Earlier this week it was announced that the Big 10 conference (which currently has 12 teams) is undergoing yet another “realignment” - Maryland and Rutgers are being added for NCAA football, substantially expanding its geographic footprint and, at least in this man’s opinion, further diluting its history and tradition. This was a brazen move by Big 10 leadership for which its motives are crystal clear: money. Greater geographic coverage in advance of a new broadcast rights deal. This isn’t Notre Dame joining the conference (which would have made much more sense in light of rivalries, geography and tradition), it’s two middling programs in completely different markets. But you can bet conference leadership looked at demographic data, ran the attendance numbers, projected incremental merchandise sales and thought about the new rivalries that could be created to justify the move. Tradition be damned. It’s about money, plain and simple. No apologizing necessary.
After calming down, it dawned on me that this move, and all the other moves involving conference realignment, are merely a fixture of the “great unbundling” that is taking place across our society. Where power was projected from the top down, more and more is being driven from the bottom up. If one takes this to its logical conclusion, I can foresee a time when each big-time college program acts like Notre Dame, e.g., cutting its own TV deal and establishing its own rivalries. This has worked for ND because of its national brand and rich history, but few schools have this luxury today. But in tomorrow’s world, where audiences can be micro-targeted and schools promoted cheaply and broadly, why couldn’t rights deals be cut a la carte and not on a conference basis? Because if conferences really aren’t conferences anymore in the historical sense, e.g., schools linked by geography, culture and history, can’t we optimize the financial outcome by having schools as independent contractors and removing the friction of the conference leadership and the NCAA? Establish schedules based upon the shifting sentiment and “hotness” of specific teams and rivalries? Schools getting to keep more of their own TV money and merchandise sales? Would this be riskier for the schools who aren’t big brands on their own and national powerhouses in their own right? Absolutely. But they could opt to band together along different lines and brand themselves separately. The permutations are endless.
Department stores. Computer software. And even education. Products and services are being broken into their atomic units and optimized for price, selection, features and, most importantly, customer satisfaction. This is an inexorable trend that cannot and should not be stopped. But make no mistake, there is a cost: history and tradition. Seeing that favorite department store go out of business is upsetting but ultimately a wound that heals with time. But seeing your school playing against teams for which you have no historical reference and no fundamental reason for even caring, it is a bitter pill to swallow. As with everything, I’ll adjust and life goes on. But when the great unbundling begins to chip away at centuries-old traditions, you know that nothing is sacred.