The Mean Season: The SEC and the Big Ten Go All In for the Cash
Why the upheaval in Division I college athletics is probably not over.
The SEC and the Big Ten Expand to 16 Universities
The recent announcements by the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Big Ten that each will expand to 16 universities confirms that interesting things are happening at the intersection of major college sports (particularly, the “revenue sports”—football and men’s basketball) and money. The two super conferences are geographically arranged to mirror the nation’s North-South (or Blue-Grey) divide dating from the Civil War.
Here are the universities in the newly expanded SEC:
The reason for the expansion, of course, is money. According to ESPN, the NCAA generated $1.15 billion in revenues in 2021 and the big kids have decided to play together. The athletic powers joining the Big Ten (USC and UCLA) and the SEC (Texas and Oklahoma) can command more, and share less, money in television rights payments than would be the case if they remained in their original conferences. Sportswriters for The Washington Post and other media have been varying degrees of livid at the rationales, which cite almost everything except money, articulated by the athletic directors of the conference-jumping universities for these moves. 
The situation is similar in the newly expanded Big Ten (a name that seems headed for extinction) which also expanded to sixteen universities. The Big Ten, much more than the SEC or other conferences, characterizes itself as a conference about academics as much as athletics. It proclaims that each existing and entering new member has been a member of the American Association of Universities (AAU), a group of research universities that meet academic requirements.
Money appears to be driving the Big Ten’s expansion into Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest television market, as the 2014 additions of Maryland and Rutgers was motivated more by access to the New York and Washington, D.C. television markets more than the academic and athletic accomplishments of the schools. Here is a map showing the new coast-to-coast Big Ten:
About Alexandria checked in with its college football experts to make sense of these events and to get an idea of what is to come. Here is what to expect:
From Athletic Conference to Business Syndicate
The idea of an athletic conference (or league) originally involved a group of similar institutions which were natural rivals with similar values in a reasonably compact geographic area. This is now over. For decades, the Big Ten consisted of large universities in seven contiguous midwestern states involved in intense rivalries, often for silly trophies. Now, we can look forward seeing, for example, Rutgers play the University of Southern California—a game that means almost nothing to either school. And, the students involved in intercollegiate athletics can look forward to missing even more time on campus while they rack up more frequent flyer miles.
The Party Isn’t Over (for Some Institutions)
The expansion of the SEC and the Big Ten to 16 universities is very likely an interim step, and several schools have reportedly expressed interest in being part of the expansion. The Big Ten is reportedly most interested in having Notre Dame join – something Notre Dame has been unwilling to do for many decades because it has profited handsomely from an exclusive television rights agreement with NBC. Now, the money derived from joining the Big Ten may be too great for even Notre Dame to pass up. While the Big Ten courts Notre Dame, it has put other interested schools like Oregon, Washington, and Stanford on hold. But, whether this year or sometime in the next year or two, it is highly likely that both will expand to 20, or possibly 24 universities.
In adding USC and UCLA in Los Angeles, the second largest television market in the country, the Big Ten is increasing its potential revenues. The nationwide fan interest in Notre Dame is also in the league’s financial interest. For the SEC, bringing in Texas, and to a lesser extent Oklahoma, creates a financial plus for the league. It would also be in the financial interest of Oregon or Washington or Stanford to join the Big Ten, and for Clemson or Miami or Florida State to move to the SEC. Adding teams will also allow the SEC and Big 10 to form divisions and to generate even more revenue from divisional playoff games.
So, a scramble has begun and rumors are flying. Here are one expert’s likely additions to the SEC and the Big Ten:
SEC Big Ten
Florida State Washington
Georgia Tech Notre Dame
Will there be losers? Of course. The schools left behind in the Pac 12, the ACC, and the Big 12 will struggle to find media deals that would be even a small fraction of what the SEC and Big Ten are expected to receive. Some universities that strive mightily to field credible football teams will be left with their metaphorical faces pressed against the window.
The Money Configuration Remains Largely Unchanged
The NCAA has been under intense criticism in the media and Congress for perpetuating a system in which the economic reward to the universities vastly exceeds the benefits realized by the athletes who play the games that create the revenue. The rhetoric about “student-athletes” and “the value of higher education” has worn extremely thin. Only a handful of college athletic programs make money. 
In July 2021 the NCAA began allowing college athletes to receive NIL (name, image and likeness) payments. However, almost nothing has reached the media about the actual compensation the athletes are receiving for NIL because the universities are citing privacy concerns. The reporting thus far indicates that most of the NIL money has gone to male athletes and that the amounts are relatively modest.
NIL payments were originally envisioned as a way to allow college athletes to make money on their names, images and likenesses from endorsements for local merchants, for example, car dealers. Recent reports of booster groups, or “collectives,” stockpiling millions of dollars to fund NIL payments suggest that the NIL concept, if unchecked, may transform college football into a pure “pay for play” system.
These events explain the recent snit involving Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher. On May 18, Saban accused Texas A&M of “buying” a highly-regarded recruiting class. Fisher fired back, denigrating Saban and Alabama’s uber-successful program. More reporting from The Sporting News on the unpleasantness between the coaches is available
Why Does All This Create a Queasy Feeling?
The sight of (supposedly) higher learning institutions scrambling to position themselves for the largest helpings of a river of cash generated by unpaid (except for NIL payments) athletes is unseemly at best. The rationales advanced for the SEC and Big Ten expansions parallel the “for the good of the game” arguments made by advocates for the LIV professional golf tour backed by Saudi Arabia: in each case high-minded rationales are articulated when the real objective is clearly to make money.
We end where we began, with a Civil War reference. The South (or the schools in the SEC) seems to prevail on the battlefield—the SEC plays better football. The Big Ten schools have an advantage because they successfully industrialized higher education by graduating tens of thousands of students (Michigan and Ohio State together have more than 1 million alumni) every year thereby building an alumni base that translates into a large television market and lucrative rights fees.
1. USC and UCLA received $19.8 million each from their former conference, the Pac-12, in fiscal 2021. SEC and Big Ten schools each received $54.6 million and $46.1 million, respectively. Reports are that the new Big Ten television contract will result in payments of approximately $100 million to each school. Additional details on conference payments to universities are available
2. Here is a sample from the Post’s incisive Sally Jenkins on July 11, 2022:
The current state of college football is this: Across the nation, paunchy, over-exalted ticket managers who title themselves athletic directors are racing in ungainly circles trying to find a padded, covering seat for their butts in a game of musical chairs. For years they cried that name, image and likeness payments to players would be a threat to the game’s tradition and uniqueness. It’s nothing compared with the destruction wrought by these administrative gluttons, with their combination of treachery and ineptitude, who would give away a century to grab a television minute.
3. Michigan and Minnesota (first game, 1892) play for the Little Brown Jug; Indiana and Purdue (first game, 1890) play for the Old Oaken Bucket, and Minnesota and Wisconsin (first game, 1890) play for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
4. According to USA Today, the five most-watched football games in 2021 were Michigan vs. Ohio State (15.9 million viewers), Alabama vs. Georgia (SEC Championship) (15.3 million viewers), Michigan vs. Iowa (Big Ten Championship) (11.7 million viewers), Auburn vs. Alabama (10.4 million viewers) and Michigan State vs. Michigan (9.3 million viewers.)
5. Fewer than 10% of Division I athletic programs generate revenue sufficient to cover their expenses according to The Wall Street Journal. More information can be found
6. ESPN reports that most of the NIL payments go to male athletes. You can find out more
Special thanks to Chuck Finke and Kelly Browning for assistance with this post.
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