Will the Borg Ten, SuperPac, and Other Mutant Conferences Kill the NCAA?

Because that would be an OK outcome of all the strange, money-driven realignment in college sports lately

rosebowl colors inverted 615.jpg
Reuters / Mike Blake

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) talk about the implications of college conference realignment brought on by Maryland and Rutgers joining the Big Ten.

Happy Thanksgiving, guys.

In addition to the joys of hearth and home, be thankful this week if your favorite school isn't in the Big East. With Rutgers leaving for the Big Ten, the death of the Big East conference might finally be at hand.

For nearly two decades, the conference has been strangling itself with bad decisions, starting in 1982 when members voted down a chance to absorb Penn State. Lately, though, the Big East has been circling the drain. In just over a year, they have lost four members; West Virginia, Pitt, Syracuse, and now the Scarlet Knights. This after Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech bolted for the ACC in 2003. Oh, and Boise State and San Diego State? Both were set to join the Big East as football-only members next season, but ESPN now reports that both are in talks to return home to the Mountain West.

It's hard to say which Big East blunder was worst. Allowing Notre Dame to join for every sport but football was pretty bad, though, and the Atlantic Coast Conference is about to make the same mistake. The ACC will swell to 14 schools next season, adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh, with the Irish set to join in 2015 - in every sport but football.

There's more change coming, too. Texas rules the Big 12, of course, with their uber-rich Longhorn Network - a $300 million, 20-year partnership with ESPN. Maybe UT will take the Oklahoma schools west to beat up on Patrick's Arizona Wildcats - and the rest of the Super Pac-10. Then again, this is Texas we're talking about. Maybe the Longhorns will secede from the Big 12, take TCU and Baylor and form a conference of their own.

For the fan, the fluid, new world of the super-sized conference is disconcerting. Kansas and Missouri, for instance, have been bitter rivals since the Civil War. KU and MU have played each other in football, basketball, and baseball every season for more than 100 years - as members of the Big 6, Big 8 and finally Big 12. With Mizzou gone to the SEC, for the first time in a century, the Border War is simply no more.

But the implications of conference consolidation go far beyond what happens on the gridiron, court, or diamond. The bowls are in trouble, for sure. As athletic conferences become increasingly rich and powerful, it gets ever more likely that we will see the rise of four or six "super-conferences" of 16 teams each that will decide to stage their own championship, and tell the polyester-blazered bowl committees and to buzz right off.

But it gets bigger still.

Conference consolidation could even mean the end of the NCAA and the racist, exploitative sham that is "amateur" athletics. Fueled by plenty of TV money, there's nothing to stop some new league of unified college super-conferences from simply ignoring the hypocritical suits in Indianapolis and giving the players a fair share of the revenue they generate for their schools.

Which would be good.

Jake, Patrick, you guys tell me. Is the demise of the Big East a tumbling domino? Does the rise of the rise of super-conference mean a farewell to the bowl committees and the BCS? Wither Boise State? For that matter, wither basketball, and will you join the new Republic of Texas?

Really, though, my hope for this holiday is that realignment will ultimately mean an end to the NCAA and their exploitative practices. Then again, maybe I'm just giddy from all the football and tryptophan. Care to bring me down?



I, for one, welcome college football's coming super-conference overlords. History, tradition, geography, possibly gravity—who needs 'em? You can keep your beloved Border War, your rivalry trophies, your conference names—Big Ten, Southeastern—grounded in old school, fuddy-duddy concepts like counting numbers and grouping points on a map. Meanwhile, I'll be following Rutgers and Maryland on their 21st-century rocket ride to the center of the campus-sports sun.

Wait. Did I mention the money?

Conference realignment is about money. Well, that and musical chairs. For the power BCS conferences, gobbling up outstanding academic institutions with proud athletic programs as-yet-untapped major television markets like Unicron with the munchies is a way to increase their network and cable provider financial take via the bargaining power that comes with near-monopoly status. For schools like Maryland and Rutgers, meanwhile, assimilation into the Borg Ten is simply a matter of survival. Like sports media (hi, ESPN!) and financial services and seemingly every American and global industry that does not involve blogging from somewhere in Brooklyn, consolidation is the order of the day—and when the superconference shuffle finally stops, the aspiring big-time athletic schools who have failed to find a lucrative new home are going to be completely out of luck.

Consider Maryland. The school's seemingly overnight decision to break ties with the ACC—a conference the university helped found 59 years ago—is best understood through simple math. Maryland's athletic department is facing a budget shortfall, largely due to a recent stadium construction and coaching-hire spending spree that hasn't produced a corresponding surge in men's football and basketball victories and sold tickets. The ACC's current television contract pays member schools $17 million annually and won't be up for renewal until 2027; meanwhile, the Big Ten's TV package pays schools about $23 million a year and will be up for renegotiation in 2017. Why wouldn't the Terrapins jump? Who doesn't like more money for the same work—being a football doormat, the Washington Generals to Ohio State's Harlem Globetrotters—with the potential for a bigger bump a few years down the line?

Hampton, I'm with you on superconferences potentially rendering the NCAA obsolete, or at least utterly irrelevant. After all, what's to stop the Bigger Fourteen, the Pac-16 and their ilk from starting their own postseason men's football and basketball tournaments, thereby financially kneecapping the administrators in Indianapolis? (Note: rhetorical question). Sadly, I don't think that would necessarily mean the death of amateurism. Not when schools, coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners all benefit from not sharing the wealth.

Still, I guess a guy can dream.

Jake, it's your turn. Are college sports heading for a brave new world of have and have-nots? Is that a good thing? Are you not entertained?


Yes, Patrick, we are absolutely headed for a brave new world, albeit one where everyone gets paid except the players. It could be a good thing, depending on the resolution of the student-athlete myth, hopefully in the next couple decades. But no, I am not entertained. And most of you won't be either.

The joy of college sports as compared to pro sports is the irrational, diehard, kid-naming, tree-poisoning passion that players, alumni, and fans have for their programs. In the pros, we're just rooting for laundry, but those of us who went to an athletically competitive school in college are rooting for something far more profound when we tailgate on Saturdays and follow our team to March Madness games (except, of course, my alma mater). An integral part of that experience is the rivalries cultivated with nearby schools over years, decades, or even a century of competition. It's why you'll never hear the Michigan Wolverines mentioned by name in Columbus, Ohio, or see Hampton sporting a Missouri Tigers shirt.

Some of these rivalries have already become casualties of realignment. Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri, Nebraska-Oklahoma, UConn-Syracuse in basketball... the list could go on for paragraphs. While a college sports landscape of four super-conferences would move us closer to a meritocracy in football, it would result in schedules being almost unrecognizable from one year to the next. Even an in-conference rivalry like USC-UCLA in the new SuperPac conference (thank Hampton for the insightful moniker) could become a biennial event or worse.

I think the larger question of super-conferences boils down to what the point of college athletics is. If the long-term goal is to give student-athletes appropriate compensation in some form and create a true market unburdened by the NCAA's cartel-like ways, then super-conferences may be the way go. But if that's the goal, why exactly should we have college sports at all? Isn't it just a younger version of professional leagues, an anachronism that pre-supposes the college experience should include young athletes? Shouldn't we just have real minor leagues/development leagues instead?

If you're like me, if the point of college sports at all is to instill a sense of camaraderie among a group of players, alumni, and other fans through competition and tradition, then realignment sucks. Plain and simple. I get that the NCAA is corrupt and farcical, Patrick, but give me a good old-fashioned rivalry over homogenized super-conferences any day. Plus, it doesn't really matter how we realign in football—the SEC (Super-Elite Conference?) will still find a way to win every year.