The Radical Math of Realignment
When King Football Calls, Everybody Listens
Once upon a time – and the time was three decades ago – the major college conferences needed just 10 fingers to count membership.
As recently as 1990, the Southeastern, Big Ten and Pacific-10 conferences had 10 members (which also meant two of those leagues’ memberships were accurate, numerically speaking). The Atlantic Coast and the Big Eight (naturally) had eight schools. The Southwest Conference, which last existed in 1995, had nine schools.
Each decade since, conference realignment has roiled the waters of college sports. The SWC became extinct, replaced by the Big 12 in the mid-1990s. Now, the Big 12 faces an uncertain future. The summer blockbuster in college sports was the unexpected announcement that Texas and Oklahoma are joining the Southeastern Conference, making the SEC the first 16-team “super conference,” the exact year TBD but certainly by 2025.
The accelerant for the musical conferences is King Football and its malevolent benefactors, the television networks (Disney-owned ESPN in particular). Need proof? New ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, who succeeded John Swofford in February, said this at football media days last July.
“As I’ve stated since my first day as ACC commissioner, football must be number one priority for us,” he said. “The reality is, that’s college athletics in 2021. Our conference, our programs, are driven by the sport of football.”
Where this is leading, where college sports will be in, say, 2031 is anybody’s guess. Is this the dawn of the Super Conference Era? As Andy Staples of The Athletic put it: “The concept of four 16-team conferences will remain the exclusive domain of bored columnists and fans who insist on sending their 16-team alignments to those columnists.”
The urge to dominate the profit center in the football marketplace has left an inventory vacuum. Unless Notre Dame cedes its independent status, the SEC snatching Texas and Oklahoma might be the last items left on the shelf. Expanding without enhancing the TV money only means more slices of a slightly larger contract pie.
The Pac-12 announced in late August that it will “not pursue expansion at this time." That news came the same week that the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 formed an alliance whose main purpose is to slow the roll on College Football Playoff expansion.
The Big 12 moved quickly in early September, adding Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston from the American Athletic Conference and BYU, an independent in football and a West Coast Conference member in basketball. For now, it appears any shape shifting will occur below the major conferences as the AAC is now on the hunt to replace the three schools it lost.
There’s some evidence that bigger is not better for college basketball. Over the last nine years, the Pac-12, the SEC, the Big Ten and the ACC have added a total of 17 teams.
Comparing and contrasting those four leagues’ success A.E. (After Expansion) is purely subjective. The natural flow of flagship programs, coaching changes and luck factor in. The only measuring stick that offers a statistical observation is the NCAA Tournament.
For all four conferences, NCAA Tournament success has either been negligible or has suffered comparing B.E. (Before Expansion) to A.E. What follows is the evidence.
The Pac-10 became the Pac-12 when it added Colorado and Utah in 2011. The West Coast Conference’s membership history is tinged with irony. It was one of the first leagues to expand when it grew from eight to 10 by adding Arizona and Arizona State in 1978. Under former commissioner Larry Scott, it rattled the Super Conference sword when it attempted to grab six Big 12 schools in 2010. When that failed, Scott settled on Colorado and Utah.
In 2011, the Pac-10 added Colorado and Utah. Here’s how the conference compares in the NCAA Tournament in the nine seasons before and after expansion. W-L Pct. Pac-10 BE* 45 bids 50.0% 58-45 .563 Pac-12 AE* 39 bids 27.6% 53-39 .576
*-BE is 9 seasons before expansion; AE is 9 seasons after expansion.
From 2003-2011, the Pac 12 had three teams make the Final Four. In the next nine seasons, its percentage of teams in the field dropped and it had two Final Four teams.
In the nine seasons of membership, neither the Buffaloes nor the Utes have made significant contributions. They have made a combined five NCAA Tournament appearances, compiling a 3-5 record. In its first season in the Pac-12, Colorado earned the conference’s automatic bid by winning the league’s tournament.
The 2021 NCAA Tourney saw the Pac-12 place three teams in the Elite Eight and compile a 13-5 record. If not for that success, the league’s A.E. NCAA performance would be abysmal. Of the four major conferences the Pac-12 has performed worse A.E. than it did B.E.
The Southeastern Conference has been Noah-like, adding schools two-by-two. It was the first league to reach a dozen members when it brought in Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992. Before this summer’s raid on the Big 12, the SEC invited Texas A&M and Missouri for the that league in 2012.
