In My Opinion | Linda Robertson

Conference swaps shows big college football is selling soul, rivalries for money

 

lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com

Peel away the heartwarming, heart-stopping “sis-boom-bah!” and college football keeps demonstrating why it is no different from the rest of the entertainment industry. It’s all about the money.

The chaos of conference realignment continues as commissioners seek to scoop up schools possessing the most advantageous and profitable demographics. And quick, before the next zillion-dollar broadcast contract gets signed and the playoff format launches.

The latest exercise in creative cartography was carried off by the Big Ten, now the Bloated 14 with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers.

Remember those test questions that would list a set of items and ask which did not belong? What in the name of Bo Schembechler is the Big Ten Plus Two Plus Two More doing now? Ann Arbor to Columbus is a four-hour drive. Ann Arbor to New Brunswick, N.J., is 10 hours, if you drive the way Denard Robinson runs. That’s a long way to go for a tailgate party.

Maryland and Rutgers have sketchy football histories in a part of the country that isn’t as passionate about the sport as the Midwest. Maryland’s football fan base is about one-sixth that of the mammoth three million following Ohio State.

But Maryland decided to ditch the Atlantic Coast Conference, Rutgers chose to abandon the Big East and the Big Ten invited both to join because all envision a symbiotic relationship.

Maryland and Rutgers will rescue unsustainable athletic departments that consume millions of dollars. The Big Ten gains the lucrative Washington, D.C., and New York/New Jersey markets for its cable TV network.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany recognizes that the population from his core states is moving south, to the territory of the mighty Southeastern Conference, which has won six consecutive national football titles while the Big Ten has a losing bowl record over the past decade.

Delany can count on his vast alumni numbers to keep spending on tickets, merchandise and cable subscriptions, but knows his product isn’t as dynamic as the conferences producing Cam Newton, Trent Richardson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III.

Big Ten fans won’t be thrilled with schedules that include games against Maryland and Rutgers and fewer matchups against marquee teams.

Delany says he’s taking a risk, hoping the conference will raise the quality of football for its two new members. But he’s already counting the additional revenue.

Dominoes are wobbling. Whither Florida State? The ACC went 0-4 vs. the SEC over the weekend, with FSU and Clemson stung by Florida and South Carolina. The ACC Championship Game features 6-6 Georgia Tech by default, because Miami banned itself from the postseason. North Carolina is ineligible. Virginia Tech had a dud season. The ACC might see the defection of the Seminoles, but might nab Connecticut from the Big East, which is being held together by safety pins after five departures in 18 months.

Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, whose school is being transplanted to the ACC, captured the ridiculousness of remapping when he said: “Rivalries don’t matter to anyone anymore. If you ask someone at West Virginia if they like going to Texas Tech or Texas A&M and all those places — ask their fans whether they really like that.

“If these guys [conference commissioners] were running the United States in colonial times, Brazil and Argentina would be states because they have something we need … Maybe they should just have a draft. Each conference should draft teams.”

These superconferences, like the pythons gorging in the Everglades, are an invasive species. They ruin the regional feuds that are the lifeblood of college sports. What happens when Tobacco Road takes a detour? Or the Red River Rivalry dries up?

How can Boise State fans keep track of which teams they are rooting against when their Broncos are leaving the Mountain West in 2013 to join the Big West and the Big East (football only, with fellow gypsies San Diego State, Southern Methodist, Houston and Central Florida)? Except for wrestling, which is in the Pac-12.

To counteract the confusion, at least we have one team giving us clarity: Notre Dame — undefeated, No. 1 and headed to Miami to play in a national title game for the first time since 1988. The Irish, unranked in the AP preseason Top 25, are the only 12-0 team (other than ineligible Ohio State) still standing after Alabama, Kansas State, Oregon and Florida tripped. Notre Dame will play the winner of Saturday’s SEC Championship Game, Alabama or Georgia, in the Bowl Championship Series showdown Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium.

It’s the feel-good story of the season, with inspirational linebacker Manti Te’o recovering from personal loss to lead an iconic program to the peak.

But Notre Dame’s story is also very good for college football’s bottom line. It’s not cheap to run a program, pay coaches $5 million salaries and share with the Marylands.

Notre Dame’s return means higher price tags for TV rights, sponsorships, licensing fees. Everyone associated with Notre Dame’s national brand benefits — like the five ACC teams the Irish will play each season. South Florida will enjoy the money spent by their legion of fans.

Because the Irish are so golden, they can remain independent in football, although any conference would bend over backward to get them. With Notre Dame back at the center of a shifting landscape, viewership for the big game could break 30 million, which would set a cable TV record.

And the cheers of “sis-boom-bah” will be drowned out by “ka-ching!”

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