Gulf between haves, have-nots widens
The announcement of a merger between the remnants of Conference USA and the Mountain West — leagues that have been wrecked by the conference realignment craze of the past year — was mostly met with derision on Monday.
That’s no surprise. As it stands, the 16-team league stretches from Greenville, N.C., to Honolulu with plenty of bad football programs in between. Between the crazy travel distances, the hopelessly irrelevant matchups (UAB-Wyoming, anyone?) and even potential names (Conference WTF, the Big Nowhere, etc.), this amalgamation of schools is a gold mine for comedic material.
More important, reaction to the new league has been tepid at best from fans and television executives.
For fans, there’s little upside to a conference so widespread, where road trips will be difficult and opponents unfamiliar. There is simply no geographic, cultural or historical connection between these schools, meaning too many games will lack the rivalry ingredient that has made college sports so popular for the last half-century. For television networks, a league with few large media markets, one national basketball brand (UNLV) and limited football appeal (Air Force and Southern Miss are consistent winners but not elite) isn’t exactly must-have programming.
So what’s the point?
While most moves in conference realignment have been motivated by greed and ambition, this one is being made out of pure, unadulterated fear.
The landscape of college athletics is changing rapidly. The BCS is on its last breath, soon to be replaced by a playoff system, with specifics to be hammered out in the coming months. As the BCS dies, the automatic bids that were given to the six power conferences will likely die with it. The threat of conferences cannibalizing each other even further will continue to hang over everything.
And the consequence of all that is a further separation between the haves and have-nots, possibly setting the stage for a full breakaway. That’s the fear of many coaches and administrators I talk to, especially at schools outside the six power conferences. And that’s why merging the leftovers of C-USA and the MWC isn’t really about new TV deals or “enhancing the student-athlete academic and competitive experience, bringing fiscal discipline into athletics and ensuring competitive fairness,” as their joint news release claimed.
It’s about preparing for athletic survival.
There are 120 programs playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A, with four more set to join in 2013. After all the conference movement, 74 of the 124 will be situated in the six power conferences with three independents (Notre Dame, BYU, Army) and 47 schools in either the MWC/C-USA, the Sun Belt, the Mid-American Conference or the Western Athletic Conference.
Before Nebraska’s jump to the Big Ten started all of this nonsense in the summer of 2010, the lines were more difficult to draw. Sure, the six leagues with automatic BCS bids had a huge advantage over the others, but the system had allowed for the rise of programs such as TCU, Boise State and Utah, each of whom made multiple BCS bowls from 2004-10. Most of those years, the Mountain West was considered a better conference top-to-bottom than the Big East.
Had Boise State not missed a chip shot field goal against TCU, the Broncos — not Alabama — would have played LSU in the BCS National Championship Game this past season.
That’s not going to be possible in the new world of college football. Although a playoff will technically be open to anyone, it’s likely to be even more exclusive in practice, all but eliminating schools from outside the power conferences. Meanwhile, the schools that had earned their national relevance despite conference affiliation have all jumped the fence: Utah to the Pac 12, TCU to the Big 12 and Boise State to the Big East, which for good measure is also taking San Diego State, Navy and C-USA’s four most valuable athletic programs: Houston, Central Florida, SMU and Memphis.
The Big East made those moves in response to losing Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, and it is certainly not better off having made that exchange. That was survival, too. But for all the damage it has suffered, the gap between the Big East and the next-best league is bigger today than ever before.
So despite all the obvious reasons the MWC/C-USA merger makes no sense, there was no other choice for the schools involved. They could either join together, keeping some semblance of a middle class in college athletics, or try to rebuild regionally and sink even further below the power conferences.
Though they’ll talk about increasing their exposure and getting a better television contract, the true goal for the MWC/C-USA is to create a layer between the power conferences and the dregs of Division I and hope they’ll have enough clout to come along if the gap between the haves and have-nots ever reaches the point of separation.
There are all kinds of changes on the table in the NCAA universe right now, from the college football playoff to proposals to simplify the rule book to providing cost-of-living stipends for athletes. College athletics tend to change at a glacial pace, but it could fundamentally be a much different enterprise in 10 years.
Schools at the lower end of the spectrum are more fearful than ever that the changes will either hurt their already flagging ability to compete or eliminate it entirely.
Nobody at Fresno State imagined or wanted to be in a conference with Marshall, but at this point it’s a necessity. Just as there’s now a clear distinction between the Big East and the MWC/C-USA, there’s now a clear distinction between the MWC/C-USA and everyone else. That doesn’t ensure the viability of those programs as college athletics continues to evolve and power consolidates at the top of the food chain. But at least they have a chance.