(Warning: The author of this column is 57 years old and truly believes just about everything was better in “the old days,” including sports. For those young whippersnappers who disagree, beware of your eyes rolling too far back in your heads while reading this column, as they could get stuck there.)
Once upon a time, not so long ago, many of America’s best athletes (brace yourself) stayed with the same teams for their whole careers. That’s right. They got drafted by a team, pledged their loyalty to that organization and that community, planted roots there, and stayed put.
Dan Marino played only for the Dolphins. Magic Johnson played exclusively for the Lakers. Larry Bird played for the Celtics. Water Payton for the Bears. Isiah Thomas for the Pistons. Jim Brown for the Browns. The list goes on and on.
Bird wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Lakers jersey. Payton would never have donned anything but the Bears uniform. Fans could buy a jersey of their favorite athlete and wear it for more than a decade, until it was faded and tattered. Athletes and fans shared in team traditions and built memories together.
Sure, there were trades here and there, and older players sometimes finished their careers on another team, but there was a sense that athletes were more obsessed with team pride, city pride and winning than they were about their contracts. There was a deep feeling of a sports community.
All of that has drastically changed over the past few decades. The proof is in the amount of airtime devoted to trade rumors, free agency, salary caps and contract minutes on ESPN SportsCenter and sports talk radio. There is more talk about money than the actual sports in season.
That same money obsession and lack of loyalty has trickled down to the college level. Yes, yes, money has always been a big part of college athletics, but not like it is today and not at the expense of regional rivalries and century-old traditions – the very things that make college sports so special.
Among the Big Ten football traditions that date to the late 1800s are Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a trophy awarded to the winner of the Minnesota vs Wisconsin game since 1890. Michigan and Michigan State have battled for the Paul Bunyan Trophy for 113 years. Indiana and Purdue have played for the Old Oaken Bucket 123 times since 1891.
Corny? Maybe. But oh, so wonderful.
Which is why my heart plunged when news broke last week that UCLA and USC, which are both located in Los Angeles last I checked, are planning to join the Big Ten in 2024. The Big Ten, which already has 14 schools, will expand to 16 and become the first conference to reach from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
This is not a cause for celebration.
Hard to imagine a family getting into a minivan and driving from Madison, Wisconsin, to LA to tailgate outside a Badgers-Trojans game. Adding Rutgers and Nebraska was bad enough, but extending the conference to Southern California?
Matt Coatney, the play-by-play announcer for the Nebraska women’s basketball team, posted on Twitter that it’s a shorter trip from the Rutgers campus to Reykjavik, Iceland (2,636 miles) than it is to the Rose Bowl (2,759 miles).
The seismic shifts of the college football landscape are centered around money. TV deals, to be exact. It began with the Bowl Alliance, Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff. Coaches’ salaries started skyrocketing into the tens of millions (far more than university presidents make), and schools felt they had to splurge on football facilities to attract recruits, who now are in bidding wars over Name, Image and Likeness deals.
The college transfer portal is exploding and now some of the most iconic programs in college athletics are ditching their conferences to join super conferences in the never-ending chase of the biggest TV contract possible.
Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12 to join the SEC in 2025.
There is talk of Miami, Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina leaving the ACC for the SEC. The Big Ten is also loading up on teams.
The way it’s going, we will wind up with two mega-conferences of 20 to 24 teams and the rest of the conferences will scramble to remain relevant and profitable. Bracing for that possibility, the ACC and Pac 12 are discussing forming an alliance, according to CBS Sports.
The SEC, which has a $3 billion deal with ESPN starting in 2024, distributed $54.6 million to each of its member schools in 2021. The Big Ten schools got $46.1 million. The Pac-12 had the lowest payout among Power Five schools at $19.8 million.
So, from a financial standpoint, conference realignment makes perfect sense.
But what about tradition? What about geography? What about loyalty to fans, the people who buy the tickets and wear the merchandise and whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents cared so deeply about the regional rivalries?
Perhaps the college sports world should learn a lesson from European soccer.
A little over a year ago, on April 18, 2021, 12 of Europe’s top clubs announced they were launching a breakaway Super League, headed by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez.
AC Milan, Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, Internazionale, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur were all part of the plan.
Perez said: “We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world. Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.”
The fans of those 12 clubs, and others, banded together and revolted. They held protests and the Football Supporters Association put out this statement:
“The motivation behind this so-called Super League is not furthering sporting merit or nurturing the world’s game — it is motivated by nothing but cynical greed. This competition is being created behind our backs by billionaire club owners who have zero regard for the game’s traditions and continue to treat football as their personal fiefdom. The FSA, and no doubt supporters across the continent, will continue to fight against its creation.”
Within 48 hours, the club owners backpedaled and scrapped their Super League plans. It turned out to be a Super Big Mistake.
So is the creation of mega-conferences in college sports. The big programs will get richer. The rest won’t. And the rich tradition that distinguishes college athletics from the pros will be lost forever.
This story was originally published July 7, 2022 6:31 PM.