When I was a kid – and dinosaurs roamed the earth – your team being “in a conference” meant you could drive to the away games. Our high school was in a conference. No rival was more than 20 minutes by car. My college was in a conference; no campus was beyond two hours.
The kids from rival schools would see one another at dances or mixers, maybe razz one another, maybe flaunt their team jackets when they won the conference championship.
Today a conference – at least the college kind – is a different animal. It’s a mini-cartel. Its interests are financial. It puts walls up around its members, sells rights, charges fans to watch it.
And today a conference picks its members the way Hugh Hefner picked his bunnies. Who’s the most attractive? And who’ll bring in the most business?
How far away has nothing to do with it.
So Thursday, we saw the Pac-10, whose roots are in schools near the Pacific Ocean, sign up Colorado, from the very close-by, ahem, Rocky Mountains.
And later today, Nebraska, from a state on the wide American prairie, figures to vote to join the Big Ten, which was once mostly schools near the Great Lakes.
Never mind that the distance from Penn State, the most recent new member, to Lincoln, Neb., is around 1,000 miles. This is no longer about driving.
It’s about driving profits. Where’s Boomer Sooner?
Nebraska in the Big Ten? Nebraska playing Northwestern, Wisconsin or Purdue? It sounds about as right as ketchup on ice cream.
Nebraska should be playing Oklahoma, every season, as it used to do for 71 uninterrupted years, from Calvin Coolidge to Bill Clinton, until its conference, the Big Eight, got greedy and became the Big 12, and the storied Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry, in which people annually pulled on their colors, hung out their car flags and drove into enemy territory, was only scheduled twice every four years.
Now it could go bye-bye altogether. Instead, the Cornhuskers can meet the Golden Gophers. And tradition can go to you know where.
It is too late to bemoan college sports no longer being about college. Or about sports. The BCS, the bowl games, the NCAA, the TV contracts and now the behavior of the conferences are so clearly about grabbing all the available money while inventing ways to find more of it, that you’d seem like a nerdy freshman whining that the seniors got more dates.
But at least the conferences should be honest about it. Come out and say, “We are in the entertainment business. The coaches are our actors. The presidents are our mouthpieces. TV is our god. And the players are the labor through which we make all the profits – and lucky us, they can’t go anywhere else so we don’t have to pay them a penny.
“Oh, and you, the public, are the customers we count on. Trust in us, and pretty soon we’ll have Michigan playing USC every year.”
At least then we could call this what it is. Money, money, money, money
Instead, we get double-talk and blathering about opportunities, enhancements, advancement, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Listen. If this wasn’t about TV money, why go through this upheaval? If this wasn’t about adding a championship game so that you can bring in – ta-da – even more money, why worry about having 12 teams (the NCAA requirement for a football title game)? If this wasn’t about football and basketball and their huge payouts, why else would it matter? Do you really think the swim team wants to travel an extra 500 miles to jump in a pool?
Once, college sports were a pastime. Today, they pay for the library. And the research center. And the new state-of-the-art stadium. So forget rivalries. Forget driving to the games. This is about networks, packaging, streaming rights – the kind of stuff discussed at shareholders meetings, not pep rallies.
But these supposedly wise administrators should realize this much: The bigger they inflate these sports, the more they will depend on them, the less they will control them, and the crazier they will scramble for profits before another school beats them to it, until the tail is wagging the dog.
Or has that happened already?
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).