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Why Conferences Make Relegation Impossible

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Part 2 in the Relegation Series Looks at Historic and Modern Role of Conferences

Reddit user nbingham196

Here’s Part Two in a discussion about Relegation. The assumption is that you have a working knowledge of College Conferences, particularly the Power Five, and their member institutions. If not, here is a reminder.

“Sewanee is our true rival.” You’ve heard some version of that if you’ve been on this site for a week- or you’ve perused our glossary of terms. To go all EB White on you, the joke is to dig at THEM and hearken back to an original SEC with teams like Sewanee or Georgia Tech that share similar geography and academic priority as Vanderbilt (as opposed to newer members like Arkansas or South Carolina).

From the dawn of college sports, conferences were created to bind like minded and similarly comprised universities together in athletic competition. Conferences were created around geographic locations. There were driven by either football or basketball. This is all influenced by a Turn of the Century to Post WWII America ability to travel (access to plane/train/automobile and capital).

So you get the likes of the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Pac10, SEC, and SWAC. They are geographically based and bind universities together to play, not just the sport they value the most (ie. Big East and ACC, Basketball; SEC and SWAC, Football), but smaller sports that universities had in common- the likes of Swimming, Track and Field, baseball for some, gymnastics for others.

Universities saw football and basketball as revenue producing entities, and as revenue increased via booster contributions, gate receipts, and media licenses, the NCAA designated certain sports revenue generating and other sports non-revenue generating (now called equity sports). Conferences became big business for universities and their member institutions.

[Sidenote: College football and basketball have always been very popular among alumni in disparate geographic areas. Alum always want to beat their rivals so they pay players and do other “illegal” things. CFB was more popular than pro football for decades. It’s just a point to say that boosters have always funded these sports but now media money has become the driving force]

With each new iteration of media access- from radio to broadcast TV to cable (read: ESPN) to internet to streaming to their own network or over the top network, conferences and their member institutions have yielded profits from revenue generating sports (and now, even access to equity sports).

A good example of the growth of conference power over the 20thC is to look at how many schools stopped fielding Independent football programs. Even the mighty Penn State joined the BigTen. Notre Dame holds out because of the NBC contract. All three service academies, at some point joined conferences. The last third of the 20thC was conference cuffing season, and if your school didn’t join, not only did you miss out on tens of millions a year, you missed out on significant scheduling opportunities.

None of this is new or ground breaking, but it is a long way to make my point that member institutions are locked (contractual grant of rights to media organizations) into their conferences whether those institutions reflect the current characteristics of the other schools they share the conference in.

No one would argue that Ole Miss or Arkansas or even very good public institutions like UF or UGA are similar to Vanderbilt in their student population. Size, demographics, and academic standards are all different. And most quantifiable, cost.

This isn’t unique to the SEC, either. Baylor and TCU are very different than Texas and Oklahoma in the Big12. Or Duke and Clemson in the ACC. Or Northwestern and Ohio State in the Big Ten. These schools may have started out on similar footing, but as the US has changed so has the nature of the schools. Even schools that may be similar in age and government funding, may have grown in local and regional ways that effect their athletics (looking at you Alabama and Auburn). Or perhaps a huge land grant schools had a little different overhead over the last 75 years than private institutions that are part of the same conference.

Point is, the composition of the modern conference simultaneously reflects the history of the conference and it’s current purpose- which is to make that money, not pit similar universities against each other.

Back to the making money part: consider the most recent conference realignment. In my opinion it began the endgame for the final stratification of college sports. Each Power Five conference tried to expand into media markets (not states) they did not have prior. Syracuse joining the ACC or Rutgers to the Big Ten had nothing to do with college sport crazed fans in the northeast, it had everything to do with those conferences selling ad revenue in the largest media market in the country.

Maryland jumped ship to the Big Ten because it needed a huge loan that the ACC wouldn’t give them. When the Big 12 was courting FSU and Clemson, all the sudden FSU’s sizeable athletic deficit went away, and original ACC basketball-centric schools were “encouraged” to spend money on football because their programs were so bad that no one would watch the games... and maximal ad revenue could not be sold.

Relegation- how I got started on all of this- cannot be done because schools and conferences are tied together in an intricate web of money and contracts, nothing to say of the cultural dynamic of kicking out a program that helped found a conference.

Additionally, conferences like having a plurality of schools that have various strengths. The SEC likes having Alabama in football, Kentucky in basketball, and Vanderbilt in baseball. The ACC likes having Clemson in football and Duke/UNC in basketball and UVA in baseball. To the conferences, the minor sports matter, too, because the flow of money has become so great, boosters will directly fund non revenue sports- and it gives rooting interests in conference and NCAA tournaments that are televised via grant of rights to ESPN or each conferences own network.

No matter how you cut it, in the current state, relegation just isn’t a reality.

But I have some ideas.

More on that tomorrow.