Column: Bigger conferences a bad move

(This column appeared in The Courier-Journal on June 9, 2010).

Before somebody fires the first shot in the coming conference expansion bloodbath, I want to put something on the record.

It’s a bad idea.

Not because realignment itself is bad, but because of how the process is being handled and because of what entities are calling the shots. Large state universities are allowing themselves to be led around by the nose by conferences selling the shaky dream of athletic profits — not unlike the bad debts Goldman Sachs was selling to investors.

Ask yourself, with all of the money coming into big-time college sports — the billions from the NCAA basketball tournament, the Bowl Championship Series windfalls — how only 24 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision were operating in the black without subsidies from their universities as of last spring (according to the NCAA).

The facilities are shiny and the coaches’ salaries are gaudy, but this thing is largely a financial facade.

Something doesn’t add up. Skyrocketing revenue numbers mean nothing if spending increases even faster, and that’s exactly what has happened.

And now the mega-conferences want to step on the gas.

The Big Ten got a taste of big money when it became a media entity — in addition to being a collection of college sports programs. It partnered with Fox to start its own cable network. That alone should never have been allowed to happen. That alone commercialized the whole enterprise.

But there was no one to stop it, because there’s no higher authority that these conferences must answer to.

As a result, all of these actions are motivated by profit. And although that might be the American way, when these conferences and athletic departments all file their taxes every year, they say they’re nonprofit corporations.

Fine. This is where we are. The Big Ten is as much cable network as college conference. And instead of making decisions based on what is best for schools and students, we’re talking in terms of cable households. Football games aren’t just games anymore, they’re inventory.

And university presidents, beset with budget cuts on the academic side, appear intoxicated with the runaway revenue projections. That’s how Ohio State President Gordon Gee winds up chatting with Texas President William Powers about Big Ten interest behind the back of the Big 12.It all has a Wall Street feel to it that doesn’t feel at all right. Because Wall Street stories don’t always have happy endings.

I can understand a move here or there. I can understand the Big Ten and Pac-10 wanting to get themselves to 12 teams. Anything beyond that, however, and you’re compiling conferences that are not only too big, but also too big to fail.

“I’ve always respected (Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delaney greatly,” University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said Tuesday. “And I don’t see him just dynamiting the whole country. I really don’t. If he has to tweak his league one or two, I get that. But I just don’t see him going and making wholesale changes.”

I hope Jurich is right. Because if he’s not, we could be looking at the elimination of two conferences, the Big East and Big 12, leaving two major areas of the country disenfranchised at the highest level of college athletics.

And big-time college sports needs to maintain some kind of geographic integrity. It might be the only kind of integrity it has left.

Reach Eric Crawford at (502) 582-4372 or ecrawford@courier-journal.com. Comment on this column, and read his blog and previous columns, at www.courier-journal.com/crawford.

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