When and Why Did Colleges Start Joining Athletic Conferences?

NCAA conference realignment drama picked up again yesterday with the announcement that the Big East, which has already appropriated many of the schools in Conference USA, will be adding two more CUSA schools: Tulane in all sports and East Carolina in football only.

Although the Big East in 2014 will look more or less like Conference USA looked a decade earlier, the name “Big East” is apparently worth several times more in television revenue than the name “Conference USA,” regardless of which schools are involved.

Last week, Maryland and Rutgers announced that they were leaving the ACC and Big East, respectively, for the Big Ten. Maryland hopes that the move will be a solution to financial woes that caused the school to cut several varsity sports.

Big Ten commissioner James Delany announces the addition of Maryland as the conference’s 13th member. (AP Photo)

The ACC is expected to replace Maryland with Louisville (which would become the sixth Big East team to join the ACC in the last decade) as early as today.

Meanwhile, Boise State and San Diego State, which are set to join the Big East next year, are considering staying in the Mountain West, since the Big East will soon no longer provide an automatic bid to a BCS Bowl. (Instead there will be one bid for best team from the Big East, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, and Sun Belt.)

These moves are the latest steps in a more than two-year conference shuffle that has trampled on ancient rivalries and geographic common sense (and destroyed the WAC, which will be adding Grand Canyon University, a for-profit school, in a desperate attempt to keep enough schools on its roster to secure its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament) in the name of television revenue and better access to major football bowl games.

No school is required to be a member of a conference, as BYU demonstrated when it left the Mountain West to become an independent. But, for much of the history of organized college sports, universities have joined together in conferences.

A Solution to the Eligibility Problem

The first collegiate athletic conferences emerged in the 1890s, more than ten years before the birth of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, the organization that would become the NCAA.

In December 1894 a Vanderbilt University professor named William Dudley founded the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA), a group of seven schools: Vanderbilt, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Sewanee. Twelve more southern schools would join before the conference’s official launch in 1895.

The SIAA’s main purpose was to regulate eligibility.

At the time, there was nothing stopping a university from populating its sports teams with professionals who weren’t even enrolled as students. The SIAA’s constitution stipulated:

  • “No professional athlete shall take part in any contest of this Association”;
  • “No player or contestant from any university or college shall receive, directly or indirectly, any money or financial concession or emolument as past or present compensation for or as prior consideration or inducement to play in or enter any athletic contest”; and,
  •  “No person shall be eligible to take part, as a contestant in any event of this Association who is not a BONA FIDE student of the college on whose team he plays.”

The SIAA constitution mentions baseball and football, but the league would sponsor competitions in other sports, including track and field and basketball.

Purdue president James H. Smart, the man responsible for the Big Ten. (Photo from BigTen.org)

One month after the founding of the SIAA, Purdue president James H. Smart convened representatives from Northwestern University and the Universities of Chicago, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in Chicago to form the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives.

The Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives had aims similar to those of the SIAA: to restrict “eligibility for athletics to bonafide, full-time students who were not delinquent in their studies.”

Iowa and Indiana would join the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives by the end of the century. And, after Ohio State joined in 1912 and Michigan (which left in 1908) rejoined in 1917, the league had ten schools and began calling itself the “Big Ten.” (Chicago would leave in 1946; the conference added Michigan State as a replacement a few years later.)

The original impetus for schools joining together as conferences was player eligibility. No school wanted to send a team of full-time students to face a squad of mercenary professional athletes assembled by a rival school.

Geography was also a factor in determining the rosters of these early conferences. Wisconsin and Georgia may have had similar ideas about who should be eligible to play for a school’s football team, but, in an age before commercial air travel, it didn’t make any sense for them to be in the same league.

After the SIAA established itself in the south and the Big Ten in the Rust Belt, the next major conference to emerge would cover the Great Plains. Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Washington University (St. Louis), and Iowa founded the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1907.

After cheating on the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives for a year, Iowa left the Missouri Valley to become a one-conference school. The Hawkeyes were replaced by Iowa State and Drake. Kansas State joined in 1913, Grinnell in 1918, and Oklahoma in 1919.

In 1928 the big state schools (everyone but Drake, Washington, and Grinnell) split and formed the league that would become the Big Eight Conference. This split was part of a larger trend of schools grouping themselves not only by geography but also by type. Big state schools and large research institutions had their leagues and smaller state schools, teaching colleges, and liberal arts schools had theirs.

TV Money Becomes a Thing

These factors drove conference alignment for much of the twentieth century. The NCAA established a College Division, specifically for smaller schools, in 1957. In 1973 the College Division split into Division II (schools that offer athletic scholarships) and Division III (schools that don’t). Conference membership would change as schools jumped from one division to another.

But the entire philosophy of college athletic conferences would change as a result of the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court Decision NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.

Prior to this decision, the NCAA managed television revenue for all of its member schools. It decided who got to be on TV and how the money would be distributed. When the NCAA instituted this television policy in 1951, Notre Dame and the University of Pennsylvania protested, but the two schools dropped their protests after NCAA president Walter Byers placed sanctions on Penn.

What made sense (to everyone but Notre Dame and Penn) in 1951 seemed ridiculous by the 1970s. Major college football games delivered big ratings, and the big football schools wanted more games on television and a bigger chunk of the revenue. Taylor Branch, in his 2011 book The Cartel, explains:

[In] 1981 a rouge consortium of sixty-one major football schools threatened to sign an independent contract with NBC for $180 million over four years.

With a huge chunk of the NCAA’s treasury walking out the door, Byers threatened sanctions . . . . But this time the universities of Georgia and Oklahoma responded with an antitrust suit.”

Through NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the Supreme Court voided the NCAA’s existing TV contracts and allowed schools to negotiate their own deals.

It’s all about TV sets. (Photo from Wikipedia)

With few exceptions (e.g. Notre Dame), television networks aren’t interested in negotiating with individual schools. So conferences took the lead on television contracts. This meant that independents were at a disadvantage.

In 1984 there were more than 20 independents in major college football, including heavyweights such as Miami, Penn State, and Florida State. The decade following NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma would see the formation of the Big East football conference (including former football independents Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Boston College, and Syracuse) and would see Penn State join the Big Ten and Florida State join the ACC. Conference USA took care of several remaining independents when it started sponsoring football in 1996.

Since then television money has been the primary factor in major conference makeup.

Current Realignment Trend Inevitable

The bulk of the money in college sports today comes from football (and, to a lesser extent, men’s basketball) TV contracts. Leagues want to maximize their earning potential by expanding into new media markets and bringing in schools with large fanbases. Schools want to be a part of conferences that are in position to sign television deals worth hundreds of millions.

Is it ridiculous for Maryland to be the Big Ten, for West Virginia to be in the Big 12, and for San Diego State to play football in the Big East? Absolutely. And, not that long ago, there would have been no reason for such moves to happen.

But in an age where the big money comes from television and conferences make the TV deals, these moves aren’t quite as silly as they seem on the surface.

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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