Conference Realignment Sparks Dramatic Shifts in College Sports Landscape
In the past few years, sports fans have witnessed historic conference realignments. From the 16-team Big 10 to the now four-team PAC-12, these moves will be talked about for years to come. When these realignments take effect, there will be major impacts on the student-athletes that are a part of the new super conferences in NCAA sports.
How Did This Happen?
There is only one thing to blame on this historic realignment of college conferences: the expanded College Football Playoff. Recently, the CFP announced that it would expand playoffs to 12 teams in 2024. That is why many schools were in such a rush to join larger conferences, known as super conferences. But how does this impact other student-athletes that do not play football?
The Collapse of the "Conference of Champions"
There are many factors that led to the demise of the PAC-12: the failure to obtain TV deals, underpaying their member schools, and the aforementioned College Football Playoff. In 2022, USC and UCLA announced that they were leaving the PAC-12 to join the Big 10, which left the PAC-12 with 10 teams. On July 27, the University of Colorado at Boulder also announced plans to depart the PAC-12 to join the Big 12, leaving the PAC-12 with nine teams. On Aug. 4, Oregon and Washington stated they were leaving the conference to join the Big 10. Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah announced their departure the same day to join the Big 12, leaving the conference with just four teams: Stanford, University of California at Berkeley (Cal), Oregon State, and Washington State.
In just 24 hours, we witnessed a historic collapse of one of the most prominent conferences in collegiate sports. The PAC-12 went from nine teams to just four.
How Does This Impact Student Athletes?
It is safe to say that athletic directors did not think about the wellbeing of their student-athletes when they were making decisions to move to conferences that have the majority of their teams hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from their school. Although the higher competition in the bigger conferences is a plus for many, the negatives mostly outweigh the positives.
Months of traveling back and forth (and for some schools, traveling coast to coast for games), can be very detrimental to student-athletes. The majority of student athletes already miss some of their classes due to their practice and game schedules. Increasing traveling mileage will force athletes to miss even more class time, and also leave players more vulnerable to getting fatigued.
Missouri football Head Coach Eli Drinkwitz brought up his concerns regarding the conference realignment's effect on the mental health of athletes. Considering the already existing high rates of mental health concerns in the student athlete population, lack of sleep combined with stress from missing more class time is unlikely to resolve this issue.
What to Expect
By 2025, we can expect for the Big 10 conference to have 18 teams. The SEC will have 16 teams, and the Big 12 and ACC conferences will both have 14 teams each. Expect even fiercer competition within these conferences — there will no longer be a possibility of four equally competitive major conferences in the U.S.
In future years, this conglomerate of teams is likely to drive up competition. Prospective athletes might shoot for different schools than they traditionally may have because of changes in playing locations and schedules. Take California's youth girls soccer pool for example — the state has some of the best clubs in the country, who also feed many of their players into the soccer powerhouse schools in the west. About 66% of UCLA's current women's soccer roster is made up of players based out of California who now will primarily be playing games in the midwest.
It won't be a surprise to see the way these decisions affect prospective player commitments and drive up competition within conferences already made up of top-tier talent. But, the true result of conference changes won't be seen for at least a few years.
For the upcoming season, we can expect to see business as usual in NCAA sports. Most of the conference changes will not take effect until the 2024 academic year. This season, all eyes will be on the PAC-12 conference to either find new schools to join the conference or to find new homes for the four remaining schools by 2024. The minimum number of teams to have a conference in the NCAA is six, and the amount to be able to compete at the Football Bowl Subdivision level is eight. If the PAC-12 fails to find at least two new schools for the conference, the 109-year-old conference will cease to exist within the next year.