The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand didn’t start World War I. It was just the spark that lit the kindling already in place. Similarly, Texas A&M’s expected jump to the Southeastern Conference won’t destroy college athletics as we know it; but it’s going to be the event that triggers a domino effect of change that will result in a complete transformation of college sports.
To understand where things are going, we have to understand where we’ve been. Let’s go back to 1984 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA was in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act with its control of television rights for member schools. What resulted was the formation of the College Football Association (CFA) and the effective end of any real authority the NCAA would have in major college football.
The 64 school consortium negotiated their own television deal and got the first taste of the exclusive revenue that came with it. Then Notre Dame bolted to NBC, forging their own deal. Then the SEC and the Big East split for a deal with CBS. The CFA eventually disbanded, but its successor was the current college football behemoth, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).
The BCS reorganized college football’s powerhouses, including Notre Dame, to realize exclusive revenue for the real cash cows of the sport, the bowl games. The BCS was doing fine (i.e. making boatloads of money for the member schools) enjoying the relative monopoly they held on college football.
Then Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany realized that his conference could make more money by forging their own network. He partnered with FOX and the Big 10 Network was born. SEC commissioner Mike Slive was right behind, striking a deal with ESPN for exclusive SEC coverage. Combined with the clamoring of non-BCS schools like Boise State who wanted in the high stakes game, the BCS was beginning to crumble.
In the midst of exploring a similar network deal for the Big XII, Texas athletic director Deloss Dodds followed the Notre Dame scenario, creating the Longhorn Network in association with ESPN. The only problem was that Texas, unlike Notre Dame, actually had a conference affiliation. The Longhorn Network’s exclusive deal didn’t sit well in Lincoln, Nebraska, or Boulder, Colorado. Both the Huskers and the Buffaloes bolted the Big XII, joining the Big 10 and PAC 12 respectively. They were the first to recognize that without Texas’ revenue, the Big XII was a sinking ship and that more money was to be found as a part of another conference.
With the PAC 12 reaching a deal in conjunction with both ESPN and FOX, the handwriting was on the wall. It would now be a race toward realignment and who could position themselves in the best conference TV package. This is where we are with A&M’s move to the SEC. The Aggies are forsaking generations of tradition and rivalries in pursuit of the cash being promised as part of the SEC. And you can’t blame them. In this race, they got out of the blocks quickly. For those laying back, you snooze, you lose.
What will transpire over the next several months is the complete transformation of college athletics from an amateur enterprise under the oversight of the NCAA to a semi-professional business with no NCAA involvement. We will see the formation of four, possibly five “super conferences” of 14-16 teams that will constitute “major” college athletics. Those who are not invited or don’t act quickly enough to align with these conferences will be relegated to an “amateur” system without any large TV revenues.
The structure of these new conferences will be largely based on two criteria: traditional alignment and television contracts. The Big 10 is already on board with FOX and the SEC with ESPN. What will occur over the next several months is the competition among FOX, ESPN, and CBS/Comcast, with perhaps some other players like NBC and IMG to see who gets to own which conference.
Tomorrow, I’ll outline where specific teams could wind up in this seismic shift in conference affiliations as well as some of the “wild cards” that could influence this extremely volatile process. Billions of dollars are at stake over the next several months. We will see who gets invited to sit at the table and which schools have the cash to “buy in” to the game.