Quick, take a snapshot of college athletics today, because in a few years you may not recognize it.
Like a child nearing puberty, college conferences are growing up fast. They’re filling out and flirting with some of the more attractive schools available, as well as some already in steady relationships.
The latest conference to reach this stage, in its 50th year, is the ACC.
Once a regional basketball-first conference with as few as seven and currently nine members, the ACC plans to expand to 12 teams and join the ranks of the football super conferences.
With the likely addition of Miami, Syracuse and Boston College from the Big East, the ACC is expected to trigger a series of moves that will radically alter the landscape of college football and eventually all of Division I athletics. Some predict such a move would help force a football playoff system and eventually drop as many as 50 football programs from Division I-A.
The ACC’s plan is the latest in a series of moves in which major conferences become richer and more powerful while smaller conferences and lesser programs struggle financially before being forced out of Division I-A.
Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen predicts a day when about 70 football teams compete in Division I-A instead of the current 117. He sees five or six conferences of 12 to 14 teams comprising college football’s top division.
“That’s where this whole thing is heading,” said Friedgen, a long-time advocate of ACC expansion. “If you have large conferences and conference championship games, you take those six teams, maybe add two others and have a tournament. It could come through the bowls or the NCAA.”
Some form of a playoff could be in place when a new television contract takes effect at the start of the 2006-07 academic year.
“The direction is clear,” CBS basketball analyst Billy Packer said. “When you put the five leagues on paper, you have to imagine one of the commissioners will see the road map. The group of five conferences made up of 60 teams will play for the football national championship and eventually for the basketball championship.”
Atlantic Coast and beyond
The new ACC would be a regional superpower spanning the East Coast and demand a lucrative television contract worthy of its elite status. The sprawling conference is expected to be split into two six-team divisions and would earn approximately $10million from a football championship game.
However, there is a down side to expansion. Some of the league’s longstanding traditions would take a hit. For instance, Maryland’s basketball team might play archrivals Duke and North Carolina once a season rather than on a home-and-home basis.
“It’s not just about money,” Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said. “Money is a byproduct. What really matters now is, is there strength in numbers? I just look at trends to determine how to protect the best interest of our institution. We have to do what’s in our best interest, and that’s being in a large, broad-based [regional] conference. That’s why the Big Eight is now the Big 12. The world of intercollegiate sports is changing.”
It’s changing because of football and the revenue it creates. More than a decade ago, the ACC and the Big East saw the change and did something about it.
The Big East, originally created as a basketball conference, recognized the importance of football and its money when it invited Miami to join in 1991. It was a win-win for both parties. Miami gave Big East football credibility, and the conference improved Miami’s basketball identity. The ACC did the same thing when it added Florida State, also in 1991, and reaped the rewards of having a perennial top-five football program in its ranks.
However, the college football landscape is ever-changing. The ACC’s recent bid to acquire three Big East schools was radical but seemingly necessary for survival. ACC officials visited Miami and Syracuse and are expected to visit Boston College today. If all goes well, a deal bringing all three into the conference could be done as soon as next week.
Such expansion would make the ACC a sports colossus covering the East Coast from South Florida to New England, with revenue streams coming from such cities as New York, Boston, Washington, Atlanta and Miami.
“I felt [super conferences] would happen due to economics,” Packer said. “It would be made up of six [now five] leagues that stretch geographically over all the markets in the country. The ACC is the final piece of the puzzle. It was inevitable.”
The next ACC football contract, which would include a $10million title game, could approach $50million annually — double the current package.
Wave of the future
The ACC is just catching on to the idea of football super conferences. The Southeastern Conference and Big 12 recognized its benefits years ago.
The SEC added Arkansas, which left the old Southwest Conference, and independent South Carolina for league play in 1992, giving it 12 schools. The conference was split into two six-school divisions and staged its first title game in 1992. The Big Eight acquired Texas A&M, Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor from the folding SWC in 1994 and formed the Big 12. It, too, divided into two six-school divisions and held a title game.
Realignment is expected to cause further fallout between the haves and have-nots in Division I-A football. Super conferences would give the haves, which are part of the Bowl Championship Series, even more power and money. Meanwhile, the current 53 non-BCS schools are on the bottom rung of the class structure, and their conferences will battle to be self-sufficient.
