You know what I haven't done in a while? Write a long article about the future of college sports where I act like I know what's going to happen. With the paywall still down for maybe one more day (we finally solved the issue), I'm gonna just ramble on about where this is all headed.
I've already written about a lot of this over the past few years. Many of you will likely remember this image when I wrote about this a few years ago:
And that was before the Big Ten TV deal was finalized with the addition of the Pac 12 schools. If this image were made today, the blue line would outpace the yellow line.
But the yellow line and the blue line would still double the other lines. And that's the issue. Since I last posted that image about a year ago, the pale blue (periwinkle?) line of the Pac 12 disappeared. And the red line and the gray line have been looking at each other and saying "now that periwinkle is gone, we can catch up to blue and yellow above, right?"
I'm sorry, they just can't. Brett Yormark has been high-fiving himself for eight straight months after coming back from the dead and killing the conference everyone said would kill the Big 12. But when he looks over at Jim Phillips, he immediately reads the "we still can't catch them" expression on his face.
To catch them they need eyeballs. As I've written three times, eyeballs are the new butts. Eyeballs for the Big 12 and ACC would equal ratings and ratings would equal dollars and if they can double their dollars, they can catch up to the Big Ten and SEC. But there's just no way for them to grab the number of eyeballs they would need.
The best way to frame this, I think, is to look at stadium capacity. That doesn't matter as much any more (eyeballs, not butts), but a program that built a stadium for 100,000 butts can attract way more eyeballs than a program that only built a stadium for 45,000 people. The massive stadiums = the blue blood programs with millions of fans. And the money coming from those fans drives the sport of college football.
Here are the 20 largest college football stadiums. Current (as of 2024) Big 12 and ACC programs are in bold.
1) Michigan (107,601)
2) Penn State (106,572)
3) Ohio State (102,780)
4) Texas A&M (102,733)
5) LSU (102,321)
6) Tennessee (101,915)
7) Texas (100,119)
8) Alabama (100,077)
9) Georgia (92,746)
10) Oklahoma (86,112)
11) Nebraska (85,458)
12) Clemson (81,500)
13) Florida State (79,560)
14) Notre Dame (77,622)
15) South Carolina (77,559)
16) USC (77,500)
17) Arkansas (76,212)
18) Wisconsin (76,118)
19) Michigan State (75,005)
20) Washington (70,083)
(If we still had the 1980's Memorial Stadium capacity – around 76,300 – we would have been 17th on this list. But over the years we've reduced the horseshoe and the west balcony and our capacity is now 60,600. Sorry - that's a topic for a different day.)
You see what I'm saying, right? The 20 largest stadiums in college football:
0 Big 12
8 Big Ten
Those programs had the ability to attract butts in 1960 and those programs still have the ability to attract eyeballs (and butts) in 2024. Choose your topic around college football (which drives all of college athletics) and the answer remains the same. Which programs can generate NIL money? Which programs can keep up in the arms race of coaching salaries and facilities? Which programs would have the ability to pay players if that's the next step? Pretty much right down the line it's the programs with massive stadiums.
Why are Florida State and Clemson desperate to get out from under the ACC Grant Of Rights which has a stranglehold on their media rights until 2034? This. Why does Notre Dame know that their days as an Independent are likely over? This. What makes "Oregon and Washington in the Big Ten??" make sense? This.
The last few years, as I see them, have been a consolidation. I've seen the term "Power Four" thrown around the last few weeks (the Power Five included the Pac 12) but I just don't think that's gonna be a thing. I believe it's just a Power Two now. And today's announcement is the first step towards the next phase of college football. Where I believe we end up with new tiers.
For years, before "FBS" and "FCS", there was Division I and Division I-AA. Division II and Division III were still the small schools doing their own thing, but Division I needed a split. So the Montana States were on this side of the line and the Ohio States (and even the Kent States) were on that side of the line. Those tiers mostly held the same when the terms "Football Championship Subdivision" and "Football Bowl Subdivision" were coined.
Now I think there will be three tiers to what used to be "Division I." Which, I guess, is really five tiers if you count Division II and Division III. There's a huge question here as to whether the NCAA is even the governing body over the Big Ten and SEC once they start paying players, but setting that aside, here's five tiers:
1 - The Big Ten and SEC. Both expand to either 20 or 24 teams. Those 40-48 teams develop a system of paying players.
2 - The other seven conferences (Big 12, ACC, AAC, MAC, Sun Belt, CUSA, and WAC)
3 - The FCS schools
4 - What's always been known as Division II
5 - What's always been known as Division III
(I'll get to the "but what about basketball?" Hang on.)
I don't know if the exact breakdown will look like that. As I mentioned above, it's possible that 2-3-4-5 are the "NCAA" and 1 becomes something else entirely. And if that happens, we don't even know if "Big Ten" or "SEC" would matter anymore. (Which would be a little bit scary for us because there wouldn't be anything tying us to all of this anymore.)
