So, after some months of speculation, some of it as it turns out completely wrong, college athletics as we know it has been saved, or at least that what many seem to believe here in Big 12 minus two country. We’ve only lost two universities those of us who grew up fans of the old Big 8 have considered sister schools for generations, no biggie right? We are told that the new ten team league is going to be even better what with balanced scheduling and we are even given to understand that somehow we have increased revenue potential. So, what exactly happened? In short, we kept hearing that the Big 10 and Pac-10 wanted league title games in football and needed two more schools each to get there. Candidates started to emerge, most it seems from the Big 12, the newest major league and also the one with schools who were openly unhappy about league governance. What followed we all know very will, but what’s interesting are the whys most commonly given by the punditry. Here are a few:
1. It is primarily about TV sets. 2. Football is the primary driver, because that is where the money is to be made. 3. Four 16 team “mega-conferences make sense because this would maximize revenue potential. 4. Basketball really doesn’t matter which is why a school like Kansas could be ostracized from the “big time” in spite of its rich history. 5. TV networks such as that run by the Big 10 where the wave of the future, except for those schools who could cut their own TV deal such as Texas and Notre Dame.
There was surprisingly little critical thought applied to any of these consensus viewpoints. However, as a pretty avid college sports fan, I realized that I couldn't name one person who was on Florida's football team last year with the exception of Tebow. I never on a Saturday afternoon say to my wife that my day will be ruined if I don't catch an Alabama, Florida, USC, Michigan or tOSU football game. I'll watch Big 12 football and I'll watch interesting games on TV, but my life certainly doesn't revolve around watching SEC, Pac-10 or Big 10 football. I’m fairly well convinced that people in Birmingham, or Atlanta might not be inclined to watch the Missouri vs. Kansas game either unless they are both in the top 5 as miraculously happened in 2007. Additionally, I wonder if the number of TVs in LA is the way to measure market value when you consider all the entertainment options athletic and otherwise available to the typical Angelean. I read a great deal of speculation about Rutgers to the Big 10 because they would open up the New Jersey and New York media market, but if the Yankees are playing a mid-October play-off game on a Saturday afternoon how many sets are going to be tuned to say Rutgers vs. Northwestern? I’m also wondering how may Michiganders or Ohioans would design the Saturday around the Rutgers vs. Northwestern game? So, I’m not convinced that it is as simple as multiplying the number of TV sets by the number of households. The Big 10 appears to agree with me in part because the first team they took in their now “paused” expansion was a school from the state with the smallest population. This is perhaps because they thought college sports fans would tune into Nebraska vs. Ohio State as well they may if it were to see NU teams of the quality they fielded in the late 1990’s go against recent OSU teams. On the other hand what if those NU’s teams are like their 2007 squad?
Football as we’ve been told is the driver in this process to remake our conference alignment. It is where the money is conference title games are a massive financial boon. This is of course dismaying to a Kansas fan who is much more likely to tune his or her set to a KU hoops game than anything else and will happily drive an 80 mile round trip to watch his Jayhawks play an early season exhibition against say Emporia State. So, I suppose I care about hoops more than the average SEC fan cares about basketball. I agree with that whole heartedly. But judging from the amount of money that gets paid for the NCAA hoops tourney and for major intersectional or rivalry games in season I think it is safe to say that a few other people are watching college basketball too. The NCAA tourney is a major cultural event in this country and arguablly the premier college sports event. The BCS game is big, it lacks the theatre or the build-up of the final four. Now football post-season has a chance to be huge if and when they get a playoff going. The BCS game has taken away from interest in the bowl games as has in my humble opinion the move of some of the major bowls away from New Year's day.
So why doesn’t basketball matter? It doesn’t matter as much because the revenue from the NCAA tournament goes in the main to pay for the operation of the governing organization of collegiate athletics the NCAA. Some of the remainder of the tournament money goes to the smaller conferences, so the power conferences can’t really increase their take. Football has untapped potential to raise money it is the untapped oil field. Now interestingly in the most recent year for which I could find data Kansas ranked third in television distribution in the Big 12, and they have a tremendous brand in Kansas basketball but that notwithstanding they were an alignment afterthought. Of course, had someone bothered to think slightly deeper than the superficial level that characterized most of the alignment discussion they’d have realized that hoops was covering overhead. If football money were used to pay a share of this overhead of course the calculus would change regarding the value of basketball. The NCAA tourney brings in TV revenue of $771 million per year on its $10.8 billion dollar contract. According to Forbes some 140,000,000 people tune in each spring. My Jayhawks were in a recent Forbes financial analysis worth $21.7 million/year to the university athletic corporation and turned a tidy profit of $12.9 million.
So, what exactly is going on here? Well, in the final analysis this was strictly an exercise in outright and complete stupidity. Missouri had their nose out of joint due to what they consider unfair bowl game assignments and unequal revenue distributions, and politicians got involved (which guarantees a walk on the moronic side), this contributed to a lot of wild-eyed speculation about a seismic shift in conference alignment. In fairness it wasn’t just Missouri, obviously Nebraska, Colorado and ultimately the entire Big 12 south entered the discussion along with Rutgers, Syracuse, Utah, Virgina Tech and others.
