by Brian M. Ingrassia, author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football
In July 2021, the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma announced they would leave the Big 12 Conference by 2025 and join the Southeastern Conference (SEC). In doing so, they will push that college-sports juggernaut up to sixteen members, casting aside virtually all doubt that the SEC is the biggest football conference in the land. Certainly, the SEC plays the most profitable brand of the collegiate gridiron game, with instant name recognition and huge venues. Four SEC stadiums currently top 100,000 seats each, while another nine are bigger than every single Major League Baseball stadium. Texas and Oklahoma, with stadiums topping 100,000 and 80,000 seats, respectively, will fit right in. The SEC, it seems, is poised for dominance.
This is clearly a momentous time in college sports, but what does it all mean? Why, in short, do athletic conferences realign?
The athletic conference is an old institution, dating to the turn-of-the-century Progressive Era, and it has shifted over time. Arguably, the first conference was the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, later known as the Big Nine or Big Ten. This is the conference that, as of 2021, has fourteen members and a logo that reads as “B1G”—which, of course, looks like it could easily be “Big 16” or some other indeterminate (yet large and impressive) number.
The recent Texas-Oklahoma-SEC realignment appears to throw American college athletics into turmoil. Historian Andrew McGregor astutely points out that the SEC now seems poised to challenge the power of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in an era when “the amateur model is no longer the status quo.” After all, the US Supreme Court recently ruled that college athletes can receive greater compensation for athletic services. Now, more than ever, is a time suited for organizations primed to make money off of college sports, rather than for an organization whose stated raison d’être is to ensure that college athletes remain amateurs
The NCAA has been around since football’s crisis era of 1905–1906, and ever since World War II it has played an increasingly large role in regulating collegiate sport. In the 1950s, the NCAA even created the term student-athlete as a way of dodging worker-compensation laws. Now, big-time athletic programs are poised to take advantage of the erosion of the NCAA hegemony.
Although the present is a unique moment in the history of college sports, it is not without precedent. Historically, athletic conferences have realigned at times when new media or transportation technologies—and their implications for the profitability of college athletics—intersect with changing ideas about higher education. At such moments of disruption, some colleges and universities start to perceive themselves differently from other institutions, or at least come to believe they can find a better way of regulating and administering sport.
When conferences, including the Big Ten and Missouri Valley, first formed at the turn of the twentieth century, universities were forming rules regarding player eligibility and athletic commercialization. How could a college enrolling only four-year liberal arts students compete against a school admitting a wider range of pupils, including those in technical programs? How could a college prevent its football team from traveling so far that players would miss weeks of classes? Agreeing to schedule games only against like-minded institutions—say, major state universities within a 350-mile radius—was one way to handle this dilemma.
Over time, more concerns arose. By the 1930s, some small, private institutions started seeing themselves as liberal arts colleges. They were not in the business of big lecture courses or graduate education, and they also were not in the business of funding lavish athletic spectacles for tens of thousands of spectators or millions of radio listeners. For such schools, it no longer made sense to play sports against big universities, teachers colleges, or junior colleges.
During the Great Depression, declining incomes made it harder for smaller colleges to survive, while government programs funded expansion of public junior colleges and teachers colleges. Small, private colleges wanted sport, but only as an educational activity for students. As a result, conferences fragmented. In Illinois, for example, a conference with over twenty members split when ten liberal arts colleges decided to form their own circuit. In Iowa, a similar realignment ensued when small colleges sought to distance themselves from bigger, state-funded institutions.
Seen in this light, what has prompted the most recent wave of realignment, especially the Texas-Oklahoma exodus? The reasons are more complex than can be realized in the moment, but it certainly has something to do with the massive amounts of money generated by electronic media.
In the early 1980s, at a time when the NCAA only allowed one televised football game per week, the Universities of Georgia and Oklahoma sued the NCAA. The Supreme Court ruled in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1984) that the NCAA had violated antitrust law. The limit on televised games was now gone. It should come as no surprise that around the same time, coaches’ salaries started going through the roof. Although student-athletes were still bound by NCAA regulations, nothing stopped coaches from becoming free agents.
By the early twenty-first century, conferences created their own media empires. The Big Ten Network, for instance, debuted in 2006, and the University of Texas Longhorn Network started five years later. Any conference that could gobble up the most successful and storied programs—or at least those in the biggest media markets—could make a mint. It was an athletic director’s dream come true, and clear evidence that the media tail was wagging the athletic-conference dog.
The so-called power conferences—namely, the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and ACC—are made up primarily of big universities that have, historically, seen public outreach as part of their mission. For them, sport is not merely an educational activity, the way it might be for a liberal arts college. I argue in The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football that in the early 1900s some universities so valued intercollegiate athletics that they created athletic departments, led by professional athletic directors and coaches, to administer sports. Subsequently, many larger universities did not retreat from athletic commercialism, but actually embraced it. Arguably, what we now see in 2021 is universities with big-time athletic departments hoping to profit by joining new conferences to form ever-larger sporting economies of scale. Conferences, meanwhile, are happy to oblige.
Where will it stop? No one can predict the future with certainty, but it seems as if the era of athletic-conference octopuses—with tentacles reaching out to gobble up fan bases and media markets all around the nation—has not yet come to a close. Perhaps someday the SEC will no longer be focused on the Southeast, or the Big Ten will reach a point when it can be no bigger. In the meantime, no doubt, plenty of games will be watched on television and streaming services.
Brian M. Ingrassia is Associate Professor of History at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas.