There have been a number of recent conference realignments, and even more cases of schools dropping one conference in favor of another, in college sports lately, and this is especially true at the NCAA Divsion 1 level. These moves have created a further shift towards something most people would call Super Conferences, but I have a hard time seeing how this is Super at all. I could see it negatively impacting a lot of smaller programs, smaller sports, current fans and the overall competitiveness of college athletics. Super Conferences may be more of a problem than a solution.
These so-called Super Conferences would basically take many of the best teams from existing conferences from around the country, and concentrate them in a far fewer number of conferences. There are many arguments for this arrangement, and the big schools and TV stations that would benefit from them the most have certainly made that point clear. There would be huge games week in and week out, and the big-time schools we all know and love would duke it out for the ‘ship each year. Initially, this sounds pretty good, especially if you like one of those big time schools.
But the concentration of power would also create another rift in D1 athletics, and this would be particularly true in football. There is already a non-BCS component to Division 1 football, so are we really talking about creating an ever further divide here? It seems like we are. Right now, Boise State is capable of jumping from a weak conference to a good one, and this can greatly increase their chances of someday winning a National Championship. I can see why that’s tantalizing. But if Super Conferences are created and embraced, will there be another chance for a team like Boise State to do the same in the future? Not only would the Super Conferences be set up already, but I would argue that their mere existence would widen the gap between the top level of D1 and the next level even further.
And it all comes down to money. If the best teams in the country are all in one conference, that conference is going to have a lot of games televised each year, and that means a lot more revenue for their athletics programs. It also means a lot less opportunity for other programs to see success because there will simply be less money and primetime TV space available. If every single SEC game is worth broadcasting, why would anyone broadcast a WAC game, unless they were a regional provider? The simple answer is that they wouldn’t. And because TV money is such a big deal, the gap start to increase very quickly.
So these Super Conferences would become like the Wal-Mart of college sports. They’d be everywhere on TV, have teams from all over the country, and everyone would watch them. In many places you simply wouldn’t have a choice. Are you from Maryland and want to watch the Terps play football? Then go to the game. Because it might not be on TV if they aren’t in a Super Conference. Only the biggest and best get on TV with the Super Conferences, and the rest really wouldn’t matter.
Ok, maybe UMD would be one of these “best” SC schools, and maybe they would be on TV, but that’s the case with almost everyone right now. Who knows where YOUR school will wind up and how they’ll fare? Maybe the ACC will be a Super Conference, but maybe it won’t! Maybe Maryland will get a better offer from the Big 20 Conference and bolt. Maybe Virginia will do it instead. The point is that we don’t know who will go and who won’t outside of the “true” big boys like USC, Alabama, Oregon, Auburn, LSU, etc. Outside of the Top 10-20, the position is extremely tenuous.
My main issue with the Super Conference idea is that a lot of schools will be left in the lurch. If it’s hard for a small school (like Boise State) to get a shot at a National Title now, just imagine how hard it would be if Super Conferences existed, and the school in question wasn’t in one!!!! Getting an OOC game would be tougher, and SC teams would be better off playing other SC teams in terms of power ratings. Like this year, where an Alabama loss to LSU is better than an undefeated Houston. If you literally CAN’T win a National Championship, even if you’re undefeated, isn’t that a problem? I mean, they have NO SHOT WHATSOEVER. So with Super Conferences there would be an even larger divide between D1 and D1, and I wouldn’t even be talking about the sub-BCS, or D1AA, group of schools!!!! Doesn’t that seem just a little ridiculous?
Now, as we all know, football is a big time revenue generator for big time Colleges and Universities, so one would have to think that with the increased exposure of being in a Super Conference, these SC schools would also start to rake in even more money. And this would only bolster their other athletics programs. At the same time, smaller schools, who now receive less revenue from football, would feel their belt tighten quite a bit, and we could see other programs cut, like lacrosse, and this is not something we want to see happen, especially if we believe the value of college athletics is what they teach, and not how positive their cash flows are.
The idea of Super Conferences is certainly intriguing. I enjoy the idea of seeing the best play the best week in and week out, but I don’t enjoy seeing it as part of an inherently uneven playing field. The NCAA realized that the D1 and D1AA divide was real, so they made it a concrete thing, and the two divisions within a division play by slightly different rules. But if the NCAA allows for Super Conferences, they will effectively be creating a SECOND division point in D1 athletics, and that is just ridiculous.
If these Super Conferences come about in football in a major way, the NCAA would need to change how it operates. These SC teams would make millions of dollars annually from TV, apparel sales and ticket sales, and they would cease to be college sports teams. The gap between the haves and the have nots would be wider than ever, and lower tier D1 teams would face an impossible task. Super Conference football teams would be professional franchises. And the NCAA’s lie that the top college football athletes are all still just student-athletes would be exposed.
Super Conferences may be an inevitability in college sports, but I really hope that as they come about, the NCAA is willing to look at the situation objectively, and make a good decision. Hopefully, that decision relates to creating a new division of college sports, where these athletes are treated as athletes, and they are compensated for all of their work and dedication. I prefer to keep college sports strictly amateur, but in this day and age, that simply isn’t realistic.
The NCAA has held on to this idea that college athletes are just like their non-athlete counterparts, but it is simply false. D1 football players can put in over 8 hours in a single day dedicated just to their sport, and football often takes precedent over classes and academics. Boosters pay for cars, houses, tattoos, girls, clothes, drugs and anything else to keep their guys happy. Coaches turn a blind eye to all kinds of stuff. And when the NCAA finds out, they act shocked and slap some people on the wrist, usually graduated players. But it’s all a show…
If Super Conferences become a reality, certain colleges and universities will benefit greatly from the set-up. Their athletic programs will take a huge leap forward, and their ability to remain at the top will be strengthened greatly. The rich will get richer, and the divide between the best and the worst will widen. I’m not arguing against that concept, but I am arguing that if it’s going to happen, the NCAA needs to be much more honest about what it is going to happen down the line. Welcome to Wal-Mart! Don’t like Wal-Mart? You can always try K-Mart!
For more on the topic, check out “Should College Athletes Get Paid?“
Don’t think Super Conference dominated football could get a little boring? Well the SEC basically already is a SC, and there is a really good chance they could send two teams (from the SAME Division in the SEC) to the National Championship game. With Super Conferences, you’d see that even more often. Exciting if you live in the South, but for the rest of us… not quite as much. Plus there is no surprise there, and with the BCS’ lack of a playoff, there is very little chance for an underdog story… EVER.
In the end, competition and fairness are thrown out the window in favor of the big boys taking a bigger slice of the pie. People think that the trickle down flow of money will make it all worthwhile, but I really think the rest of us are missing the point. Of course there will be more money, but since when was THAT the drive of college athletics? The fact is, the top schools will be even more professional, while the rest of the schools will follow a truer student-athlete model and will trickle their legitimacy UPWARDS! These top football schools will still be part of the NCAA after all, and every D3 athlete out there will bolster the idea that a football player at LSU is just another student-athlete.
The gap will widen, the lie will go on, and college sports will take yet another step towards outright professionalism. The only question that remains is when will the NCAA admit that this is going on and call it what it is: minor league professional sports.
Main photo credit: Sporting-Ego.com