The American Magazine Online | 11.30.12
By Alan W. Dowd
The Big Ten Conference has kicked off another round of conference
expansion and realignment by adding the University of Maryland (formerly of
the Atlantic Coast Conference, or ACC) and Rutgers University (formerly of the
Big East Conference). As during the Big Ten’s earlier growth spurts (most
recently in 2010), sportswriters and bloggers have responded with an angry
chorus of boos as loud as LSU’s Tiger Stadium on an autumn Saturday night. Some reactions are self-righteous and hypocritical. Others
border on hysterical. New York
Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, for instance, headlined his recent broadside
against the Big Ten, “The Madness of Big Ten Expansion.” Still others cross the border separating rational from hysterical, using
words like “Armageddon” and “tsunami” to describe Big Ten expansion. But
all the sound and fury is misplaced. Conference expansion is neither a bad
thing—nor a new thing.
Those who oppose conference expansion and realignment
generally do so based on one of three lines argument: It’s a money grab; it
hurts academics; and/or it’s destroying sacred rivalries and tradition.
Let’s start with the money argument. The Washington Post’s Tracee Hamilton decries the University of Maryland’s decision to join the Big Ten and end “a
59-year relationship with the ACC to attach itself to the underbelly of a more
lucrative—and more powerful—football conference,” lambasting the school for
taking a “go for the dough” approach. Similarly, Dennis
Dodd of CBS Sports laments the “crass, thoughtless reorganization of
college sports” and how university presidents are turning to conference
realignment as a way to balance their books. Chait disapproves of conferences being rewarded for their “ability to
exploit a series of local cable cartels.”
To be sure, economics did factor into the Maryland and Rutgers
decisions. Maryland will be able to get out of a deep financial hole on the
sports front. Rutgers will shore up its athletic department for decades to
come. Both will be able to add several intercollegiate sports back into their
athletic-department inventories, after cutting them in recent years. In this regard, The
New York Times reports that only 21 percent of top-division college athletic
departments operate in the black.Big Ten
athletic departments don’t have to worry about big deficits, owing largely to
the fact that the conference has strong revenue streams flowing from its
ABC/ESPN deal and its TV network. The Big Ten was a trailblazer in
standing up its very own cable network. The Big Ten’s revenues, including the
Big Ten Network’s swelling coffers, are shared equally by Big Ten member
institutions. It’s estimated that each Big Ten member will claim more than $30
million annually from future TV deals.
Those who want to cling to the
status quo forget that college athletics has been a business for more than a
century—and that growth is natural and essential. In this sense, the conference
expansion process is showing us a glimpse of creative destruction at work.
Joseph Schumpeter described creative destruction as a process “that
increasingly revolutionizes the economic system from within, incessantly
destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” Creative destruction,
in Schumpeter’s view, reflects the “evolutionary” nature of capitalism—a system
that “never can be stationary.” Capitalism is a self-fueling engine, as
Schumpeter explained it, that creates new goods, “new methods of production,”
“new markets,” “new forms of industrial organization,” and, for that matter,
new collegiate sports conferences and new ways for them to showcase and serve their
So, is it a bad thing for these institutions to be motivated
by, and concerned about, the bottom line? Sadly, the answer from our popular
culture, even our president, is yes. And so a nation built on free enterprise,
economic liberty and the pursuit of happiness is turning into a land of envy, where
any move toward economic self-improvement is derided as a money grab.
Consider the “it’s all about the money” criticism from
another perspective: We hear a lot of righteous indignation about Maryland, Rutgers,
the Big Ten and other institutions making decisions based on the bottom line, but
I’m still waiting to see a column criticizing a columnist for taking a
higher-paying job at a better, bigger, more stable publication.
Let’s turn now to the charge that conference expansion is
not good for student-athletes and academics.
“Moving young men and women
around in the middle of the week or over extended weekends, over those kinds of
distances, is pretty hard to square with support for the academic success of
students,” NCAA president Mark Emmert declaredafter Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh left the Big East to
join the ACC (which has members as far south Miami).