In 1991-92, the Southeastern Conference added Arkansas and South Carolina, growing from 10 to 12 teams. Texas A&M and Missouri joined the SEC in 2012-13. Here’s how the conference compares in terms of the NCAA Tournament in the eight seasons since its last expansion.
W-L Pct. SEC BE* 38 bids 39.5% 57-25 .619 SEC AE* 40 bids 35.7% 40-40 .500
*- BE is 8 seasons before expansion from 12 to 14. AE is 8 seasons after expansion.
In eight seasons before expansion, the SEC won three national championships and placed another team in the Final Four. In the eight seasons after expansion, the SEC has sent five teams to the Final Four.
The two recent newcomers haven’t had an impact over the last eight seasons. The Aggies and the Tigers have combined for five NCAA appearances and a 4-5 record.
Expanding the focus regarding the SEC’s growth, Arkansas was a positive addition. The Razorbacks have appeared in 16 NCAA tourneys, compiling a 24-15 record. Arkansas won the 1994 national championship in its second year in the SEC. That was the league’s first national title since 1978.
Growing from 10 to 14 members in the past 30 years would be more significant if the expansion would have helped produce a national champion, but the Big Ten drought extends to 2001.
Big Ten expansion
The Big Ten grew to 12 teams by adding Nebraska in 2011 and reached its current membership of 14 by adding Maryland and Rutgers in 2014. Here’s how the conference compares in terms of NCAA Tournament in the seven seasons since that expansion.
W-L Pct. Big Ten BE* 38 bids 52.7% 60-28 .681 Big Ten AE* 42 bids 50.0% 59-42 .584
*- BE is six seasons before expansion from 12 to 14. AE is six seasons after expansion.
In the six seasons before expanding to 14 teams, the Big Ten placed four teams in the Final Four. In the six seasons after expansion, the conference has placed three teams in the Final Four.
Since growing from 12 to 14 with the addition of Maryland (a “basketball” school) and Rutgers in 2014, the impact has been negligible in terms of placing more teams in the bracket and significant in terms of overall winning percentage.
Going back to the first newcomer (Penn State in 1992), the Big Ten’s four additions have made a total of nine NCAA Tournament appearances and combined for a record of 8-9.
Atlantic Coast Conference
The ACC, which has long touted itself (with good reason) as the nation’s best basketball conference, could recently have opted for a revolving door as its logo.
The ACC’s most recent expansion occurred in 2013 and saw the conference add four teams – Notre Dame, Pitt, Louisville, and Syracuse – for a total of 15 teams. Here’s how the conference compares in terms of the NCAA Tournament in the seven seasons since that expansion.
W-L Pct. ACC BE* 37 bids 44.0% 60-28 .556 ACC AE* 51 bids 48.5% 86-51 .627
*- BE is seven seasons before expanding to its current membership of 15. AE is the seven seasons after expansion.
In seven seasons before its last expansion, the ACC won two national championships and has won three in the last seven seasons after expansion.
Florida State was the first invitee (an addition made solely with football in mind) in 1992. Miami and Virginia Tech (2004) and Boston College (2005) joined as the ACC again sought to burnish its football brand. (Those defections also helped start the Big East Conference’s decision to eventually abandon football and return to a basketball-only league.)
Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville came aboard in 2014 as the ACC reacted to Maryland’s move to the Big Ten. In addition to those three schools, the ACC added Notre Dame in all sports but football. The conference adopted an 18-game schedule that can best be described as unwieldy.
“One team that was really punished by moving to the ACC was Pitt,” Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News said. “In its season before announcing it was leaving the Big East, Pitt was the champion of a league to that put 11 of 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament. It abdicated its power base, and the move was dictated by money and money is football.”
Eight new members, starting with Florida State joining, have combined for 37 NCAA bids and a 48-37 record. Syracuse reached the Final Four in 2016.
During the seven seasons since growing to 15, the ACC has won three national championships with all three going to original members – Duke (2015), North Carolina (2017) and Virginia (2019).
There is little doubt that college basketball has been an afterthought when it comes to conference expansion and realignment. Once the SEC is finished with its new football television contracts, the estimates are that each of the 16 schools will have an annual revenue share just over $80 million. The money maker being shaken is football.
The four major conferences and their current 57 teams in basketball will deal with unbalanced league schedules, back slaps and attaboys for NCAA appearances plus the return of the old cliché that hoops is a nice distraction between football and spring football.
“Basketball is not a concern or a consideration when it comes to realignment,” DeCourcy said. "The money generated by basketball is nowhere near what football generates. (College administrators) are happy to take the money generated by basketball… and probably spend it on updating the football locker room.”