College sports are out of control

19 Nov

So Maryland and Rutgers are joining the Big Ten. The Big Ten now has fourteen teams. This is stupid. The whole march of recent conference expansion is stupid.

The Big Ten used to be important. Not just athletically, but culturally. I grew up in a Big Ten city. I’m a proud alumnus of a Big Ten university. The Big Ten represented a geographic place that was distinct. This is the part of the country that’s now called the Midwest. Before that it was called the Middle West. Before that it was called the West. You might think of it as the Great Lakes region or something similar. That geographic identity was formed, in part, by the conference when it was established as the Western Conference in the 1890s. When Michigan State replaced the University of Chicago after WWII that identity remained intact.

What a conference meant then is far away from what it means today. Then, it was a group of academically, geographically, and culturally similar colleges that decided it would be good to be associated with each other. Now, with the addition of Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers, the Big Ten is more a group of partners in a cable TV network than anything else. I hate everything about it.

It’s not just the Big Ten–conference expansion and consolidation have been ruining college sports for awhile now. I think that trend is likely to continue until the major conferences all have 16 teams. Everyone seems to have decided that’s a good number for some reason. I wish we could go back to a simpler time. If I were in charge, things would look a lot different. Conferences would look like this:

Conference USA is eliminated and absorbed into the new conferences.

ACC
Clemson
Duke
East Carolina
Maryland
North Carolina
North Carolina State
South Carolina
Virginia
Virginia Tech
Wake Forest

This returns South Carolina to the ACC and adds East Carolina. All of the Carolina schools are now together.

SEC
Alabama
Auburn
Florida
Florida State
Georgia
Georgia Tech
LSU
Mississippi
Mississippi State
Tennessee

Goodbye Kentucky, hello Georgia Tech. This makes more geographic sense. Florida State is a natural fit. Tech also replaces Vanderbilt as the SEC school with some semblance of an academic reputation.

Big Ten
Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Michigan
Michigan State
Minnesota
Northwestern
Ohio State
Purdue
Wisconsin

Big Ten Classic.

Southwest Conference
Baylor
Louisiana Tech
New Mexico
Southern Miss
TCU
Texas
Texas A&M
Texas Tech
Tulsa
UTEP

Like the old Southwest Conference, sort of. Dominated by the big Texas schools just like the old Southwest Conference.

Big East
Boston College
Kentucky
Marshall
Pitt
Rutgers
Syracuse
Temple
UConn
UMass
West Virginia

Adds UMass, Kentucky, and Marshall and returns the current ACC defectors.. Hopefully UMass’s football team can improve. Kentucky’s here because they don’t really fit anywhere, if you ask me. Marshall is a nice complement to West Virginia.

Plains Conference
Arkansas
Iowa State
Kansas
Kansas State
Missouri
Nebraska
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State
Wyoming
Rice

Sort of like the old Big Eight. Adds Arkansas and Rice, because Rice has to go somewhere. Same with Wyoming.

Pac-10
Cal
Oregon
Oregon State
San Diego State
San Jose State
Stanford
UCLA
USC
Washington
Washington State

The old Pac-8 plus San Diego and Jose State.

Mountain West
Arizona
Arizona State
Boise State
Colorado
Colorado State
Fresno State
Nevada
UNLV
Utah
Utah State

I think this is as good a geographic fit as is possible in this part of the country.

Metro Conference
Cincinnati
Houston
Louisville
Memphis
Vanderbilt
SMU
Tulane
UAB
UCF
USF

There used to be a Metro Conference in basketball. The conceit was that it was schools in big cities (DePaul, Marquette, et al. were involved). I think it’s a pretty good idea for these misfit football schools.

Independents
Air Force
Army
Navy
BYU
Notre Dame
Miami
Penn State
Hawaii

Service academies. Religious flagship universities. Traditional independents Penn State and Miami. Hawaii, which doesn’t really fit anywhere. I like independents. There should be more of them.

So that’s how I would like things to be. There would be no conference championship games. For the national championship, you could do two things: a reasonable playoff system, or the old bowl system where polls decide things. I kind of liked that. It was unapologetically inconclusive and chaotic. There’s something endearing about that. The BCS is a terrible middle ground and no one likes it.

—–

But things will never be like that. Conferences just a loose affiliation of schools trying to maximize their athletic department revenue. The Big Ten would rather add Maryland than, say, Pittsburgh. Obviously Pitt is a better fit in every way. Maryland is perceived as better precisely because it’s a bad fit. Pitt doesn’t “expand the conference footprint” or “grow the Big Ten Network’s subscriber base”. Maryland does. Did I mention I hate this? Unfortunately, this is the world we live in. That being the case, why don’t schools go all the way with it in a way that would also be awesome for fans? Well, some fans. Maybe even most fans. I have a radical proposal. If this blog is good for nothing else, it’s new sports proposals.

