If someone asked you who will win the 2024 Presidential election, you’d probably recognize that’s nearly impossible to do. You’d have to sort through a million variables that will be relevant to have any confidence in that prediction. Those variables would include: the state of the economy in 2024, what happened in the 2020 election, if the country is at war and who is running for President in 2024.
Despite recognizing how ridiculous it is to believe anybody can tell you who will win the 2024 Presidential election, some people are now acting certain about how conference realignment will look in 2024 and 2025. The truth everyone should admit is that they have no idea what the next wave of realignment will bring. I was right about the last round of realignment, but that means nothing for the future.
When many seemed certain the Big 12 would expand, I argued that the Big 12 would remain at 10 members. My thesis was that at least three schools would block any new member because the benefit from adding any new institution did not outweigh the problems those new schools would present in the next wave of realignment. Sure enough, the Big 12 spent a lot of time contemplating and ultimately added nobody. But being right about what the Big 12 would do in 2016 tells us little about what happens next. We should all be cognizant that being right once may not tell us much about the future.
Realignment is tough to predict for a host of reasons. The biggest reason is that there’s a ton of time left for teams in their current television contracts. The Big 12’s Grant of Rights (GOR) runs through the 2024-2025 season. The PAC 12’s runs through the 2023-2024 season. Maybe nearly all the members of the Big 12 end up in different leagues and the Big 12’s GOR becomes irrelevant, but the threat that a few members would stay behind and sue to enforce the GOR would make any move before that date difficult. Why would Texas or Oklahoma bolt for a different league in 2021 or sometime before the expiration of the GOR, if they feared Baylor, Kansas State, Iowa State and West Virginia would sue for all lost television revenue from them not fulfilling their contracts?
If current GOR means that movement is unlikely until 2024 or 2025, then we should all recognize the world is going to be radically different by then. First, revenue for cable companies is dissipating. ESPN and other cable networks are losing millions of subscribers because of cord cutting. Traditional cable networks may not bid as much in the next wave of realignment, and when the pie shrinks, the world can get wild. Second, new media companies could make strange bids. Maybe Amazon, Netflix, Twitter, Facebook or even virtual reality could make sports rights more valuable. I think it’s less likely those sources provide the kind of revenue ESPN did in an era where millions of people with no interest in sports were paying $6.00+ a month for ESPN in a cable bundle. But that’s the real point: the future of sports media is difficult to predict. I’m not sure who will run any of these companies in seven years. I’m not sure what the revenue landscape will look like in those years. And if you don’t know how the distribution of money will look in 2024, then it’s difficult to know if expansion, contraction or dissolution is the best option for certain conferences.
Second, realignment will be decided by presidents, board members, athletic directors and coaches who will different in 2024 and 2025. Mack Brown and DeLoss Dodds liked the Big 12. They helped keep it together. If Texas had different leadership in 2011, then maybe the Longhorns would have left for the PAC-12. Tom Osborne was Nebraska’s A.D. when they left for the Big 10. He’d dealt with and was tired of the league being dominated by Texas. Someone else might have made a different call. And if Nebraska remains in the Big 12, the college landscape is a lot different. We often fall victim to assuming that the way things are now will continue indefinitely into the future. They won’t. What schools value or consider important will change as the men and women running colleges will change.
Third, many universities will be in different spots in 2024 and 2025. Brands that seem toxic now may look different in seven or eight years. Schools that seem in perfect positions may falter academically or financially. And some schools may fall apart in football or basketball. If you had to guess where Baylor would be eights from today in 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2017, your answer would vary greatly in all of those years. For a host of schools the scenario is the same.
We like to think we can predict the future. But realignment is a long way off. So much will change by the middle of the next decade. Maybe the Big 12 collapses. Maybe it expands. But all of us should recognize that in 2017 we have no idea what the next wave of realignment looks like.