Bigger Isn’t Always Better

by March 12, 2012

by Dave Zirin | @edgeofsports

It’s difficult to believe that there was a time in my life when I was as obsessed with college hoops as I was with the professional game. I grew up in New York City at the dawn of the Big East Conference, and the quality of players, coaches and rivalries has already become the stuff of legend. There was Coach John Thompson at Georgetown with a center named Ewing; Lou Carnesecca and his sweater at St. John’s with a sweet shooting lefty named Chris Mullin and the great Walter Berry; Rollie Massimino and Ed Pinckney at Nova; and Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, led by a point guard named Pearl.

The games on that newfangled ESPN were fantastic television, with an intensity that transcended the NBA. In ’85, three Big East teams made the Final Four, and one could make the case that these rivalries gave us our modern March Madness and, not incidentally, the massive television revenues that support the NCAA. Now Jim Boeheim is the last of these great coaches still working the sidelines, and soon he won’t even be doing it in the Big East. Along with Pittsburgh, the Orange are joining the ACC, and while Boeheim has said a lot of the right things, he’s also revealed his frustration that after decades of Hall of Fame-caliber work, the decision to move was out of his hands. “This audience knows why we are doing this. There’s two reasons: Money and football…I spent 30 years in the Big East, so this will be hard for me.” Boeheim said. “This has been hard for me, but the school has to do what’s best for the school.”

This is just the most jarring iteration of what is called realignment, as conferences are regrouping into bigger and bigger mega consolidations as a last-gasp effort to avoid financial armageddon. Over 90 percent of athletic departments operate at staggering deficits, and the thought is that by building mega-football conferences, deficits can become surpluses. It’s a Hail Mary pass of hope that the television money that flows to football (conferences, not the NCAA, negotiate the television contracts for football) can save all the non-revenue sports on the chopping block. Even if that means ridiculous by-products like San Diego State being in the Big East, the greater good is served.

Or is it? There has been precious little discussion about what elevating football and television money to such astounding heights will do to the college hoops game, particularly by destroying the traditional rivalries that give the season meaning. Just as Georgetown and Syracuse’s classic rivalry is poised to end, the 105-year-old “Border War” between Kansas and Missouri could be no more after this season. And the Pitt-West Virginia “Backyard Brawl,” which goes back 108 years, will be gone with barely a mention.

What’s so frustrating is the short sightedness of athletic directors, school and conference presidents involved. They are so drunk with the idea of television dollars that they don’t realize that the fans are walking away. The ACC Tournament used to be the hottest ticket in college hoops. Now it’s a collection of empty seats. No one is that interested in Miami’s quest for conference hoops supremacy. As Boeheim said, “We’re going to end up with mega conferences, and 10 years from now either I’m going to be dead wrong—and I’ll be the first to admit it—or everybody is going to be like, Why did we do this again? Why is Alabama playing Texas A&M this week and going to Texas Tech next weekend? And why is Syracuse going to Miami in basketball this week and next week they’re going to play Florida State?”

This naked grab for cash may also have an unintended consequence that ADs and the NCAA would rather avoid. It rips away any vestige that revenue-producing sports are anything other than what they are: money grabs aimed at keeping athletic departments afloat and paying the bloated salaries of top coaches and assistants. Thirty-five years ago, football coach Woody Hayes made $42,000 a year at Ohio State. New Buckeye coach Urban Meyer makes $4 million by himself. If college sports is really just a high-stakes big business, then the “student-athlete” argument looks more and more like abject farce. And if realignment is the future, don’t be surprised if the fans stay away and the games continue to become a glorified joyless preseason until the Madness of March.

Photo courtesy of Pitt Athletic Media Relations Office.