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  • Writer's pictureMorgan Blunt

The Potential Implications of Conference Realignment

Updated: Jan 13

On September 1, 2023, the Atlantic Coast Conference (“ACC”) made an aggressive decision to acquire Stanford University and the University of California, officially transforming the Power Five into the Power Four.[2] Over several months in 2023, several Power Five schools have decided to move athletic conferences, leaving the Pac-12 with only two member schools remaining. By 2025, the Southeastern Conference (“SEC”), Big Ten, and Big 12 will combine for 50 schools in 30 states, across four different time zones. [3] With the expansion of the most dominant conferences and the dwindling presence of the less prominent, many viewers and sports personalities expect a future of super conferences.[4] However, many are speculating about the effects that this will have on pre-existing rivalries, accessibility for fans, and the well-being of athletes across all sports.[5]


The recent changes in college athletics uphold a new notion that similar geography is no longer a necessary condition for establishing and maintaining conferences.[6] In doing so, conferences are forfeiting longstanding traditions of conference rivalry. Notable rivalries such as the University of Southern California (“USC”) versus the University of California at Los Angeles (“UCLA”) and Washington versus Washington State are likely to not occur due to their relocation to different conferences.[7] These new league schedules would not allow former permanent rivalries to take place. Instead, conferences are shifting towards an approach that allows universities to expand their brands and generate even more revenue. [8]


In the last decade, it has become increasingly evident that there is a correlation between money and power in college football. The most successful programs with the largest brands generate the most revenue and are the most attractive schools for higher-ranked recruits. [9] As a result, many college football programs currently face an overwhelming amount of pressure to compete with programs that have large brands.[10] With the recent allowance of Name, Image, and Likeness (“NIL”), athletes are committing and transferring to the college programs with the most NIL resources available, leading to an even larger disparity between college football programs.[11]


Therefore, there has been an increasing willingness among institutions and university officials to prioritize billion-dollar television and media deals. This allows programs to sustain their million-dollar budgets that comprise coaching contracts, recruiting, and upgraded facilities.[12] With money being the primary driving force behind conference realignment, conferences, and television companies are constantly negotiating new media packages that are lucrative enough to attract prospective members and appease their current ones.


Although these changes are advantageous for college football and institutions, there is a possibility that conference realignment places a burden on other college sports and student-athletes. College athletes’ well-being appears to be overlooked with the recent choices made by leaders of universities and conferences, along with the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (“NCAA”) attempts to minimize compensation for athletes.[13]


Missouri Head Coach, Eli Drinkwitz criticized conference realignment in an interview: "We're talking about a football decision they based on football, but what about softball and baseball who have to travel across country? Do we ask about the cost of them? [...] Do we know what the number one indicator of symptom or cause of mental health is? It's lack of rest or sleep."[14]Many college athletes must balance a rigorous schedule involving daily practices and traveling to competitions. Given that fewer than two percent of college athletes become professional athletes, university administrations must provide adequate resources to protect and monitor the mental well-being and academics of athletes for their future success.[15]


When committing to a college sport, athletes are aware of the demands and the possible implications that those demands might have on their academic performance.[16] However, with the landscape of college athletics evolving into more frequent coast-to-coast competition, mental health consequences could emerge. Conferences such as the ACC and Big Ten will be expanded across three different time zones and teams from UCLA, University of Washington, University of Oregon, and USC will now be consistently playing teams on the opposite side of the country.[17]


With conference realignment, there is a sense of uncertainty among student-athletes. They are unaware of how much school they will be missing and what their game schedules will resemble.[18] An Oregon State University rower declared that student-athletes are "united in our feelings of being left out of the conference realignment conversation. All student-athlete experiences and needs should be brought into the equation when these decisions are made.”[19]


Additionally, these travel demands are expected across all sports, including those that compete more than once a week. Student-athletes could be prone to jetlag and will have to play significantly late or early games due to differences in time zones.[20] With the expansion across different time zones, teams from the West Coast will have to play games starting as early as 9 AM, and those from the East Coast will have to play beginning at 10 PM.[21] Those who play sports that compete more than twice a week, such as basketball, baseball, and volleyball, will have to adapt to different time zones quickly. As a result, this might have consequences on student athletes’ ability to perform athletically and academically.


With the reservations that many fans, coaches, and student-athletes are having with conference realignment, the future of the NCAA could potentially be limited by the formation of super conferences. Every year, with new decisions, universities and conferences appear to be shifting towards becoming independent entities, operating outside and without the NCAA.[22] Many predict that in future decades, the Power Five will become two large super conferences composed of the most profitable and prominent teams across college football.[23] With the shrinking dominance of the NCAA over the next few years, it will unfortunately be the student-athletes that will inherit the burden.


