Every city and town in the United States possesses its own unique identity, with sports accounting for a large aspect of the culture within various geographical areas across the country. While professional sports league such as the National Football League and the National Basketball League dominate mainly major markets and large cities, college sports—particularly basketball and football—bring together fans both in large cities and in the most remote small towns in America. Since the nineteenth century, the origination of collegiate athletic conferences have been instrumental to college sports teams and their fans developing strong traditions, rivalries and competition unmatched by other sports leagues. However, with eyes set on multi-million dollar television deals and other lucrative incentives, institutions have been moving back and forth between the various conferences shaking the core of both the business and traditional aspects of college sports.
When the “Powers That Be” in college sports first created athletic conferences at the tail end of the 1800s, they developed the conferences with the intent of assembling institutions from various geographical areas to compete with each other. For instance, in 1894, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference became one of the first college athletic conferences and consisted of a conglomerate of twenty-seven colleges in the south that provided the teams and fans with highly competitive football contests in that region. However, in the late 1990s, conferences started to stray away from their geographical models and the next several years saw collegiate athletic programs play an all out, nationwide game of institutional musical chairs.
How Conference Realignment is Changing College Athletics
In the latest wave of conference realignments, the various conferences appear unfamiliar in the college sports arena leaving conferences to find themselves in the midst of mid-life crises. For instance, looking at the condition of the Big East conference today, one might find it hard to believe that less than ten years ago sports fans considered the Big East one of the best conferences in college basketball. The conference once included basketball powerhouses UConn, Georgetown, Syracuse, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville. At one point the Big East even flirted with strengthening their football programs by adding schools such as Miami, Rutgers and West Virginia that also ran strong basketball programs.
However, in recent years competing conferences have picked the Big East apart with Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame leaving the Big East to join the ACC, while Rutgers heads to the Big Ten. Unrecognizable, the Big East is becoming a shell of its former self with its remaining elite basketball programs—DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova—leaving to start the basketball-focused Catholic 7 conference. Similar to the Big East, the ACC also struggles to hold onto its identity as the football-heavy conference recently failed to put together the exciting and competitive schedule of past years.
One of the best things about college sports is the inter-conference rivalries that date back as far as the 1800s. In 2011, college football fans across the country witnessed the end of an era when the WVU-Pittsburgh “Backyard Brawl” rivalry ended, a game that the two football teams played every year since 1942. Known for being one of the most intense rivalries in college sports, mainly because of the close proximities of the universities to each other, the contest ended with WVU’s choice to move to the Big East in 2012.
With the recent conference realignments looming, other long-lasting college rivalries undoubtedly face the same fate as WVU and Pittsburg. For instance, one of the biggest college basketball rivalries in the history of college basketball, Georgetown-Syracuse, will end with Syracuse heading to the ACC and Georgetown heading to the Little Big East (a.k.a. the Catholic 7) in upcoming years. Maryland will halt its rivalry with Duke by joining the teams in the heartland-located Big Ten. The Missouri-Kansas Border War that started because of an actual war between the two states in the 1890s ended in 2012 when Missouri left the unstable Big 12 for the ever-expanding SEC. Unless Aggie Alum Ryan Guillen gets House Bill 778 pushed through, the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry will also remain shelved because of A&M joining the SEC. Lastly, the selfish ways of the Fighting Irish will end the Michigan-Notre Dame matchup because the independent Notre Dame football team must play at least five ACC games per its contract with the conference, and it chose not to schedule a matchup with Michigan on any of its other remaining dates.
While conferences such as the Big East and the Mountain West watch nervously as other conferences win the bidding for various powerhouse athletic programs, other conferences such as the Big 10 and SEC continue to add revenue to their growing leagues. Basically, the Big East continues to lose institutions to other conferences which diminishes its television market reach. Meanwhile, the Big Ten continues to acquire more viewers for the Big Ten Network by expanding from the Midwest to the East Coast with its addition of Maryland and Rutgers (the Washington D.C./Baltimore and New York/New Jersey television markets) to its portfolio.
Nobody knows how the realignments of today may affect college sports ten years from now. The commissioners and other shakers-and-movers of this phenomenon might actually pull off some genius plan that none of us lay people could have ever predicted. College basketball fans might hold the Catholic 7 in the same esteem as the Big East. Texas A&M and Texas might just stop caring about their long-standing rivalry. Maybe the new realignments will bring in additional billions of dollars into college sports. The only thing to be certain about at this point is that a new era of college sports has been ushered in and fans can only hope for the best.
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