Photo Credit: Paul J. Mecca

Conference realignment continues to be bad for college athletics

Conference realignment in college athletics has been prominent since the destruction of the Southwest Conference after SMU received the death penalty from the NCAA in 1987. Even with the SWC dissolving in 1996, there was a reason for it. Teams knew that the conference had a stink on it, not just from SMU but the other schools in the conference that seemed to be on probation every season. It was just a matter of survival at that time for schools like Arkansas, Baylor, and Rice.

In 2022, the idea of schools changing conferences out of survival is now a thing of the past. Conference realignment is commonplace now, with schools moving to conferences and situations that geographically make no sense. For every school moving to a conference with their headquarters across the country, a piece of the fabric representing tradition is ripped away forever.

The latest schools to jump in the fray were UCLA and USC, who announced they would move to the Big Ten conference. Based in California, the two schools will have their teams play against longtime rivals like Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Maryland. Gone are the days of USC and Oregon playing at 10 p.m. on the East Coast. In its place will be a noon kickoff between UCLA and Purdue, where the West Coast team will travel to the Midwest to get their teeth kicked in at 9 a.m. PT.

Conference realignment was covered in a Bleacher Report article in 2014, where they looked at the conference realignment from the BCS era of 1998-2013. Over that time, 78 programs moved conferences. That number has only grown since as moves like Louisville joining the ACC, Rutgers and Maryland joining the Big Ten and the American Athletic pillaging Conference USA for six teams coming up in 2023. Besides UCLA and USC, the most significant move was the announcement of Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC in 2025.

Local Schools Jump In Conference Realignment

But don't get confused. Conference realignment doesn't only apply to big schools. Local schools like Monmouth University have moved twice since 2013, with their latest landing spot being the CAA. This after the program left the Northeast Conference for the MAAC in 2013 (football moved to the Big South). The MAAC was the perfect fit for the Hawks, but Monmouth made another move in search of a few more bucks. It is like how I used to move apartments every year, looking for cheaper rent and better roommates. The difference is that Monmouth seems to not care about roommates; they want more money.

Remember when Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014? A move that only occurred because the conference wanted to get a foothold in the New York City market, the Scarlet Knights have struggles in football since joining. While the basketball and lacrosse programs are shining, Rutgers' football is the equivalent of Vanderbilt in the SEC, a team that is an easy win for the top tier teams every season.

The idea that schools can switch conferences with impunity, but student-athletes continue to be crucified for changing programs and making money continues to show a double standard in college athletics. UCLA and USC will now travel cross-country to play games on Saturdays. What does that mean for the student-athlete and their class loads, homework, and readings? Did we forget about that?

The moves also seem lateral, especially for low to mid-major schools. Will UAB's move to the AAC save the school from losing its football program? How will Rutgers compete in the Big Ten now that UCLA and USC are coming? Will people stop mispronouncing Mon-mouth University because they are in the CAA? No, none of that will change. UAB will continue being under the radar, Rutgers will continue to be destroyed in football, and Monmouth will still be my alma mater and a school on the Jersey Shore that believes they are the Duke of the Tri-State Area.

Television money is the culprit of all the movement, especially when it comes to football. The Pac-12 has been a dumpster fire regarding their TV packages, even starting a better public access network that no one on the West Coast can get. Meanwhile, the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC are rolling in the dough like Scrooge McDuck with just their TV deals.

Football and TV Money Dominates

USC and UCLA will say they had to go, especially UCLA, who was reportedly staring down the barrel of a $100 million deficit in their athletic programs. But this raises a bigger question, when did college athletics become all about the TV money?

TV money is why the original Big East folded up shop and its current incarnation features Xavier and Butler. TV money is why the University of Texas assumed they were big enough to start their own network, forcing them years later to abandon the Big 12. TV money is why we have forty-three bowl games that include barnburners such as the Cheez-It Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and the always-critical Jimmy Kimmel L.A. Bowl.

College athletics have lost what made it fun, its regionality. Battle lines were drawn every Saturday in the fall between fans who thought their conferences and regions were better than others. The SEC and their run the ball down opponent's throats style were compared to the Pac-10 (12) After Dark style of athletic skill players who burned the field with speed. The Big 12 had shootouts and who didn't love the random WAC game between Hawaii and San Jose State at 11:45 p.m. Eastern? The entire college athletic landscape has become homogenized into a blob of teams from everywhere playing each other, and I am just talking about the football aspect. Don't get me started on the effect on college basketball.

Am I an old man yelling from a soapbox? Yes, I am and am ok with that. "Cash rules everything around me," but does it have to rule college sports? Can I not for once see a program leave one conference for another under the auspices of "A great collection of educational institutions" or "This move will improve our school for years to come." For the second one, I'm assuming a stadium/gym expansion and more enormous salaries for those in charge will be the improvement.

At this point, this is me yelling at clouds. Conference realignment will continue. After UCLA and USC announced their moves, it was reported that the Big 12 is targeting six teams from the bleeding Pac-12. That will mean the Pac-12 will have to make a move, and so on and so forth. The carousel will continue, fans will not see their favorite rivalry games, and an attempt to create new rivalries from weird matchups will not work.

The landscape of college sports is changing for the worst. The era of greedy schools and conferences is now upon us, and it will only worsen. I, for one, am not ready for this.