Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Conference changes destroy rivalries

I've said many times that I'd prefer to see the Atlantic Coast Conference contract back to its pre-1971 size of eight geographically contiguous universities with intense and natural rivalries rather than morph into a 12- or 16-university conference that dismisses the rivalries and traditions that had made the conference great. But, lo, the almighty dollar is wielded by television networks, and the universities and their conference follow blindly the scent of money, even to the organization's demise.

The conference, led by my UNC classmate John Swofford, had attempted to inoculate itself against the hazards of being forgotten because of its small size and relative weakness in football by expanding and bringing in universities that had reputations as football powerhouses (or at least respectability). But with the departure this week of Maryland, the flaws of that strategy are revealed. In this new era of made-for-television spectacles, maybe rivalries and tradition don't matter any more.

As if intercollegiate athletics didn't have enough problems already, the expansion of conferences and the swapping of teams between conferences threaten the very foundation of college sports — the loyal fans and the natural rivalries that have developed over the past 100-plus years of college football and 100 years of college basketball. Will Maryland fans really care about a game against Wisconsin when they're denied their annual tiff with neighboring Virginia? Who, other than Alabama and Notre Dame fans, will travel 800 miles to see their favorite team play a conference foe? These expanded conferences are trying the patience and wearing down the loyalties of the fans who, despite the power of television, are necessary for college sports to survive.

Nate Silver, the guy who became a legend by crunching the poll numbers with uncanny accuracy earlier this month, has examined the numbers involved in Maryland's switch to the Big Ten, and it's not pretty. Even in an age of interstate highways and air travel, geography matters. The Big Ten has always been a Midwestern conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference has always been a, well, Atlantic Coast conference. But no more. Conference names have dissolved into meaninglessness. It no longer matters if the Big Ten has 16 teams or the Big Eight has 12 teams. Who can blame the fans for feeling confused and ignored?

Blame the universities for letting their athletic departments do whatever brings in the most money. If university presidents would just say no to the headlong rush to get another sports-related dollar, we could eliminate the Thursday night football games, the 9 p.m. local time weeknight basketball games, the shoe and clothing logos stamped on uniforms, and the rampant exploitation of athletes unprepared for and perhaps incapable of college-level academic work.

Maryland's move to the Big Ten won't solve Maryland's fiscal problems, and it won't appreciably help the Big Ten. The ACC's expansion from a compact, four-state alliance to a Caribbean-to-New England-to-Midwest gerrymander makes no sense. This was sensible: South Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia and Maryland — natural rivalries, football parity, basketball excellence and academic standards.

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