My wife asked a great question in 2007.
Why do you still work for a newspaper?
At the time, I was in my fifth year at The Tampa Tribune. I was professionally satisfied. I loved my co-workers, even if I didn't always love my bosses. But my wife made a great point. Using the Web, I could send information to China in less than a second. Considered from that perspective, printing the news once a day on dead trees didn't exactly seem like a sustainable business model in the long term. Layoffs already were rumored. At 28, I probably had at least 35 years worth of work life ahead of me. I needed a better plan.
Anyone who has tried to plan for their professional future in an uncertain economy can understand that feeling. Which is why everyone should understand why Missouri is leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. Yet a lot of people seem to think Missouri has made a foolish move. Those people continue to shut their eyes and pretend major college sports isn't a business, so they'll probably rip the move for two reasons.
• The increased challenge of competing for football titles in the SEC.
• The possible death of long-contested rivalries.
The first reason is completely illogical. Why? Look at it in reverse. If conference affiliation were determined by the ability to compete for championships, wouldn't schools hop leagues in search of football trophies? If they did, Vanderbilt would have left the SEC decades ago. Iowa State might never have even joined the Big 12. Heck, Missouri hasn't won an outright conference title in football since 1960. By that logic, shouldn't the Tigers have sought membership in Conference USA? That would never happen. Nearly every conference move in the past 50 years has been in search of more money and security.
As for the rivalries -- specifically the Border War with Kansas -- it would be sad to see those meetings end. While that would be partially Missouri's fault, the Tigers wouldn't deserve full blame. If Missouri offers Kansas an annual home-and-home series or a lucrative neutral-site game and Kansas says no, that's on Kansas. This is especially true in basketball, where schools have double-digit out-of-conference schedule slots to fill.
Titles and rivalries are the reasons people consider when they aren't the ones in charge of the bottom line. Like it or not, major college sports is a business, and effective leadership requires sound business decisions. Think of it this way: The Big 12 has nearly exploded twice in the past two years, losing four members in the process. To combat this, Big 12 leaders first raised exit fees and then proposed the granting of television rights to the league -- which would essentially make member schools worthless on the open market. The SEC hasn't lost a member since Tulane left in 1966. It has no exit fee, because it doesn't need one.
Texas and Oklahoma can stay in the Big 12 because they are Texas and Oklahoma. Decades of robust booster donations and huge fan bases assure those schools that they will bring success to any conference. Missouri is not Texas or Oklahoma, though.
Missouri officials must feel the same way I did in 2007. I had just bought a house, and the crashing economy drained value from it every day. My wife and I were about to start trying to have children. I didn't know what would happen next in the newspaper business. I did know huge media companies were pouring money into original Web content. So I mailed résumés.
The Tampa Tribune is a fine publication. It isn't Sports Illustrated. The Big 12 is a fine conference. It isn't the SEC.
Did Missouri want to go to the Big Ten more? Probably, based on the school's shameless -- and ultimately unrequited -- flirtation with the league last year. Well guess what? When I sent a résumé to SI.com, I also sent résumés to ESPN.com, CBSSports.com, Yahoo! and FoxSports.com. I was jumping on the first job I got offered. Those other places didn't want me. SI.com did. The Big Ten didn't want Missouri. The SEC does -- which puts Missouri in a position all but about 25 schools would kill for.
Because it doesn't impact your own economic situation, it's easy to look at the things that don't really matter. Missouri officials don't have that luxury. In an era of shrinking higher education budgets, they have to pick the league that offers the most money and the most security for the longest time. There will come a day when taxpayers refuse to subsidize college athletics at public universities, and the schools in the conferences that make the most money will remain strong while the others fade away.
Consider this move from Missouri's perspective. The Big 12 isn't stable now, and the only way it can provide stability in the future is by keeping its membership intact for decades. That, obviously, will take decades, and the okie-doke the league pulled last month with West Virginia and Louisville doesn't exactly inspire confidence. The SEC is stable now -- though it apparently suffers from the same pre-written press release condition as the Big 12 -- and its earning potential isn't about to start going down. Faced with the same situation in your own professional life -- a mid-level employee in an uncertain market with a job offer from a strong, stable company -- you wouldn't think twice before accepting. Anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or an imbecile.
The SEC is offering now, just as SI.com offered me a job in December 2007. Had I said no, another offer may never have come. I took the job. Six months later, The Tampa Tribune eliminated my position. Had I not left, I probably would have been laid off. If Missouri turned down this offer now, a better one may never have come.
So the Tigers took it. Just as anyone else would have in the same situation.