Keeping Score

College Sports: Conference Craziness

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Nebraska football head coach Bo Pelini

James D. Smith/Icon SMI/Corbis

Is the Big 12 about to go bust?

In a geographically challenged college sports world where the University of Denver plays in the Sun Belt Conference, it’s no surprise that schools from Texas and Oklahoma could wind up playing in the “Pacific 10.” But the movement of these football-crazed universities west would shake up college sports for years. According to published reports, if the University of Nebraska accepts an invitation to play in the ┬áBig 10 Conference (another misnamed entity as it already includes 11 schools), Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Colorado would join the Pac-10. Such a move would leave the Big 12, a former powerhouse conference which has produced national champions in both basketball and football, with just five schools: Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Missouri, and Iowa State. The Big 12 would have no choice but to dissolve.

Why are conferences stealing schools from each other? Because fans have long pined for that Oregon-Oklahoma matchup? Heck no; fans and students are secondary in this setup. It’s all about the money. In 2006 the Big 10, whose schools have a strong imprint in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, started its own television network, mimicking the lucrative models of the professional sports leagues and their teams. The conference has cashed in, as the network now reaches 40 million households nationwide, and other schools want to follow suit.

By expanding the geographic footprint for its own planned network, the new “Pac-16” can now command distribution, and advertising dollars, in large markets outside its already populous West Coast base. Pac-10 schools already cover Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle; now, an expanded conference could capture markets like Dallas, Houston, and Denver.

If such a scenario unfolds, more dominoes are sure to fall. The remaining Big 12 schools would scatter to other conferences (Kansas, with its iconic basketball program, would be a valuable property). The Big Ten is reportedly looking eastward, perhaps at Rutgers, giving the conference access to eyeballs in the New York-New Jersey metro area.

For fans, such super-conferences could dilute historic rivalries. As for the ‘student-athletes’ whose academic interests college sports execs are always claiming to protect . . . well, nothing keeps kids in the classroom better than an Austin to Seattle road trip.