Expansion a Worry to Schools like UCF

Karen Weaver provided commentary to the Orlando Sentinel on the potential economic impact of major college conference realignment to insitutions without access to significant streams of revenue. Her comments, published on June 7, are printed below:

“Fans and observers of big-time college sports have been talking for almost 20 years about the possibility of the top 40 to 60 brand-name universities reforming into four or five “super” athletic conferences of 12-16 teams each.

It’ll never happen, some said. Not in my lifetime, others said.

Guess what? The clock is about to strike midnight.

Alumni and fans of Conference USA — of which the University of Central Florida is a member — and other mid-major Division I conferences should be worried. The economic incentives today are too large for this super conference reality not to happen this time.

The Big Ten Network, panned in 2007 because of its public cable wars with Comcast and Time Warner over fees, is by all accounts, a resounding success. It generates $8-9 million per year for each of the Big Ten’s 11 member athletic departments.

The copycats are all over this idea — we’ve heard for the past two years about a potential SEC Network, a Pac-10 Channel and the University of Texas positioning its heavyweight athletics program as its own channel — Longhorns Network. Why wouldn’t they try? The upside is tremendous — millions of guaranteed dollars pouring into cash-strapped athletic budgets at a time when debt service and operating expenses are at all-time highs.

More exposure, more money — what could be wrong with that?

Not a thing — if you’re sitting in one of those conferences talking about expansion, like the Big Ten or the Pac-10. Life looks pretty good from the catbird seat. But if you are one of the many schools who are not being mentioned as a possible target — take UCF, for example — you’re in big trouble.

Once the musical chairs stop in the next year, those sitting on the outside, including current BCS conferences such as the Western Athletic, Conference USA, Big East and, yes, the Big 12 could be obliterated; their top teams raided because they sit in prime media markets, their other teams in less populated areas watching from the sidelines.

But if you are among the scores of schools not included in this new fraternity, you have some major decisions to consider, not the least of which could be the fundamental one: How can we remain a Division I program? If you think the gap between the haves and have-nots in college athletics is wide now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Millions of new dollars will go to a select few, with the rest scrambling for the leftovers.

How do the Cinderella teams of today and tomorrow survive? Would there be a Butler men’s basketball team in the NCAA Division I final game? Would there be a Northern Iowa team to capture our imagination as it makes its magical run through the tournament? The improbable would give way to the inevitable. Powerhouses would cash in on their inherent advantages. The dream of making a run into the postseason would, in effect, be over for 70+ Division I teams.

Athletic directors, university presidents and their legions of loyal alumni in the non-numbered conferences would be wise to step up and let their voice be heard on this matter or risk the investments and energy they have expended in becoming the next great Cinderella team. What will happen to the significant investment that UCF and other rising Division I programs have made in their athletic programs? If it shakes out, we could see the rise of Division I-AA all over again — a virtual minor league — this time with a whole new cast of characters.

While it is entertaining to guess who the next members of the Big Ten or the Pac-10 might be, don’t let the musical chairs distract you from the end result: Some one will be left without a seat, and it could be your school.”

Weaver is the director of athletics at Penn State-Abington. Her doctoral dissertation examined the Big Ten Network’s rise to prominence. She can be reached at kew21@psu.edu