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NCAA Shake-Up: The Future Of College Athletics


The traditional college bowl games begin this week, but get ready for change. Next year, the NCAA inaugurates a playoff to decide the national football champion, and that's probably just the beginning. Many believe we're close to a complete shakeup for super conferences that would abandon the NCAA and make big-time college athletics an even bigger business than it is now. As proof, they point to the latest round of realignments. Maryland joins the Big Ten, Syracuse to the ACC, the Big East will include teams from as faraway as Boise.

When your team changes conferences, how does that affect your loyalty? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. NPR correspondent Mike Pesca joins us now from our bureau in New York. Mike, always nice to have you back.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Good to be back.

CONAN: And not so long ago, college conferences made geographic sense - the Big Ten in the Midwest, the Pac-10 on the West Coast. What's happened?

PESCA: And numerical sense. Welcome to the Big Ten, home of 14 schools in a couple of years. Yeah. What's happened is in the words of the Syracuse basketball coach: two reasons - money and football. Jim Boeheim, who has coached Syracuse for many, many years...

CONAN: The basketball team.

PESCA: Yep. A charter member of the Big East - said, you know, our basketball team does a lot better than our football team, why is football driving this? And that's the - that's how it's going everywhere. Football is driving everything. There's so much money at stake in college football. You know, ESPN just paid $5.5 billion to air the upcoming football postseason games that will start, you know, between 2014 and 2026. And everyone who can wants to jump to a conference where there's a big TV contract paying all its member institutions a lot of money, and that leaves holes.

And so teams from smaller conferences are now getting sucked into bigger conferences, and whole conferences are going away like the WAC. A moment of silence for the WAC.

CONAN: A moment of silence for the WAC.


CONAN: And it is not simply that that teams are jumping. Maryland, for example, leaves the ACC, where it was a charter member, to join the Big Ten and will have to pay a penalty of $52 million to do so.

PESCA: Yeah. And it's worth it for them, and so that tells you how much money is at stake, that for them to pay the exit fee, it still makes sense to jump conferences. And then you have a school like Rutgers where - which was a member of the Big East. And for years, people were deriding the fact that they spent so much money on an arena, and it didn't seem like a good use of public funds. Well, guest what? Because of that huge arena, they were invited to join the poorly named Big Ten.

CONAN: And access to the New York market. Rutgers is not too far away.

PESCA: It is, though I've read very good studies saying that a New Yorker will watch a football - a Rutgers football game - basically something like one in 50 New Yorkers have watched Rutgers football. They are in the New York market and maybe the thinking goes that one day when they start playing teams like Ohio State and Michigan that they'll become a big thing, but as a New Yorker, I could tell you that, you know, Notre Dame is a much bigger football team in the New York market than Rutgers ever is and possibly ever will be.

CONAN: Yeah. The Jets and the Giants can play in the Meadowlands. Piscataway, a little far away.


CONAN: So as you look at this alignment, these conferences that are emerging as 14 and eventually we think 16-team conferences, there is a lot of thought about these four super conferences that are going to be so powerful they can afford to just blow away the NCAA.

PESCA: Yeah. And that, you know, this is an idea that's been going on for a while. In the 1960s, there was talk of UCLA and USC and Alabama and all the big teams of the day getting together in a super conference, and that scared a lot of people. You know, more or less, what we have now is a few super conferences, and it's really hard to compete with the SEC, which, you know, has champions of college of football for - if Alabama wins, that will be I think five years in a row. And then you have the Pac-10, really the Pac-12 now. The Pac is enlarging.


PESCA: And in football, the Big Ten and the Big 12, those are really youth conferences. The Big East and the ACC are a little on the outskirts. And then this independent team, Notre Dame, which as recently as last year, I was just listening to a podcast in preparation for this show from last year where they talked about this in depth. And everyone on this podcast from one year ago were saying, well, we all know that Notre Dame is going to have to align with some conference because the possibility of Notre Dame, you know, becoming - being the great team that they once were is very small. And here they are as an undefeated team about to play in the finals.

But, yeah, so there probably will be super conferences. I don't know if that's good or bad for college football. It seems like it intimidates everyone outside the big time conferences. But a case could be made that that's kind of where we are already.

CONAN: Well, and you said, for example, the WAC has gone away. The Big East seems to be in complete shambles.

PESCA: Yeah, the Big East will be having such eastern stalwarts as San Diego joining them, Boise - now Boise is a great football school, don't get me wrong, having avowed to be anywhere near (unintelligible)

CONAN: Well, that's Smurf turf.

