Yesterday, Diamond, Dana, Andy and I went into roundtable mode on Texas A&M's move, conference realignment and what the formation of four 16-team high-major super conferences would mean for college basketball. We all essentially agreed on a few things:
1. The idea of super conferences was still a long ways off, so let's not freak out just yet.
2. If super conferences do eventually form, it would almost certainly be bad for college basketball.
This is not hard to understand. Super conferences will be powerful. They could, as Andy wrote yesterday, use this power to pressure the NCAA to, say, grant two automatic bids to each super conference. If the NCAA were to refuse, the super conferences could get together and organize their own tournament, stage a financial basketball takeover and create a new championship out of thin cloth.
If this option isn't present, then super conferences are really nothing to fear. As Jay Bilas wrote on his Insider blog today:
Super conferences will cause some real concern for those like St. John's, Marquette and Georgetown that do not play Division I football and some mid-majors that haven't carried their weight for decades. Will they have a home when all of this shakes out? Will the big shots still provide them with a check from the NCAA tournament? There will be change. But before everyone starts planning for the apocalypse, remember that Georgia Tech was in the Metro before the ACC; South Carolina was in the ACC and the Metro before the SEC; and Cincinnati and Louisville were in the Metro and Conference USA before the Big East. Some will have little choice but to adapt to a change that is not their choice, but change has happened before and all have survived it.
If that's the worst impact in play, then super conferences don't seem so bad. They seem like slightly bigger, slightly richer versions of the leagues we already have. What's the big deal?
The disconcerting part is not that super conferences would slightly tweak the current format of the NCAA tournament. The concern is that super conferences would take their profit motive to its logical conclusion -- usurping and destroying the NCAA tournament itself.
Jay acknowledges this possibility in his piece here:
To me, the biggest concern should be in the NCAA office. After the formation of super conferences, the next big money grab will be the multibillion-dollar NCAA tournament itself, where the NCAA generates nearly all of its revenue. With a bloated Division I of almost 350 basketball teams, why wouldn't the biggest revenue drivers pull a CFA-style money grab for that property?
What, you think we wouldn't watch the big shots play a national championship event under a different name? Of course we would. If you disagree, I have a call from the NIT for you on Line 2.
Oh, we'd still watch. Of course we would. These would be, after all, the best teams in the country. It's college basketball. I admit it: I'm powerless against it, and this would be true even if I weren't paid to talk about the sport on a daily basis.
But no matter how you look at it, the vast majority of Division I basketball teams, including the plucky underdogs that give college hoops so much of its mid-March charm, would be lost in the transition. While the big boys split off and form their own BCS-style tournament, mid-majors would be left playing some miniature plastic form of the NCAA tourney against one another. (I'd watch, but would anyone else? Compared to the current setup, wouldn't that tournament be sort of soul crushing?) The full financial stratification of college basketball -- already well underway -- would be complete. One tournament for the big boys. One for the little guys. Never the 'twain shall meet.
If this idea sounds palatable to you -- if you don't watch the NCAA tournament for upsets, don't care about automatic bids and think a buzzer-beater is a buzzer-beater whether it comes from Tyus Edney or Bryce Drew -- then super conferences are nothing to fear. But I happen to think the NCAA tournament is just about perfect as-is. I don't want it to expand to 96 teams. (Even 68 is a stretch.) I don't want more high-majors given automatic bids. I don't even want more mid-majors. I just want things to stay the same.
I hate being That Guy. You know That Guy -- the guy who won't do an auction fantasy football draft because he doesn't want to learn a new format. Everyone hates That Guy. Inflexibility is no way to approach life.
But everyone who hated the idea of an expanded NCAA tournament should fear super-conference formation. That, like a potential super conference tournament, was a simple idea: Alter a beloved and nigh-perfect format for the sake of more money. The NCAA gave it serious thought first, so it could hardly be shocked if the biggest revenue-drivers in college basketball tried to reach a similar result.
Both ideas served some specific portion of the college basketball infrastructure. Both ideas are bad for college basketball as a whole.
The formation of super conferences doesn't necessitate this sort of fundamental change. The NCAA tournament could, in the end, be just fine. Let's hope so. Until then, the idea of all-powerful, money-laden monster leagues with the clout to push the folks in Indianapolis around while threatening financial secession ... well, if you love college basketball, doesn't that seem just a little bit scary?