At the SEC Spring Meetings about a month ago, an athletics director I trust said this when asked about the future of college football in an NIL/transfer portal world.
“We are probably going to need some kind of crisis that forces us to move and finally address some of these issues,” he said.
More change, he suggested, could be coming.
If last week’s decision by USC and UCLA to join the Big Ten isn’t fundamental, seismic change, then I don’t know what is. This isn’t just two schools trying to find a more financially pleasing and secure home—although they certainly did that.
This is knocking down the pillars of regional pride and tradition that the sport has been built upon since the first college football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869.
When everything shakes out, we’re going to have a sport that is dominated by two large and financially powerful conferences (SEC, Big Ten). When all the new television contracts kick in down the road, the financial gap between those two conferences and the rest of FBS football, which was already big, will be huge.
By adding the nation’s No. 2 television market (Los Angeles) to its already impressive collection, the Big Ten (which now pays $57.2 million per school) will soon be able to pay out over $100 million to member schools in its 16-team conference.
Ditto for the SEC, which now pays $54.3 million per team and will also be able to top the $100 million mark once Oklahoma and Texas come on board.
Good for them. The job of these conference commissioners is to position their members for the future and, when possible, stay ahead of the inevitable curves in the marketplace. That is what the SEC’s Greg Sankey and the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren—both of whom learned their trade from the late Mike Slive--have done.
I understand that all of this was inevitable. Market forces drove this. Sankey couldn’t turn down Oklahoma and Texas when they knocked on his door. Ditto for Warren, although I have to agree with my TMG colleague Mark Blaudschun in that former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany had to play a role in this. But that’s another story for another day.
So, I get it. Everything that has happened—or will happen—in conference realignment was unstoppable.
Here is the truth. The game on field will be fine. In fact, it will be great. The irony that surrounds all this incredible change in college football is that the quality of play on the field is better than it has ever been. It’s a great game and every Saturday in the Fall it delivers.
It’s just going to be different. The players will have more freedom of movement than they have ever had before—and they should.
The players, who generate these incredible revenues, will get a larger piece of the pie and that is long overdue.
The people who run college athletics will figure this out. There is too much at stake. Players may have to become employees of the university and collectively bargain their compensation.
Yes, that’s scary. But it may be necessary to bring some sort of sanity to the process.
While this will make some fans uncomfortable, when the games start and the stadiums are full those fans won’t care how the players got paid. I promise you.
So, what happens now? A few thoughts:
**--Notre Dame is in the catbird’s seat. The Irish could remain an independent or listen to the Big Ten or the ACC and finally join a conference. The keys for Notre Dame are total revenue, access to the college football playoff, and a home for its sports other than football. In short, the Big Ten could provide all of those and put a number on the table (as much as $100 million per year) that Notre Dame could not turn down.
Notre Dame has the leverage at this moment in history to really cash in. Will they?
**--In this game of conference realignment, you’re either on offense or defense. And you really don’t want to be on defense. Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com reported Tuesday that the Big 12, which is adding four new members for the 2023 season, is having serious discussions about also adding Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado from the Pac-12.
Some conference has to be No. 3 behind the SEC and the Big Ten as we move into the future. And today it looks like the Big 12 wants to be it.
**--How are Clemson and the rest of the ACC feeling right about now? Clemson has won two national championships in the past six years (2016, 2018), beating Alabama for the title both times. But if I’m Clemson coach Dabo Swinney I’m looking at the fact that my school received $36 million in shared revenue when the last set of figures were released. Georgia and Alabama, two of my strongest recruiting competitors from the SEC, got $54.3 million each. And that figure will grow to $100 million at some point in the not-too-distant future. So if I'm Dabo I want to get into the SEC.
**--Is the SEC done? The natural assumption is that if the SEC wanted to add more teams, it would look to the ACC for Clemson, Florida State, Miami, and maybe North Carolina. But the SEC already has the major television markets in South Carolina and Florida. Remember this is not about schools, it’s about eyeballs watching television.
Stay tuned. Media Days start on July 18 with the SEC Atlanta. It is going to be a very interesting rest of the summer.