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Fans are the Biggest Casualty in College Football Expansion

by Photo of Jake Langbecker

If college football conferences continue to expand geographically it will hurt the fan experience

Fans are the Biggest Casualty in College Football Expansion

Super conferences! Super duper conferences!

College football conference expansion is all the rage these days. It started innocently enough in 2005 when the ACC "borrowed" Miami, Boston College and Virginia from the Big East to get to 12-teams and add a conference championship game. Now it has completely spiraled out of control.

As university presidents and conference commissioners chase those ever lucrative TV dollars, fans are left to sit and watch as traditions are sacrificed in favor of money.

I'm a college football fan in general and specifically of the Wisconsin Badgers. I'm also an objective journalist and make sure not to get the two confused.

One thing that is clear from a fan's perspective is that expansion hurts the fans. It ruins traditions and rivalries and it makes it especially hard for students to travel to away games and cheer on their school.

I said as much during my recent appearance on CNBC's Darren Rovell's new sports business show. The episode dealt with the business of college football and featured IMG president George Pyrne, Pac-12 president Larry Scott and myself as guests. The show, Sports Biz: Game On, airs every Friday at 7pm Eastern on VERSUS.

As Rovell said on the show and on Twitter, it is not clear that expansion is even good from a business perspective. I happen to agree and believe it has far reaching economic consequences that are not being considered. I'll get into the business side of things later but first lets take a look at how this all unfolded.

After the initial move by the ACC in 2005, expansion died down until last year. The Big Ten added Nebraska, a good fit geographically and competitively to reach 12 teams and the Pac 10 became the Pac 12 with the additions of Colorado and Utah which also fit well geographically. Twelve is a magic number because it allows conferences to hold a championship game and one more game equals one more opportunity to earn money.

These moves helped the recently created Big Ten network and the soon to be created Pac 12 network, which was a $3 billion deal for the Pac-12. Unfortunately for the Big 12, who lost Colorado and Nebraska, they were down to ten teams and lost their conference championship game. 

This was a major blow to the remaining teams and specifically to the University of Texas, one of the biggest draws and most successful teams in the conference. As a response to the dwindling prospects of the Big 12 and desire to capitalize on all the TV networks being created, Texas decided to form the Longhorn Network in conjunction with ESPN.

This move might have been in the best interest of Texas, although that has yet to be seen, but it certainly wasn't beneficial for the other nine teams in the Big 12. The other teams would have a tough time securing a TV deal for the conference minus Texas which would be the most important team in the eyes of television executives.

The domino effect of the Longhorn Network, although you won't hear ESPN mention it, is a big factor. Texas A&M wants to leave the Big 12 for the SEC and the Longhorn Network is a big reason why. If A&M leaves that would mean there would be only nine teams in the Big 12, eight not including Texas, and common belief is that those teams would then seek homes elsewhere.

Up until yesterday, it was widely speculated that Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech would leave the Big 12 and join the Pac-12 making it the Pac-16. However, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott released a statement yesterday saying the Pac-12 would remain a 12-team conference.

Texas A&M was already accepted into the SEC and that move will happen even if Baylor or other Big 12 members attempt to sue A&M. The other confirmed move is Pittsburgh and Syracuse leaving the Big East for the ACC. Everything else regarding conference realignment is purely speculation at this point.

The Pittsburgh and Syracuse moves are the type of conference realignment that I feel hurts fans and local businesses the most. The distance from those universities to many of the other teams in the ACC is too vast to expect a lot of students and away fans to make road trips. Syracuse to Miami? 23 hours.  To Duke and North Carolina? 11 hours. The only ACC school less than 8 hours away from Syracuse is Boston College. 

You simply can't expect students to make trips that are that long. It really robs fans of experiences that are unparalleled and hurts local businesses. I made trips to Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern and they were some of my best weekends in college. When large student populations are able to travel to away games it helps boost the local economy. Hotels get booked, restaurants and bars are packed, charter bus companies get used, the list goes on.

As an example, Nebraska's first game in the Big Ten is October 1st at Wisconsin. Hotels are sold out and the city is expecting 10-15 thousand fans to make the trip to Madison. It is an eight hour trip which is long but not uncommon in the Big Ten. Wisconsin to Michigan is seven hours and a trip that is routinely made. It is a far cry from the 15+ hour trips from Syracuse and Pittsburgh to schools like Miami and Florida State.

In the future when Miami and Florida State are hosting games against the new additions to ACC, including Boston College and Virginia from the '05 expansion, they can expect to see many less away fans making the pilgrimage. Compared to when they host schools from the original ACC, that are much closer, they will see fewer hotel bookings and less economic activity in the area. The universities might not be financially impacted the same way as certain business but they should still have a vested interest in the local economy.

Another by-product of bigger conferences is the inability to maintain rivalries and play every team in the conference. For instance, one of the road trips I made was to Michigan and Wisconsin played Michigan all four years I was an undergraduate. Due to the new divisional alignment in the Big Ten, Michigan and Wisconsin don't meet again until 2015. For students who enrolled in the fall of 2011 and graduate in four years that means they won't have a single opportunity to attend a Wisconsin-Michigan game as a student. That is yet another unfortunate effect of bigger conferences that hurts the fans.

College expansion isn't necessarily bad but when conferences expand too far geographically it has harmful effects. The people feeling the brunt of these effects are the fans missing out on attending away games and local businesses. Hopefully moving forward conference presidents realize this. 

Larry Scott certainly realized it and maybe hearing my fan's take on Sports Biz: Game On was a factor. Either way, it is good news for the fans of college football that the Pac-12 remains just that, a conference of twelve.

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