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Next Thursday, Virginia Tech will officially become a member of the ACC, and some time before that -- probably on Wednesday morning, I'll post the last article in my "Conference Wars" series, the chapter that documents Tech's acceptance in the ACC last summer. It is without a doubt the most interesting thing I've ever researched and written.
I don't mean that it has been the most interesting thing for you, the reader, though you may or may not agree. What I mean is, it has been the most interesting series for me personally to research and write.
Hindsight is 20-20, and it's often sharper than that, perhaps 20-15 or 20-10. In tracking conference shifts and history for the last 25 years, I have come to realize that the events that unfolded seem inevitable in retrospect, and it's actually curious to me that it took so long for things to reach this point.
What is this point? "This point" is the emergence of the 12-team, two-division all-sports conference, with a football championship game. The emergence of huge football-driven TV contracts. The emergence of a bowl structure that rewards handsomely the big conferences and their champions, in terms of money and prestige.
For almost three decades now, the major intercollegiate conferences, driven by TV money, have grinded slowly towards the 12-team, all-sports format. It all makes so much sense, and perhaps the biggest realization I've come to is the futility of basketball-driven conferences like the old Metro, the Big East, and even Conference USA trying to resist the tide of the sea.
Since the late 70s, certain visionaries have understood that football, or more accurately all-sports conferences, were driving the bus. Joe Paterno knew it back in the late 70s, when he wanted to form an Eastern all-sports conference, one that included Penn State, Pitt, WVU, Syracuse et al playing all sports, including football, in a conference format.
JoePa and others had the right idea, but they got derailed by one thing: the success of college basketball. College hoops took off in the late 70's when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson fought a classic NCAA championship battle that electrified the nation and brought new focus to college hoops.
College basketball, in particular the NCAA Tournament, started to take off in popularity, and it got another huge boost in 1983 with the improbable Cinderella run of N.C. State, then again in 1985, with Villanova's slaying of the big, bad giant, Georgetown.
As college basketball boomed, so did the money. The NCAA signed huge contract after huge contract with CBS to broadcast the tournament. In 1987, the NCAA started a new contract with CBS that saw the Big Eye network paying $55.3 million per year to the NCAA.
TV rights fees continued to rise, and in 2002/03, the first year of a new 11-year contract, CBS paid the NCAA $565 million per year -- ten times as much as 15 years prior -- for NCAA Tournament rights.
This boom all started in the early 80s, and it's easy to see why many schools and conferences didn't give much thought to football as the main driver in college athletics, and didn't see coming the changes that started in earnest in the early 90s. Universities and conferences are drawn to money like moths to a flame, and in the 80s, the money and excitement were in college hoops.
But in the early 90s, as Penn State moved to the Big Ten, FSU moved to the ACC, and Arkansas and USC went to the SEC, football started to become king. In the early 80s, control of college football broadcasting rights was taken away from the NCAA and given to the member schools, and the CFA (College Football Association) took over and negotiated rights for football broadcasting, starting in 1984.
In the early 90s, NCAA member schools gave power for negotiating their TV broadcast rights to their conferences, and the conferences started negotiating directly with the TV networks, without the CFA. The CFA had dealt exclusively with ABC and ESPN in the 80s, but in the early-mid 90s, CBS (the SEC and the Big East) and NBC (Notre Dame) got involved, and the money and exposure started to flow.
In addition to that, the bowls went from an almost completely unstructured approach to selecting teams to first the Bowl Alliance and then the Bowl Coalition System (BCS), shifting emphasis to placing conference champions into a bowl structure that could help determine a national champion without a playoff.
To all that you can add the championship game rule uncovered and exploited by the SEC, in which conferences consisting of 12 or more teams could split into two divisions and play a conference championship game. You can see how college football has taken over the power, money, and exposure from college basketball in the last 15 years.
College basketball and college football are both great sports, but when it comes to paying the bills for athletic departments, there's no comparison. The most financially successful college hoops programs, such as Louisville and Kentucky, take in $11-$13 million per year, but many more college football programs around the country make $20 million, $30 million or more per year.
Looking back on the last 25 years, it seems that basketball-driven conferences like the Metro and the early-90s Great Midwest were doomed from the start, and they were. But you can't blame those involved for not realizing that. They were drunk off the hoopla and money surrounding college basketball, and that's understandable.
Even "visionaries" like Joe Paterno and others who wanted to form all-sports conferences in the 70s and early 80s were doing it more out of scheduling considerations, not because they looked 25 years down the road and saw giant TV contracts, BCS money, and lucrative luxury box income. But throughout the decade of the 90s, the balance of power shifted from basketball to football, and those who refused to recognize it or fought against it got overpowered, and continue to be overpowered to this day.
After the next
"Conference Wars" article is released, part four in the series, I'll
do a post-mortem examining some of the major decisions and major players in
eastern intercollegiate athletics in the last 25 years. Some were big winners,
and some were big losers. We'll dig up the bones and do our autopsy with perfect
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|TechSideline.com Updates From the Past Week|
Side Expansion Pictures
Conference Wars, Part 3: 1994-2000
Life in the Shadow of the ACC
2005 Recruiting War Room #1: Offense
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