Conference Realignment Endgame

It seems that we are on decades long conference realignment carousel. Every few years (whenever media deals are soon to expire) the strongest conferences smell blood in the water and gobble up the best schools from whichever conference is on its way out. The Big East (football version) died at the beginning of the 2010s, the Big 12 has started its slow death with the recent news of Texas and Oklahoma departing, and the ACC looks like it will be next unless they can make significant changes before their media deal expires in 2036.

But all of this just seems so trite. Like any moves that are made now temporary. All that really matters is the war to come, the endgame for the control of college sports. This article will attempt to explore the two plausible scenarios in that endgame. First, there are two important things to note about this going forward:

1. Football is King

Football generates the vast majority of revenue for college athletic programs, so all of these realignment decisions are based on football. In making these decisions, no one cares about basketball or any other sport. Sorry college basketball blue bloods, ask UConn how much it mattered to have arguably the second best men’s basketball program of the decade during the last round of realignment (and inarguably the best and most profitable women’s CBB program of all time).

More than that, recent wins and success do not necessarily matter as much as the program’s brand value. These conference decisions are being made based on how much money can be brought by a program into a conference (OU & Texas project to increase the SEC’s annual media payout from a bit under $50 million to roughly $60 million per school). The SEC was happy to add OU for the additional payout while providing a top notch team to compete against, but they are absolutely licking their lips for Texas who is bringing them tens of millions in extra revenue and providing easy wins for the SEC’s upper echelon.

2. Streaming is the Future

The second thing to remember is that traditional TV will be dead and new media/streaming will take its place. In the recent past, conference realignment decisions were largely made around media deals that would bring in more viewership due to media markets (Ex. Rutgers and Maryland bringing the NYC and DC media markets to the BIG). Rutgers and Maryland weren’t the strongest college sporting brands nor did they have massive recent football success but they were ideally geographically positioned. None of these things mattered as they could get the B1G Network on NYC and DC area cable packages and B1G games on NYC and DC area broadcast TV. That will matter less and less in the future.

In a few decades when this conference realignment endgame comes about, location will matter less. Conferences will not care about city media markets quite as much or oversaturating one state with several conference members. Much more paramount will be the total number of fans that a school has and thus the amount of revenue that they bring to the conference.

For these reasons, there is undeniable consensus that there will be a further realignment and consolidation in college sports. There is just too much money involved for this not to come about. The only question is will it be one super league or two mega leagues. Let’s explore both scenarios.

Scenario One: Two 15ish Team Mega League(s)

Take a look at this chart. These are the 30 most valuable athletic departments (relying mostly on football program data) as of the 2018-2019 season. I used data from this year as the Covid shortened 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons were not typical. For the blended value, I calculated the mean of a valuation for the total Athletic Department Revenue (based on 5 times revenue) and the Football Program Value.

#SchoolCurrent ConferenceAthletic Dept Revenue 2018-20192018-2019 Football Program ValueBlended Total Revenue & Football Value
1TexasBig 12 (Soon to be SEC)$223,879,781$1,100,000,000$1,109,699,453
2Ohio StateBig 10$210,548,239$1,060,000,000$1,056,370,598
3MichiganBig 10$197,820,410$930,000,000$959,551,025
6Notre DameIndependent Football/ACC$169,547,625$910,000,000$878,869,063
7OklahomaBig 12 (Soon to be SEC)$163,126,695$890,000,000$852,816,738
10Texas A&MSEC$212,748,002$540,000,000$801,870,005
13Penn StateBig 10$164,529,326$520,000,000$671,323,315
14WisconsinBig 10$157,660,107$470,000,000$629,150,268
15IowaBig 10$151,976,026$460,000,000$609,940,065
16South CarolinaSEC$140,695,659$460,000,000$581,739,148
17NebraskaBig 10$136,233,460$470,000,000$575,583,650
19WashingtonPac 12$133,792,677$440,000,000$554,481,693
20Florida StateACC$152,757,883$290,000,000$526,894,708
21Michigan StateBig 10$140,010,865$350,000,000$525,027,163
23OregonPac 12$127,508,498$350,000,000$493,771,245
25USCPac 12$118,687,120$330,000,000$461,717,800
26MinnesotaBig 10$130,456,454$270,000,000$461,141,135
27Arizona StatePac 12$121,698,840$300,000,000$454,247,100
29UCLAPac 12$108,412,967$300,000,000$421,032,418

You will note that the majority of these teams are from the B1G and the SEC, thus they will be our two dominant conferences who will destroy the rest.

