNC-Charlotte, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Texas San Antonio and Old Dominion from various conferences across the country.
We know money is the root of all evil (and realignment) but what about the fans, the rivalries, the traditions of college basketball that are seemingly being lost because of football?
“I’ve been fortunate having done this a long time,as a traditionalist kind of an old school person there’s a lot [that has] been lost in some of the natural rivalries and make ups and histories of some tremendous conferences.” Says Herrion.
Even though Marshall feels pretty secure in Conference USA, the changing college landscape, while concerning to Herrion he “understands the bottom line of why this is happening.”
The bottom line for most schools is how can I make ME the most money and if I step on the toes of tradition and some of the things that help my program get where it is at in the process then so be it.
He’s right, Texas A&M alienated the entire Big 12 when it announced they would leave for the SEC, Missouri following suit to the SEC angered Kansas and thus ended the Border War. Syracuse has put its storied Big East past in the rear view mirror leaving for the ACC in 2014. The Colonial Athletic Association, a pioneer in mid major basketball has been hit with the losses of Georgia State, Old Dominion and 2011 Final Four participant Virginia Commonwealth. Butler, who put the Horizon league on the national map with back-to-back national championship game appearances said goodbye and landed in the Atlantic 10 to replace Temple who is leaving for the Big East possibly putting Big 5 games with LaSalle and St. Joseph’s in jeopardy.
While watching the movement across the country is fun and gives us something to talk about during the long summer, we should also hope that it doesn’t hurt from a basketball perspective. Coach Herrion’s final statement says it best, “change on any front and in any shape always breeds uncertainty and concern and clearly I think that exists across the country.”
Right you are coach, so hang on for this wild ride, this is after all, all in the name of FOOTBALL and MONEY .