It’s all about the money.
It’s not about fan support or how good a school’s athletic or academic programs are. It’s not about tradition, and it’s certainly not about the student athletes.
What’s happening now in the Big 12 conference is almost entirely based on money, the money that comes from big-time contracts to televise college football and basketball.
Much of the support enjoyed by Kansas University Athletic Director Lew Perkins has been based on his ability to raise money for coaches’ salaries and athletic facilities. That ability to raise money was largely credited for the recent success of KU’s athletic teams. It provided the coaches and facilities that created top teams in the revenue sports — football and men’s basketball — which in turn helped support non-revenue sports like baseball and women’s rowing.
However, as illustrated in the current upheaval in the Big 12, money also can have a negative effect on college athletics. Conferences with more major television markets can charge more for the rights to televise their games; joining one of those conferences means more money for your school. The University of Nebraska reportedly stands to double its conference revenue from $10 million a year in the Big 12 to $20 million a year in the Big 10. A similar increase probably awaits the University of Colorado in the Pac-10.
Talking to the news media on Thursday, KU basketball coach Bill Self expressed frustration with “how things are being driven so much by where you live or how many homes are in your state. … There are so many things out there that to me really don’t have much effect on how good your football program is or how your basketball program is.”
So even given KU’s rich basketball tradition, the school is located in a state with a relatively small population and no major media markets. The same is true for most schools in the Big 12 except those located in Texas. Regardless of the quality of the teams, the fan support or donor support the conference simply can’t pull in the big bucks because it doesn’t have enough people watching its games on TV.
Self also saw some irony in the move to megaconferences that force teams to travel farther and lose more class time: “… the NCAA has made a bold statement in the last 10 or 20 years to provide student-athletes with the best experience they can possible have. Conference realignment, I don’t see how that’s student-athlete friendly.”
It’s also not friendly to fans and college towns that support schools and teams in many ways. A horde of red-clad Nebraska fans no longer will be driving in caravans to Lawrence for a fall football game. Western Kansas basketball fans no longer will be able to drive to Boulder to see their team. Some of the potential new alignments for KU will make it difficult for fans who can’t afford a plane ticket to ever follow their team on the road.
Many KU supporters are becoming disenchanted with the emphasis of athletics over academics, especially during the current situation. When you take that one step further to how much money and television contracts dominate athletics at KU and other universities, the scenario becomes even more distasteful.
The money is pulling all the strings, and, so far, the nation’s universities are playing along. You have to wonder what it would take to make them drop out of the game.