Why Conference Realignment Might Be a Blessing in Disguise (Except for Cal and Stanford)

by Riley Overend 11

August 07th, 2023 College, Opinion

This is my opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of SwimSwam. 

It’s completely understandable for NCAA swimming and diving fans to feel apprehensive about the recent conference realignment news that devastated the Pac-12 last week

It was yet another decision driven by football and basketball, and the past few decades have proven that swimming is among the first programs on the chopping block amid budget constraints. The Pac-12’s loss of USC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington (to the Big Ten), Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado (to the Big 12) has threatened beloved rivalries while leaving the future of the remaining four schools — Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State — in murky waters. 

More television money is coming at the expense of increased travel distances for athletes. The Big Ten now stretches from Seattle to Piscataway, New Jersey, with the Big 12 spanning Salt Lake City to Orlando. For sports such as baseball, softball, soccer and volleyball that require frequent competitions to determine regular season standings, the move could be a nightmare for athletes’ well-being, not to mention harmful for the environment. 

“I thought the portal was closed — the adults in the room get to do whatever they want apparently,” Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz said recently. “My question is: Did we count the cost for student athletes involved in this decision? What cost is it to those student athletes? We’re talking about a football decision, but what about softball and baseball who have to travel cross country? Do we know what the No. 1 cause of mental health is? It’s a lack of rest and sleep. Those people travel commercial, they get done playing at 4 p.m., they come back from the airport at 3 or 4 in the morning, they have to go to class. Did we ask any of them? Did we consider the student athlete?”

However, for swimming and diving, it could actually be a blessing in disguise. 

Without intraconference scheduling requirements that exist in other NCAA sports, a huge chunk of collegiate swimming schedules are non-conference. No one is forcing USC to face off in a dual meet against Michigan or compete on a weekly basis — and if coaches say the current required conference dual meets are a problem, the conferences probably won’t blink at changing them. That means swimming and diving programs can skirt around many of the scheduling issues raised by Drinkwitz that will impact other sports. Plus, some of the biggest swimming rivalries never made geographic sense anyway (see: Cal vs. Texas).

Beyond the regular season, conference realignment will reinvigorate conference championship meets plagued by lopsided or lackluster competition. For too long, Texas and Florida have dominated the Big 12 and SEC, respectively, but the two powerhouse programs will have to go through each other for the SEC crown starting during the 2024-25 season. In the Big 12, men’s swimming is on the rise with the number of teams growing from three to five in 2023-24 and seven in 2024-25, highlighted by the arrival of Bob Bowman’s Arizona State squad. Swimming parity among the now-Power Four conferences will improve. 

It’s also important to remember that conference realignment is not a new phenomenon. The Pac-12’s precursor, the Pacific Coast Conference, fell apart 60 years ago with UCLA also leaving Oregon State and Washington State in the dust. The Southwest Conference met a similar fate in the 1990s when Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech left to form the Big 12. In 2010, former Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott unsuccessfully tried to lure Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Colorado away from the Big 12 to create a superconference.

Despite all the movement, old rivalries with enough fervor persist because fans care and non-conference matchups still draw plenty of viewers. Don’t forget that the reshuffling will breathe new life into existing friction between Texas and Texas A&M as well as BYU and Utah, which will now see their in-state rivalries take place within the same conference. 

The Pac-4 is undoubtedly facing a difficult road ahead without a media rights deal. However, there’s hope that the Mountain West could merge with the remaining schools under the Pac-12 umbrella, dissolving in name only to bypass exit fees and gain Power Five status. But that would also mean Stanford and Cal sacrificing millions in revenue starting next year unless they’re saved by the Big Ten, likely leading to budget cuts. Their other options are a lifeline from the ACC or a brief stint as an independent in football until the conference realignment wheels start spinning again. Either way, fans of those prestigious Bay Area aquatics programs have legitimate cause for concern.

The SEC and Big Ten will soon be doubling the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12 in terms of revenue distribution, but it will be worth tracking just how much of a competitive advantage that offers in the pool. Sure, training trips might get a whole lot nicer, but how much of those funds will be invested right back into the revenue sports that pay the bills for athletic departments?

Many predicted that allowing college athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness (NIL) would destroy college sports, but the NCAA enjoyed record-breaking viewership numbers almost across the board last year. Be wary of those who claim college sports are doomed by the latest round of conference realignment.

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That Guy
1 month ago

Drinkowitz might be reminded of how his school (Missouri) was part of the problem when it jumped to the expanding SEC.

pete kennedy
1 month ago

The athlete- since when does that count? I watched as the $$$ banked rolled into Athletic Departments. Where did the dollars go? As the administrative officers increased and increased, and assistants gained assistants the number of athletes decreased. How many people are in the NCAA offices in Indianapolis? enough said.

Jonny Newsom
1 month ago

I couldn’t wait to read this. And then I saw the last part of the headline. Maybe we just drop football, which has been low performing for years, and focus on our Olympic sports. 🐻🐻🐻

1 month ago

As an alum and fan of Oregon State, this stinks for OSU and WSU, too. Their athletic departments will have to do some drastic cost cutting if they join the Mountain West conference, probably resulting in the elimination of many programs other than football & hoops. You know, the ones with true ‘student athletes’. I understand the economics of what brought all this about, but as a fan it’s terrible, especially since OSU just completed a $150M stadium renovation. In today’s world, sadly tradition and regional rivalries take a back seat to maximizing your income. Go Beavs!

1 month ago

What if they had separate conferences for fbsll and bball like realignment is going and then more traditional regional conferences for minor sports
Everyone gets what they want

1 month ago

Great point on the travel issues for athletes, especially in sports with lots of games like hoops and baseball. Mental health among teens and college students is a crisis, and this doesn’t help. The athletes (especially Olympic) won’t directly benefit much from bigger TV contracts driven by football.

After a few years of miserable experiences for athletes traveling a lot, don’t be surprised if recruiting for those schools suffers and transfer portal activity rises.

As for Stanford and Cal, I think they each face slightly different challenges. Adding Mountain West schools to PAC 4 that already doesn’t care about football isn’t going to land any TV contract worth mention. So they’re going to see a major cut in… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Wethorn
Reply to  Wethorn
1 month ago

Being along for the ride is a long term experience for NCAA swimming. For about 35-40 years now, the expenses of athletes qualifying for most Olympic Sport NCAAs, including swimming, have been paid by funding from the March Madness NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Bob Roberts
1 month ago

Hard to see where Stanford will go. They were in a regional conference that made sense. They can’t just be seen joining these other conferences because it hurts their brand image as an elite institution. And the Ivies will not let them in, nor does the travel make sense.

Similar situation for Duke.

Luckily neither of them realistically needs the money.

About Riley Overend

Riley is an associate editor interested in the stories taking place outside of the pool just as much as the drama between the lane lines. A 2019 graduate of Boston College, he arrived at SwimSwam in April of 2022 after three years as a sports reporter and sports editor at newspapers …

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