Is realignment ruining college football?
College football certainly has regional appeal, will it withstand super conferences?
Many in college football media, and certainly among many fanbases, are worried about the direction of the sport. One of the biggest changes to the game, all of which relate to the increasing professionalization of the sport, is the recent flurry of realignments.
Before the 2021 season it was announced Texas and Oklahoma were abandoning the Big 12 for the SEC at a future date (still not nailed down). This was unquestionably bad for the Big 12, who commanded major media fees for the rights to broadcast their games as a result of having those two well-watched programs involved.
Now we learn the Los Angeles duo of UCLA and USC are going to ditch the PAC-12 for the Big 10. What will happen to the rest of the Pac-12 remains to be seen. It’s clear enough that USC, who just invested massive money into hiring Lincoln Riley and helping him via NIL to recruit tremendous talent to the Coliseum, was not going to be left behind in the realignment game of musical chairs. So they aligned with their historical partners in the Big 10 they’ve already built a tradition around trouncing bi-annually in the Rose Bowl.
This puts most of college football’s heavy hitters in the Big 10 and SEC, each now have multiple programs with Nationally competitive resources while few comparable programs remain in the other leagues.
In the new look Big 10, the following schools can claim National Championships since the BCS established a championship game structure.
Ohio State (2), USC (1)
Here’s the same list for the new SEC:
Alabama (6), LSU (3), Florida (2), Auburn (1), Oklahoma (1), Texas (1), Georgia (1), Tennessee (1)
And everyone else, who happens to have come from the ACC:
Florida State (2), Clemson (2), Miami (1)
The obvious concern is that football is becoming centralized within two or maybe 2.5 super conferences.
So what’s going on? Will this ruin the college expression of America’s war game?
FOX vs ESPN
Much of this comes down to FOX vs ESPN.
The addition of Texas and Oklahoma, the latter of whom FOX had been counting on to dominate their “Big Noon Saturday” slot, to the ESPN fold by putting them into the SEC was a massive blow for FOX. It became essential that they adjust in order to remain competitive with their programming content. Pairing USC and UCLA with the Big 10 helps accomplish this in a big way by getting the nationally renowned Trojans routinely on television against the high profile Big 10 schools while also ensuring they’re firmly entrenched within FOX programming.
It was a no-brainer for USC and UCLA as well, they can’t possibly make as much money as either the Big 10 or SEC schools with future television deals while tethered to the football-ambivalent programs in the Pac-12.
Ever since Universities were allowed to make big money from media rights and televised games the sport has exploded and it’s competitive architecture has been guided by what makes sense for television.
The folks complaining about how TV money is guiding the development of the product don’t seem to appreciate the extent to which it’s done so through every significant evolution since the 90s. The Boise State emergence was helped by Thursday night college football and the overall proliferation of televised football which allowed smaller programs to get on TV.
The BCS and playoff system have all been about maximizing televised postseason football. This sport used to have coaches and clueless media picking champions based on…not even watching opponents from around the country because games weren’t commonly televised. It was basically a matter of whether you could dominate headlines in your local media market and then whether said market was big enough to put you no.1 on their list at the end of the year.
A national sport needs better competitive architecture than that.
As it happens, the TV companies guiding this evolution want to maximize the product in order to get more people watching and create the most popular sport possible. This means a playoff format with big time teams from around the country, but it also means the more regional-based structure is getting cast aside in exchange for a truly national system.
Is college football as a regional product being ruined?
This is the main complaint you hear right now. The argument, if I can do it proper justice, goes like this:
College football’s appeal is regional. You want to go up against your neighbors and have bragging rights over people in your region, at your job, in your Church or friend group, etc.
Realignment is pulling the top programs out to form super conferences which pits them against national competition rather than regional rivals.
This will ruin the game’s unique appeal by eliminating a lot of the more local matchups in pursuit of big TV draws.
One obvious response to this argument is, “ruin it for who?”
If you’re a school like Baylor or Texas Tech, who’s long been defined by competing in a conference with big, bad Texas and Oklahoma and who’s best seasons were defined by local, conference championships or triumphs over those teams, you now need a new identity.
However, the remaining Big 12 schools after the “Texit” are all quite regional, future Baylor conference championships will still come at the expense of local programs. The game will be no less regional, in fact it may be more regional unless non super conferences decide to form a new playoff format outside of the main conferences or manage to successfully force a widely expanded playoff model.
Meanwhile Texas is now going to be in a conference with their three biggest, local, traditional rivals. Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Arkansas. Does Texas need to be playing Texas Tech, TCU, or Baylor for their brand to be regionally relevant? Not at all. If anything it’ll be more regionally relevant when they’re paired up with Arkansas and A&M again in addition to be more nationally relevant.
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are more torn, but they could still play annually if OSU wants to do so rather than “punishing” the Sooners for their treachery in abandoning them. Oklahoma is losing a lot of their traditional rivals, which were Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, and OSU. How will they fare going up against Texas, A&M, Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, etc? Probably pretty well.
The USC/ULCA question is tougher, but I suspect we should wait and see what other dominoes fall before rushing to judgment on the death of regionalism there. If say, Washington, Cal, Stanford, Oregon all joined USC then the Big 10 could form four pods of five teams where everyone would have a pretty heavily local slate of opponents and then a few crossover matchups. Then they could play for their championship in the Rose Bowl, which is how the Big 10 and Pac-12 have been aligned for the entirety of college football history.
One thing that WILL be lost is the ability of smaller programs to compete in the wider ocean with the big sharks. If you need the college football product to be defined by watching sharks eat minnows nine weeks out of 12, then yes, realignment won’t be great for your enjoyment of the sport. If you need your college football to be defined by watching wounded shark Texas get chewed apart every year by piranhas, well that was only going to last so long before they healed their fin and started swallowing mouthfuls of Big 12 opponents again.
I think the deeper question is whether college football needs to be regional in terms of having local stakes to maintain its quality and charm.
The answer is no.
Battles between cross-country, big ticket teams are one of the best features of college football and we are nowhere near a saturation point. ESPN is still making more documentaries about “Catholics vs Convicts” and major bowl game matchups between schools like Nebraska and Miami from back in the day. Even with national recruiting these teams are still fairly locally sourced and separated from one another. A big reason the bowl games are so popular, besides the fact they own some primo TV real estate being on across the holidays at all times of day, is that they pit teams from across the country against one another.
“Oh hey, this hotshot G5 team is playing a strong Big 10/SEC squad?”
“Alright, let’s see if this school was able to prepare for the option with their extra time against this service academy.”
“Time to see if this Big 12 football holds up against Big 10 toughness/SEC speed!”
The importance of regional appeal in America’s war game is in communities having a local mascot who can represent them in battles against fun and worthy opponents. What makes the opponent a fun and worthy opponent? It could be that their fans are near enough for you to holler at and interact with (although all fans are now near enough interact with thanks to the Internet) or it could be that the opponent is a dangerous one who offers you a better test of your own quality.
If having largely local opponents is the essential charm of college football, then the teams left behind by the formation of super conferences should still do fine by playing heavily regional competition. If it’s about playing big time opponents on your level, then the super conferences should also do well.
I think it’s both, and further delineations in college football between superconferences and smaller ones won’t ruin the sport. If it does, just remember this is all happening because we like watching it on television so much.