Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Realignmentaggedon: Should The NCAA Intervene?

If you've been following collegiate athletics like I have, you've undoubtedly seen the latest news flying around this week as colleges have been dumping long-standing conferences like, apparently, top military brass have been dumping husbands and wives.

Maryland abandons the ACC, a conference which they've called home for 50 years, to join the Big 10, for little other reason than cash money to bail out their near-bankrupt athletics department.  Rutgers abandons the Big East, a conference which they've called home for more than 20 years, to join the Big 10, for little other reason than cash money to fund their struggling athletics department.

From there, all hell has broken loose, as Louisville has leapt to the ACC to replace Maryland, while the Big East seems convinced that East Carolina and Tulane are acceptable replacements for the Cardinals and Scarlet Knights, and the forgotten conferences of FBS, Conference USA and the Sun Belt, reshuffle their deck chairs to refill their conference with new members as the Big East poached Tulane and East Carolina.

From the perspective of this reporter who clings to academics when it comes athletics, it's awfully depressing viewing to watch.

If college athletics has now become this generation's version of the Beatles, I'd be happy to declare myself college athletics' Frank Zappa, independently calling the conference leadership and college presidents out for saying, "We're Only In It For the Money".

The more I look at college athletics, the more I see the veneer of academics stripped away, leaving nothing but an old-fashioned money grab that has more in common with the robber barons of the Gilded Age rather than anything that has to do with college athletics, now, or then.

It's worth pausing a minute to sit and reflect on how amazing a statement Maryland president Wallace Loh made in regards to conference affiliation:

In explaining why the Terrapins were leaving a conference they'd been affiliated with for 59 years, Loh said: "Number one, by being members of the Big Ten Conference, we will be able to ensure the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for decades to come." Maryland was going for the money, Loh essentially said. Early estimates indicate Maryland could earn $100 million more in the Big Ten by 2020. 
There's also this gem, which slipped under the radar of most people:

“Historically the university supports athletics,” Loh said. “We want a paradigm where athletics support the university.”

While those estimates of $100 million more can, and should be disputed - preferably by someone who can penetrate the opaque nature of the Big Ten Network's revenues and expenses and Rupert Murdoch's financial empire - it's the paradigm, and what Loh is really giving up, that is worth highlighting.

Few remember that it was Maryland and Clemson who founded the ACC, after accepting bowl bids when the Southern Conference banned its members from playing in postseason bowls.

For generations since, Maryland's president hobnobbed with the presidents of Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, North Carolina State, and the like.  For nearly 60 years, this was where Maryland wanted to be, and it made sense. 

In men's basketball, they were competing against Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and college basketball legends every year.  In women's hoops, too, the ACC also have been ground-breakers .  Both the men's and women's basketball teams have been NCAA national champions in the last decade.


More than that, though, were all the other non-revenue sports in which they competed.  Lacrosse, where the Terrapins were perennial national contenders.  Soccer, where the Terps are always one of the best teams in the nation.  Wrestling, where Maryland always has a strong team that leads the ACC.


This week, Maryland threw all of that away because Loh thought it was better to go to a model where "athletics suports the university".


He really means that.  Literally.

He means that athletics, now, don't need support from the university, whether from fans, who will be hard-pressed to afford plane trips to Iowa for Big 10 basketball games every year, or even from the University itself.  By saying this, he's admitting it's not about vacant seats in the stands at games, or even having a student body that knows, or cares, about the athletics teams.

That's because it's about getting TV money from the Big 10 Network - and as was mentioned, it was promised (not verified) to be a huge number, more than 10 million extra a year.

The Big 10 Network is very interested in adding Maryland to their repertoire of schools since they feel they can now use that leverage to bully cable providers in the Maryland and DC area to shell out more money per subscriber to add to their revenues.

It doesn't even matter if the many cable TV subscribers in Maryland and DC area actually watch the games or not.  They are betting there will be enough Maryland subscribers to insist on carrying all of Maryland's home games that the cable providers will cave and pass the added cost to all subscribers, whether they watch the games or not.

Loh is saying that existing presidential relationships don't matter.  Historic rivalries don't matter.  Fans don't matter.  Even eyeballs in front of TV sets don't matter.  All that matters is a promise $10 million of extra revenue a year, and outsourcing athletics to its own entity, almost outside the operation or care of the school, in order to have athletics fund the university, not the other way around.

Relationships?  We'll make new ones with the presidents of Penn State and Iowa.  Rivalries?  We'll make new ones with Michigan State and Rutgers.  TV Viewership?  Doesn't matter.

Am I the only person to see how insane this is?

Maryland and Rutgers are simply seen as a disposable assets - a means to an end.  Once the Big 10 Network bullies their way onto DC's cable system - if they're not already there anyway - what use does the Big 10 really have for Maryland after that? 

It's hard to put a dollar amount on the relationships that Maryland and Rutgers are throwing away.  But when Wallace Loh rubs elbows with the presidents of Michigan and Ohio State, is there an ounce of respect there?  You gave all of that up... just to hang out with us? 

My wife will tell you that money is not the basis of a good relationship - in love, in business, or anything.  Loh is saying that, yes, it is, and the hell with the fans who might think about seeing a game, or anyone else who might love us for any reason.  We're only in this thing for the money.  "Fund the university".

Almost as depressing as the fact that schools like Rutgers and Maryland are prostituting themselves to the highest bidder - with the next tier, Louisville, Tulane, and East Carolina, raising their shirts at the conferences next - is that no governing body, especially the NCAA, seems to be able to stop it.

If the NCAA is really the oversight committee into the excesses of collegiate sports, don't they have a duty, as well as a right, to do something to stop the madness?

A year ago, I would have thought that threatening to strip all the Big 10 schools from NCAA certification would have been a bad idea.  Now, after the latest round of money-grubbing, I'm wondering if it might be something that saves the true amateurs, while jettisoning those that have athletics as a pure profit-making operation - like Mr. Loh seems to want as an aspiration for his athletics program.

If the Big 10 thinks that their product has any value outside of the NCAA tournament, let them do it.  If they think that their brand is not only bigger than the NCAA, but surpasses it, they should be able to have their cable network and shop it to whomever they wish.

If they think that academics don't matter, rivalries don't matter, and fans don't matter, let them sink or swim in the cold, hard marketplace without the backstop of the NCAA, or indeed compete in any NCAA championships.

Let the Big 10 really sink, or swim, based on the minor league athletics marketplace rather than one that is tied, at least somewhat, to the academic virtues that the NCAA espouses.

The NCAA may think that conference realignment doesn't involve them, but it does, way more than they may even imagine.

Every move like this, every move where Maryland trades games with North Carolina for games with Rutgers, cheapens the NCAA. 

Whether they realize it or not, it devalues their product and it devalues their regular-season competitions.  It takes the NCAA's intercollegiate competitions, which are still, despite many people's constant protestations to the contrary, local in flavor, and nationalizes them during the regular season, making them bland entertainment, supported by TV broadcasts that may or may not be actually watched by anyone.


But most importantly, when athletics conferences make moves that serve no purpose for their individual school communities and fans except to make money, it takes away from the credibility of the NCAA when they are powerless to stop it.

As Mr. Loh says, it's not really about academics, but athletics "funding the university".  This admission is counter to the very vision of the NCAA being a gatekeeper and preserve of academics in intercollegiate athletics. 

Whether they realize it or not, the NCAA is at yet another big point in their history - whether they will actually take on the forces that are tearing intercollegiate athletics apart, or just stand by and let it happen.

The NCAA needs to take a stand against this, and if they don't, it's very easy to see the whole thing fall apart.

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