TBT: The Problem With Mega-Conference Mania

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This article, originally written by columnist Jonathan Chait, appeared on our site on June 12, 2010 following the announcement that Nebraska would be joining the Big Ten conference. Today's re-emergence is part of a new series that has swept through social media - #ThrowBackThursday.
Mega conference mania is sweeping college football. The near-universal assumption is that it's a race to form 16-team conferences, and any conference that falls behind will be left in the dust. But this fad ignores the crucial role that culture plays in college football.
Expansion mania might make sense if conferences were following the example of a successful model. But where is the successful mega-conference? There's only one example of a 16-team mega-conference in football. In 1996, the Western Athletic Conference formed into a 16-team giant. The experiment was a catastrophe - the geographical size of the conference was too large, the ties that held the schools together were too weak. Two years later, the conference split in half.
Other examples can be found of stitched-together conferences. The ACC raided what were at the time the three strongest Big East powers - Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech. While the new ACC has not exactly failed, it has not lived up to the lofty expectations that greeted it. While some of the member schools have had success, the new brand of ACC football has not taken. The whole has been less than the sum of the parts.
And then there is the Big 12. Formed in 1994, sportswriters expected the new giant to bestride the college football landscape like a colossus. Here was a huge collection of talent and football tradition. It even fused Oklahoma and Texas, a classic rivalry, bringing together the plains states and the Southwest.
Today, of course, everybody recognizes that the Big 12 didn't work. The balance of power tipped too heavily to the south. The rivalries were stitched together, and didn't flow out of any natural sense of connection. And yet we hear about the failures of the Big 12 in one breath, and the bright future of the next mega-conferences in the next. Everybody now understands why a marriage of the Southwest and the great plains was doomed to failure. But the Southwest and the West Coast - why, that has to work!
The Big Ten should bear these lessons in mind as it eyes its next steps. You can put together a conference that looks powerful on paper. But it's a bit like trying to meet women through a computer dating service. A match that looks good on paper might fail in real life for reasons that can't be quantified.
If the lessons of the conference conglomeration fad teach us anything, it's that tradition and history matter. You can't just bring schools together on the basis of creating the most lucrative cable television package and expect them to cohere into a natural fit. Remember when the Big Ten decided to create a season-ending rivalry for Michigan State and Penn State? The idea was: here, you two schools - learn to hate each other like Michigan and Ohio State do! They were even given a trophy. Of course, even 17 years later, the PSU-MSU game is about as deeply rooted as Silverdome Astroturf.
Penn State was a fairly natural fit for the conference, though it threw the scheduling balance off kilter. Nebraska might fit in as well, though it might not. Notre Dame would certainly belong. But most other potential entrants have no cultural attachment at all. The Texas schools, East Coast programs like Maryland, Rutgers, or Syracuse - these teams have no history with the Big Ten, and they hail from very different regional cultures. You can try to create new rivalries - maybe this time Penn State and Texas can learn to hate each other! - but it's an attempt to impose artificially what can only grow organically.
In the short run, the television dollars will be staggering. But in the long run, the television value will follow the actual value. And the actual value of the conference grows out of its cultural cohesion, its history, its collective identity. Every college football fan can tell you what Big Ten Football is, or what SEC football is, or Pac Ten football. Those things have an identity on the field and in their surrounding communities. Trying to build a conference tailored to maximize the value of a television footprint is a short-sighted way to maximize the real value of a conference.
It certainly appeared it was going to be a free-for-all back in 2010. Here is a great article on some of the proposals, and it looked Notre Dame and Texas - two goliaths - would both be in play.
As it turned out, there was some expansion but not as much as expected. Nebraska jumped from the Big 12 to the Big 10 (and now Maryland and Rutgers are following from the ACC and AAC). Colorado also left the Big 12 for the Pac 10 (a move that hasn't helped the Buffaloes one bit) while the Pac 10 became the Pac 12 with the addition of Utah from the Mountain West.
In 2012, the SEC would add Missouri and Texas A&M - the latter seemingly a good move and the former making no sense at all - while the Big 12 responded by adding TCU and West Virginia that same year, increasing its members from the eight it had fallen to, to 10 (yes it still calls itself the Big 12).
There has been more expansion than that, and Boise State, TCU and San Diego State were set to join the Big East before TCU got a sweeter deal from the Big 12 and both BSU and SDSU realized playing football in the Big East would be a logistical nightmare with no discernible benefit (especially as the Big East crumbled and then separated out its football schools).
However, as we stand today, the SEC, Big 10, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12 remain intact and are seemingly stronger than they were four years ago. However, there are always rumors, and it is largely believed that the era of the 16-team mega-conference is coming. Perhaps slower than expected when Chait wrote this article four years ago - most would have anticipated a 16-team Big Ten by now - but there is no stopping an avalanche when it starts.
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