Conferences Are Changing. The Sport Is, Too.

Conferences Are Changing. The Sport Is, Too.

When the college football season kicks off in earnest this Labor Day weekend, it will be a test to keep an eye on the ball. The focus for a few days may be on blocking, tackling and quick-trigger assessments of who’s up and who’s down, but then what in a sport that is on the cusp of unprecedented upheaval?

Consider what college football will look like in a year.

The Pac-12 Conference may not exist. Texas and Oklahoma, anchors of the Big 12 Conference, will be in the Southeastern Conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference will eventually be bicoastal after Friday’s agreement to add California-Berkeley and Stanford along with Southern Methodist as newfound rivals of Duke and North Carolina.

And after this season, the College Football Playoff will balloon from four teams to 12.

This is happening at a time when the movement of schools, fueled by television money, is exceeded only by the movement of players, whose program hopscotching is fueled by money from booster-funded collectives that are now permissible under N.C.A.A. rules.

Structural change may also be imminent. There are cases in federal court and before the National Labor Relations Board that are asking for athletes to be considered employees who are due wages and other benefits. There are competing bills in Congress that seek to protect the interests of athletes or schools (perhaps from one another), and a bill in the California legislature that would mandate that universities share revenue from sports with athletes.

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is raising questions about collectives that are passing themselves off as charitable organizations.

“This is the highest level of distraction in the sport’s history,” said Michael LeRoy, who teaches sports labor law at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete, a coach, an athletic director or a university president, there’s something to be distracted about.”

The big business of college athletics is, not surprisingly, at the heart of this turmoil.

The ever-escalating income gap across the industry has exacerbated a divide between the haves and the have-nots. (Ohio State reported $252 million in athletic department revenue last year, nearly tenfold that of its in-state neighbor, Ohio University.)

Stanford, Cal and S.M.U. were so desperate to join the A.C.C. that they did so at a steep discount. Stanford, which sought to eliminate 11 sports as a cost-saving measure during the pandemic, and Cal, which needed a $31 million campus subsidy last year for its athletic department to stay out of the red, will take only a 30 percent share of the A.C.C.’s average media rights distribution for the first seven years, according to a person familiar with the agreement. (The A.C.C. distributed $39.4 million per school last year, a little over half coming from its TV rights deal with ESPN.)

Under the deal approved by A.C.C. university presidents in a vote, S.M.U. will not receive any media rights distribution for seven years, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal details. Still, S.M.U., which had sought to join the Pac-12 earlier this year, is eager to move up the food chain. It will leave the American Athletic Conference, whose football-driven media rights deal pays its schools about $7 million per year.

Last year, the so-called Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten, the SEC, Big 12, A.C.C. and Pac-12 generated a combined $3.3 billion, according to tax filings obtained by USA Today. The richest programs, whose latest revenue stream is partnerships with gambling companies that have brought their own problems, plow so much money into facilities, amenities and coaching salaries that calls to share revenue with players are now coming from a previously unlikely source — coaches.

Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan football coach, read a lengthy prepared statement at a news conference this week in which he called revenue sharing with athletes a moral imperative. “When student-athletes call it a game, corporate types call it a business,” Harbaugh said. “When the student-athletes call it a business, the corporate types call it a game.”

College athletics have always held themselves apart from professional sports that way, leaning into their tie to higher education. And yet, as football and some other college sports more closely resemble a professional model, their link to the educational mission of nonprofit, largely public universities is increasingly tangential.

College athletics, though, differs from the professional model in at least one way. Professional sports leagues in North America are essentially socialist structures for billionaires, with various forms of revenue sharing, spending caps or taxes, and the milking of public funds so that no team can be mismanaged into bankruptcy. (See the Oakland Athletics.)

College athletics looks more and more like an unregulated capitalist free-for-all.

Texas and Southern California, whose football teams’ television ratings have mostly outpaced their on-field records over the last decade, jumped conferences after their pleas for a greater cut of conference revenues were dismissed. Florida State has similarly squawked about leaving the A.C.C. unless it gets more revenue. Oklahoma left behind rival Oklahoma State, effectively ending their football series that has been played every year since it began in 1904.

A year ago, the Big Ten Conference, in conjunction with its business partner, Fox, hastened the demise of the Pac-12, its Rose Bowl partner since 1946, when it poached U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. And in the time since, the Big 12 commissioner, Brett Yormark, agitated for the Pac-12’s disintegration until it came, hoping it would allow his conference to expand westward.

“This has become a soulless enterprise,” LeRoy said. “There is no moral compass. There is no brotherhood. Now you eat off your brother’s plate and you don’t care if he goes hungry.”

As Oregon State and Washington State speak with officials from the Mountain West and American Athletic Conferences about a landing spot, there is no sign that consolidation is at its end. Only that it will pause.

Ultimately, college football may resemble English soccer with promotion, relegation and a handful of marquee teams trading spots each year at the top of the table.

As Labor Day nears, all that will be set aside, at least this weekend, in college football enclaves across the country. One of those is in Manhattan, Kan., where Kansas State is coming off its first conference title in a decade and ranked 16th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, the highest it has been in the preseason poll since 2004. Ticket availability for three of the Wildcats’ home games is down to standing room-only tickets, and fund-raising has reached record levels.

“You can feel the energy,” said Gene Taylor, the Kansas State athletic director.

Still, he acknowledges the season will feel different in other ways.

Kansas State will not play Oklahoma, something it has done nearly every year since 1919, and will entertain the Big 12 newcomers Central Florida and Houston in conference games. The return next year of Colorado, a former member of the Big Eight (the forerunner of the Big 12), will restore some historical ballast to the conference, which is adding eight teams this season and next.

The conference shuffling has left Taylor uncomfortable with the travel burden being placed on Olympic sport athletes for distant conference competition, but he is not ready to join a growing number who suggest that football should be split away from other sports to allow them to return to geographically sensible configurations.

Where is this headed?

“Boy, that’s a good question,” Taylor said, taking a long pause before continuing. “Seeing what’s happened, I tell our staff, ‘Don’t lock your knees. You better remain flexible.’ Just look what happened this summer with the Pac-12. I didn’t see that coming. And I didn’t see Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC. A couple years ago, we were the conference that was going to fall apart. Lucky for us, we’ve got a commissioner who’s put us in a good spot.”

At least for now.

It is probably not difficult for Taylor to look out west and see a kindred spirit in Oregon State.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kansas State and Oregon State were ritually among the worst teams in the country — agriculture schools isolated in small towns with few resources, little history of success and beaten-down fan bases. Eventually, each found the right coach, Bill Snyder at Kansas State and Mike Riley at Oregon State, who helped them regularly punch above their weight. They still do.

Oregon State is in the same neighborhood of the preseason rankings as Kansas State at No. 18, the highest it has started the season since 2001. The Beavers won 10 games last season, added the Clemson transfer D.J. Uiagalelei at quarterback and have a favorable enough conference schedule — they don’t play U.S.C. and get Utah, Washington and U.C.L.A. at their newly renovated home stadium — that they could emerge as a playoff dark horse.

It would serve as quite the moment for the state of college football — a team chasing a national championship, and a place to call home.

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