The rise of NCAA superconferences

Four of the 120 schools in FBS have switched conferences since the start of the football season, but the number that may yet is endless. Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 14, 2011 College Basketball Preview.

"Superconferences, that's what we're calling it, right?"

Rick Pitino doesn't even try to hide his tone of really? Louisville's basketball coach has worked for schools in the America East, the SEC, Conference USA and the Big East. He has seen conferences created, restructured and ripped apart. In his five decades of hoops, he has learned to make no assumptions, believe little of what he hears or reads and, above all, trust no one. Never did Pitino think he would live to see a world where athletic unions among institutions of higher learning would desperately seek out ever-greater revenues through something that sounded like the title of a comic book.

"Superconferences," Pitino says with a sigh. "That seems to be where we're all headed. That's where leadership is steering us. Where football is steering us. And if you don't expand or put yourself into a position to expand, you're in trouble. Maybe extinction. That being said ... "

The coach catches himself midsentence. "Well, we'll have to wait and see on the 'super' part."

Twenty-one years ago, when Penn State's move to the Big Ten caused colleges' tectonic plates to rumble, coaches first began whispering of the superconferences that might one day form. Now, as the rumbles have turned to earthquakes, with one school or another changing allegiance seemingly every day, they speak openly of a superconference utopia.

It's easy to imagine: Picture a map divided perfectly into four regions, each corner neatly covered by a union of 16 traditional and/or profitable universities located in 16 traditional and/or profitable media markets. Those regions would fight their internal football battles from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, host a championship game and send their best schools off into a December battle royal. The New Year would carry us all, finally, to the mountaintop nirvana that is a slickly produced and wildly profitable college football playoff -- which would extend deep into the hoops season.

Pitino and the rest of his colleagues? They're just hoping not to be left behind.

Before we go any further, a disclaimer: By the time you read this, everything in this story may be wrong. Hawaii could be in the Big East. The Big East might be gone altogether or have become a 32-team behemoth. The Big 12 may have reverted back to the Big Eight or expanded into the Big 16. TCU might have changed conferences. Again.

Amid all this upheaval, superconferences are that fixed spot on the horizon where all ships appear to be aimed -- a common goal, at least for those with an attractive football program. "There is a certain group that the superconference model would benefit," says Terry Holland, AD at East Carolina, a C-USA member that has shamelessly courted the Big East. "That would be the schools in the superconferences. Everyone else will be standing on the curb."

What exactly would constitute a superconference? There are four widely accepted truths, spoken among conference commissioners, university chancellors, ADs and coaches.

First, a superconference must form from a pre-existing BCS automatic qualifier. That would be the ACC, SEC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. Second, it must own a massive multitier TV agreement -- preferably with a renegotiation clause should the conference's lineup change. That would include every conference previously listed except the Big East, which turned down a $1.2 billion offer from ESPN last spring. Third, it must be willing to embrace the magic number of 16 members. Not nine, which is where the Big 12 stood through late October. Not 12, the current lineup of the Big Ten and Pac-12. Not 14, where the SEC and ACC will soon sit. And surely not six, which is the number of football schools still in the Big East through late October. It must be 16. Why? Because 16 allows for two big divisions or four smaller ones, conferences within a conference.

"It has to be large enough to include all the right schools but not so large that it collapses in on itself," says former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer. "It's evolutionary. And the next step in that evolution isn't 14. It's 16."

He should know. Two decades ago, Kramer left his post as Vanderbilt AD to become the sixth commissioner of the SEC. He lured Arkansas away from the flagging Southwest Conference and persuaded South Carolina to abandon independence. With a dozen schools, he split the SEC into two divisions, created a football championship game, did TV deals with Raycom, ESPN and CBS and sat back to watch the SEC's bank account grow.

You can't do what you need to do to grow and not make people mad. But you still have to do it.

-- Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer

Today, Kramer's business model is the collegiate conference norm, but in 1992 it was revolutionary, so much so that the dominoes it set into motion have never stopped falling. "I get asked a lot how we did all that without making anyone mad," says Kramer, who retired in 2002 after leading the creation of the BCS. "We didn't. We made a lot of people mad. You can't do what you need to do to grow and not make people mad. But you still have to do it."

Which brings us to truth No. 4 about superconferences: They must be places where feelings don't matter. Or to quote that heartless bastard Bob Sugar, Jerry Maguire's trainee-turned-nemesis: "It's not show friends. It's show business."

