College Football Problems and Ways to Fix Them: Conference Realignment

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2022

College Football Problems and Ways to Fix Them: Conference Realignment

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    The story of college football over the past few decades cannot be told without a large section on conference realignment.

    And it might not be close to finished yet.

    Last year, major news dropped that Big 12 staples Oklahoma and Texas planned to leave for the SEC. While another wave of realignment was always inevitable, that decision kickstarted a flurry of moves and will be the impetus for more changes in the near future.

    Realignment itself is not necessarily a problem. It's been part of the landscape for decades.

    However, both the uncertainty and threat of realignment will present an obstacle in some impending conversations, including the possibility of College Football Playoff expansion.

The Driving Force

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    Let's start at the very beginning: Money.

    When the ACC expanded in the early 2000s, the league bolstered its revenue with Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. The major changes in the 2010sled by the Big Ten and Pac-12and the SEC's recent shocker all had dollar signs in mind.

    According to USA Today Sports, Texas totaled the most operating revenue ($224 million) of any athletic department during the 2020 fiscal year. Oklahoma ranked eighth at $163 million.

    The SEC, which already boasts the largest per-school payout annually, is now poised to add those financial powers.

    Competitive balance is fun to discuss. Decision-makers, though, are focused on the balance sheet.

The TV Influence

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    Money, more specifically, breaks down to television deals.

    Within each league, the member schools ultimately give the conference leadership the power to negotiate media rights. For example, ESPN has contracts with the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC, while Fox works with the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. CBS also has an SEC agreement for two more seasons.

    These contracts are worth many millions of dollars to each university, though the Big Ten and SEC generate the largest payouts to each affiliated school.

    And that sizable gap is a foundational piece of realignment.

    In particular, Oklahoma and Texas are leaving the Big 12which distributed roughly $28 million per school last fiscal year. Meanwhile, the SEC said it averaged slightly over $54.6 million per school, and the Big Ten shared $54.3 million per school.

    Considering the SEC's current TV contracts with CBS and ESPN expire after the 2023 season, that number is destined to grow, too. Even as the Big 12 nears its ESPN/Fox expiration following the 2025 campaign, the league's next contract wouldn't have approached the SEC's impending deal.

College Football Playoff Access

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    The good news for non-power programsteams outside the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SECis the Group of Five finally had a College Football Playoff representative last season.

    The bad news is Cincinnati needed an undefeated 2020 regular season and perfect 2021 campaign to shatter the glass ceiling. The worse news is Cincinnati, UCF and Houston are slated to depart the AAC and, along with independent BYU, join the Big 12 by 2024.

    Outside of a power conference, access to the College Football Playoff is and likely will remain severely limited.

    Even if future CFP expansion reserves a place for the highest-ranked G5 team, that's simply one spot of, say, 12. Power conferences, though, will regularly send multiple teams to the CFP, which then generates more revenue for that big-name league—further reinforcing the financial disparity within the sport.

    But this isn't solely a G5 story, either.

    Provided the CFP expands as expected, each power conference will be focusing on how to maximize its access. That reality will guide every realignment discussion.

The Overall Challenge

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    Realignment falls at the chaotic intersection of financial and competitive considerations. The result is, for now, a circular discussion.

    For example, again, the SEC's media contracts expire after the 2023 season. There is no question the next agreement will account for Oklahoma and Texas joining the league.

    However, the conference will also be thinking about the effects of realignment in the future. Any further additions may or may not impact the grant of media rights for each member school and the league's College Football Playoff outlook.

    But this TV deal expires well before the deadline for the next CFP contract. The latter negotiations can hardly be productive until this current wave of realignment is settled. Plus, other conferences won't be interested in providing the heavy-handed SEC more power and influence than it already wields. This conversation applies to the Big Ten, too.

    Ultimately, the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 are desperate not to get left behind the Big Ten and SEC. The entire Group of Five doesn't want to fall further behind that trifecta, either.

    Because the championship format has no definite plan, however, there's a metaphorical pileup in the middle of this intersection.

The Wait-and-See Solution

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    The next domino probably hinges on the lawyers.

    Oklahoma and Texas will be trying to officially leave the Big 12 before the summer of 2025, while the Big 12 will be fighting to retain as much revenue as possible. The focus, in all likelihood, will be on how the conference's grant of rights applies to realignment.

    There is no precedent here, so it'd be entirely ridiculous for mesomeone who is very much not a lawyerto suggest what ruling to expect. We'll have to wait and find out together.

    The moment that happens, though, it could rapidly open the floodgates of realignment.

    If Oklahoma and Texas bolt for the SEC with a minimal financial penalty, what happens next? Why wouldn't the SEC immediately place calls to major ACC brands Clemson, Florida State and Miami, for instance? Conversely, a ruling more favorable to the Big 12's grant of rights could be a victory for stability.

    The future of realignmentand, by extension, the College Football Playoffwill be a reaction to this outcome.