Guy Bailey has been on the phone a lot lately, talking athletics.
Talking stability. Talking money. Talking heartland football.
These are uneasy days for the president of Texas Tech and his eight counterparts across the shrinking Big 12 Conference.
The 16-year-old league appeared to have averted another implosion last week when its remaining nine schools’ athletic directors met in Dallas to pick up the pieces after Texas A&M announced it would become the third member to leave the league in the last 16 months.
Various involved parties sent mixed signals about the league’s stability, which is still threatened as the University of Missouri reportedly considers following A&M to the Southeastern Conference.
One theme has emerged since the universities of Colorado and Nebraska defected last year: The Big 12, for now, is low in the college athletic food chain. It is prey to Pacific 12, Big 10 and SEC predators.
What’s driving all this?
Bailey said he can’t say for sure, but he has a theory — theories, really — about a confluence of factors gathering over the past few years.
Implications about the league, particularly, and the sport, generally, are at play in all this, Bailey said, as evidenced by similar conference swaps to the north, where last month two Big East schools announced they’ll move to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Big 12’s internal loyalty issues play a big role. There’s also timing, as many of the nation’s largest conferences have returned to television contracts. Another factor is the concept of potential large “superconferences” eventually dominating the sport.
Geography is a play, too. Located in the nation’s center, the Big 12 is a prime target for its more aggressive siblings.
“If you want to poach from somebody, you have to go to the middle,” Bailey said, referring to conferences like the Pac-12 and ACC. “It’s location.”
But college football historian John Sayle Watterson says money looms largest over the recurring realignment chaos.
“As far as television money, I think television is definitely fueling the current thing that nobody wants to get behind the eight ball. Nobody wants to get left out and get left holding the bag,” said the retired professor from Virginia and author of “College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy.”
Not that Watterson is surprised. Few insiders are.
Similar realignment frenzies have recurred nearly a half-dozen times over the past three decades, beginning with a 1982 lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s collective bargaining power, which dates back more than a half-century.
A September 1939 matchup between Waynesburg and Fordham universities was the first televised football game, according to Watterson’s book.
College officials largely ignored the technology throughout the following decade until its post-war surge in popularity raised the ire of many administrators as they saw attendance numbers decline, at least in some regions, according to a 1950 study commissioned by the NCAA.
In January 1951, hundreds of delegates from NCAA member schools met at the organization’s annual convention to grapple with the study’s results and to vote in overwhelming favor of a total ban on college football broadcasts.
But the blackout didn’t last long.
By the 1960s, as the National Football League’s broadcast-friendly regulations thrust it ahead of its college counterpart in popularity, NCAA regulators embraced the lucrative medium and began negotiating for its members, sharing revenues widely.
But in 1982, the University of Oklahoma and University of Georgia filed a joint antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA’s grip on television contract negotiations. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 7-2 decision in favor of the two schools.
Administrators across the nation reacted by forming the College Football Association as an ersatz collective bargaining body. The CFA afforded stability until Notre Dame branched out in the early 1990s and signed a contract with NBC.
The CFA collapsed when other schools took Notre Dame’s cue and joined conferences prized most by television executives, including some from various upstart cable networks, engaged in a turf war over the new conferences’ television markets.
Loyalties shifted. Rivalries were forgotten. Conferences swelled and shrank.
Soon Penn State joined the Big 10. Florida State joined the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Big East Conference annexed the independent University of Miami. SEC officials snatched Arkansas away from Tech’s old league, the Southwest Conference.
By the time the dust settled in the mid-’90s, networks and newly expanded conferences sat center.
Still reeling from a string of 1980s scandals landing it square in NCAA cross hairs, the 82-year-old SWC had disappeared.
Then there were 12
The crippling blow for the SWC was staged in the Kansas City headquarters of the Big Eight Conference. League officials there had zeroed in on the SWC’s vulnerability and hatched a plan to poach the Lone Star State’s two highest-profile schools, Texas and Texas A&M.
Big Eight expansion triggered alarms down in Austin, where strings were pulled. Then-Gov. Ann Richards jockeyed for inclusion of her alma mater, Baylor. Influential state Sen. John Montford, a Tech alumnus, did the same for his.
Within weeks of the Bears and Red Raiders entering the picture, Big Eight invitations were sent to Austin, College Station, Waco and Lubbock.
