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Conference Realignment: Why Is It Happening And What Does It Mean For Student-Athletes?

By: Lauren Flaumenhaft

Football drives college sports. In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the University of Michigan Athletic Department brought in $102,214,749 from ticket sales and media rights deals. 83% ($85,061,880) of this was from football alone. The ultimate goal for universities is to have a football program so profitable that the team generates enough revenue to pay for the rest of the sports, which it does at Michigan. As a result of this financial goal, the decisions that are made regarding university athletic departments and the conferences they play in are largely driven by football. This has never been more apparent than right now, as conference alignment shifts, altering the student-athlete experience.

A conference is a group of schools that regularly compete against each other and share assets, including revenue from media contracts from major television networks, such as NBC and Fox. For the past 15-20 years, a set of five conferences, the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC, have been referred to as the “Power Five” conferences, as they have emerged as the most elite and highest-earning conferences in college football. Traditionally, colleges and universities have competed in conferences determined by geographic regions; however, as conferences are able to garner increasingly more profitable media rights contracts from major television networks, there is increasing pressure to expand geographically. Competition for media rights deals within the Power Five conferences specifically is incredibly contentious. These conferences want to be bigger so that they can reach as many geographic markets as possible and improve their chances of landing one of these multibillion dollar media deals. In attempts to gain an edge in negotiations, many conferences have been opening up their doors to new schools.

The University of Michigan has been competing in one of these “Power Five” conferences, the Big Ten Conference, since the conference’s inception in 1895 (despite a nine year hiatus in the early 1900s). When the conference was first formed, its ten member schools were Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin. When Penn State and Nebraska were added in 1989 and 2010 respectively, the conference’s geographic boundaries expanded only slightly to the east and west, but when Rutgers and Maryland were added in 2012, the conference that began in the midwest region of the country reached the east coast. Most importantly, located less than 20 miles from New York City, adding Rutgers to the conference added the country’s largest media market to the conference’s collection of assets.

In 2022, it was announced that beginning in the 2024-25 school year, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) would be joining the Big Ten. With this move, the conference is expanding to unprecedented bounds as the member schools stretch from the west coast all the way to the east coast. A month and a half after adding two schools in the country’s second largest media market, Los Angeles, the conference announced a new seven-year media rights deal with Fox, CBS, and NBC that is scheduled to bring more than $7 billion to the conference. The inclusion of USC, UCLA, and their Los Angeles market likely played a major role in securing the largest media package in conference history. The conference’s latest expansion will also begin in 2024 with Oregon and Washington joining after not agreeing to their previous conference’s proposed new media deal.

While the names and reputations of the additional schools are great for the conference as a whole, and the massive media deal is great for the operating budgets of athletic departments, the locations of the member schools that now span the entirety of the country are not good for the student-athlete experience. In addition to being in constant pursuit of national championships, the Big Ten claims to pride itself on producing leaders and prioritizing academic excellence among its student-athletes. Is a conference where student-athletes will have to travel almost 2,500 miles for some of their games while juggling classes prioritizing academic excellence? Sure, football teams only play once a week on Saturdays, but how about the 25 other sports in the conference that frequently play during the week? Teams from USC will have to fly 2,498 miles to play their games at Maryland while missing classes and any other on-campus obligations they may have during the week. Athletes will need to take exams on the road and make up lengthy labs in their decreased time on campus, all of which can contribute to less sleep and worsening mental health. The increase in media dollars will trickle down to each of the sports in an athletic department, potentially making their travel and overall experiences more comfortable, but the tradeoff between revenue and travel will simply not be worth it.


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