PESCA: Yeah, Houston is going to be joining the Big East. They just invited Eastern Carolina. Anytime you get the multi-directional schools, you know you're in a little bit of trouble. So, Eastern Carolina and Tulane is going to join the Big East. Things come and go. The Big East was started as a basketball conference. And when the money wasn't so huge back in the '70s when it started, it was a great idea. But now, like Jim Boeheim says, it doesn't make so much sense to - well, Jim Boeheim's complaint with that football shouldn't be running the show. But the idea of a basketball-only conference isn't that viable.

The way the economics of college basketball, by the way, are, the tournament is worth, you know, $770 million a year to broadcast it. The tournament drives everything, but regular play is not such an economic engine, whereas college football, any given Saturday, you know, the town of Lincoln, Nebraska, becomes - sorry, the stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, becomes the third largest city in the state of Nebraska on a football Saturday. That's always been such, but now, a very strong case can be made that college football is the second favorite sport in America, behind only pro football. Lots of money there.

CONAN: And what does this do, though? Is there any test when schools leave the places that they've been forever, their traditional rivalries, the places - the schools they've played forever, what does that do to do their fan base?

PESCA: Well, it's terrible. You know, and Texas A&M and Texas not playing is a really bad thing. And everyone will remember, you know, Maryland's great games against Duke, Carolina, NC State. I mean, these are just some of the greatest contests ever. Maybe you could reschedule one or two of these games, but you're not going to have the game-in-game-out, year-in-year-out rivalries. Now for the most part, the schools that are jumping up to bigger conferences, you know, if you polled the Missouri fan base, they'll miss some of their traditional rivalries, but they want to play in the SEC. So, the fans of teams like to move up to bigger conferences as well. It's just the overall landscape of college football, I do think, gets hurt.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. And our guest, of course, Mike Pesca. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Nicole(ph) is with us from Boise.

NICOLE: Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Nicole. Go ahead, please.

NICOLE: Nice to talk to you. Well, I'm not a football fan at all. But I have to laugh because I'm from a much bigger city, but living in Boise, it doesn't matter who they play. This town goes nuts for Boise State University.

CONAN: Well, welcome to the Big East.

NICOLE: Yeah. Yeah. They're not going to care. This town is not going to care. It's the only thing going on. And I think that it would be - it'll be great for everybody because then there'll be the not much more exposure. But literally, the whole town is more crazy for Boise State University than when I lived in Los Angeles, how people reacted to the Lakers. The whole town becomes blue and orange. On game day, every place is empty because everybody is watching the game. So I don't think it's going to make any difference. It's probably going to make it even that much crazier here.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Nicole.

NICOLE: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

PESCA: And we should say, Boise State is going to be a football-only member of the Big East. So, you know, the women's lacrosse team will stay play their old Mountain West rivals. But I do have to say, Neal, before when you said what about these super conferences, I was a little ambivalent about it. The idea of a Boise State, a team which by no - has no history or didn't really have a great history before Chris Petersen became the coach there, building itself up, becoming this national power that knocks on the door and you can't ignore, I do think that'll be much harder if we do get to the era of the super conference, and that is the sad thing.

CONAN: There's also the question of - if the super conferences do break away to get their own lucrative TV deals, even more lucrative TV deals, the NCAA has always had, well, at least a lip service to the idea of the college athlete and certainly in big time sports like football. Would there be any shred of a fig leaf of protection for college student athletes anymore?

PESCA: A sliver of a shred of a fig leaf, I think, they're going through. I mean, I think once you ask the college athlete what section of the country is Houston in, and if they say East and you give them credit for that, we're going down a bad road in terms of student athletes. The other thing - the one thing that student athlete or the idea of the student athlete was always trotted out as a reason not to go to a bona fide playoff system because it would hurt the finals. But now they are going to a bona fide playoff system, which I think is good for the sport of football. But student athlete is usually an argument they use when it's convenient, and then when there's a lot of money there, will find a way to work around the ideal of the student athlete.

CONAN: Let's get Allan on the line. Allan is on the line with us from Lake Orion in Michigan.


CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ALLAN: Don't be mad at me if I sound aggravated or angry. But I was a school teacher for a long time and kids went away to college and it was very difficult for them, including my two daughters. And, you know, they'll be paying for their financial aid forever. And when I hear you talk about Maryland spending $52 million to get out of the ACC to join the Big Ten, where they will be weak sister, it kind of nauseates me the way money is used in sports today. And my last comment is, you know, when you're saying - you're talking about student athletes, be for real.

CONAN: Yes, well...

ALLAN: Be for real. I mean...

CONAN: You're speaking more openly than I did. I think you got the point, though.

ALLAN: Yeah.

CONAN: And, Mike Pesca, the amount of money here is just unreal.

