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College Teams Play Game of Musical Chairs Switching Conferences for TV Contracts

November 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In college sports, geography, academics and competitive levels have been thrown out in part in favor of money and television ratings. Jeffrey Brown talks to sportswriter John Feinstein about why over 30 teams, especially in football, have changed leagues or conferences in order to gain a larger profit share.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: The college football season is reaching a climax of rivalries and conference championship games, and its basketball season is now under way. But much of the action in college sports these days is away from the field or the court, as schools change affiliations and leagues.

In the last 18 months, some 30 colleges have made moves, among the most prominent, the University of Louisville’s departure from the Big East to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, or ACC, and two Eastern schools headed to the Big Ten, traditionally a Midwest-based conference.

The University of Maryland is leaving the ACC and Rutgers is departing from the Big East.

Well, what’s going on? Well, sportswriter and author John Feinstein joins me now.

John, first of all, for the uninitiated, explain the role of these conferences traditionally. How do they work and how do they divide up the college world?

 JOHN FEINSTEIN, sportswriter: Well, Jeff, conferences were designed initially to take schools that were together geographically and allow them to compete against one another, and also schools that were similar academically and played sports at a similar level, so the games would be competitive.

The Atlantic Coast Conference consisted of teams on the AtlanticCoast, ranging from the state of Maryland down to the state of South Carolina. When the Big East was formed in 1979, it went from Boston in the east to Syracuse, New York, as its western most outlet.

The Big Ten, as you said, was Midwestern schools. The Pack 8, which is now the Pack 12, was, surprisingly enough, four schools in California, two in Oregon and two in Washington.

So geography was important, academics were important and competitive levels were important.

Now the landscape has changed completely. Geography has been thrown out completely. Academics have been thrown out completely and, to some degree, competitive levels have been thrown out completely because it’s all about what schools can make you the most TV dollars as a conference and what conferences can make schools the most TV dollars. That’s the unifying force now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so it’s dollars and television, particularly in football, right?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Exactly.

All of these changes that have happened really over a period of almost 10 years now, because it began when the ACC nine years ago raided the Big East for Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College to try to improve itself as a football conference to get more TV dollars for football.

It is about football, because basketball, actually, at most schools nets more dollars because the cost is less.

But the potential in football because of television dollars is far greater. So all of these moves are based on what can make the most dollars in football on television.

That’s why Rutgers and Maryland are going to the Big Ten, because by getting into the New York market with Rutgers, even though it’s in New Jersey, and into the Washington, D.C., market with Maryland, the amount of money the Big Ten gets from its TV contracts goes up just because they’re in those markets.

It has nothing to do with the quality of the teams at Rutgers and Maryland.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So, again, helping the non-sports fans here, this goes well beyond sports, right? The dollars involved for these colleges, what are the stakes? How important is it?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, for example, at both Maryland and Rutgers in recent years, they have had to eliminate so called non-revenue sports. The revenue sports are basketball and football, because you can make money on them because of television and ticket sales.

The non-revenue sports are sports like swimming and baseball and field hockey and soccer. They just don’t make money. You try to break, if you’re lucky, in those sports.

Six years ago, Rutgers had to eliminate six of those programs. Last year, Maryland had to eliminate seven of those programs because they weren’t making enough money in football.

So they believe that by making tens of millions more dollars in the next 10, 15, 20 years in football, they will allow themselves to fund other programs and also to build bigger stadiums and have more licensing money and, of course, the TV dollars.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, just in our last minute, John, is this — what is it, a continuing arms race or a sort of — pick your metaphor, but you expect this kind of thing to continue? And we’re certainly seeing some odd geographic couplings and pairings, huh?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Yes. Well, all you need to know is that BoiseState in Idaho and San DiegoState in California are now in what’s called the Big East conference.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: And, yes, Jeff, it’s musical chairs.

And everybody is afraid they are going to be the last one left standing, so everybody’s trying to grab, metaphorically, every chair that it can, whether it’s the ACC grabbing Louisville or the Big Ten grabbing Rutgers and Maryland, and then the dominoes continue to fall. There will be more of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Boise is now in the East, huh?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Boise is in the East. San Diego is in the East. And Florida — South Florida and Central Florida are also up in the East, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: It makes no sense at all.

And, by the way, the Big Ten has 14 teams now.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: I was going to say mapmakers have to get to work, but so do mathematicians.

All right, John Feinstein, thanks so much.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Exactly right. Thank you, Jeff.