Friday, July 1, 2022

Thoughts on the Big Ten

Every generation or so, American sports undergoes a big shakeup.  There was a big shakeup in the 1960's, which gave us the Super Bowl, integration, the ABA (for awhile), and major league expansion.  There was another in the 1990's, which cancelled the World Series, led to major strikes in the NBA and the NHL, and created another bevy of expansion teams.  And now we're going through another one.  The NFL has added a 17th game.  MLB is making significant rule changes, will probably add expansion teams, and just barely averted a strike.  Pro golf is riven by civil war.  And, of course, almost everything about college sports are up for grabs.

For over 200 years, the South has largely lived by the ethic of "get your enemies before they can get you."  Sometimes this ethic is more helpful than at other times, but one has to ask whether today's South -- which is so much richer and more powerful than any other iteration of the South in living memory -- would do better to rely more on diplomacy and less on cunning.  Nevertheless, Americans live with the South they have, not the South they want -- and no one should have been surprised when the SEC, not content with its current dominant position on the sports landscape, decided to upend the very fragile applecart of college sports by poaching Texas and Oklahoma from the Big XII.  Now we know that this move will have far-reaching ramifications.  The Big Ten is bringing in USC and UCLA, which effectively wipes out the Pac-12 and ends the long-standing partnership between the Big Ten and the Pac-12 that had so often served as a counterweight to the SEC.

We don't know where any of this will end.  There is talk of the Big Ten and the SEC moving to more than 20 teams each -- talk of a new playoff that would include only the Big Ten and the SEC -- and so on.  Add in the future of name and image licensing, and a political environment (at least on the East Coast) that is generally hostile to college sports, and one can imagine all sorts of bizarre scenarios.  But a review of the last 125 years of sports history reveals that administrators in college sports, and owners of professional teams, are limited in their ability to torment fans.  There is an Iron Law of sports competition, and it goes something like this:

The number of fans who will pay money to watch a sporting competition is directly related to the number of people who care about the outcome of that competition.

The green eyeshade crowd who are always looking for ways to squeeze more dollars out of sports fans are often very poor at guessing what we want -- but over time, the market tends to correct their mistakes.  Back in the 1990's, MLB decided to let more teams in the playoffs.  That made the World Series less meaningful to significant numbers of Americans, and TV ratings have plummeted as a result.  That's just one example -- a more vivid one would be how, in the late 1980's, people like Don King interfered with the structure of boxing, and effectively destroyed boxing as a big-time spectator sport in the United States.  Here's the point:  to make money, you need devoted fans -- to get devoted fans, you need competitions that they care about.

And here it's important to recall that hype can only do so much.  Hype can make sports fans aware of a particular competition, but it cannot make them care about it.  All the hype in the world, for example, couldn't get Americans to care who won the XFL.  Fans follow their own logic, and they make their own decisions about what matters.  Those decisions are usually grounded in passion and emotion, and over time, entrepreneurs and administrators cannot trick fans or force them to care.

So what does all of this mean for the current round of changes?  When the dust settles, the sports that survive will be the ones that continue to put on competitions that fans actually want to watch.  If guys like Koepka and DeChambeau aren't available for the Ryder Cup anymore, my guess is that viewership for the Ryder Cup will plummet.  If the SEC and the Big Ten decide to ban all the small schools from going to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, then the NCAA Basketball Tournament will fade in importance.

But that doesn't mean there won't be anything to watch.  Wrestling, boxing, horse racing, rowing -- all of these used to be major sports, and they really aren't anymore.  But fans moved on to pro football and other sports.  MLB may be in trouble now, but college baseball is booming.  Folks in the Northwest may lose interest in the Pac-12, but they can always watch MLS games between Portland and Seattle.

Of course, some fans fall through the generational gap.  Ring Lardner never recovered from the rise of Babe Ruth and the end of the dead ball era.  I will go to my grave missing the old Big East and the old Southwest Conference.  But there will always be new Pete Rozelles and Roone Arledges who know how to organize competitions that people like me want to watch.  And if the SEC and the Big 10 lose the ability to do that, my guess is that we fans will all survive somehow.

I don't say these things in the expectations and college sports are going to collapse -- I don't actually think that's true.  I say them in the belief that the people who run sports competitions are more constrained than we usually realize.  They can do a lot -- but they cannot succeed and also put on competitions that no one wants to watch.  Last year there were over 120 major college football programs, and I think the vast majority of fans like it that way.  If the Big 10 and the SEC think they can convince people to care as much about a world with only 30 or 40 major college football teams, they are badly mistaken, and they will pay heavily.  But I don't expect it will come to that.

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