What even are college sports conferences in 2024?

There is new drama in ACC land with at least some of the leadership at UNC openly talking about the possibly leaving the conference. There is real division in Chapel Hill, unlike at FSU and Clemson, so it’s not like we’re going to see the Tar Heels suing the league tomorrow like their compatriots already have.

I caught up on this news by listening to Andy Staples’s podcast episode about it. The whole thing was useful, but there was one part that my brain flagged for some reason. It’s something I haven’t been able to shake since, so that’s why you’re getting this fine article to read. To quote Staples, regarding the litigation about the ACC grant of rights:

“I do think the ACC probably has a lot more to lose than Florida State, than Clemson, than if North Carolina jumps on board, because the worst case scenario for all of those schools is they stay in the ACC until 2036… it’s not the end of the world. You can continue on. If the ACC were to lose at trial, the ACC cannot continue on. It would break apart immediately. So, that is where the incentive [for the ACC to settle the lawsuits] comes from.”

The thought that sprang to mind was this: why does anyone care about what happens to the ACC as an institution here? What even is the point of conferences in this day and age anyway?

The ACC, as an institution, is a collection of administrators, bureaucrats, and professionals in fields like marketing, IT, accounting, HR, and everything else it takes to run an organization. If those people lose their jobs because the conference breaks apart, obviously that’s bad for all those folks’ personal lives.

However, the institution itself must exist for a reason greater than just employing those people. I mean it for both possible uses of “must” in that last sentence. As in: surely it must exist for something greater, and also it has to exist for something greater or else its presence is meaningless.

Collegiate athletic conferences, in theory, should exist for the benefit of their members. And they do, for a number of reasons. They make scheduling easier, they provide a way for members to amplify their voices on governance issues, and they promote their teams. Increasingly, their purpose has been to pool TV rights to secure the most possible revenue from selling those rights.

Also increasingly, it feels like that last point about TV rights has been a venue for scope creep for conferences in the last 5-15 years.

Take the league closest to home. The SEC will make more money by having Texas and Oklahoma in it. The latest round of expansion is a win from the standpoint of strengthening the conference as an institution. However do those additions actually serve the interests of everyone in the league?

In 2018, Kentucky football came one game away from winning the SEC East. Had it defeated Georgia, both teams would’ve finished 6-2 and the Wildcats would’ve gone to Atlanta on the tiebreaker. UK almost never comes that close to playing for a league title, but they got to the doorstep under the old format. In the new format, with no divisions and the Longhorns and Sooners now on the roster, will they ever get that close again?

Ole Miss was this completely ridiculous lateral play in overtime against Arkansas away from winning the SEC West in 2015. They too came tantalizingly close to making the conference title game under the old format with the old lineup — notably without the 11-2 Sooners in the league. Ole Miss very well could’ve been the West favorites this year with Nick Saban retired, but with no divisions and likely preseason top-5 Texas joining the league, they’re probably at best third in line behind Georgia and UT.

Would Kentucky have defeated Alabama in Atlanta in 2018? Probably not, but anything can happen in one game. Would Ole Miss have won the rematch with Florida in 2015? Seems likely with Will Grier sidelined by then. The Rebels haven’t won the SEC since 1963, but hey, now they can overpay their coordinators by even larger margins to keep them from taking Sun Belt or AAC head jobs.

You can go down the list in every sport. Different programs are the perennial powers, and other programs can make runs every so often. Texas and Oklahoma are generally good enough in enough sports that adding them made it harder for some number of SEC teams to compete and pull off their occasional league title runs. I hope the extra money is worth it for the conference’s mid-to-lower tier, because wins and titles are going to be even harder to come by.

And, I say all this at a time when, a dozen years on, there is no consensus throughout the league’s fan bases that adding Texas A&M and Missouri was worth it from a sporting standpoint. The Aggies and Tigers sure are happy to be here, and their additions were necessary to keep from falling even further behind the Big Ten in TV revenue. So, the only thing we can say for sure is that they were a handy way to access basic cable money in Texas, Kansas City, and St. Louis. Hooray?

There has always been something of a vacuum at the top of college football because no one’s in charge, and that’s on purpose. The big time schools liked running their own show through their conferences, and so the NCAA never took over the complete organization of the sport. The NCAA is another institution that ostensibly serves at the pleasure of its members, after all. As the scope of power and money increased with the sport’s popularity, so too have the scopes of the conferences.

The NCAA taking over full governance of college football now is unthinkable given how much power the conferences have amassed, and in light of the fact its litigators are about as successful as Woody Widenhofer teams. It is now in an era of complete retreat from its original sin of capital-A Amateurism, an ideal invented in Victorian England to keep the working classes out of athletic competition that is wholly incompatible with American business values. Once college sports became a real business, the fall of amateurism became inevitable.

I don’t know if the ACC will split apart when — not if, but when — its power programs leave. I just don’t know how many of its programs are valuable enough to warrant inclusion in the SEC or Big Ten. If the answer is no more than six, then at least 12 members will still be around to continue on, in sharp contrast to the two remaining Pac-12 members.

I am not sure the ACC as we know it should be mourned, because it always needs to serve its members. When its leadership convinced the membership to extend its grant of rights for 20 years in 2016, it was serving itself more than its schools. Locking up programs for that long was a move to preserve the ACC as an institution and not nearly as much to improve the longterm prospects for every individual member. The schools that now want to leave still ultimately went along with it, so they share some blame and don’t get sympathy from me, but the consequences won’t be evenly distributed through the league.

The ACC of all conferences knows how cutthroat things can be given how it raided the Big East two decades ago to bolster its own position. The super long grant of rights was a reaction to losing founding member Maryland to the Big Ten. Its addition of Cal, Stanford, and SMU likely was ultimately a hedge against losing so many members that it falls below a critical threshold like the Pac-12 did. If FSU, Clemson, and UNC leave, then hey, it’ll have the same count of 15 members it had prior to those additions. That conference knows the slings and arrows of realignment well, and it’ll live or die with its eyes wide open.

Perhaps a super league is coming where the SEC and Big Ten team up to become the new AFC and NFC. Perhaps, but doing so would require each admitting that the other is forever an equal to itself. Nothing in the history of college sports suggests power conferences are content to make such declarations for long, though. They shake on new postseason formats with one hand while holding a knife behind their backs with the other. Plus, the logic of conferences has become so much about preserving themselves for the sake of themselves as institutions over what’s in the best interest of all their members and the sports that they sponsor that there may yet be some surprises on the road ahead.

The primacy of the conference in major college sports doesn’t have a lot of close analogs elsewhere, so how the near future unfolds is anyone’s guess.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2