The SWC was dead, and the Big 12 was born.
That’s the end result, but some of the grittier interim details of that merger bear a striking resemblance to today. Arkansas’ move from the SWC to the SEC accompanied a brief courtship between A&M and the SEC. Colorado flirted with the Pac-10. So did the Longhorns.
This sort of conference cannibalism would repeat several times over the coming years, most recently last summer and again this fall.
“(The United States) is the only country in the world that does this,” said Charles Clotfelter, a sports economist at Duke University. “Right in front of our eyes is something we all take for granted. This has little to do with education. It has to do with money.”
Network executives nudging their way into already crowded luxury boxes every Saturday joined deep-pocketed boosters and obsessed fans, as the newest voice into the cacophony of powerful outside influences.
Also arriving were league commissioners, the nouveau power brokers at the helm of the sprawling conferences.
For athletic directors, school presidents and chancellors, the rewards were immense, and growing.
College athletics got its first taste of the billion- dollar figure in 2006 when the Big 10 signed a 10-year agreement with ESPN.
A few years later and about 700 miles south, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive penned a 15-year deal with ESPN for about $2.25 billion, and about $17 million annually for each member school. That was in addition to the conference’s other 15-year, $825 million contract with CBS Sports.
The Big 12 entered the billionaire’s circle in April when it announced a $1.17 billion, 13-year agreement with Fox for an estimated $90 million to be split among its 10 schools, provided the league replaces SEC-bound A&M.
This came a few years before the conference, if it remains together, returns to the negotiating table with ESPN once the current, eight-year $480 million contract expires in 2016.
Barely a month later, in May, the newly expanded Pac-12 signed a record-breaking $3 billion contract with Fox and ESPN. Beginning next fall, the contract is expected to earn the conference $225 million annually, or roughly $21 million per school.
Craig Depken, an economist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, who has researched many aspects of professional and college sports, points to these numbers as a sign of the sport’s push to “capture the NFL’s money-making genie into the college-football bottle.”
And then there were nine
Bailey links the timing of these television contracts over the past two or three years with a corresponding spate of conference upheavals, beginning with last summer’s defections by Nebraska and Colorado to the Big 10 and Pac-12, respectively.
Several remaining schools, including Tech, also entertained an invitation to the Pac-12 when Commissioner Larry Scott landed in Lubbock on a private jet in mid-June last year and delivered what Tech Chancellor Kent Hance later called a “very impressive” pitch.
The Big 12 limped away with 10 teams, but this summer, with the ink barely dry on its billion-dollar contract with Fox, the Big 12 found itself in another, similar fight for survival after Texas A&M announced its intentions to join the SEC next year.
Now the conference’s remaining schools appear to be on the brink of reaching an agreement to tie their television revenues to the league for the next six years, making it harder to leave.
Fallout of the league’s second near-collapse in 15 months cost Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe his job earlier this month. With murmurs still swirling of another defection, this time by the University of Missouri to the SEC, uncertainty looms.
Regardless, Bailey is confident the league will remain intact, even if Missouri departs.
“I think the Big 12 is going to survive fine,” he said, adding, “But remember, it’s not a done deal until it’s a done deal.”
Other factors come into play.
The Big 12’s membership generally perceives an inequity rooted in the league’s revenue-sharing framework. Bailey also cited “underlying issues that festered for a while and created dissatisfaction.”
Finally, there is the underlying current toward a system of four or five superconferences, Bailey said.
“I think some very savvy folks in some office in New York decided that you need 16 teams so you can have a playoff,” Clotfelter said. “It seems to have been dictated from on high …. The whole thing is being driven by market-savvy folks, and that means people in these athletic departments don’t want to be left out when the money is passed out.”
Coming full circle
Unlike its professional counterpart and just about all other college sports, Division 1-A college football lacks a formal playoff system, relying instead on postseason bowl games and a hybrid of computer programs and polls to determine ranks.
Critics have assailed the system since its inception in the late 1990s and rallied for a more standardized — and potentially lucrative — playoff approach made easy through a small handful of superconferences
Superconferences are not a new concept. Watterson said they’ve existed in similar forms before. For instance, the Southern Conference was what he called a “fairly decentralized” league that swelled to 23 teams during the 1920s before splitting into the SEC and ACC some 30 years later.
