NCAA Expansion of Divisions

I love sports and follow professional and collegiate football pretty religiously.  I went to the University of Southern California (USC) for undergrad, where I got to enjoy our football team before everything turned dark for the Trojans.  I now attend the University of Illinois for law school and, let’s face it; the football team leaves something to be desired.  I’m a Chicago Bears fan and a San Diego Chargers fan and November 28, 2010 was basically my favorite day of football ever; the Bears beat the “unstoppable” Eagles 31 – 26 and the Chargers manhandled the Colts 36 – 14.  Even though USC is now on a two year bowl ban and I’m not living in Los Angeles, I still have a special place in my heart for USC and the Pac-10, as I’m sure most people do about their alma mater.  Therefore, I’ve been keeping an eye on the future expansion of the Pac-10 and the other conferences. 


It is most likely no surprise that the big reason behind division expansions is money, money, money.  As Scott Groves points out, the Pac-10 is economically behind other divisions (namely the SEC and the Big-12), because they don’t have a television contract and they don’t have a conference title game.  Conference championship games bring in millions of dollars each year and if the Pac-10 can get to the point where they too have one, it will (most likely) bring in lots of extra revenue that can then be shared across the athletic departments of the schools.  At the beginning of the year, there was a lot of hoopla about whether the Pac-10 was going to become the Pac-12, Pac-14 or the Pac-16.  Currently, the University of Utah and the University of Colorado have become parts of the Pac-10.  Groves notes that Denver, Colorado is the 12th largest television audience in the nation (although, with the rate things are going for the Broncos, as late, I assume this is shrinking).  [1] 


So now my beloved USC is part of the Pac-12 and its commissioner, Larry Scott, has announced that they will use a North/South alignment, which means the “North” schools will only travel down to Los Angeles once every two years and vice versa.  For a USC fan, I’m pretty excited about this, as Oregon seems to be our kryptonite.  One of the more intriguing factors is the implementation of a conference championship game.  The details are currently still being worked out, but there’s a lot of “what ifs” that go into the equation.  Directors urge for a “neutral site,” but with the conference now including Utah and Colorado, the Pac-12 has a huge geographic base to cover (Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, California and Arizona).  Further, it is college football and in order to make the most money, the fans have to be happy.  If Colorado is in the championship game, their fans aren’t going to be happy if the game winds up in New Mexico, due to “neutrality”.  If less fans travel to the game, it means less money for the business and less money getting returned back to the schools.  If modeled after the NFL, the number 1 seed could receive home field advantage, which seems to be fair (though not neutral) and will still maintain the collegiate atmosphere of being played in a college stadium.  [2]


In addition to the money advantage of realignment, there is also an added bonus of prestige and the assumption that if you are part of the BCS affiliated divisions, you’re simply better than other teams in non-affiliated divisions. The champions of these divisions get automatic bowl bids (the BCS has the national championship game and four bowl games).  Teams from the other non-affiliated divisions can only get into a bowl game under very narrow circumstances, because usually the BCS would rather invite a second ranked team from an affiliated division than the champion of one of the “lesser” divisions.  It’s this sort of thought process that has motivated teams like Boise State into proving that they deserve to be in bowl games.  All Boise State (part of the non-BCS affiliate Western Athletic Conference) had to do to make the national championship game was beat Nevada; however, with that one loss to Nevada, they were dropped in the polls to such a degree that not only did they lose their chance at playing for the national championship, but they also missed their chance to play in any of the other bowl games.  More importantly, they lost a lot of money.  Last year, the WAC brought in $7.5 million at the end of the season, with about $3 million going to Boise State and the rest being distributed among the rest of the schools.  This year, had Boise State been undefeated, the WAC would have likely brought in $10 million (due to more lucrative television deals), with close to $3.5 million going to Boise State.  Ironically, since Nevada is in the same conference, when they beat Boise State, they also lost money for their school (about $1 million), since the payout depended on Boise State going undefeated.  [3] As Cork Gaines humorously puts it, “[n]ext time, Nevada should just bet $1 million on themselves to win the game. That way if they win they win. And if they lose, they still win.”


The Pac-10 used to be dubbed (at least around Southern Cal) “USC and the nine little dwarfs.”  Now the Pac-10 is a lot more evenly matched and, even though I miss the days of USC dominance, the Pac-10 is becoming a stronger conference, with teams like Oregon and Stanford really stepping up to the plate.  I’m excited to see what Utah and Colorado have to bring to the table.  For Utah and Colorado, it’s a chance to play in a conference that will bring them recognition (either positive or negative), but more importantly, it will give them the chance to play among the so-called elite teams.  Had Boise State been in a different conference, their one loss likely wouldn’t have hurt them so much in the polls and perhaps they still would have had a chance to go on to a bowl game.  So whether the reasons for expansion are prestige, money or some other reason, everyone should be excited at seeing how the expansion of divisions affects the individual schools as well as the NCAA as a whole.