The smarter administrators have always known this. Three decades ago, then-Penn State AD Joe Paterno decided the independent Nittany Lions needed to join a conference to provide stability for their nonrevenue sports. He tried to broker a deal with the newly formed Big East, where Penn State would have joined forces with Syracuse, Boston College and Pittsburgh to kick-start an Eastern football juggernaut. Penn State lacked a decent basketball program, so the Big East voted down Paterno's plan 5-3. In 1990, Penn State announced it was joining the Big Ten. The Big East? Well, it became something other than a juggernaut.

"That was no doubt a major mistake," says Mike Tranghese, who served as Big East commissioner from 1990 to 2009 and had been with the conference since its inception in 1979, "but in the end, it was a basketball-centered decision."

Ah yes, basketball. You remember college basketball, right? It's weird to consider now, but the sport once played a prominent role in athletic departments' budgetary discussions. That's because it introduced schools to television-rights fees that ended in at least six zeros. It also created a world where money talked -- and the more it did, the less college basketball could be heard, drowned out by the rush of cash flowing to college football. Thanks to SEC football TV deals, even a hoops-rich school like Kentucky earns nearly three times more from its mediocre football team than its basketball program.

"There have been times during all of this when I wondered whether anyone was ever going to come down the hall and ask me what I thought," says UNC coach Roy Williams, who will soon welcome Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC.

Superconferences' genesis dates from 1951. That year, the NCAA, concerned that televising college events caused a decrease in attendance, stepped in and started negotiating TV rights on behalf of its membership. Schools didn't balk for three decades, but in the summer of 1982, a few months after CBS launched its NCAA Tournament coverage, the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia filed antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA, seeking the right to do their own deals. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Schools across the nation quickly formed the College Football Association to broker their broadcasting deals. Inevitably, schools and conferences wondered why they needed any middleman at all. The association dissolved in 1997, and conferences started courting networks directly. The NCAA could do nothing but stand back and watch.

Conferences and their members now control every aspect of their cash-making lives, including ticket prices and TV coverage, in conjunction with ESPN or other partners, which welcome conferences' greed because it benefits them too. Conferences do their own deals with bowl games, preseason hoops tourneys and merchandisers. They contract work with sports agencies such as IMG and Learfield Sports. Through 2010, CNNMoney.com estimated college football to be a $2.2 billion annual business, a 28 percent increase since 2004. There's so much money that Texas can strike a $300 million deal with ESPN to form a new network, the Longhorn Network.

Over the years, the expansion of the bowl roster and the creation of the BCS allowed schools and conferences to wrestle away what little grip the NCAA had over college football's postseason. But programs still have zero control over the organization's biggest one-month ATM -- the NCAA Tournament. Last spring, the NCAA announced a 14-year, nearly $11 billion agreement to broadcast the event with CBS and Turner, a 40 percent increase from the previous deal. Add that to the NCAA's $55 million-per-year contract with ESPN to televise championship events of some of its other sports, including the women's tourney and the College World Series, and school presidents spy a lot of lost revenue.

"All those guys see -- and make no mistake, it's the presidents, not the coaches and ADs -- is money left on the table, money someone else has that they don't have," says one former ACC athletic director. "So what are they doing? They're creating a situation where they can control it."

The ultimate goal of superconferences is power as much as it is money. There's growing sentiment that the creation of superconferences would be the first step toward a post-NCAA world. What's to stop two 16-team conferences from saying they'll write their own rules, form their own hoops tournament and create their own football playoff? In the future, conferences may be too big, and hold too much sway, to be governed by anyone but themselves.

For the fan, that may sound like a liberating future, but it comes at a cost, likely a literal one. Superconferences will be formed for the benefit of college football at the expense of every other sport. So it may be great for Syracuse's football team to leave the poorly monetized Big East, but now its men's basketball team has to fly once a week, if not more, to Miami and various spots in North Carolina to play. Its travel budget will balloon. Syracuse, like many schools in large conferences, will come to rely even more on football to provide for its other sports. The more money football doles out, the more power it wields.
So fans have to ask themselves: Is it worth finally seeing a football playoff if it's operated by the same people who napalmed the collegiate sports world to get there? Who will actually be better off in such a world?

"There's one group who will be," says former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, "but they're the ones who are in pretty good shape right now."


Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter: @ESPNmag and like us on Facebook.