I am operating under two assumptions: first, both conferences will find a way to cut their dead weight (Sorry to the likes of Vanderbilt, Purdue, Mississippi and the other always a bridesmaid schools). Like Thanos’ snap roughly half of the other teams in these conferences will instantly disappear from the new B1G and SEC (or some other entity that they create).

Second, the B1G will find away to expand or do away with their academic alliance. I know that a lot of stock is put into the B1G’s research partnerships and finances that come along with such, but again there is just too much money at stake both athletically and academically for them to keep it as is. They will find a way to keep both the athletic money and academic money in the future.

How Endgame Conference Realignment Scenario One Goes Down

The ACC teams start feeling froggy a few years before their aforementioned media deal expires, lets say in the year 2033. None of the schools want to be left out in the cold in realignment so the B1G-ACC-Pac 12 alliance quickly goes out the window faster than the Soviet-Nazi non-agression pact. It really doesn’t matter who makes the first call: the SEC, B1G, or some of the ACC member schools, but the SEC and B1G will be carving up the ACC like it is Poland. It is clear that the top schools like Clemson and Florida State can bring more money into each conference. And the alternative is essentially death, so it is a no brainer.

The SEC essentially pilfers Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville selling them on SEC continuity, existing in-state rivalries, and of course all that sweet, sweet cash. The B1G is able to grab Miami and finally makes Notre Dame bend the knee due to sheer $$ value (Hundreds of millions in media payouts over a few years).

A few years thereafter, the B1G reaches out to Washington, Oregon, USC, UCLA, and Arizona State. The convince them that a la Dr Strange that they’ve analyzed the 14 million possible outcomes and the only way they can defeat the SEC is to join the B1G. These Pac schools reluctantly agree to leave their former conference mates knowing that the difference in media money is approaching 50 millions dollars per year at this point and recruiting will be impossible otherwise. Take a look at the the future B1G and the future SEC.

As much as this would destroy college sports for the other schools across the country and would be an indisputable travesty, this would be kind of sweet in a way (lol). The Southern power football teams would essentially be unified from Texas to Florida (except for Miami who has rivalries with Notre Dame and Nebraska and has many fans from elsewhere in the county). The B1G also has a ton of history with the Pac, as the SEC does with the former Big 12 Schools. The B1G could play their conference championship as the Rose Bowl and the SEC could do theirs as the Sugar Bowl.

15 teams also allow for three pods of five each, giving a schedule that would allow for rivalry games and buy games outside of these leagues. I’m sure things wouldn’t work out exactly this way, but I am counting on each conference making moves to try to counteract each other. For example, The B1G usually wouldn’t be caught dead with a school of Arizona State’s academic stature but in a potential merger situation like this the other Pac schools might help put in a good word and it doesn’t hurt that ASU’s blended value is more than the likes of Louisville, Miami, and UCLA. As I mentioned before, I think the endgame will involve the academic alliances being modified or destroyed to allow for both academic and athletic funds to flow freely.

The Rest of the Power Teams in Scenario One

#Big 12Huge MidwestACCPAC 12Big East #
2Oklahoma StatePurdueMarylandUtahSt Johns2
3BaylorNorthwesternGeorgia TechColoradoSeton Hall3
4TCUIowa StateUVACalVillanova4
5Texas Tech IndianaRutgersOregon StateGeorgetown5
6Miss StateMissouriUConnWashington StateXavier6
7Ole MissKansas StateSyracuseStanfordDePaul7
8HoustonKansasNC StateBoise StateMarquette8
9UCFCincinnatiUNCColorado StateButler9
10MemphisPittVirginia TechSan Diego StateCreighton10
12SMUBoston CollegeGonzaga (Hoops Only) 12
13  Air Force (Football Only)  13

The rest of these teams make moves to try to regain some relevancy in this realignment scenario. As mentioned previously, being in new media markets is no longer paramount. This allows these conferences to realign with a mix of old rivalries and closer geographic proximity. The media payouts will not be nearly as big as the new SEC and B1G conglomerates but these will be fun conferences and someone will rise to the top of each. Teams from these conferences will be able to regularly compete for the college football playoff (expanded 12 seed format) and will get at least 4 or 5 teams into the NCAA basketball tournament on a yearly basis.