References:

[2] Ralph D. Russo. What’s next in major college football realignment? How about a best-of-the-rest league. (21 Sept 2023). https://apnews.com/article/conference-realignment-relegation-e50adf12c41365614ebac1fa8c1b346d [3]Tom Layberger. College Football’s Super Conferences Are Forming, Setting Themselves Far Apart From The Rest. (6 Aug 2023) https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomlayberger/2023/08/06/college-footballs-super-conferences-are-forming-setting-themselves-far-apart-from-the-rest/?sh=232bb0324d87 [4] Max Olson. The Big 12 Weighs Its Next Move. (25 Aug 2021). https://theathletic.com/2789067/2021/08/25/the-big-12-weighs-its-next-move-expansion-exploration-the-texas-oklahoma-problem-and-bob-bowlsbys-future/ [5] Joe Vitale. SEC fans react as conference sits tight while rest of college football shuffles. (5 Aug 2023). https://athlonsports.com/college-football/sec-fans-react-to-college-football-realignment-expansion-while-conference-comissioner-greg-sankey-stays-quiet [6] Connor Morrisette. Big 12 commissioner on expansion: 'We'd like that fourth time zone'. (16 Feb 2023). https://www.si.com/college/usc/football/big-12-commissioner-on-expansion-wed-like-that-fourth-time-zone [7] Erick Smith and Eddie Timanus. You may have to choose new team to hate: College football realignment shakes up rivalries. (30 Aug 2023). https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/college/2023/08/07/missouri-coach-eli-drinkwitz-conference-realignment-student-athlete-toll/70546005007/ [8] Cole Shelton. Is the $7 billion Big Ten TV contract the most visible and exclusive in the country? Comparing other media contracts in the Power 5 conferences. (8 Aug 2023). https://www.sportskeeda.com/college-football/news-is-7-billion-big-ten-tv-contract-visible-exclusive-country-comparing-media-contracts-power-5-conferences [9]Spencer D. Wyld and David C. Wyld. College Football’s Bottom-Line Impact: Exploring the Relationship of Football Performance on Athletic Finances for Division I Institutions Today. (23 July 2021). https://thesportjournal.org/article/college-footballs-bottom-line-impact-exploring-the-relationship-of-football-performance-on-athletic-finances-for-division-i-institutions-today/ [10] Mark Koba. College Football: Why Pressure to Win Is So Big. (1 Dec 2012). https://www.cnbc.com/id/50025280 [11] Cody Orr. NIL Hurts College Athletics. Here’s How We Fix It. (23 May 2022). https://www.ourdailybears.com/2022/5/23/23055991/nil-hurts-college-athletics-heres-how-we-fix-it [12]Amanda Christvich. TV Money Built the Modern Power 5. Then Destroyed It. (5 Aug 2023) https://frontofficesports.com/tv-money-built-power-5-then-destroyed-it/ [13] Doug Letterman. Conference Realignment Poses Threats to Big-Time Sports. (5 Sep 2023) https://www.insidehighered.com/news/students/athletics/2023/09/05/conference-realignment-poses-risks-big-time-college-sports [14] Anthony Gharib. Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz says conference realignment ignores toll on student-athletes. (7 Aug 2023). https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/college/2023/08/07/missouri-coach-eli-drinkwitz-conference-realignment-student-athlete-toll/70546005007/. [15] Erik Cliburn. The Equity Debate in College Sports Goes Beyond Financial Compensation. (17 May 2021). https://www.insightintodiversity.com/the-equity-debate-in-college-sports-goes-beyond-financial-compensation/ [16]Jacob Rincon. Conference realignment does not benefit college sports (28 Aug 2023). https://www.laloyolan.com/sports/conference-realignment-does-not-benefit-college-sports/article_e001003e-8e14-5e65-bc61-9205778ff920.html [17] Andrew Kahn. The Big Ten adding UCLA, USC is a geographical quandary. (1 July 2022) https://www.mlive.com/sports/2022/07/the-big-ten-adding-ucla-usc-is-a-geographical-quandary.html [18] Ben Warwick. University of Colorado athletes and coaches weigh the financial and mental impact of conference realignment. (16 Aug 2023) https://www.cbsnews.com/colorado/news/university-of-colorado-conference-realignment-mental-health-athletics-buffaloes/ [19] Susan M. Shaw. The Human Cost of Conference Realignment. (3 Oct 2023). https://www.forbes.com/sites/susanmshaw/2023/10/03/the-human-cost-of-conference-realignment/?sh=3c9c254d1e09 [20]Amanda L. Paule-Koba. Long Strange Trips: Does Conference Realignment Benefit College Athletes? (20 July 2022). https://news.yahoo.com/long-strange-trips-does-conference-121500245.html [21] Cole Pepper. The big question nobody is asking about conference realignment (10 Aug 2023). https://floridapolitics.com/archives/627901-the-big-question-nobody-is-asking-about-conference-realignment/ [22] Pat Forde and Richard Johnson. College Football’s Inevitable Conclusion? Two 20-Team Megaconferences. https://www.si.com/college/2023/08/30/college-footballs-inevitable-conclusion-is-a-40-team-mega-alliance [23] Id.

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