I'm breaking it down like that to say this. The process that started with the announcement that Texas and Oklahoma would be moving to the SEC ended with the Oregon/Washington move to the B1G and the death of the Pac 12. Today's announcement, I think, begins the next phase.
Are the Big Ten and SEC done expanding? We don't know. Florida State is having internal meetings where they're actually pondering questions like "is it worth the loss of $572 million in exit fees and forfeited broadcast rights to get out now?", so we have absolute proof that schools are desperate to get out of any conference not named Big Ten or SEC. And I agree with the powers that be at Florida State and Clemson - this right here is the next major shift, and being on the outside looking in essentially makes them SMU when the Southwest Conference folded.
I've seen it written that the ACC and Big 12 should do a "best 18 football programs" merger and become the "third" conference of 18 teams, but the attendance chart at the top convinces me that it wouldn't work. If the Pac 12 merger as originally proposed in 2011 had happened (Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State to the Pac 12), then maybe there could have been a "third" conference centered around Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Oregon, and Washington. But with Texas and Oklahoma later moving to the SEC and the others headed to the Big Ten, there just aren't blue blood names which could support a third conference.
I've made this point many times, but the question that stops this entire debate (at least for me) is "who is the best football program in the Big 12?" What team came to mind when you read that? Any teams? Did you stumble a little and try to list off the teams? Here's the new Big 12:
Thinking only with a football mind, how is even possible to call that a power conference? If you made a list of the top-25 football programs of all time, would a single team listed there make the list? Absolutely not. And if you have a conference without a single top-25 program, do you even have a "power" conference?
So as that begins to settle in – as some 4-star quarterback realizes that an offer from Indiana might have more career-boosting potential than an offer from TCU – the separation will grow. And once the Big Ten and SEC figure out stipends paid to players, no recruit would accept a Utah offer if they also had a Rutgers offer. Rutgers will be able to pay them and Utah can only offer free tuition.
See where I'm going with this?
Today's announcement is centered around the next step in college athletics (which, as Josh Whitman predicted at his last two media roundtables, will be payments to players). There are current lawsuits pending against the NCAA which focus on this topic. You've heard all about the center of this debate over the last decade, I'm sure: "with the amount of money coming in, how can the amateur model continue?" NIL was introduced as the first answer, and now payments are coming.
My guess (purely my guess) is that the payments will come in the form of stipends. All athletes from the revenue sports (football, men's basketball, women's basketball) would receive a flat stipend. They're not contracts. The star quarterback won't get more than the backup kicker. I think they'll settle on a system of a flat stipend for everyone and then NIL earnings fill the pockets of the star quarterbacks and point guards.
Which would eventually make a Rutgers offer much more attractive than a Miami offer. And Miami knows it. And Miami will be trying to do anything they can to get one of the chairs in the SEC (or even the Big Ten?) once the next round of music stops. There was never going to be a system where 133 schools can all pay the players the same stipend. So this whole exercise, to me, is about finding the right number of teams that could all pay the same amount. Is it the current 36 schools in the Big Ten and SEC? Is it 40? Is it 48? Could it possibly stretch to 54 with a third conference of 18?
When this Big Ten/SEC "advisory committee" meets for the first time, that will be on the agenda (among a dozen other things). The framework has been moving towards a "Power Two" for a while now, so they need to figure how much they'll be paying and how many schools that will be. And then they can get to everything else.
Let's close with the basketball question. What does this do to basketball? And expanding beyond that, what about volleyball? And wrestling? Is this a structure where the Big Ten and SEC schools become the power schools in every sport?
Those Big 12 schools listed above make up a really solid basketball conference. Are we supposed to think that a Penn State basketball offer becomes more valuable than a Kansas basketball offer? No way, right?
I don't have the answers there. It could be that the Big Ten and SEC decide that college football is this thing over here, and it's managed by the Big Two Association (let's call it the BTA), and then every other sport remains under the guidance of the NCAA. The college football playoff is simply the BTA playoff and then the NCAA can still utilize bowl games for ACC/B12/CUSA/MAC and all other FBS teams.
Or it could be that those three sports (football, men's basketball, women's basketball) fall under the BTA guidance while every other sport is the NCAA. Or maybe the BTA becomes this quasi-professional tier above the NCAA where even fencing athletes can get paid. For everyone outside the BTA, the NCAA operates just like it used to. Inside the BTA, those 36 (or 40, or 48) schools live in the "not professional, but certainly not amateur" realm.
Am I ready for a college basketball tournament that only puts those 48 schools in a bracket? Absolutely not. Do I think that the NCAA can go on operating under the same "now billions of dollars, but still amateurs" policies. Absolutely not. Do both of those put the NCAA Tournament at risk? Absolutely.
Something will have to change. More lawsuits are coming. Without question, in the next 10 years, the distribution of all this money will change significantly. We know it can't be distributed evenly across 362 D-I basketball programs or 133 FBS football programs, so what's the number that works?
The Big Ten and SEC will now start meeting to figure that out.