The one-day-long Era of Good Feelings in the ACC after it released its 2023-2026 scheduling format came to an abrupt end with yesterday’s bombshell news that USC and UCLA are decamping the PAC-12 to join the Big Ten in 2024.
This move is sure to set off another round of massive realignment, and places the ACC and PAC-12 in a perilous position of falling even further behind the SEC and Big Ten, which already outpace them in revenue.
There are frankly too many angles to this to cover on one article and it’s too early to know what all the ramifications will be, but I’ll try to share some scattered thoughts:
This is an escalation of trends that were already happening:
Obvious point here, but the USC/UCLA news speeds up college football heading in a direction that it already seemed to be moving toward — a few truly mega-conferences that lord over the sport, capped at around 40 or so teams total, and that fully separate themselves from the other leagues via an exclusive playoff format.
It’s not going to happen overnight - there are too many TV deals and too much to overcome for them to snap their fingers and bring it in to existence. But frankly, I thought it would be a slower process than this.
The USC/UCLA move will hasten the gobbling up of other powerhouses by the Big Ten and SEC, and they will functionally have a walled-off system that allows, at best, one team per year outside of their conferences the chance to make the CFP.
This trend goes alongside the widespread changes that will be coming soon to college sports, likely imposed by courts:
Of course, it’s impossible to separate all of this realignment drama from the reality that the NCAA’s entire model is soon to get busted by the courts, almost certainly.
If and when court rulings break up the NCAA and/or determine that student-athletes under the current system need to be classified as employees, that’s probably going to go hand-in-hand with the formation of superconferences in establishing a world in which some schools create essentially professional teams that use the college’s branding, while others don’t join in to that arms race.
Whether other conferences outside of the Big Ten and SEC try to swim in those waters of essentially professional football is one of those open questions we don’t know the answer to yet.
None of this is good for Boston College:
Not to be a doomer, but the changes coming down the pipeline already weren’t great for BC even before yesterday. Now BC is in an even more precarious position where the ACC’s short-to-medium-term future is threatened. But the bigger trends in general weren’t great for us.
Boston College has made a fundamental part of its identity that it competes (insert all your jokes here, fans of other teams) at the highest level of college athletics, and in particular, college football.
It’s also made a fundamental part of its identity trying to adhere, however imperfectly, to some sort of ideal of “student-athlete” that doesn’t go all-in on the professionalization of college sports, maintains academic requirements, etc. It was slow to join the facilities arms race, and was the lone vote against player stipends during Brad Bates’ tenure as AD.
These two aspects of BC’s identity have always been in tension with one another, but the circle is going to become harder to square as these superconferences form and the courts break up the current model of college sports.
To be honest, the current Power Five setup and participation in the ACC is great for BC, despite the challenges we’ve faced competitively in recent years. Think about it:
-However unlikely it may be, we still get to preserve the dream of having a Matt Ryan-type year of being in the top 10 and competing for a spot in the ACC championship game/playoffs.
-Far more often, we get the excitement of a big time game between a competitive BC team and a national powerhouse in the top ten. We’ve had College Gameday, ESPN primetime, etc. etc., and these kinds of moments and opportunities for exposure are fundamental to the BC experience.
-BC has gotten to be in the upper echelon in terms of revenue, which has allowed the program to support its robust offering of non-revenue sports at a high level.
-While BC is at a competitive disadvantage vis a vis programs with deep-pocketed boosters that spend tons of money on the program (now including direct payments to players), it’s still existing in the same universe as them and able to ostensibly compete on the same playing field, without having to go ‘all-in.’
I know the answer to some will be “well, why doesn’t BC just go all in?” But it’s frankly doubtful that BC has the fanbase, media interest, or revenue-generating potential to ratchet up even further as the game becomes more professionalized.
Even if BC is invited to have a seat at the table in a world with 2-3 megaconferences, is that a world BC wants to participate in? These are major questions with unclear answers and the answers are going to have to come a lot more quickly than it seemed 24 hours ago.
The ACC obviously is going to have to do * something * - but what?
Everyone’s looking to see what the ACC and PAC-12 do next to try to solidify themselves as power players.
Realistically, other than Notre Dame, there really isn’t a series of additions that is going to do anything more than position the ACC to be the best of the leftovers rather than a legitimate peer with the SEC/Big Ten ESPECIALLY if Clemson or Florida State are flight risks.
The ACC’s pathway to remaining in the upper echelon in football really boils down to:
-Do whatever you have to do to keep Clemson and Florida State in the boat. The Athletic floated maybe upending the media contracts to let the bigger programs keep more of the money, rather than an equal split. I hate this idea as it would only make the gap between the haves and the have-nots even greater, but desperate times/desperate measures?
-Pray you can get Notre Dame to join.