This got conference athletic leadership and athletic directors agitated who went initially into a protective mode, which turned aggressive in the end game. Ridiculous speculation about financial models ensued with in many cases little of substance to support the supposition. When serious financial people started running the numbers what they found was that the vast majority of the operating assumptions were wrong. The advantage of bigger leagues was overblown, the problems with travel were ignored, and at the end of the day the conventional wisdom that league football title games were a huge boon to leagues was even called into question. Now we are told that the Big 12 is better off minus two and all that emphasis on the benefits of divisional play and the league title football game was just a load of hooey we've been fed for the last 14 years. We can make as much money two teams smaller and without "the game", as if anyone in this league or any other major conference really needs more money!
Then we had all the pundits and speculators in chief running around telling us how insignificant basketball is in spite of the tourney's huge payout. Again, when smart financial people starting running the numbers the myth of hoops insignificance started to dissolve. So really what we had going on here was the kind of mass hysteria that led to the tulip bubble in 17th century Holland and every irrational financial bubble since including our recent housing bubble. Auction mentality ensued, people feared being left out of the "opportunity". So what ultimately played out is that two leagues quite possibly overpaid for questionable assets, then one league really jumped into the fray and nearly doubled or tripled down on its initial questionable bet.
Sanity has never really returned and speculation continued including the recent Arkansas to the Big 12 reports. The only thing that kept things from getting even worse was that few people belatedly realized how wrong all of the thinking was and order was restored, sort of. I think the only way to stop this once and for all is for university presidents to band together and call a halt to the college sports arms race. I would start by capping athletic corporation budgets at $80mm and requiring that any top line income above that number go into a general fund for academic support. Remember that the athletic teams play to represent universities, and universities exist to educate. Priorities have gotten out of whack here. Inmates are running the asylum. These are people who didn’t mind the idea of say a softball team traveling from Lubbock to Eugene, or from Pullman to College Station to play a game. The kids don’t matter, the parents don’t matter, the alums and fans don’t matter just show these guys the money.
I do not need bigger and bigger video boards, fancier arenas and NFL/NBA quality amenities to enjoy collegiate athletics. The fact that there are teams with KANSAS on their jerseys has always been enough for me, and in a reasonable world that would be enough for Texas and The Ohio State University fans as well. People have forgotten why there are collegiate athletics, which is to allow for amateur competition among students who enjoy and are good at sports. I don't believe it is so that athletic directors can make $3mm a year or so Mack Brown can make more than some corporate CEOs. My proposed cap of $80mm is more than triple what KU's budget was when the Big 12 started so I am not proposing the athletic departments operate like monasteries. I'm just proposing that it is out of hand and that enough in the minds of far to many athletic administrators is way too much.
What we just witnessed was the most embarrassing and disgusting exercise in the history of college athletics. Big time college sports has lost its collective soul, because as it turns out merely being big time competitively is not enough to satisfy those trusted with running our school's sports wings. They want more money to control, more funds to raise and more money in their and their colleagues pockets out of the pool. The fans and alums of the schools get nothing out of this, nothing at all. Except of course that those willing to really pony up get the odd ride on the athletic department jet to away games or get to belly up to the university clubhouse bars with other like minded people who are prone to donate to the wrong charity or just like the smell of jock straps.
Oh, and one last thing about Texas who always seemed to be at the center of this foul episode. I don't resent UT because they have (and get) more money than KU, I resent UT because they represent everything that is wrong with college athletics. They aren't the cure to what was wrong with the Big 12, they are the disease. They, and others schools for which no amount of income is enough, are a metastatic cancer eating at the innards of college athletics. They are greed, selfishness and entitlement personified, their $130,000,000 annual athletic budget isn’t enough they want more.
What's more these greedy supposed non-profit organizations are completely lacking in the capacity to feel shame, which is their worst fault of all. They should be ashamed. We should be ashamed. All of college sports should be ashamed. College sports is not just about what happens on the field, it is now about who has the biggest jumbotron, most spectacular locker rooms, and the most lavish suites. It is about booming sound systems, fireworks, smoke from dry-ice, wider concourses, and pro sports style atmospherics. There is only aspect of the athletic arms race driven facilities improvements I fully appreciate and that’s the expanded bathrooms in Allen Field House, which make halftime a lot less challenging. The rest of it they can keep, just give me our Jayhawks and our good old-fashioned family atmosphere.
We should not be celebrating our survival in the big time, and we most certainly shouldn’t be pleased about the survival of the college athletics financial arms race. We should be mourning the end of nearly all that was good about college athletics. The good has been wasting away for years, but as of this month it is almost gone. There is little real good left.
If you really want to see what collegiate athletics is about watch all the youngsters waiting patiently in Allen Field House after a game to get to meet or get an autograph from a Kansas basketball player. That costs nothing, but at the same time is priceless. I will root for my Jayhawks, but my heart will be heavy until courageous people take intercollegiate athletics back from those who have taken away so much of its soul. Let’s take our sports back from these megalomaniacs before there is nothing recognizable left.