I love the tradition of college football. The fact that as an Ohio State grad, I sing the same songs and do the same cheers that my parents did when they were in school and that current OSU students are still doing is incredibly special. The literal century-plus history of regional rivals and how that animosity is passed down from one generation of player and fan to the next is what makes this game the most fun and passionate sport on the planet.
So I certainly don’t want to lose the things that make college football unique, but as my good, personal friend Bob always says, “Times, they are a-changin'.” Will there be tradeoffs in this new paradigm that some people will be uncomfortable with, certainly, but in the end, I do think that the still ongoing conference realignment that swept the nation last week will eventually be positive and fruitful for the teams involved, the Big Ten, Ohio State, and the sport as a whole.
“It’s All About the Benjamins”
College football — like most things in this world — has always been ruled by money. In the past, it was the boosters and the bowls and the bag men and the state houses and while it still is run by many of those groups to certain extents today, the people holding the real purse strings are the TV networks and streaming services. In my day job, I am the news editor for an outlet that covers the television and streaming business, and one truism that continually factors into nearly every story, in one way or another, is that traditional, linear TV is dying and that live sports — especially football — are the only things keeping it from complete extinction.
Therefore, these billion-dollar media conglomerates are willing to throw around obscene amounts of money in order to secure broadcast rights for any sport that people will willingly pay to watch. Because universities and athletic departments need money to operate, and since the state legislatures that oversee public universities — which make up the vast majority of Power 5 (or is it Power 4 now?) football conferences — have been gutting academic budgets for decades, they have no choice but to chase the money wherever they can get it.
So, with networks ready to spend, it is up to schools and conferences to ensure their existence by grabbing the bag while they can. Someone is going to cash in, so it might as well be you, because if you dawdle, that money might disappear, and with it your ability to keep your organization afloat.
The utterly embarrassing implosion of the Pac-12 happened because former conference commissioner Larry Scott couldn’t see how easy this whole thing was. Instead of taking the money from a media company that wanted to partner with the conference on the Pac-12 Network, he decided to go it alone and ended up starting the chain reaction that led to the destruction of his league.
There is money to be had, so go get it before someone else does.
Are these brazen money grabs becoming? Nope. In a sport like college football — and more importantly from a conference like the Big Ten — there has always been an effort to maintain a pretense of being above the most craven aspects of operating multi-billion dollar sports leagues. However, there is no longer any way to deny that adding Rutgers and Maryland was about money; adding USC and UCLA was about money; adding Oregon and Washington was about money (I honestly don’t know what the hell adding Nebraska was for), but also about the Pac-12 collapsing in on itself, so you could get the teams at a discount.
So, will adding four schools from the west coast offend the priggish sensibilities of some of the most stalwart traditionalists in and around college football? Of course, it already has. But these moves will ultimately be good for Ohio State and the Big Ten because they will allow them to extract more money from their media partners.
As I said before, there will be concessions and there will be sacrifices. Attempting to navigate a cross-continental conference is going to be far harder on Olympic sports than it is on football and basketball, but with all of that extra money that the Big Ten is bringing in, I trust they can figure it out, and if not, it’s up to us to hold them accountable.
Both time and capitalism necessitate change; things that remain stagnant, die — be they bodies, businesses, or college conferences. Realignment is all about money, so it was inevitable that things would have to change, and the only thing that schools and leagues can do is navigate those inevitable changes as intelligently as they possibly can whether they have years to plan for them or they are just dropped in their laps.
I don’t believe that the Big Ten wanted to bring in Oregon and Washington in 2024, but when it was evident that there was a firesale happening in the Pac-12, it made sense to snatch them up now before someone else could, and in doing so, the conference got a discount, as the Ducks and Huskies will not receive full media payouts until the next media rights deal begins in 2030, but will certainly still bring in extra value for the new (still being finalized) deals with CBS, Fox, and NBC.
“Because of Our Traditions, We’ve Kept Our Balance for Many, Many Years”
As college football continues on its march to two super conferences, many are bemoaning the loss of the traditions that made the sport what we sickos know and love today, and I get that. But, the sport will still be — in large part — about regional rivalries. Yes, it might be less so with Ohio State regularly playing USC and Oregon (and potentially North Carolina or Florida State if I had my way), but do you really think that The Game will lose its meaning for Buckeye fans, even if it is moved off of the last weekend of the regular season?
Will it change the meaning of the Buckeyes’ rivalry game if it’s played in October instead of November? Of course, but OSU fans will still hate Michigan and vice versa; that ain’t changing. Yes, it sucks that the Apple Cup won’t be a conference game anymore, but you know what? Unless the Big Ten or Pac-4 (or whatever the conference will be called when it merges with the ACC or the Mountain West) mandates a 12-game conference schedule, Washington and Washington State can still play every year, and they absolutely should — as should the Oregon schools with the Civil War.