-Try to get out ahead of the other conferences on a NIL/player payment system.
If the ACC loses a Clemson or a Florida State, it frankly strikes me as not being especially valuable to load up on the leftovers of the PAC-12 and the BIG-12 — you are making your conference far more expensive to operate and further watering down traditional rivalries while also not really closing the gap with the power players in football.
What are the potential futures for BC?
It’s too early to say for sure, but if I had to weigh probabilities:
- The likeliest outcome: BC is ride-or-die with the ACC, and the ACC ultimately ends up being, in the medium-term, a diminished P5 ‘power’ that ostensibly has a pathway to the CFP but is obviously behind the two big leagues. In the long run, this will probably eventually get blown up by a super league, and BC won’t be in it - and the Eagles will be in the highest tier of football being played below the walled-off super league. Whether fans continue to watch this in big numbers or if it’s viewed as glorified FCS is a question we don’t know the answer to.
- The next-likeliest outcome: The BCs, Stanfords, Dukes etc of the world proactively move to create a conference that operates on a different financial model than the Big Ten/SEC is moving toward, in effect self-relegating.
- Less likely, but possible: BC makes an institutional decision that it must stay in the top tier of college football, and somehow manages to leverage the Boston TV market into finagling an invite to the Big Ten, perhaps alongside Notre Dame and another ACC peer. This would really all depend on whether the Big Ten sees value in the Boston TV market.
- I actually do not find the ‘doomsday’ scenario to be especially likely, wherein BC becomes like a glorified Temple, totally left out of the next round of realignment and stuck in a league that basically loses money on football from the start. But it’s on the table.
There are massive ramifications here for non-football sports, and they are just going to be along for the ride
Football drives the money train in college sports and is driving all of these decisions. But an unspoken question here is what’s going to happen to the vast ecosystem of college sports that exists beyond football (including, of course, basketball/March Madness).
Let’s be clear - creating these continent-spanning superconferences really and truly makes no sense for any sport that isn’t football. It’s wildly financially unsustainable, and can only be propped up if the football TV pie keeps growing. It can’t possibly keep growing forever.
While nobody really talks about it, much of the money generated by football and March Madness is essentially what’s used to fund this ecosystem of other sports, including Olympic sports and women’s sports. If and when football becomes basically professional, what happens then?
If college football players are considered employees rather than students, does Title IX even apply?
If the SEC and Big Ten form a walled-off super-structure for college football under their own auspices, do they still take part in the national basketball tournament? Would people watch a college basketball tournament that only has the SEC and Big Ten schools?
Could separate conferences be formed for the non-football sports that make more geographic and financial sense, and continue to allow the Saint Marys and the Fordhams and all the way up to the Villanovas of the world to compete in basketball, soccer, etc. with the Michigans and UCLAs of the world? Or has that ship just completely sailed? What becomes of the Big Ten Hockey Conference and how does it interact with the rest of college hockey?
There are a lot more questions than answers at this point. The only thing that is clear is that the current model of college sports, for better or for worse, is very close to being dead. There is a lot about the current system that’s been in need of reform for a long time, but its demise is going to have its own downsides as well.
Nothing is slowing down this money train, other than maybe disinterest:
Last year we talked about the parallels between the failed European Super League soccer experiment, and the state of college football.
The Super League gambit failed in part because the fans of the big clubs themselves hated it - and I don’t mean like they grumbled and posted disapprovingly on Twitter - they organized boycotts, protest marches, etc., and made it a national scandal that was on the front page of the news.
A lot of people don’t like the way college sports is blowing up traditional rivalries, but I don’t think fans are so upset as to demonstrate or to stop watching. On the contrary, I think most fans want their team to angle themselves to get the biggest cut possible.
Another thing that stopped the Super League was government pressure. I don’t really foresee that being an issue in the US, either - if anything, the government(/courts) are pressing college sports in this direction.
The only thing that unravels this? If they finally form their super league and people don’t watch it. There’s already some evidence that audiences are getting bored with the CFP and the same 4-5 teams winning every year - and that many college football fans outside of these top programs are feeling increasingly alienated from it.
Maybe under a super league where the top 30-40 teams are taking an equal cut of a bigger pie, you see more parity within those teams, and it creates a compelling product that people tune in to in growing numbers. My guess is that’s what those driving these changes foresee as the future and they might be right. People love football, and the casual fan will probably appreciate knowing there are 8-10 high quality games to watch every weekend (and some unpredictability would help, too).
But what if they’re wrong? What if the viewership isn’t there? What if a lot of the people who watch college football now do so because their own local team is connected to the ecosystem in some way - and they lose interest if their team isn’t part of it? Then, the whole thing blows up yet again, because this train is only pushed forward by ever-growing TV contracts.
As we said... many more questions than answers. Stay tuned.