Monday, September 19, 2011

ACC gets bigger, not better

Size matters. That's certainly true on the offensive line in football and in the three-second lane in basketball. It also applies to collegiate athletic conferences, at least as far as the league executives are concerned. For the fans, I'm not so sure.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has announced an expansion of the 58-year-old conference to 14 teams, adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the 12-team roster. Two factors are behind this move: (1) Major conferences are falling apart or expanding — the Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10 (I have trouble keeping up with the numbers) are adding or shedding teams and (2) enlarging the conference and adding major television markets increases the conference's revenue from TV contracts.

If you haven't noticed, television controls intercollegiate athletics. That's why you have Thursday night and Friday night football games. That's why you have 9 p.m. start times for basketball games. Everything is geared toward maximizing TV audiences, even if the schedule is bad for the fans and the student athletes.

I am reminded of televised boxing, which had its heyday around the time the Atlantic Coast Conference was formed. "Friday Night Fights" was a staple of televised sports in the 1950s when college basketball and football got relatively little attention. Boxing fell from favor and disappeared as a regularly scheduled broadcast within a few years. One of the explanations for boxing's fall was that television demanded matches that were not good for the boxers or for the sport. (The brutality of the sport and some in-ring tragedies also contributed to its demise.) Feeding television's insatiable demand was not good for boxing. Collegiate football and basketball have not reached that tipping point yet, but concerns over television's influence are rising.

I am one fan who would prefer the early days of the ACC, when eight teams competed within a relatively compact geographic area, and almost every game was a rivalry. Each team played every conference opponent in football each season, and in basketball, each team played twice, one game at home and one game away. This made for wonderfully heated rivalries and great excitement among fans and alumni. The conference comprised North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and Clemson. Stricter academic standards for athletes and other factors led South Carolina to (foolishly, it turned out) leave the conference in 1971. Georgia Tech was recruited to replace South Carolina, adding the Atlanta TV market. Since then, Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College have enlisted, bringing their own TV markets and fan following. The home-and-away basketball games had to be dropped, and the football season was divided into two divisions. Rivalries waned.

The bottom line is nearly $2 billion worth of television contract. Forget about the fans; forget about the rivalries. Television rules.

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