Conference Shuffle May Reshape College Football, TV Payouts


To the rules that govern the motions of terrestrial bodies must be added a new concept: conferential drift, the tendency of a large college sports league to try to engulf smaller ones when motivated by the pursuit of revenue. And when the NCAA's major football conferences begin acting in earnest upon what has been stirring for months, they promise to gobble up everything in their paths with a race toward Manifest Destiny that could reshape the face of intercollegiate athletics.

This summer may see the groundwork laid for rampant additions, defections and mergers that could test the structural boundaries of Division I-A, as the nation's elite schools and conferences scurry to establish regional strangleholds in anticipation of megabucks television contracts. The eventual result could be the disintegration of several existing conferences, the affiliation of most independents and, by the mid-1990s, the emergence of three or four "superconferences" with two divisions and 12 to 16 schools apiece--a transformation many see as the first step toward creating a college football playoff system.

"Where it all leads, I don't think anyone is sure right now," said Navy Athletic Director Jack Lengyel, who just completed his term as president of the National Assn. of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. "But it does seem clear to me that there will be some sort of realignment in the very near future. . . . The kind of money you're talking about makes that inevitable."

The possibilities are intriguing. What finally could emerge are an Atlantic Coast Conference stretching from the Northeast to Florida; a Big Ten, which recently added Penn State, that might have further holdings in the Northeast or from the current Big Eight (Nebraska, most prominently); a Southeastern Conference sprawling westward into Texas and including South Carolina and one or two more Florida teams among its Atlantic entries, and a revised Pacific-10 picking up what it can in the West (Colorado, Brigham Young and Air Force, among others).

Oklahoma has entertained notions about jumping from the Big Eight to the Southwest Conference--a move that could become moot if, as some close to this process insist, the Big Eight and SWC eventually are left with no choice but to combine. An on-again, off-again Eastern Seaboard Conference for football composed of independents and Big East schools needing a football-only league may yet arise.

By the middle of the decade, most observers agree, there will be considerable movement involving college football's six major conferences and the 20 or so significant independents. Of those presently unaffiliated, only Notre Dame--essentially a conference unto itself, owing to its personal network TV contract--appears likely to remain that way.

The process began in December with Penn State's move to the Big Ten and was accelerated in February when Notre Dame bucked the College Football Assn.'s freshly negotiated TV deals with ABC and ESPN to sign instead with NBC.

Notre Dame's individual network deal stems from a 1983 Supreme Court decision that opened the marketplace, finding the NCAA's monopoly on football television rights to be a violation of federal antitrust laws. The CFA has since been the negotiator for the members of every major conference except the Big Ten and Pac-10, plus 20 independents, with participation voluntary--a stipulation that allowed for Notre Dame's pullout.

(Another catalyst to the realignment fever is the Federal Trade Commission's investigation of the CFA package, which covers 63 teams. The FTC could find the CFA's deal to be an illegal monopoly, which would enable individual conferences to negotiate their own TV contracts earlier than anticipated. CFA officials, however, seem confident Notre Dame's defection helps ensure the arrangement will not be found to violate antitrust laws.)

In the aftermath, the nation's other powerful football leagues were left wondering whether they might be better served by negotiating their own network contracts next time around.

Dick Schultz, executive director of the NCAA, has said he envisions a future of superconferences; his predecessor, Walter Byers, once predicted the same. "What you have now is more talk than movement," Schultz said at a recent meeting of the Knight Commission. But "I think it's probable you'll see the talk translate into movement."

The floodgates haven't opened yet, but they may soon--especially with Arkansas having agreed to begin formal discussions with the SEC about joining its existing 10 teams. If the Razorbacks--with the prospect of doubling their intake from conference revenue-sharing--end their 76-year membership in the SWC, the SEC (like the Big Ten) would be one school short of the magic number: NCAA rules allow a league with 12 teams or more to match division winners in a one-game playoff to determine a champion.

Such a setup, most officials in major conferences believe, would produce a TV revenue bonanza. "It's hard even to venture a guess at the dollars that might be involved in that," said Virginia Athletic Director Jim Copeland. "The numbers are so big already."

Indeed, the CFA's contracts with ABC and ESPN will bring a combined $300 million over five years, beginning in 1991. The Big Ten and Pac-10 have their own deals with ABC, while Notre Dame's agreement with NBC reportedly is valued at $30 million over five years. Yet those figures don't even match the NCAA's network TV intake before the 1983 ruling; realignment can be viewed most basically as a struggle to create more lucrative packages for TV.

"I'm told the '90s will be a move toward three or four superconferences," Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles said. "Well, there are three or four networks to broadcast college football, if you count ESPN. It's reasonable to assume, I guess, that each conference could have its own network tie-in."

But that's not all. A break into two six- or eight-team divisions would allow a conference to have a network deal, plus perhaps two syndicated television arrangements, a conference championship game and the foundation for a national playoff that would have the networks salivating.

"Most conferences would increase their TV revenue by up to 50%," an SEC official said. "Some might come close to doubling it. . . . And, in most cases, you're only talking about adding two to four teams."

Said CFA Executive Director Chuck Neinas: "Change is inevitable, and the time for it has come. It will come, and it will come soon. The only question is in what form."

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