“The caretakers of college
sports long ago stopped worrying about the fans or the student-athletes,” adds
ESPN’s Dana O’Neil. “It
became about them, their egos and legacies, about the aphrodisiac-laced
cocktail of power and greed.”
First, it’s laughable for anyone at the NCAA or ESPN to wrap
themselves in academics. After all, thanks to a 14-year,
$10.8-billion dealwith CBS, the NCAA allows its student-athletes
to be shipped all across the country in the middle of the spring semester to
play in a basketball tournament, in games that tip off as late as 10:45 p.m.—in
the middle of the school week. Likewise, ESPN seduces conferences and
schools into playing basketball games at, quite literally, all hours of the day.
A recent made-for-ESPN gimmick is the Tip-Off
Marathon, which is 24 hours of live college basketball. In addition, ESPN routinely
airs college football games five
nights per week—smack-dab in the middle of the fall semester.
Second, in the case of Big Ten expansion, there actually are
academic benefits. Big Ten membership includes membership in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium
of Big Ten institutions plus the University of Chicago that collaborate in
numerous areas of research and scholarship.
Furthermore, the dollars generated by TV deals,
conference-specific TV networks and the like actually do help universities
fulfill their central mission. To be sure, some of those millions of dollars
flow back to athletic departments, but much of the revenue helps universities
recruit, serve, teach and equip their faculty and students. (By the way, a
recent studyconcluded that colleges that move to a new conference
become more selective in their admissions, increase their ACT scores and see an
increase in applications.)
Finally, we come to the
argument that conference expansion and realignment are destroying tradition. “Geography
is clearly out the window, along with common sense, loyalty and tradition,”
howls Hamilton. Another columnist says a bigger Big Ten will “destroy
This argument against conference expansion rests on a rather
myopic view of the world. The critics seem to forget—or perhaps don’t even
realize—that there’s a lot of history that predates their time on earth. Chait,
for instance, sneers about the “conference
expansion fad.” In truth, this is anything but
Maryland was a founding member of the ACC, as we have heard
many times in recent days. It also was a founding member of the Southern
Conference in 1921. In fact, the Southern Conference was the first
“super-conference,” boasting 19 members. By 1932, 13 of those members broke
away to launch the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Some of the remaining members
split off to form the ACC in 1953.
While universities created, killed, built and bolted
conferences in the south, a similar churning was underway in the north and west,
as NBC Sports details:
The Big Ten began in 1895, with seven schools. It wasn’t settled and stable at
10 until 1949. Today, with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, it has a
14-school footprint stretching from Nebraska to New Jersey.
Between 1907 and 1958, schools in Missouri, Nebraska,
Kansas, Iowa and Oklahoma moved in and out of athletic-conference partnerships.
What ultimately emerged was known as the Big Eight, which gobbled half the
remaining members of the Southwest Conference in 1994 to form the Big 12, which
now has 10 members.
Further west, the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) was born in
1915. By 1918, its members could be found in the states of Washington, Oregon
and California. The PCC gave way to the Pacific Eight in 1959, which became the
Pac Ten in 1978 (with the addition of the University of Arizona and Arizona State),
which became the Pac 12 in 2010 (with the addition of the University of Utah
and University of Colorado).
In other words, when Washington State and Stanford
University joined the PCC in 1918, when Georgia Tech and the University of
Virginia left the Southern Conference, when the Pac Eight grew to 10 schools, when
the Big East decided to become a football conference in
1991, when the ACC began its raids into the Big East (including this week’s invitation to the
University of Louisville), all of them destroyed traditions. They also started
some new ones, which is what’s happening today.
Indeed, this 40-yard dash through history
reminds us that conference realignment goes with the territory in collegiate
athletics—and that the current configuration of
collegiate athletic conferences wasn’t handed down at Mount Sinai.