I get that change is hard, but I am already geeked up thinking about the Buckeyes playing Lincoln Riley’s Trojans every few years.
The hand-wringing around these changes is understandable, but things change. If baseball — the stodgiest and most conservative of sports in the land — can adopt interleague play, expand its playoffs, move the Brewers from the AL to the NL and the Astros from the NL to the AL, expand the designated hitter, and adopt a pitch clock, college football can adapt as well. While those comparisons are admittedly apples to oranges, the fact remains that change is not only possible in sports, but it is inevitable.
Ohio State has decades of history with USC (and to a lesser degree UCLA) thanks to their association with the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes and Ducks have developed a nice budding rivalry having faced off in the national title game nearly a decade ago, and Oregon coming to Columbus and beating the home team in 2021. OSU and UW have played numerous times during bowl and regular season matchups in recent decades as well.
As these new conference foes play more often in the regular season or in Big Ten Championship Games, the erstwhile Pac-12 teams will develop new rivalries with B1G opponents; who knows, maybe having UCLA and Rutgers play on a semi-regular basis will be the thing that defines the future of both of these storied programs.
I fully believe that schools, conferences, and college football as a whole should do whatever they can to maintain as many traditions as possible. But Texas and Arkansas used to be a really big deal, it’s not anymore, and the sport and both programs survived (only to be reunited in the SEC next season, so maybe that undermines my point).
“Things Are Gonna Get Easier. Ooh Child, Things’ll Get Brighter”
Ultimately, Oregon and Washington (and USC and UCLA) joining the Big Ten only solidifies the conference’s place in the hierarchy of college sports. While still a step behind the SEC in terms of on-field football performance, by adding in the Los Angeles and Seattle media markets, it will be nearly impossible for any college conference to ever have the type of media coverage and value that the Big Ten now owns.
While that is obviously not the sexiest way to look at college sports, it is the way that matters most. More money means better facilities, improved investments in player experiences, higher paid coaches, and more, but not just for football and basketball. While more sports than you think actually bring in substantial amounts of money, media rights are what keep most athletic departments operational.
So, if adding four schools from thousands of miles away that have no real connection with a now-18-team conference that was originally formed to serve less than a dozen Midwest institutions means that everyone involved has more money to spend on wrestling, volleyball, field hockey, softball, soccer, track & field, synchronized swimming, and, yes, football as well, then that is good for everyone involved, including the fans.
Between realignment and the expanded College Football Playoff, there are a lot of people out there telling you this is either going to be awful for the sport or it's going to be incredible for the sport. The truth is — while I clearly have my opinion — no one really knows what is going to happen, and if they did, it almost certainly wouldn’t be the entirely bad or entirely good scenarios that people are currently painting.
All I know is that Oregon, UCLA, USC, and Washington are all good to great college football programs, so adding them to Ohio State’s schedule on a rotating basis means that we will have more exciting games to watch than we did before. While I still get psyched up to see the Buckeyes bludgeon Indiana and Northwestern, imagine if instead of those two teams, it was Oregon and USC?
Of course, it might mean that Ohio State has a few fewer wins over the next decade or so, but it will generate a ton more excitement and anticipation around the team. And as someone who loves Buckeye football but turns to the team more for entertainment than the defining trait of my entire personality, that’s a tradeoff that I am willing to make.
“This Is the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine”
Make no mistake about it, this is not the end of changes in college football. The Big Ten will add more teams, the league will change how it does its schedule and postseason, the College Football Playoff will have to reconfigure its plans for next season, and so on and so forth. So, if you don’t like change, enjoy this fall as much as you can, because starting in 2024, things are going to get weird.
I personally am pulling for the Big Ten to get to 24 teams by reaching down south and pulling out ACC stalwarts (FSU, UNC, Virginia Tech) while also adding Notre Dame and a couple of other west coast teams.
I personally want the Big Ten to go to 10 conference games and require one non-conference matchup be with a Power 5 school. I would also be fine with an 11-game conference schedule for what it’s worth.
I personally think the Big Ten should go to a conference semifinal format with every team playing a team-to-be-determined-later in Week 12 and the top four teams (however that’s determined) play for a spot in the conference title game. They originally had planned to do something like this during the COVID-19 season, but, oddly enough, most teams didn’t have enough players to field a roster and that was scrapped.
I love college football and the unique passion and excitement that it provides fans. So, to me, these moves only make the sport more exciting. There will be more high-quality games to get excited about and more money in the pockets of the team and university that I love.
I know there will be downsides, but while so many people are focusing on those potentialities right now, I am choosing to focus on the good that could (and I believe will) happen following these moves. The future of college athletics will always be perilous because of the corrupt and ineffectual leaders who purportedly run the entire operation, but college football is also resilient. Sports are fueled by fans, and by making moves that give fans a better product to watch on a weekly basis, college football is guaranteeing that — even though it almost certainly won’t look the same — the game will still be around in another 50 years and hopefully many, many more.