The Economic Driver Behind College Football Realignment
By Daniel Atkinson
As the College Football season is inching closer to opening kickoff of “Week 0” on August 27th, the major conferences have begun their conference media days this week. These media days consist of league commissioners, coaches, players, and analysts discussing each team's upcoming season and how each will fare against their competition. However, this has not been the case for the 2022-2023 College Football Conference Media Days. This year, the focus of the media has been the news surrounding college football realignment and expansion.
Although it seems like the college football world was just beginning to understand the effects of NIL after a year, college football realignment and expansion will also have a similar impact on the landscape of college athletics. Realignment or change of conference membership has occurred in the past, but not at this magnitude. This new wave began last summer when Texas and Oklahoma submitted their bid to join the SEC and were shortly accepted to join the formidable conference. These universities are aiming to start play in the SEC as soon as 2024. Little did the college football world know this would be the first domino of many to fall in what seems to be the creation of two “mega-conferences": the Big Ten and the SEC, each league boasting up to 20 member schools each.
As the two conferences are competing to boast the best college football teams in the nation, the Big Ten recently made the move of adding two of the most historically prominent universities from the Pac-12 in USC and UCLA. This is the latest major conference of realignment in the air that is taking media days by storm and have other high profile universities hoping to join one of the two in fear of being left out. Over the years, Notre Dame has been the outlier remaining independent from an individual Power 5 conference and still has a chance to compete for a national title each year. However, this new wave realignment could even drive Notre Dame to join a conference after two decades of independence.
The average college football fan would not think too much about their universities realignment to a competing Power 5 conference. Most only see the surface level with that being the team is switching conferences to play against tougher competition. While this is true, there is a deeper economic driver below the surface that is tied into competing in a deeper conference with more stature for a national championship–TV Deals. The former chancellor of LSU and now president of FGCU, Michael V. Martin offered this take back in 2011 during the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics: “I think we could ultimately end up with two enormous conferences, one called ESPN and one called FOX.”
It is now 2022 and Martin’s foreseeing take regarding the future of college football is coming to fruition as the wave of realignment is far from over. Currently, ESPN owns the exclusive rights to the College Football Playoff through 2025-26 and will soon own all of the SEC’s media rights through 2033-34. FOX Sports owns the Big Ten’s primary media rights and is the majority owner of the Big Ten Network. In order to compete for national championships, universities need the finances obtained through media rights to improve facilities and attract top recruits. This clearly depicts that television money is the real driver behind college football realignment.
Previously mentioned Notre Dame has remained independent for over two decades. The primary reason being that the university has had access to their own media rights partner with that being NBC. Through their contract, Notre Dame was earning more money each year through media rights than they would if they joined a conference. This will no longer be the case unless the two can reconstruct their contract because ESPN agreed to pay $300 million to air the fifteen premier SEC football matchups per season. This historically high media rights contract has led Notre Dame to question their independence and force the hand onto NBC by seeking $75 million annually. Time will only tell if NBC accepts this offer or if there will be a bidding war between the “Power 2” conferences to get the college football powerhouse.
In the upcoming months or possibly years, the Big Ten and the SEC will continue to grow in size and media rights revenue. Teams that are currently looking from the outside in will be begging for the opportunity to join one of the conferences in order to stay in conversation for the College Football Playoff. This includes universities such as Oregon, Utah, Washington, Clemson, Florida State, and Miami. The issue being for the prominent ACC schools is the grant of rights that has the universities under contract until 2036. However, as the college football world has seen in the past year, changes can be made when it deals with the economics of college athletics and college football particularly.