Missouri won the last round of realignment and got to coast during the most recent iteration. Don’t count on it being so easy next time.
If I’ve learned anything through the various episodes of college football conference realignment it’s that the rules of realignment are never the same twice. Let’s review.
After the Supreme Court ruled in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma that the NCAA television plan violated the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts, the list of 21 Independent schools soon began whittling down as they rushed to join the closest conference in their region. Why? Because of the magical item known as grant of rights: a clause that dictates who owns the copyright to a piece of intellectual property (almost always the creator) and what rights you may be granting to the client to use, copy, reproduce, print, or publish your stuff. In this case, the intellectual property is the university and their associated sports teams and the client who is paying to copy, reproduce, print, or publish their stuff are various media outlets, almost explicitly for the privilege of broadcasting said college sports. Television options in the 80s were pretty limited so most conferences had their grant of rights sold to regional broadcasters but it generated a brand new stream of revenue for each conference and each school and the magic of money was a better lure than the freedom of sporting independence. So, by the mid-1990s, Penn State joined the Big 10, South Carolina and Arkansas joined the SEC, and the Texas-bloc of the Southwest Conference merged with the midwestern Big 8.
Realignment returned in the early 2010s with a new end-goal in mind: conference networks. Schools realized that they could earn way more money for both the conference and the member institutions if they footed the bill for their own network while convincing cable outlets to carry their channel. The broadcasting of the conference’s propaganda across multiple media markets – ideally, as many large markets as possible – and having the institutions benefit directly from the advertising revenue as well made way more financial sense. The Big 10 acted first, launching the Big 10 network on September 1st, 2007; meanwhile, instead of spearheading a conference-wide network, the University of Texas – working with ESPN – created the Longhorn Network, specializing in broadcasting all things Texas sports. Not the Big XII…just Texas. This caused Big XII members Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, and Missouri to start looking for other conferences that would let them in and, ya know, actually work together to create revenue sharing opportunities. Nebraska wound up in the B1G, Colorado in the newly formed Pac 12, and A&M and Missouri into the SEC. The B1G took Maryland and Rutgers with the sole purpose of expanding their network footprint into the eastern seaboard. The G5 conferences also began jockeying for conference network dollars, with Conference-USA poaching middling programs from other conferences based solely on their media market while the American and Sun Belt called up FCS teams from out-of-territory cities to replenish their conference depth.
But this round of realignment isn’t about regional broadcasting rights or creating television networks or exploring new media markets. It’s still about money, mind you (because it always is!) but media markets are an antiquated concept at this point and so are geographically-logical conference affiliations. No, at this point it’s about brand strengthening and finding the best, most expensive products on the market and bringing it under the same corporate umbrella to broadcast them to the most raw, large amount of viewership numbers in the streaming age. The SEC is making the first move in this new realignment arena by capitalizing on the weakness of the Big XII and swiping their crown jewels: Texas and Oklahoma. Without those two schools, the XII is losing their sole Playoff-contending power in Oklahoma and their main economic engines as well, reportedly estimated at $938.9 million and 12,623 jobs. The SEC gains two historically excellent programs on the field and two valuable properties for the brand, the #2 (Texas) and #6 (Oklahoma) most valuable college sports programs according to Forbes. With that tucked neatly into Greg Sankey’s pocket, he and his staff now have impetus and influence in any future rights negotiations.
I’ve seen a few Mizzou personalities telling Tiger fans to gloat. To rub it in the faces of the Kansas States, Baylors, Nebraskas, and especially Texas and Oklahoma, who openly mocked Missouri for its failed bid to the B1G and its anticipated on-the-field failures in the SEC. I’ve read articles saying we should laugh right back and mock Texas and Oklahoma for doing exactly what Missouri did ten years ago. And, yeah, I get that sentiment. But I don’t think we have much room to be boastful and snobbish for long.
What I’ve learned from this go-around is that – just like every other thing in this country – the golden rule applies: whoever has the gold makes the rules. And if Texas wants to give the double birds to the conference that it forcefully created and ransomed for its own greed, causing it to crumble in the wake of its decision, GUESS WHAT they absolutely can. If the SEC – the most successful football conference and one of the wealthiest in the nation – wants to annex one historical blue-blood program and one current elite program, they’re going to do that, consequences be damned. So why stop there? Why not snag Clemson and Florida State while they’re at it? Or, hell, add Ohio State, it’s right next to Kentucky, anyway!
I get being happy that our school’s decision is being rewarded now, but what happens ten years from now? When, say, a coalition of Bama/Georgia/Florida/Texas/Oklahoma/LSU/A&M work with Clemson, Ohio State, USC, Oregon, and Washington to break away to create a super conference? Do you think Missouri gets the call to join that conference, or are we left out in the cold with South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and the Mississippi schools as the SEC leftovers? It’s not a huge leap to envision a future where a super conference does exist – completely devoid of geographical and media market limitations, empowered by the SEC’s blatant land grab – to harvest the best football programs in the country in one super conference that can guarantee the max earnings for any network with an app who is desperate to get viewership eyes on live TV to expose them to ads that go for tens of thousands of dollars a pop. And this super conference will have 20, maybe 30 teams that have their own commissioner and are the only ones allowed to participate in ESPN’s college football playoff. A super league like that doesn’t have South Carolina in it. Or Ole Miss. Or Purdue. Or TCU. And certainly not Missouri.
So what’s my point? Well, for one, enjoy “winning realignment” while it lasts. But also, let’s make Missouri a program that would be a viable addition to a potential super conference. Let’s show up in droves to games to let Eli Drinkwitz know that we care and that we’re supportive of the team. Let’s create a conference environment that makes visiting teams hate to play in and woos elite prospects to come and play for. Create a home-game sell-out record. Call in to Finebaum. Be vocal and enthusiastic and present at Mizzou sporting events to keep the momentum going and make Missouri a desired program to have. If we can do our part on the things we can control, then hopefully the coaching staff and the team can do their part in winning recruiting battles, games, and division titles. I don’t have any sense enough to figure if it’ll be worth it, but we should make it our goal anyway. Let’s make this program an entity that is desired to be acquired at every turn of realignment. It doesn’t take much apathy to lose that next chance.