Sports

The New College Football “Alliance” Is Not One

Three major conferences say they’re working together now. They swear.

Joseph Charleston #18 of the Clemson Tigers tackles Jaxon Smith-Njigba #11 of the Ohio State Buckeyes after a reception, Smith-Njigba on the ground with the ball, and Charleston falling on top of him with his hand on his helmet
A Clemson Tiger and an Ohio State Buckeye already working together during the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Superdome on Jan. 01, in New Orleans. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At the end of July, Texas and Oklahoma shattered an uneasy peace in college sports when they unveiled plans to bolt the Big 12, a conference they founded together, for the SEC. It was a pure money move that will effectively kill their old league. There’s no need to weep for the rest of the Big 12, a league that itself was the product of two leagues chasing maximal television dollars in the 1990s, but there’s no doubt that the eight remaining teams in that conference are in a world of hurt. Whatever they salvage without their conference’s two biggest brands and best football programs, it will be something less than they had with the Longhorns and Sooners. The SEC, on the other hand, has only further entrenched itself as the nation’s best college football league.

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The other three conferences that comprise the Power Five—the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12—do not seem especially affected. The Big Ten is still rich, with schools making well north of $50 million per year from their own TV deals with ESPN and Fox. The ACC’s schools have granted their TV rights to the conference until 2036, a long enough period that the league of the Bojangles Belt should not have to worry about poaching for a while. The Pac-12’s problems—chiefly bad football and a conference TV offering with poor distribution—are the same with Texas and Oklahoma in the SEC as they were with them in the Big 12. These three conferences now face more urgency to max out their next TV deals to keep up with the Joneses in the Southeast, who have a heavy bag on the way from Disney, but again: They were already going to chase top dollar no matter what. Their objectives have not changed.

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But this is college sports, and the people in charge have to do something to make it look like they are always doing something. And the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 have new commissioners who have been in their posts for somewhere between a few weeks and a little more than a year, and those men face an even greater obligation to Do Something to counter SEC hegemony. So we are getting “a historic alliance” (their words) between the three remaining powers.

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The thing is: The alliance does not technically exist, because the leagues did not sign any kind of contract. (Big Ten commish Kevin Warren says that if you need to go back and check contract language, well, you’ve gotten into business with the wrong people.) It is also not “a reaction to Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC,” Warren says, “but to be totally candid, you have to evaluate what’s going on in the landscape of college athletics” (such as, specifically, Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC). What the alliance will do is not clear. The leagues say they’ll have a scheduling arrangement in football and basketball but acknowledge that that won’t start at any particular time because of existing game contracts. (The Big Ten and ACC also already have a hoops scheduling deal, but I guess the Pac-12 can now hang out with them too.) The three conferences will likely work together to stall College Football Playoff expansion for a few years. They’ll put out press releases about their commitment to “student-athlete mental and physical health, safety, wellness and support,” which is the first bullet point in their press release about this new arrangement.

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However, the point of the alliance is not to do anything. It is to provide the appearance of doing something, because the SEC has most definitely Done Something, and that demands a counter in the collective wisdom of college athletic administration. Even if the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 wind up doing a useful thing or two together, there is no reason to expect an alliance between the three to hold up for any meaningful period of time, even though the lack of any paperwork means it could theoretically live for eternity.

The biggest reason to be skeptical about the durability of this partnership—again, aside from the fact that these large organizations did not execute a contract and instead say their relationship will be built on trust—is that the three conferences have little in common aside from playing college sports and wanting to make lots of money. Successful partnerships have been built on less, of course, and Warren, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, and ACC commissioner Jim Phillips are considered savvy business operators who understand the media landscape. But they represent 41 schools that need drastically different things. To answer the SEC, the conferences have built an edifice that pretends Oregon State and Clemson, for example, have like-minded goals. They absolutely do not, and that’s what makes the alliance so shaky.

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Consider the nebulous scheduling arrangement that might arrive one day. It’s a useful concept, as nonconference games against teams from other power leagues are likely to boost everyone’s television value a little bit. Fans also like watching bigger and better opponents. But the arrangement doesn’t land the same way for every team in the three leagues. For instance, the Big Ten’s Maryland might love it; the Terps don’t have a serious football rival, and their future nonconference schedules are light on interesting matchups. An alliance might provide ready-made games that could boost its revenue, profile, and competitiveness. (Though even here, it’s worth noting that the few interesting games the Terps already have on their future schedules are already against teams in another conference in the partnership: the ACC’s Virginia and Virginia Tech.) Meanwhile in the ACC, Georgia Tech already has an annual beating scheduled at the hands of its rival, the SEC’s Georgia. The Yellow Jackets also have frequent meetings with Notre Dame, which does not technically belong to any conference in the only sport that drives these decisions, but plays a partial ACC schedule. Will Georgia Tech be jazzed about booking another game against a Power Five (or Power Four, by then) opponent, when they could just play a mid-major or FCS filler—a much more winnable game, and a less physically bruising one—with that schedule slot? Maybe the alliance won’t force another tough matchup on them, but in that case, what’s it really achieving?

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There’s one concrete area where the three leagues are poised to form a united front: against the immediate expansion of the Playoff from four to 12 teams. There’s a rational business reason for that. Holding off for a few years, at least until the current TV deal with ESPN expires after the 2025 season, might open the door for more media bidders to join the fray. That could jack up the price and mean more cash for all of the schools involved. But that was also true back in June, when an official Playoff working group had broad enough support for expansion for its members to make their recommendation public. (In college sports, administrators don’t tend to put their names on public plans unless they think they have the votes to deliver.) What changed? Well, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was closely involved in that proposal, at a time when he apparently wasn’t sharing his own realignment plans with his colleagues. The alliance conferences do not oppose Playoff expansion but clearly want to take it slow, perhaps because they’re afraid Sankey was trying to pull one over on them. Yet Playoff expansion is undeniably in the interests of at least two of the three leagues: the Pac-12 (which usually doesn’t get a team into the four-team event) and the Big Ten (which loves money). At any rate, the three leagues will not be a “voting bloc,” the Pac-12 says. They’ll just, uh, vote together in a totally non-collusive way, which offers another hint at why they didn’t sign any paperwork:

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The Playoff issue provides the most useful platform for the three conferences to work together. But they didn’t have to create a brandspeak “alliance” in order to do that, while pretending they’re just naturally arriving at the same conclusions about the current merits of a 12-team tournament. As Matt Brown writes at Extra Points, the unveiling of the alliance in this context feels like “the meeting that could have been an email.”

Kliavkoff, the Pac-12 commissioner, acknowledged the absurdity of the whole thing, sort of, when he told reporters, “Today is a press release, but it’s also a commitment.” The unanswered question is what it’s a commitment to. No one has answered in language that doesn’t sound like it’s straight out of the same press release.

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