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A Bigger Ten: In Defense of Conference Expansion

Friday, November 30, 2012

A question of dollars and sense: why you should embrace college sports conference disruption.

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). Like 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, hypocritical, or bordering on hysterical. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, for instance, headlined his recent broadside against the Big Ten, “The Madness of Big Ten Expansion.” 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 bad nor a new thing.

Those who oppose conference expansion and realignment generally do so based on one of three lines of 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.” She lambasts 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 by Big Ten member institutions. It’s estimated that each Big Ten member will claim more than $30 million annually from future TV deals.

Only 21 percent of top-division college athletic departments operate in the black.

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 incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure 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 members.

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, and 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 declared after Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh left the Big East to join the ACC (which has members as far south as Miami).

“The powers-that-be and the caretakers of college sports long ago stopped worrying about their pennant-waving constituents or even the athletes carrying the official flag of membership,” adds ESPN’s Dana O’Neil. “It became about the commissioners, about their egos and their 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 deal with 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 study concluded 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 storied rivalries.”

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 a fad.

In the case of Big Ten expansion, there actually are academic benefits.

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 up 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, and 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.

Alan W. Dowd writes and researches on public policy.

FURTHER READING: Dowd also writes “Retiring the World’s Policeman,” “The High Cost of Volunteering,” and “Paying the Price?” Joseph Epstein discusses “The Complex Life of the Couch Potato,” “Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question,” and “A Couch Potato at a Time of Transition.” Richard Vedder contributes “College Rankings: Filling a Void, Providing a Service.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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