A Better Way To Destroy the College Conferences for Fun and Profit

The stadium scene.
Nov. 29 2012 5:44 PM

The Big East Is a Failed Experiment

So is every other college conference. Here’s a better approach to blowing them up.

Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals.
Rick Pitino and Louisville are moving from the Big East to the ACC.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images.

In the last few days in conference realignment, Maryland and Rutgers left the ACC and Big East respectively to join the Big Ten; Louisville switched from the Big East to the ACC; Tulane and East Carolina moved from Conference USA to the Big East (the latter in football only); Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee went from the Sun Belt to Conference USA; Denver traded the Western Athletic Conference for the Summit League; and the for-profit Grand Canyon University joined the WAC, becoming the first school of its kind to catch on with a Division 1 conference. The inevitable result of all this horse-trading: In 2022, the Pac-28’s University of Phoenix will play for college football’s national title in University of Phoenix Stadium. (They will lose to Alabama, the champion of the Confederate Football States of America.)

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

It’s surprising it took a for-profit school this long to get in on the action. For all of these institutions of higher learning, switching from one conference to another is all about profit maximization. This is more a truism than a criticism: Major athletic departments do everything they can to wring every dollar from their football and basketball programs. For the University of Maryland, moving to the Big Ten means an instant bump of $12 million in annual television revenues with the promise of more to come when the conference renegotiates its TV deal in 2017. But if this is a blatant cash grab, then Maryland isn’t grabbing as much as it could. That’s because joining up with the same group of schools for all sports doesn’t make sense.

Even if a school is successful at both football and basketball, fans and big-money donors usually care about one far more than the other. Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Ohio State typically excel at both sports, but they’re really football schools. Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky are basketball schools. (What colleges are equally passionate about both? It’s hard to think of many—BYU, Illinois, and maybe Georgia Tech come to mind.)

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Given that reality, college athletics would be more lucrative and—just as important—more stable if football schools and basketball schools stuck together. Imagine a basketball-only conference featuring Maryland, Georgetown, and Syracuse along with the likes of Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Indiana, and Kansas. Likewise, the SEC’s top football powers could enrich themselves still further by dumping Vanderbilt and Kentucky’s gridiron Wildcats in favor of football-only members Texas and Florida State.

This is not a radical idea. For years, Notre Dame has sold its sports a la carte: It’s an independent in football, plays hockey in the CCHA (it will join Hockey East in 2013), fences in the Midwest Fencing Conference, and plays every other sport as part of the Big East. Notre Dame will soon jump from the Big East to the ACC in most sports. It makes sense for the Irish basketball team, which has been good lately, to align itself with powers like North Carolina and Duke. It makes less sense for its lucrative football team to go all-in, which is why the Irish are staying independent and playing five games a season against ACC opponents.

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