Introducing the Superconference. It’s a new breakaway league of powerhouses that would be the best conference ever. It would dominate college football. It would be fun to watch. Lots of colleges who are left behind would be pissed, but you know what? Fuck ‘em. This is how college sports works now. I would so much rather have my team in this new conference than the new Big Ten. In the current landscape, you need at least twelve teams so you can have a championship game. You need compelling matchups and built-in subscribers for your new TV network. You need a lot of programming for said network. The Superconference has all that and more. Here it is. Get ready for your mind to be blown.*

Superconference
Clemson
Florida State
Miami
Michigan
Nebraska
Notre Dame
Ohio State
Oklahoma
Oregon
Penn State
Texas
USC

Can you imagine how great this would be? If I was the President of any of these universities, I would start making phone calls tomorrow.

*When designing the Superconference, my assumption was that no SEC teams would want to join, since SEC schools have their heads so far up their asses and love the SEC so much that they would never leave. Now obviously if certain SEC schools wanted to join, they’d have a compelling case for membership.

These are twelve schools with giant stadiums and huge and passionate fanbases. Oregon and Miami are the exceptions here. My assumption is that Phil Knight will keep Oregon funded with Nike money in perpetuity and Miami will go back to being Miami at some point with a run of average Miami recruiting. Penn State is obviously going to be in a bit of a hole for awhile, but in ten years, they’ll fit right in. For now they still have the fans etc. even if the team isn’t good. Texas and Notre Dame would be the two toughest gets, since they’re both in love with themselves* and have their own sources of independent TV money.

*I think Texas would do this, even if they had to forfeit the Longhorn Network. I can’t imagine them willingly giving up a seat at the new premier conference. Notre Dame loves being independent, but they just signed an agreement to play five games a year against the ACC. Which do you think they’d prefer, that or eight games (including their biggest rival USC, and traditional ND opponents Michigan, Penn State, and Miami) in the Superconference? They could still schedule Navy, Stanford, and BC with room left for one more.

Speaking of TV money, there would be giant piles of it. Way more than any of these schools makes now. The Superconference would easily command the largest TV rights contracts of any conference. There would also be a Superconference Network. The Big Ten Network is a resounding financial success. It shows games like Illinois-Purdue. Imagine how the Superconference Network would fare broadcasting games like Texas-Florida State every weekend. The following cities are Superconference home media markets:

Chicago
Cincinnati
Cleveland
Dallas
Detroit
Houston
Indianapolis
Los Angeles
Miami
Oklahoma City
Omaha
Orlando
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Portland
San Antonio
Tampa

It would be simply a matter of time until the Superconference Network was on basic cable nationwide. Imagine the phone calls cable companies would get when people found out that they couldn’t watch that weekend’s USC-Oklahoma game. As things are now, that would be a highlight of college football season. On the Superconference Network, there would be matchups like that every week.

The conference schedule in the Superconference would be a murderers’ row every year. Part of what makes this feasible is an assumption that the forthcoming playoff system makes any kind of sense. Instead of simply trying to avoid losses, it will be to a school’s advantage to play a difficult schedule. Teams would play eight conference games. It doesn’t really matter how divisions are aligned; the only consideration would be putting rivals (Michigan/Ohio State, USC/Notre Dame, etc.) together. Ideally you’d reconfigure the divisions every ten years or so to keep things interesting. With eight conference games, there’s room for four other games so teams could still schedule whatever rivalries they wanted or needed. Michigan-Michigan State, Florida State-Florida, USC-UCLA, etc.

The only drawback is that the Superconference wouldn’t be great at basketball. But I think that would be a temporary problem. Remember the giant piles of money I mentioned? Nothing helps to build a successful basketball program than giant piles of money. New arenas, elite coaches, the exposure of the Superconference Network–it’s an inevitability that all of these schools would be able to recruit elite players in basketball just like they do in football.

It’s not just football where the Superconference would excel. Half the teams in the league are baseball powerhouses. There are elite Superconference programs in every sport from water polo to men’s volleyball. Baseball would be an anchor for Superconference Network programming. So would hockey and lacrosse. Affiliate members in those sports would make them the best in the country. It would be easy to get affiliate members to join because you could write them giant checks. Plus the existence of the league could be incentive for Superconference members to add new sports. It would look something like this at first:*

Hockey
Michigan
Notre Dame
Ohio State
Penn State
Boston College
Boston University
Maine
Miami (OH)
Michigan State
New Hampshire

Lacrosse
Michigan
Notre Dame
Ohio State
Penn State
Denver
Johns Hopkins

*Obviously you couldn’t poach programs from stable existing conferences for just one sport. So Denver and Johns Hopkins in lacrosse; the cream of Hockey East and the CCHA in hockey. I don’t think anyone from the WCHA would bolt–it’s like the SEC of college hockey.

Football in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, baseball and lacrosse in the spring. Plus Olympic sports, softball, etc. The Superconference Network would be a must-have for college sports fans. I’m getting excited about it already.

Back to the main attraction: Superconference football. This would be one of the biggest things in American sports. It would dwarf the rest of college football. Every high school kid would want to play in it. Every fan would want to watch it. It would complete the decades-long trend in college sports from quaint and local to corporate and national. There are a lot of good reasons to be uneasy about this trend, but the simple fact is that things are already fucked. Why not just admit it and remove any pretense?

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