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Herko: The era of superconferences

On June 30, college football fans thought the biggest announcement of the day was Notre Dame Head Coach Marcus Freeman telling Irish fans to wear green against the September 17th game against Cal. They were wrong.

Later that night, news broke that would change not only the distribution of power in the Power 5 Conferences but college sports as we know them. But what exactly are the ramifications and lingering questions around UCLA and USC’s decision to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big 10?

What does this mean for the Power 5 Conferences?

With Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 for the SEC last year, and the sudden lack of Pac-12 teams in Los Angeles, the Power 5 is now the Superpower 2. Both abandoned conferences are without any real star programs and without any teams that someone could seriously consider for a national championship.

The ACC is a little different. They still have Clemson, UNC and Pitt, but no one who has been both historically and currently exceptional. The good news for them is that all of their schools are tied up in a deal with ESPN that runs until 2036. The bad news is that they are
playing catch-up. Before the recent migrations, the ACC could at least have Clemson win a ton of games, bring in revenue and everyone else would do okay.

However, the Big 10 and SEC are positioning themselves to be the only relevant conferences. In the long run, this will be really bad for the ACC, especially if they cannot convince a few major programs to join. And since they cannot compete with the financial incentives of the other two conferences, their significant schools will leave at the end of their contract, if not sooner because of a talent drain to schools with more funding.

What does this mean for independents, specifically Notre Dame?

Obviously, there are other schools that are independent besides the Irish, but they’re the only program that everyone really, really wants. For the ACC, Notre Dame is its only shot at survival. For the Big 10 and SEC, it’s the best program that’s potentially up for grabs. Basically,
whoever wins this battle wins the war.

Here’s the problem: Notre Dame prefers to be independent. Not only does the NBC deal actively prevent them from joining a conference (which expires in 2025), but the Irish like being on their own.

Here’s the bigger problem: Notre Dame prefers winning championships even more. If the two Super Conferences eventually take over college football, this means that they will also be in
control of the college football playoffs. Thus, making it almost impossible to be considered for a spot without having an advocate at the table.

If the Irish did decide to pick a side, they would be greatly compensated for it. Big 10 schools, for example, are expected to make between $80-$100 million next year. And if the Irish did join a conference, the Big 10 is the most likely landing spot.

Not only does the hockey program already compete in the Big 10, but it is a better values match for Notre Dame. All of the schools in the Big 10 are AAU (Association of American Universities) members, which pride themselves on strong academics and research. Notre Dame also has extreme rivalries with Big 10 schools that college football fans would want to protect.

Unless the SEC let Notre Dame pick their price, there really isn’t any match or connection between the two. Other independent schools just don’t have the market of Notre Dame and are going to really struggle to not be left behind in the reshuffle.

Ok so you’re the Big 10 or SEC, what now?

Before the Notre Dame question even gets answered, each conference has to decide how many is enough. Both conferences are sitting pretty with 16 teams in or on their way. When do they stop? At 24? 30? What is the right number of programs that maximizes profits while also
minimizing the power of the other?

Well, that really depends on where you want to expand to. The Big 10 now controls the three largest markets in the United States: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. (Oh, that’s why Rutgers is important.) The SEC controls the South, which may be less lucrative, but is way more passionate about football than other parts of the country. So what else is left? Philly is already controlled by the Big 10. They could look to Dallas, but TCU isn’t all that exciting. And finally San Francisco, for Stanford and Cal, but the Bay Area isn’t a great football market. And if those schools go anywhere they’d probably follow USC and UCLA because the University of California Trustees want Cal and UCLA to stay together.

That’s not a very friendly market for the SEC. Especially if other Pac-12 schools, like Washington and Oregon, want to follow Southern California to the Big 10 to preserve rivalries. Therefore, the SEC is probably looking to keep control of the South by going after schools like Missouri and Oklahoma State, or poaching from the ACC.

The poaching could be particularly difficult for the SEC because many of the ACC schools would probably be more interested in the Big 10 because of the AAU membership as well as higher academic standards that fall more closely in line with their universities’ standards.

What does this mean for smaller schools and non-football programs?

As much as both the SEC and Big 10 want to expand, they will eventually reach a limit. As they decide who they want to invite, they will really only be considering football and basketball, even though it will most definitely impact every sport. This could spell disaster for programs that relied on funding from the rest of the Power 5 or were in smaller conferences.

It is probable that when the dust settles in a few years that new, less influential conferences will form, but they will have way less revenue to divide between members. Football helps provide funding for other sports at all universities, no matter the size (assuming they have
a football team). If football programs everywhere suddenly have way less money, then that’s going to have a really negative impact on less lucrative sports.

The financial burden is going to be felt by basically all athletes at less successful division 1, 2 and 3 programs, and especially women’s sports. Additionally, schools in places that are expensive and/or difficult to travel to, like Hawaii, will be left out.

So while all this movement from conference to conference will make for some really exciting football games, it could spell trouble for the rest of college athletics.

The views in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Annika Herko

Contact Annika Herko at aherko@nd.edu.