Nowadays, in college athletics, what’s important is a change in attitude, not a change in latitude.
Beginning in 2011 and continuing for a couple of years, the landscape could be rocked by some of the most dramatic changes in history. Major conferences will try to be super conferences. Several mid-major programs will try to climb the ladder. And the Southland Conference will again be in a state of flux.
The reasons are economics and marketing.
We’re seeing a change in philosophical thinking. Television is the spark. Money is the engine.
The old-school model of conference alignment related to institutions of similar size and philosophy within geographic proximity aligning with each other and creating state and regional rivalries and limiting travel.
Now, it’s about the breadth of media audience and broadening the fan base, especially for television.
Major conferences want to spread into lucrative television markets. TV revenue brings a bigger payout for conference schools. Those revenues can also be increased by widening the scope of the conference to include as large of television market as possible.
That’s why Notre Dame, which is in the Big East, is a prize, particularly for the Big 10. That’s why years ago the Atlantic Coast Conference annexed Miami and the Big East added South Florida.
With modern technology, geography is not a barrier to exposure.
The Southeastern Conference is in an enviable situation because of its overall competitive reputation and its schools lock up every major TV market in the South. But it still might have to react from a domino situation that might happen elsewhere.
The interesting part of all this is the SEC and Big 12 are considered the best overall conferences in all sports. But the Big 10, overrated in many areas, seems to be dictating the situation because of its TV contract that reportedly produces about $22 million per school. And the league is flexing its muscles and is driving the conversation.
The SEC’s contract gives each school $16-17 million. The Big 12 produces $7 to $12 million.
Already the jockeying has begun for the future. You can bet future expansion will be a major at every conference meeting in the country this summer, beginning this week.
Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, could be a plum for the Big 10, which is really already 11, because of the New York market. But Rutgers is a long way from Iowa, another Big 10 member. The University of Missouri is in the heart of Big 12 and Big 10 country and offers the St. Louis market. That makes it a cornerstone of expansion plans for the Big 10 and hold-on plans for the Big 12.
Texas is thrown into the rumor mill because it’s a major entry point to the Houston, Dallas and San Antonio markets. The Big 12 could probably recover from the loss of Missouri but losing Texas, and possibly Texas A&M, would be a major hit.
That will not be likely, even with Missouri. The Big 12’s contract with FOX is up for re-negatiation and if the league can also renegotiate its arrangement with ESPN-ABC, it could have a situation at least equal to what the SEC has. In this politically correct era, the Big 12 is attractive because of the overall strength from top-to-bottom of the men’s and women’s programs in all sports. If the Big 12 works out the TV package, which is very possible, it will have the best of both every world: major TV markets and revenue; geographic proximity of schools that preserves outstanding traditional rivalries from both the old Big 8 and late Southwest Conference. With an enhanced TV deal, the Big 12 would become a mirror image in the Midwest and Southwest what the SEC is in the South and Southeast.
Will the NCAA at its highest level build another level of super conferences involving the current Big East, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10? You can make the argument that it already has. Certain leagues are no doubt trying to separate themselves from the others. It’s becoming like modern banking; big fish eat little fish.
The University of Central Arkansas will likely eventually feel the effect, especially in football as a member of the Football Championship Series.
The NCAA has a moratorium of teams moving to a higher classification until 2011. Then, the jockeying will begin.
That brings us to the Southland Conference. Texas-San Antonio, which was set to be a football-playing member in the SLC in 2012, now plans to compete as FCS independent in football in 2011. Working along the template set by South Florida when it worked itself into membership in the Big East, UTSA will officially file its plans in 2012 to become a full-fledged FBS member by 2014 and will await a conference invitation, which is a certainty because of the San Antonio market. UTSA seems a natural for the Conference-USA western mix of Southern Miss, Tulane, Rice, Houston, SMU, Tulsa and UTEP.
It was questionable from the beginning how long UTSA would remain in the Southland, which consists of generally smaller schools in medium to small markets other than the major cities in Texas and Louisiana, where it is overshadowed by the major conferences.
A question at the next round of meetings by the SLC will be whether to allow UTSA to compete in the league in other sports while football is using that anchor to shop for an FBS home.
Texas State is in the midst of a serious and well-publicized fundraising and facility-enhancement drive to move to become an FBS member after the moratorium is lifted in 2011. The Sun Belt and the WAC are at the heart of that speculation for conference affiliation.
So, the Southland, which will have Lamar as a football-playing member in 2011, will not be the same after next season.
And beginning next season, the Missouri Valley, the WAC, Conference-USA and the Sun Belt will be evaluated with the possibility that one of those conferences will become part of the Bowl Championship Series.
What happens off the field and backstage in the NCAA Division I conferences this summer may be just as important as what happens on the field the rest of the year.
We hear the rumblings. We’ll see the ground shift beginning in 2011 and it’ll be interesting to see where are the pieces fall.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)