SEC expansion provokes feeble response from ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12

The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 finally announced their “historic alliance” Tuesday. You will be surprised to hear that the leaders of those sports conferences say the decision to join forces is all about the athletes.

Their “educational outcomes and experiences ... will remain the driving factor in all decisions moving forward,” according to ACC commissioner Jim Phillips. The athletes “have been and will remain the focal point” for the three leagues, Big Ten boss Kevin Warren said. Pac-12 commissioner Georgie Kliavkoff said the alliance is “grounded in a commitment to” athletes.

It’s all nonsense, of course. The three leagues are aligning for the same reason Texas and Oklahoma are set to join the SEC. Those 41 schools are looking for ways to make more money while trying to resist the SEC’s college football hegemony.

The hope for the members of the alliance is that scheduling more interconference games will mean more revenue. They want more say in the College Football Playoff expansion, while not letting the SEC flex its power in that process. And the athletics administrators of the alliance obviously are committed to the “collegiate model” that ensures they can continue to steal the value of the athletes whose opportunities they say they are enhancing.

Look, no one is expecting college athletic leaders to come out and say it’s all about the money. Still, must they lay it on so thick while pretending otherwise?

And I know university presidents long ago became more focused on fundraising than academic leadership. I don’t see why they have to go so far as Duke president Vincent E. Price, who said in the joint statement: “The alliance is first and foremost a statement about the vital connection of academic excellence to college athletics.”

Warren took the silliness up a notch at a news conference. The alliance, Warren said, “signifies there’s still a lot of goodness in college athletics.” A person in Warren’s position can’t say the alliance signals there’s a lot of greed in college athletics, but he can’t come up with something better than that?

These are the kind of ridiculous things leaders of the alliance say to give cover to their financial motives. Though, to be fair, maybe they make such absurd statements to deflect from the reality that their response to the SEC expansion is so weak.

The best thing the alliance could do is announce a scheduling agreement for football. More good games would mean a chance to broker a richer media-rights deal. CFP bids could flow from there. A scheduling agreement wouldn’t have the same cachet as Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, but it would be a reaction with some financial and political heft behind it.

The alliance members couldn’t manage that. They said there will be scheduling component, but couldn’t say what they hope it will look like. That’s because the 41 programs in the alliance are locked into scheduling contracts far into the future. What’s the point of announcing this alliance now if it’s more aspirational than tangible?

Don’t you dare suggest alliance members are just trying to make it look like they are doing something, anything, to counter the SEC’s expansion. Said Warren: “I wouldn’t say this is a reaction to Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC.” You see, it’s all just a weird coincidence that the three leagues are teaming up soon after the most powerful league announced that it’s growing.

The alliance members said a working group of athletic directors will hammer out the details of an inter-conference scheduling agreement. Its goal will be creating good matchups that still “honor historic rivalries and the best traditions of college football.” Man, college football’s leaders just can’t help saying things that no one believes.

Long-term football-scheduling agreements between conferences are notoriously difficult to pull off. The Big Ten and Pac-12 were to begin one in 2017, but that deal fell apart less than a year after it was announced. Not even the pandemic could get leagues on the same page. You may recall that the SEC rejected the ACC’s offer of a “plus-one” scheduling deal for 2020.

It seems to me the leaders of the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 would be better off going alone in this. Respond to the SEC’s expansion with one of their own. Add football programs that make their league’s media rights more valuable. That’s better than an ambiguous scheduling alliance.

The Big 12 has eight programs that are being left behind in that collapsing conference, and at least half of them take football seriously. Those programs might still be absorbed into the alliance leagues.

Fox Sports analyst Dave Wannstedt, a former Pitt football coach, told a Chicago radio station that conference expansion was discussed at Fox’s meetings last week in Phoenix. According to Wannstedt, the possibilities include West Virginia to the ACC, Kansas and Iowa State to the Big Ten and Oklahoma State and Kansas State to the Pac-12.

All that’s happening with college football — the realignments, the expansions, this new alliance, marketing deals for athletes — are leading to the inevitable formation of a so-called super league. Eventually, the best programs from the Power 5 will break off and form their own conference. Those programs will keep more money for themselves, leave behind the NCAA (which has become increasingly useless to them) and stop denying players their basic economic rights (which has become increasingly untenable, legally and politically).

In the meantime, the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 are offering a feeble response to the SEC’s expansion. I don’t see how the alliance will do much to curtail the SEC’s growing financial strength. Good thing, then, that the alliance is all about the well-being of athletes.