BCS members, which currently include 64 schools in the six major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-10 and SEC), plus independent Notre Dame, already control much of college football. The BCS runs the four major bowl games — Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar — and BCS members earn 95 percent of all bowl revenues. New super conferences would negotiate a new BCS television deal similar to the way the NFL auctions off its rights.
“The gap is getting bigger,” said Les Robinson, Citadel athletic director and a former N.C. State AD as well as a member of the NCAA tournament basketball committee. “It’s going to be the big boys and everybody else.”
The immediate impact of the ACC’s growth is expected to produce massive realignment nationwide. The Big Ten and Pac-10 — which would be the only BCS conferences without 12 schools — would expand into super conferences joining the Big 12, SEC and ACC. Some 30 schools are expected to be affected as schools change leagues. The Big East likely would respond by raiding smaller conferences to replace its lost members.
“We will probably see as many changes in Division I-A as we did in the ‘90s,” Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson said. “That’s when the Southwest Conference folded, the Big Eight grew to 12, Miami went to the Big East, Florida State went to the ACC, Penn State joined the Big Ten and the Mountain West and Conference USA were created. That’s fairly reflective of potentially what this would mean.”
In all, 27 I-A schools joined new conferences over a five-year period starting in 1990.
The desire for a Division I-A playoff system is more likely with super conference expansion. The five conference champions — if the Big East loses its BCS status as expected — would join three at-large teams in the eight-team playoff. The four current BCS bowls could serve as playoff games, with the winners creating a lucrative final four and title game.
The Big Ten, which now has 11 teams, could add Pittsburgh if Notre Dame is not interested. The Pac-10 could get to 12 by adding Utah and BYU. The five potential super conferences would cover nearly every major media market in the country.
BCS conferences enjoy maximum media exposure, lucrative television deals, merchandise contracts and sizable endowments. The combined income with bowl revenues helps athletic departments fund nonrevenue sports and allows departments to support themselves. Each BCS bowl berth brings in $13.5million, which is split among conference schools.
“You can have your cake and eat it too — bowl games, finances,” Robinson said. “The 12-member conferences do better in the NCAA number-wise as far as bowl games and the NCAA tournament. It’s a win-win.”
However, the schools left out of the super conferences, and consequently the BCS, would be in critical condition. Some experts believe about 20 schools would drop Division I-A football. Others feel the number could be even higher.
And of course the issue would be money.
Non-BCS schools get considerably smaller payouts and don’t have the prestige of leagues like the ACC, whose schools will receive $9.7million each this year from the league through bowl revenues, television deals, licensing and other revenues. Many non-BCS schools lose millions annually fielding a football team and could have to decide whether they can continue to play D-I football.
Tulane, which produced Washington Redskins quarterback Patrick Ramsey, could be the first to go; its football program runs at a deficit of some $10million a year. The New Orleans private school will decide this summer whether to downgrade all athletics to non-scholarship and join Division III, drop football entirely or continue to absorb heavy losses.
“The BCS cartel is about to claim its first victim, ” said Gary Roberts, a sports law expert and Tulane’s faculty athletics representative. “The BCS defines programs. I see all this as more of the trend in college to turn it into commercial entertainment with the purpose of maximizing economic gains. It’s just big business. The inevitable effect is that schools that are commercially powerful will drive non-commercial schools out of business.”
Alabama-Birmingham is among those who could follow Tulane out the Division I-A door for budgetary reasons.
“In a lot of places, athletics lose money and they are subsidized heavily by the university,’” said Maryland’s Yow, who previously was AD at Saint Louis University. “Tulane, UAB and Saint Louis are all heavily subsidized by the universities. If I was on the faculty and we were heavily subsidizing athletic programs, I would have a concern too. ”
The football ranks also should be thinned by new NCAA Division I-A regulations requiring schools with I-A football to fund 14 varsity sports and have a minimum attendance of 17,000 for home football games. That could leave entire leagues like the Mid-America and Sun Belt in serious jeopardy.
The BCS could redefine football, and basketball could be next. BCS members could have the same economic impact and force smaller Division I programs to downgrade. Packer envisions Division I basketball shrinking from its current 326 programs to 75. The remainder could hold a tournament under NCAA supervision or perhaps create their own governing body.
But such changes likely are a decade away.
In contrast, football changes are well on the way as super conferences create an even mightier BCS and push weaker programs out of the upper echelon. The ACC expansion likely will spark a radical growth spurt that will send today’s model of college athletics the way of the Model T Ford.