The Potential Implications of Conference Realignment
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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. 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.  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. 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.
The recent changes in college athletics uphold a new notion that similar geography is no longer a necessary condition for establishing and maintaining conferences. 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. 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. 
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.  As a result, many college football programs currently face an overwhelming amount of pressure to compete with programs that have large brands. 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.
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. 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.
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."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.
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. 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.
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. 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.”
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. 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. 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. 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. With the shrinking dominance of the NCAA over the next few years, it will unfortunately be the student-athletes that will inherit the burden.
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