So, in a sense, college football’s gravitation back to that structure indicates the sport is “coming full circle,” Watterson said.
“The speed at which it’s happening kind of surprised me,” he said. “It’s like all the dominoes are falling at once.
Russell Wright, executive director of Collegiate Consulting sees the same trend. Wright has helped dozens of American colleges frame athletic strategies.
His fear: A concentration of 70 select football programs in a handful of leagues threatens to consolidate power, money and recruiting muscle. The feared result is today’s dynasties — Alabama, Texas and Florida, for example — will remain dynasties while smaller programs fight from the margins to remain relevant or fade entirely from the game.
“It’s going to lead to further separations from the haves and the have-nots,” Wright said. “You’re going to see such a separation from those top 60 or 70 programs and everybody else. That’s the way it’s going.”
In such a scenario, Tech is likely to sit directly in the center. Not quite a dynasty and more than an upstart program, the Red Raiders may or may not claw their way up through the rankings of the nation’s elite 70-team power pocket.
Bailey said it’s a familiar concern for him and Tech Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt. Keeping Tech competitive in the sport’s future landscape demands the Red Raiders play an “exciting” game, he said.
“The other thing we have to do is continue to improve academically,” he said. “Academics do play a part in this. They can help you get into a conference or keep you out of a conference.”
Bailey isn’t convinced the superconference model will work. Such geographically spread leagues burden student athletes, who may have to play a game in Oregon on Tuesday night before boarding a plane and returning the 1,500 miles to Lubbock for classes the next day.
He’s also unconvinced television networks are keen about the potential stranglehold superconferences might have on the sport.
An ESPN spokesman declined to comment specifically on the network’s stance on superconferences. But the network released a statement several weeks ago about the Big 12’s instability.
“The driving force on realignment lies with the conferences and universities,” the statement’s first sentence reads before addressing the network’s contract to carry Texas’ Longhorn Network, which some regard as the league’s single most destabilizing force.
During a recent hourlong interview, Watterson repeatedly wondered how much more college football it might take to satiate the American public’s appetite.
He said one needs to look no further than the buffet of college football games available to weekend channel-surfers, a ballooning array of options that show the extent of college football’s reach.
Clotfelter offers the corresponding numbers. In researching his most recent book, “Big Time Sports in College Universities,” published this spring, he went back through the years and counted the number of television games airing on the Chicago market during the first weekend in October.
In 1983, a year before the Supreme Court’s ruling, there were two. In 1990, there were 10. In 2009, there were 29.
For Watterson, this saturation of college games begs the question: How many televised games are enough?
“It’s going to work for a while, and I may be wrong about this, but I do wonder how long you can keep it at the current or even at a level they’re actually aiming at,” he said.
Bailey doesn’t doubt there may be a point where ubiquitous football broadcasts exceed demand, but, if the newly formed Longhorn Network is any indication, “whatever the limits are, we haven’t gotten there yet. There is still quite a ways to go.”
Or, in Clotfelter’s words: “I wouldn’t hold my breath for the moment the American public gets tired of college football.”
The Big 12 appears to have survived this newest siege, but it remains to be seen how long it or any conference will survive.
The experts seem to agree: Nobody knows for sure the sport’s future.
Despite what some of the conspiracy theorists might say, the nation’s college football system has no single force calling the shots.
“I don’t think there’s anybody with a plan,” said Depken. “If there is, then I’ve never seen it.”
Depken, Watterson and Wright said the factors driving the sport are as varied as they are numerous. Whether commissioners, NCAA authorities, administrators, boosters, networks or fans, many voices and many opinions weigh in.
They agree the conferences are likely to find and settle on their magic number of members, which could stabilize the sport’s makeup. More equal revenue sharing could solidify existing conferences, particularly the Big 12.
Bailey said he and his counterparts throughout the league are working toward that end.
Most of the latest bundle of major conference television deals expire in the early- to mid-2020s.
Bailey said that could spark the next round of conference swaps. Or, he added, it could happen sooner. Or maybe not at all.
Whatever awaits, he said, college presidents must police the sport and look out for the students’ and institutions’ best interests.
“It’s incumbent on us as college presidents,” he said, “to work together to create governance structures to keep things within reasonable boundaries.”