Is conference realignment ruining college football?

College football is getting a huge makeover. The Pac-12 league — composed of major universities in the West — has all but dissolved, The Washington Post reported, with eight of its teams fleeing for the Big Ten and Big 12. The leagues are “being scrambled because of television money,” the Post explained. The Pac-12 was having trouble securing a lucrative television contract after USC and UCLA announced their departure a year ago, so the league’s other teams started looking elsewhere “even if that meant doing away with geographic and historic rivalries.” 

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The chase for television money and the upending of old alliances has drawn concern from the top of the sport. Sports Illustrated reported that NCAA president Charlie Baker this week expressed concern about the impact the moves will have “on student-athletes’ well-being.” (The new super-sized leagues span nearly from coast-to-coast, meaning athletes in, say, Florida will now spend more time on planes to Utah than in classrooms.) He said there is a “growing gap between well-resourced Division I schools” and also-rans that “is highly disruptive for… college sports overall.”

“The reshuffling of major college football — predicted for years — is here with all the subtlety of a sucker punch,” Dennis Dodd wrote at CBS Sports. Has college football changed forever? Has the business of college sports crowded out fun and tradition?

What the commentators are saying

“No one is safe in the dash for cash,” Ralph D. Russo wrote at The Associated Press. Previous rounds of “conference realignment” destroyed the old Big East, and now the Pac-12 has been left behind. This isn’t the end of that process: TV networks “have less money to go around” and may decide they’re not interested in paying for the privilege of broadcasting lesser teams in the remaining big leagues. The next step is probably the “SEC and Big Ten stripping the most valuable parts of the ACC and the Big 12 picking through the leftovers.”

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Change is part of college sports, Bruce Feldman said at The Athletic. Some teams and universities “are getting squeezed” in the process. And it “sucks” for college fanbases that “get left in the wreckage behind” after other teams have left the league. But critics have talked about “the demise of college football for all sorts of reasons for a long time.” It hasn’t happened, and it probably won’t. “I still think the sport is going to flourish as much as it can.”

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It’s time for Congress to step in, Conn Carroll wrote at the Washington Examiner. Greed isn’t to blame for the demise of the Pac-12, but “a failure to coordinate is.” Congress passed a law in 1961 that prohibits the NFL from playing on Saturdays — a precedent that says “college football is important enough for us to step in” and regulate the sport. There should be “no more poaching individual schools” that leads to the “destruction of valuable rivalries.” Instead, the feds should impose order. “Congress has stepped in to save college football before, and it should do so again.”

What’s next?

The league-hopping probably isn’t over. ESPN reported that the ACC — made up of universities in the East — is looking to add two of the remaining Pac-12 teams, Cal and Stanford. That would be an odd geographical fit, given that those two universities are located on the West Coast. “It’s complicated,” an ACC source told the network. “There’s a significant travel expense.” But the ACC also has to tend to its existing universities: Florida State has threatened to leave for greener pastures. “The issue at hand is what can we do to allow ourselves to be competitive in football and get what I think is the revenue we deserve?” said Florida State President Richard McCullough. 

Universities don’t always benefit from the move to bigger leagues with giant TV contracts, The Athletic reported. Rutgers is entering its tenth season in the Big Ten, and the move has seemingly been a disaster: The football team has won just 13 league games during the decade, and the athletic department is more than $250 million in debt. “The Big Ten brand has not elevated Rutgers athletics,” The Athletic concluded. “If anything, it’s done the opposite.”

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