PESCA: The amount of money is staggering. But I would say that in the case of Rutgers or Maryland, having to pay exit fees, these are probably rational economic decisions. If you want to get really indignant, look at what - and this isn't about realignment - but look at what Tennessee has done with its football coaches. They fired Phil Fulmer, who won a national championship. Just last week, he was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame. Great coach, but they had to pay him. They had to pay him over $100,000 a month for four years.

Then, Lane Kiffin was the coach. He left for USC. And then they had Derek Dooley as the coach and they just fired him. And now they're going to have to pay him over $100,000 a month for four years. They're paying these guys not to coach, about $5 million. And the University of Tennessee doesn't have the money to cover it. So the way they're going to pay off these coaches not to coach is that they're not going to give a gift - this is what they call it. I don't - I'm not an accountant, but it seems like this is a weird way to look at your revenue.

But they're not going to give the annual gift that the athletic program would give to their academic program of $6 million. This way, they could cover the cost of buyouts on coach's contracts. Just last week, Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, discussed the escalation of coach's salaries and he says it's unsustainable. And paying coaches a lot of money, you know, I'm sure Alabama thinks they have a bargain in Nick Saban. Not everyone earns their money. But paying coaches a lot of money is one thing. Paying coaches at a public institution - where money is tight - not to coach, that's the sort of thing that really could - well, I think it could bring right and left together, you know, when...


PESCA: ...liberals and Tea Parties both decrying it actually.

CONAN: Mike Pesca is our correspondent in New York. He covers sports. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Melissa(ph). Melissa with us on the line from San Jose.

MELISSA: Yes. Hi. I was calling - I'm a WVU Mountaineer fan. I grew up in Morgantown, and they moved to the Big 12 this year, and it's been fantastic for me because I finally get to watch games.

CONAN: Ah, so they've moved back to you.

MELISSA: Yeah. Well, they're still playing in the Midwest. But they must have a better TV contract or something because I've been able to watch almost every game.

CONAN: And did they have a good year this year?

MELISSA: Unfortunately, not the best year. But hopefully next year, it'll be better.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much and we wish you and the Mountaineers the best of luck.

MELISSA: Thank you.

CONAN: And that TV deal, though, that is a much a better TV deal. They get to see - be seen on many more screens across the country. That will help with recruiting and, well, on and on it goes, Mike.

PESCA: Yeah. And when - I quoted Jim Boeheim and said money and football, the unsaid thing was money and football and television. And there's a lot of thought that ESPN specifically is driving a lot of this realignment. The AD, athletic director of Boston College, had to backtrack a year or so ago when he was quoted as saying that ESPN was advising him on telling him what to do, on what conference to be a part of. So not just television in general, but ESPN certainly likes a lot of this and is driving, you can say, just because they represent a lot of the money in the realignment.

Another thing is they're starting all these new networks, like NBC has a foothold, they have a 24-hour sports network. And what those networks need are inventory, which just means you got to play a lot of games. So I think the contract in general for conferences, even - not even the biggest conferences will be going up and up and up just because there are new outlets that want to show these games on television.

CONAN: You want to start a football team that has a college around it, Mike? We can do it.

PESCA: That's the way to go. Yeah. So we'll hire as the president of our university Bill Parcells and go from there.

CONAN: Jersey guy. Like it.


CONAN: Here's Mart(ph) from San Francisco with an email: Texas Longhorns and Texas A&M played football together for 117 years. It was a sad day when A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC over jealousy and squabble about the University of Texas Longhorn Sports Network. Again, TV. It split many Texas families in half and furthered the case that the NCAA football is no longer about the schools and the students as it is about the money. What a greedy country we live in.

Before we let you go, Mike Pesca, there is a game coming up. You referenced Alabama-Notre Dame, and everybody thinks Alabama should win, just the same way as the last two times these teams played for the national championship.

PESCA: Yeah. These are the two best defenses in the country, and that's why I wouldn't pencil anyone in right away as an automatic. What we saw - Alabama had an escape against Georgia. And they had really - in the SEC finals, and they really had worn down Georgia's defense. And that just is not going to happen against Notre Dame. I do note that the last time Notre Dame played, a couple of weeks ago, and the next time they play, which will be for the championship, that will be an interregnum of 40 days. And I count, and I think there are nine popes that served for shorter reigns than those 40 days, just to pick a Catholic comparison. So that's another thing that college football has to look at.

The one thing I think I want to address is it's not like it used to be. You know, there's always been corruption in college football. I'm not saying it's corrupt. There's always been greed. It's always been a mercenary sport. And it used to be such a brutal sport that Theodore Roosevelt had to come in and essentially start the NCAA because people were getting killed. So I wouldn't want to compare it to the, quote, unquote, "good old days" and think that things are always better. Actually, it's gradually been reforming for the better, little by little.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much, as always.

PESCA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Mike Pesca with us from New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.