Geddy Lee is a noted pro baseball fan — Tigers as a kid, then the Blue Jays once Toronto landed a team — but likely doesn’t spend much time considering the landscape of American college sports, football in particular.
Or maybe he does. In the signature song from his band, Rush, released in 1981, he sang of the modern-day Tom Sawyer: “He knows changes aren’t permanent. But change is…”
Lee could easily have been singing (and lyricists Neil Peart and Pye Dubois writing — yes, I can google) about today’s Power 5 and this latest round of realignment dominoes. Only this time, it looks like some changes, if not permanent, will prove to be model altering at the very least.
Recognition that change is inevitable is what motivated Frank Broyles to deftly divert Arkansas away from the terminally ill Southwest Conference in 1991. The same goes for former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, who negotiated a then-novel expansion charge that brought the Hogs to the SEC (with what should’ve been Texas, Texas A&M and Florida State). Thirty years later, SEC brass recognized that permanent change is over college sports. Like most leaders do, it opted to stay ahead of the curve.
The news of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC — most expect it to happen as soon as next year — broke like a midday swell at Fort Morgan rolling over an unsuspecting toddler. The toddler in this case, sent head-over-heels back onto the beach, is the Big 12, not to mention the Aggies, who were especially thrown for a loop by the news. Heads still spinning, conference commissioners, college presidents and ADs from Appalachia to the Palouse are working through the fallout of a 16-team SEC that will further separate itself from the rest.
But what exactly does this mean for us here in Arkansas, aside from the addition of UT and OU to what is already the toughest schedule in the land on an almost annual basis?
First of all, it verifies Broyles as a visionary. Quite simply, we joined the right club at the right time. (Anyone who thinks we would’ve been included in the eventual Big 8 absorption of UT and its top cronies from the SWC is kidding himself. Or herself. Theirself?) Texas and Oklahoma bring enough value to the league from a media/marketing perspective that slicing the SEC into 16 instead of 14 slices won’t take a bite out of member schools’ annual cut.
SEC schools now receive about $46 million a year from SEC media-rights distributions, compared to about $35 million for Big 12 schools. The SEC’s new $300 million deal with ESPN that starts in 2024 will bump the annual distribution up to around $68 million. And that was before the addition of the Big 12’s bell steers. (Of course, when the deal was signed last year, ESPN and Birmingham likely were already talking with OU and UT about the move.)
So, for Arkansas, it means more revenue and more exposure — and that‘s good news for the state. A 2012 economic impact study found that UA athletics had an annual economic impact on Arkansas of $154 million. From a competitive standpoint, expansion likely is a wash for the Hogs. The league probably will settle on a system of four four-team pods for football with the Hogs in a pod with OU, UT and Missouri. We’d trade Alabama and Auburn every year for Bevo and the schooner.
That is, of course, unless the dominoes dictate further expansion to 20 member schools. Such a scenario is possible if the floundering Pac 12 absorbs the Big 12’s jetsam in an attempt to build relevancy. Otherwise, it’s probable demotion to the AAC for schools like TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas State.
Meanwhile, SEC pod champions could meet in “semifinals” with the winners advancing to Atlanta. (A 16-team SEC also guarantees an expanded playoff system.)
As much as my generation hates everything burnt orange to its core, I confess to missing the chance to hate that cow on a personal level each fall (as Beaux Wilcox so masterfully points out inside this issue). And Texas isn’t the mighty Texas of the ’60s and ’70s. With Sam Pittman building the program back up to expectations, the series moving forward shouldn’t be so lopsided. And seems like Arkansas-OU should happen more often than the generational Orange or Cotton Bowl. It’ll be interesting to see how the bully of the Big 12 handles the grind of the SEC. Remember — the late, great Orville Henry pointed out in ’91 that we’d be trading one Texas for six or seven of ’em. Same goes for the Sooners. Regardless of how they fare, fall Friday nights in Fort Smith could get interesting.
Big picture, the coming realignment almost certainly means a necessary Power 5 breakaway from the NCAA, at least for football. (The NCAA doesn’t really do anything, anyway. The big conferences tend to their own knitting, and the CFB playoff system is in own entity. In the big picture, the NCAA exists to put on March Madness and protect its bluebloods. That’s about it.) And even with a possible Pac 12/Big 12 Frankenstein, a superconference model utilizing pods could reintroduce a more regional footprint to the sport.
It’ll be interesting, if not fascinating, to see where the dominoes fall over the next few months. Indeed, changes aren’t permanent. But as Geddy belts, change most certainly is.