Big 12- The leftovers of the Big 12, Vanderbilt, Mississippi schools, and the top of the AAC unite under the Big 12 banner. Geographically this is a pretty good fit for all involved aside from UCF & USF but they are at least familiar traveling partners. The Mississippi schools are pretty bummed to be Thanos’ed out of the SEC after so many years and accept the Big 12 invite as a consolation prize. Vanderbilt flirted with the idea of joining the ACC but ultimately decided to stick with the SEC leftovers.

Huge Midwest Conference – (Who says that the only adjective that a conference can use is “Big”) The cast-offs from the B1G join up with a couple of strong academic Big 8 schools that have been wandering the desert in Kansas, Missouri (via the SEC), Iowa State and Kansas State. Kansas and Missouri get their primary rivalry back and the rest of the schools are a pretty good geographic fit as well. Pitt and WVU see an opportunity to jump to a stronger football conference and reignite old rivalries with each other as well. Cincinnati is happy to be along for the ride.

ACC – After losing their top football schools, the ACC decides to double down on basketball and bring in a few former Big East mates in Rutgers and UConn to be the top basketball conference in the country. They also get Maryland back and correct a wrong that never should have happened in the first place in Maryland’s departure to the B1G.

Pac 12 – The Pac gets a little desperate with the lack of super-strong athletic programs west of the Rockies and they essentially merge with the top of the Mountain West. UNLV gives them a presence in Las Vegas that they have long coveted (CFB and MBB championships are there every year) and they regain Southern California with SDSU after losing USC and UCLA. In time they hope that Gonzaga and Air Force can become more than one-trick ponies in basketball and football respectively.

Big East – As for the basketball-centric power conference, the Big East remains largely unchanged aside from replacing UConn with Temple. Temple being neighbors with Nova is not such a big deal in the world of streaming as they bring in enough revenue. The Owls will, however, have to go independent in football unless some new G5 equivalent conference forms. If one of the A10 schools or a school like Loyola Chicago goes on a Gonzaga-like run over the next decade or two they might also get an invite to round the conference to 12 members. But, that’s the thing about realignment, its all about timing.

What About the Basketball Blue Bloods in Scenario One?

#SchoolCurrent ConferenceAthletic Dept Revenue 2018-20192018-2019 Football ValueBlended Value
1IndianaBig 10$127,832,628$180,000,000$409,581,570
2KansasBig 12$121,553,307$210,000,000$408,883,268
3North CarolinaACC$107,812,619$160,000,000$349,531,548

The verdict

As you can see, these basketball schools just do not add a ton of value compared to the football powers. Indiana and Kansas are very close to the bottom of the top 30 and there is a chance the B1G and SEC would take them, but right now they fall just outside. Any scenario in which they improve their value involves their football programs taking giant leaps forward. Indiana and UNC are competitive right now but they need to prove that they can sustain that success after a single head coach (Tom Allen and Mack Brown respectively) moves along to greener pastures or retires. Kansas’ football value is actually already more than both Miami and Louisville with the lack of success that they’ve had. If they were able to have a modicum of sustained success in football they would get a B1G invite for sure but the clock might be running out for them to put it together with the demise of the Big 12. So, Kansas, Indiana, and UNC are on the outside looking in as things sit right now but they could improve enough to punch a ticket into the SEC or BIG for the endgame. The only school here who has absolutely no shot to make it into one of the two power leagues is Duke. I would say that I feel bad for the Blue Devils, but I really don’t at all.

