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Will realignment be enjoyed by fans?

All the teams might be investing at the expense of the revenue source

Pac-12 Championship - Stanford v USC

When the news dropped in July 2021 that Texas and Oklahoma were moving to the SEC, giddy excitement filled all my conversations with my sports buddies.

“Could more Big 12 teams jump ship, and the league dissolves?”

“Will they merge with the Pac-12?”

“What schools might they add?”

“When will Texas come to Kroger Field?”

“Will Notre Dame at last join a conference?”

It was a fun time, and very interesting to see nonconference football games such as Arkansas vs. Texas and thinking about how soon they’d be competing with each other for the same SEC Championship.

The ripple effects that year added a bunch of interesting teams to the Power 5 level for the first time, with Houston, BYU, Cincinnati, and UCF keeping the XII from caving in, some C-USA teams replacing the three of them from the AAC, other teams replacing those teams, and James Madison moving up to FBS.

Then the waters subsided, and all was calm again. Conference realignment had mixed things up a bit in the sports landscape, and, at least for me, I was looking forward to it.

OU and Texas and a 16-team SEC sounded cool, and a Big 12 with Houston basketball and exactly 12 teams would be fun to watch.

Then while at work on June 30th, 2022, I’m texted that USC and UCLA are moving to the Big Ten. I reply with the mind-exploding emoji. Here we go again.

Even with this bombshell, it didn’t seem like too much change for a casual fan. It brought about, at long last, the expanded CFP, and every team moving was planning on being settled in their new home in time for the arrival of this 12-team playoff. With a 16-team SEC, a new-look Big 12, and a 12-team CFP, sure, the Big Ten having two teams 1400-2700 miles from all the other teams sounded utterly ridiculous, but the arrival of the 2024 season still seemed like going to a carnival.

Now the now-annual realignment earthquake has brought the Pac-12 Jenga tower completely down while leaving conferences, schools, and fans in a much more somber mood. Even the teams that jumped ship and will now be in the exciting, new-look Big Ten and Big 12 didn’t seem all that excited to do so. It seemed more out of fear and self-defense—get out while there’s still time.

Do Oregon and Washington really want to make all those flights to Rutgers, Penn State, and Maryland for not just football but basketball, soccer, baseball, volleyball, wrestling, tennis, etc.? Do Arizona and Arizona State really want to fly for all those sports to play West Virginia and UCF? Oregon State AD Scott Barnes vented this to The Oregonian:

“The great history and tradition of this conference has been severely damaged. The best interest of the student-athlete hasn’t been served,” Barnes said. “Traveling to the Eastern seaboard multiple times a year is not in the best interest of student-athletes [of departing Pac-12 schools]. I’m furious because it puts this university in harm’s way and our student athletes in harm’s way. There’s some damage done that we’re going to have to mitigate.”

Damage done. Collegiate sports has always changed and evolved, but if you bend too much too quickly the whole structure creaks, cracks, and breaks. Two years ago I thought Texas and Oklahoma was a bit of a geographical stretch for the culture of the SEC, but they’d still fit in.

Now though, we’re about to have to a conference of the Great Lakes, and the Midwest welcome in two teams from L.A. and two from states so far Northwest that any conference game will require crossing two time zones. Imagine the announcement, “And the winner of this year’s Big Ten Championship game is...the Washington Huskies!”

Nick Saban said on Sunday that a lot of traditions could get pushed by the wayside. Forget losing traditions—what about college sports just not being fun to play or watch anymore? All this is happening because of money—schools, conferences, and TV networks jockeying for the best markets. Some of the financial moves seem so short-sighted, though.

Will Oregon athletics and the entire school really be in a better financial position in thirty years if this move to the Big Ten plunges the football team into a cellar-dwelling, last-place conference team that can’t keep up and nobody wants to play for them and nobody wants to support the team?

Or take it up to another level: are Big Ten and Big 12 TV deals worth destroying the Pac-12 for in order to get if fans stop enjoying watching Big Ten and Big 12 sports?

College football has so much money involved because it is enjoyed so much by so many people, but if the teams and conferences make their own sport not fun to watch anymore as they chase that money, how silly will these moves look then?

Who knows how that’ll all play out in the end, but it’s hard to see it actually getting that bleak. I’m still looking forward to this season and next, but the changes might be hard to adjust to. Decisions made without the fans, players, coaches, other universities, other conferences’ interests, or anybody’s at all in mind usually are.

Still, if giant geographical differences really do make proper college sports unplayable or unwatchable, they’ll either make changes or face being unwatched and unplayed. What has to be remembered are that good, inspiring, and honest people are going to be coaching and playing these football games and having fun doing so in front of big, supportive crowds, and however it plays out, realignment will have to align with that, and we can gratefully enjoy whatever’s coming.