Drastic changes in many of the largest NCAA Division I conferences have altered the landscape of college sports. Schools long associated with particular conferences are realigning themselves. Not surprisingly, money is driving the trend—primarily from the development of regional sports networks (RSNs), which provide growing revenue to conferences and schools.
Revenue generated from television isn't the only factor—some schools are seeking to improve their academic image by associating with a particular conference—but it is the primary factor. The launch of the Big Ten Network in 2006—the first internationally distributed network dedicated to covering a single college conference—marked a dramatic turn in college sports. Today, the Big Ten Network reaches approximately 40 million households across the Midwest and Canada. The Big Ten receives an estimated 88 cents per month for every subscriber to the network, and in 2008-09, the network alone was responsible for distributing $6.4 million to each of the schools in the Big Ten. The SEC, considered by many to be the strongest conference athletically, also boasts extremely lucrative TV deals. While it does not yet have a RSN, the SEC's two 15-year agreements with ESPN and CBS are worth more than $3 billion. What does that mean to the SEC's member schools? Earlier this year the conference divided a staggering $209 million among its 12 member schools.
When the Big Ten announced earlier this year that it was seeking to expand, the effects were felt throughout the collegiate landscape. Nebraska's decision to align with the Big Ten caused a scramble that nearly spelled the end of the Big 12 Conference. Its ultimate survival was due in large part to a restructuring of the conference's television agreement that greatly increases the revenues guaranteed to each member school, while also allowing Texas to pursue the establishment of its own RSN.
Expansion also gives conferences a footprint in markets where they may not otherwise have a presence. When the SEC flirted with Texas A&M earlier this year, bringing an untapped market into the conference was a primary motivator. Adding the fifth largest and tenth largest television markets in the U.S. (Dallas and Houston, respectively) would have allowed the SEC to generate more money by guaranteeing more viewers. Currently, the Big Ten is eyeing Rutgers University as a possible addition to give it a presence in the New York Metropolitan area. Expansion may also allow a conference to host a conference championship game, which also guarantees increased revenues. Such developments may ultimately lead to the development of a college football playoff at the Division I level, which also has the potential to increase revenues dramatically, especially for schools in the so-called "super conferences" that would likely have the most participants in such a playoff.
Conference realignment, while benefitting the schools that move and the conferences that seek to expand, also has adverse effects, particularly on the conferences that are left behind. The Big 12 initially sought exit penalties from Nebraska and Colorado, which is also leaving the conference, of $20 million from each school and recently settled with Colorado for $6.8 million and Nebraska for $9.2 million, respectively, to allow the schools to leave the Big 12 one year earlier than initially expected. The Western Athletic Conference recently sued Fresno State and Nevada to keep the schools, which have decided to join the Mountain West Conference, in the WAC through the 2011-12 season. The WAC felt that by attempting to hold these schools to their conference obligations, they could minimize disruption to the WAC and lessen the damage to its arrangements with sponsors and television partners.
The impact on sponsors and conferences of schools changing conferences can also be significant. While national brands may be able to adjust more easily to the new college landscape, regional sponsors, who may enter into certain arrangements based upon rivalries or matches that will no longer exist (e.g., Nebraska vs. Oklahoma), may be severely impacted. Realignment can also have the effect of shifting more power to the conferences, particularly stronger conferences like the SEC and Big Ten, which may seek better terms from sponsors and television networks. An expansion of the SEC, for example, would allow the conference to renegotiate its TV deal, which would likely provide even greater revenue to the conference. Sponsors and other entities involved in collegiate sports should continue to monitor these developments, since the game of conference musical chairs does appear to be over quite yet.