Apparently there was something of a shared pop culture moment recently as HBO’s Succession aired its series finale. I’ve never seen a minute of the show, but I understand it’s an enthralling power struggle drama with everything you’d expect from an HBO prestige series: high production values, top tier writing, and acting that would make Konstantin Stanislavsky weep tears of joy. Following in the footsteps of Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, and The Wire, Succession reinforced America’s love affair with a gritty, cutthroat, and sometimes morally compromised story.
I may have missed the Succession hype train, but I have been obsessed with an even more realistic drama playing out right before our eyes. Like those shows, it features plenty of secret deals, huge amounts of money, backstabbing, and the deaths of a few beloved characters.
Ever since Oklahoma and Texas announced their exodus to the SEC in 2021, the ground upon which college football stands has never quite settled back down. After the news broke, many questioned how the Big 12 would survive without the historic brands of the Sooners and Longhorns propping it up. Speculation swirled about the Pac-12 absorbing the most attractive programs left, while leaving the leftovers to find whatever shelter could be had from the likes of the Sun Belt, MAC, or AAC. The Big 12 was on life support.
Fast forward one year and the first big plot twist in the saga landed. In June of 2022, USC and UCLA announced their intention to join the Big Ten, leaving the Pac-12 without their marquee names. One month later the Big 12 had an aggressive new commissioner in Brett Yormark who secured four new members to fill the void left by Oklahoma and Texas. Not only that, but Yormark also beat the Pac-12 to the punch by securing a new media rights agreement, bringing his conference back from its near death experience. Now it’s the Pac-12’s turn to face extinction as commissioner George Kliavkoff is left with the table scraps of television rights options and bad news seemingly every day.
Washington State president Kirk Schulz says WSU athletics will have “temporary freeze on all current & future vacant positions until further review, as well as a pause on non-essential travel, purchases & new professional development” because of “significant decrease in Pac-12…— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) May 23, 2023
Now the ACC is having its own family squabble, where the most lucrative brands are demanding, and getting, a larger piece of the pie based on postseason performance. The conference’s grant of rights was signed after the last round of realignment in the early 2010’s and runs through 2036, so while the teams on the east coast gained long term security, they sacrificed the financial windfalls the Big Ten and SEC will see with their shorter, more flexible contracts.
And here I am, devouring every story about what the Pac-12’s media rights contract will look like, whether its annual revenue distribution will be enough to keep Colorado happy, or when will San Diego State finally get the call up from the G5. If the numbers don’t satisfy the remaining Pac-12 schools, who jumps first and does that open the floodgates for teams like Oregon and Washington to formally apply for the Big Ten? Which ACC schools fit best in the SEC and Big Ten? How soon are until we get a Power 2 model, and how big will those two conferences be?
The sheer number of story lines are staggering and it’s all playing out like an HBO drama. Wanting to find out who ends up where is like wanting to know who would rule Westeros at the end of Game of Thrones. But as with that show, will the ending we get leave us disappointed and frustrated, wishing we had enjoyed the early days when we had the chance?
No matter how interesting the chess moves of realignment are, the voice of reason in my head reminds me of the longstanding traditions being auctioned off to the highest television bidder. We could very well be looking at the death of the Rose Bowl should the Pac-12 disintegrate. Sure, the Big Ten could turn the Granddaddy of Them All into the annual site of the conference championship, and that’d be cool to see. But the idea of a “Rose Bowl Game” featuring Penn State and Wisconsin turns my stomach. Rivalries reaching back decades now risk being so much fat trimmed off so the final cut is tailor made to be a network-friendly money printing machine. “Tradition” isn’t as strong a glue as we previously thought
And let’s be honest, Iowa is damn lucky to have joined the Big Ten all those years ago. With the bottom dollar as the driving force, how long until we see lower performing programs booted in favor of a bigger check from ESPN or Fox? Would Iowa make it into a new college football Super Conference? Maybe.
With the direction college football looks to be going, “maybe” isn’t very reassuring.
And all that money schools will get with those big time media deals? It won’t be going into the hands of players, at least not right now. Johnny Sophomore living in an aging dorm won’t see any of it going to a better library or campus transit system. It’ll be going into administrators’ salaries and coaches contracts. We’ll see more funds going into facilities, but for crying out loud look at what’s already out there.
Conference realignment is fascinating unfold; tuning in every day to see who is stabbing whom in the back to get ahead, and wanting to know who will be left standing when the dust settles. I want to see who the Big Ten will add next to grow stronger. I want the big brands to be part of the conference Iowa is part of. I’m excited by the idea of new teams coming to town. I want my side to win.
I just can’t shake the feeling of guilt watching it be the end of so many things we love about college football.