I get asked a lot whether or not big-time conference expansion would bring us closer to some kind of playoff in Division I-A football. Doesn’t it stand to reason that if we end up with four, 16-team conferences, a playoff of some kind is more likely?
I don’t think so. And here’s why.
Amid the clutter of noise that surrounds the issue of expansion, we occasionally have a moment of clarity. That really didn’t come yesterday when Commissioner Jim Delany told reporters at the Big Ten Conference meetings that his league might look South for expansion. Understand that Delany’s comment was just another shot across the bow of the SEC, the Big Ten’s only rival when it comes to financial supremacy in college athletics. When you’re reading all of these expansion stories and projections remember that at the end of the day it is about only one thing: The SEC vs. The Big Ten. Everything else is just conversation.
The clarity about which I write this morning came last Friday when Delany did a brief Q&A with The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Delany was asked: What should be the role of the NCAA in regulating some of the commercial issues in college sports?
I’m paraphrasing his answer but essentially Delany’s response was that the NCAA really doesn’t have a role in this regard. That’s because the schools and the conferences should control and benefit directly from the revenue they generate. The NCAA is not there to spread the wealth: “No one questions that Harvard or Texas have a (big) endowment and don’t share it with Hofstra and South Alabama.”
And then Delany said this. Read this very carefully:
“But intercollegiate athletics is sort of unique in that institutions that have certain advantages—based on demographics or history or tradition or fan base—somehow are seen as the sources of resources for others that do not. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, but there’s certainly a lot of gnashing of teeth, like why doesn’t the Rose Bowl spread its revenue around to Boise State?”
Read this even more carefully:
“Well, partially because we developed it. We built it, it’s our tradition and to the extent that it’s successful, it’s successful for our institutions. So that’s essentially a home-rule approach. I think it’s an honest approach. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with money, but life’s a lot easier when you have it than when you don’t.”
Delany is one of the most blunt and to the point men I’ve met in college athletics. He is nothing if not brutally honest. His point, I believe, is that while the media, and fans, and Congress want college football to throw all the money into a big pot, hold a playoff, sing Kumbaya, and share everything equally for their entertainment, that’s not the real world.
Here is what I believe Delany would say to those people if he could:
“Hey guys, let’s have a little reality check here. The Big Ten and the other power conferences like the SEC have built college football, and specifically post-season football, into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. ESPN is going to pay the BCS $125 million in each of the next four years. And they ain’t paying that kind of money to see Boise State play Utah for the national championship.
“The reality is that our institutional brands, which have been built over 100 years of hard work, are what bring the eyeballs to the television sets and create the value. Remember that the networks came to US in 1998 in order to build the BCS. They determined that the six equity conferences (ACC, SEC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10) gave them the best value. It has now become one of the most successful brands in the history of sport.
“Now does Ohio State or Alabama have an advantage over other schools because of size, tradition and fan base? They sure do and we’re not about to apologize for it or give it away. I work for the 11 presidents of the Big Ten and my job is to put our institutions in the best possible position, both competitively and financially.
“We’ve tried to be fair for the sake of keeping peace but all we get is grief from Congress, the media, and the fans who think every conference should be equal and we should just give away the equity our institutions have built. Here is another dose of reality: Before the BCS the five non-equity conferences (Mountain West, WAC, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt) were making relatively little money from bowl games. In the past five years those conferences have collectively taken home about $80 million from the BCS. I would say we’ve been more than fair.”
Here my ultimate point on this exercise. The Supreme Court decision of 1984 determined that individual schools, not the NCAA, own the property rights to a school’s football games. And the benefits that are created by these institutional brands will accrue to the institutions. That’s the law. Delany’s point is that his institutions should not be forced to give away the equity they have built any more than Steve Jobs should be forced to share his I-Pad revenue with the folks who make the Kindle.
The counter argument, of course, is that educational institutions are, for the most part, tax funded and should not be conducting business like Apple or Kindle. But I’m afraid that train has already left the station.
If we have expansion Armageddon, the conference’s first and only goal will be to protect its members and to give its specific television partner (s) the best bang for its buck. College football’s regular season, which is the best of any organized sport, will become even more important because so much money is invested in it. The Big Ten could decide that playing in the Rose Bowl is in its long term best interest because that way it controls the equity that it has created. The SEC could decide that its champion will play somebody in the Sugar Bowl and wait for the polls. In other words, the big conferences will become even more insular and detached from the other conferences in Division I-A because that is in the long-term best interests of their institutions.
I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope that in four years we can come up with a way to have a four-team playoff for the national championship.
But I also know that the big conferences are terrified that college football might go the way of college basketball, where the vast majority of the public outside of Durham and Chapel Hill doesn’t pay attention until the NCAA Tournament. The commissioners are going to do everything in their power to protect the regular season. Will it ever come to the point of the biggest conferences pulling away from the NCAA to form their own organization? I don’t think so. I sure hope not.
That’s why I think if expansion comes in a big way it moves us further away from a playoff than ever.
MACINTYRE FUND UPDATE: Last week I wrote about former Vanderbilt coach George MacIntyre, who is bedridden with MS and was forced out of his home by the floods in Nashville. Former Vanderbilt players are raising funds to get permanent housing for Coach Mac and his wife, Betty. The papers have been filed now all donations are tax deductable. If you want to help, please send a donation to:
Betty & George MacIntyre Flood Relief Fund
4205 Hillsboro Road, Suite 101
Nashville, TN 37215
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