Scenario Two: A Single Super League – AKA The $600 Million Club

In this is scenario the SEC becomes the College Super League. The B1G is unable to act swiftly or decisively enough and ends up not only failing to bring in enough top ACC and PAC teams but loses its own top members to the SEC. The SEC again jettisons off lower revenue members and also brings in Notre Dame and Clemson from the ACC. Using the above chart, this includes the only 15 teams that have a blended 2018 valuation of $600 million or more. Note that I’m slotting Clemson in for that last position as I am projecting that over the next few decades they will overtake the other schools ahead of them in revenue at the right time. Again, they’ll need to prove they can do this after Dabo leaves but I think that Clemson has enough football pedigree that they can pull this off.

This will give the Super League about 16 teams so they can do two divisions of eight or four pods and have a championship unto themselves. They will have no need for the NCAA and might just break away from it altogether if they desire.

Anyway, the super league will look like this:

This is basically a Dirty South and Northern Midwest league which makes sense as these are the regions of the country that really care about college sports. I think that even in the world of streaming that the lack of presence in the rest of the country will matter long term but will not be enough to prevent something like this from happening if the B1G is unable to counteract the SEC or the aforementioned B1G-PAC-ACC alliance falls.

That would mean the rest of the “power” conferences look something like this:

#Big 12B1GACCPac 12Old BE LeftoversBig East#
1TennesseeMichigan StVirginiaArizonaWVUProvidence1
2South CarolinaNebraskaNorth CarolinaArizona StateTempleSt John’s2
5KentuckyNorthwesternGeorgia TechOregonCincinnatiSeton Hall5
6Oklahoma StateIllinoisMarylandOregon StateUCFVillanova6
7BaylorPurdueVirginia TechStanfordUSFXavier7
8TCUKansasSyracuseUCLAArmy (Football Only)Marquette8
9Texas TechIowa StateNC StateUSCNavy (Football Only)DePaul9
10Florida StateMissouriPittsburghUtahAir Force (Football Only)Creighton10
11Miss StateKansas StateWakeWashingtonMemphisGonzaga (Hoops Only)11
12Ole MissBoston CollegeWashington StateECU12
13Houston   13
14Arkansas   14

Big 12 – Essentially becomes the poor man’s SEC and a reunion of the SWC. They manage to wrangle Florida State and Louisville away from the ACC, who hope to fill the power void left by the super league powers at this level.

B1G – Reeling from their defeat at the hands of the, SEC the B1G invites in some of their other high academic ranking Midwestern brethren and becomes a fairly solid, homogeneous, and continuous conference.

ACC – Minus their football powers but with Maryland back in the fold this is the way the ACC should be. Ideally, we would get former Big East teams Cuse, BC, Pitt, and Virginia Tech back into the Big East (football version) but they would be foolish to leave the ACC at this point.

Pac 12 – Remains the same as the present day.

Old Big East Leftovers – Former Big East teams (Temple, UConn, WVU, Rutgers, Cincinnati, USF) and eastern AAC teams (UCF, Navy, Memphis, ECU) look around the bar after the last call and join up with each other. They pull in the other service academies for their football prowess (which would require a special dispensation for the Army-Navy game). A school like Buffalo or UMass could also get an invite if they make a leap over the next few decades.

New Big East – The Big East loses UConn once again but decides to bring in Gonzaga for hoops only. With the realignment train going wild the Zags decide that the time is ripe to hop to a stronger basketball conference. Again if an A10 or similar school makes a name for itself it could see Big East invite.

This might be shocking if you’re one of the stronger SEC or B1G teams left out in the cold but I feel like it wouldn’t quite the doomsday scenario that it might appear. If you’re a team like Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan State, Nebraska, etc. you won’t like being left out of the SEC Super League but you’ll have the chance to try to emerge as one of the big dogs of the conference rather than being an “also-ran” to Bama and Ohio State. One or two of these schools will go from being Hawkeye or Black Widow in the B1G/SEC to Thor or Iron Man in their respective conferences. These conferences are clearly inferior to the SEC Super League but they all have an identity aside from the Big East leftovers.

In any case, thanks for reading along with me. The realignment will never stop completely – just like for the Avengers there will always be more battles to fight for college sports. Here’s to hoping that we can put the conference realignment business behind us at some point after the endgame. I just hope don’t lose too much about the game(s) we love in the process.