Cliché has merit

Cliché has merit

David Surdam /

Football on field

“It’s all about the money!” Sports fans probably recently read or heard sportswriters and commentators employ this “hoary chestnut” (a phrase that is itself a cliché) in the wake of the collapse of the venerable Pacific-12 conference. For once, a cliché is apt. The scramble for desirable Pac-12 teams (sorry, Oregon State and Washington State fans) was all about the money.

I grew up on the West Coast. We were aggrieved at the football and basketball polls; voters usually downgraded Pac-12 teams, in part because the league’s games were often played around ten o’clock Eastern Time. Despite having the most populous state in the country in California, the Pac-12 represented relatively sparsely populated states. Television revenues were destined to lag other conferences in more populous parts of the country.

USC, UCLA, University of Oregon, and the University of Washington will now be part of the despised Big Ten, a conference whose teams were overrated by pollsters and always gained a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff. Sports fans will now see whether the best Pac-12 teams can consistently beat the best Big Ten teams. Bowl games didn’t provide a true reflection, as many top players sat out the games in preparation for the National Football League draft.

You can’t blame the four defectors’ athletic directors for bolting. Enhanced television money will enable their teams to better compete in the college football arena. You can blame university presidents and boards of directors for acquiescing to the absurd importance placed on football. The shakeup among conferences would not have occurred, if the issue had been men’s basketball, women’s basketball, or any other sport. The revenue differences among those sports were not enough to break tradition.

The television executives believe—and only time will tell whether these executives’ acumen is correct—having California teams within the Big Ten makes that league’s games more attractive to fans; the executives’ beliefs led them to offer even greater sums of money to the Big Ten. This is the true meaning of, “It’s all about the money.” Viewed in this light, “It’s all about the money,” is not as pejorative as people intend or believe. If fans dislike the changes, then television ratings (and, subsequently, television’s willingness to toss money around like confetti) will reflect this disdain. Of course, the four Pacific coast schools will be unable to return to whatever organization replaces the Pac-12.

The football coaches and athletic directors claim that football revenues are needed to financially support the other sports. This may be true, but it’s unlikely that the so-called “non-revenue” sports will gain much benefit from the re-alignment. Spending on football will probably consume the largest portion of any windfall. Coaches’ salaries, both head and assistant, will zoom to even more outlandish heights. The Power-5 conferences (or perhaps we are now looking at the Power-4 conferences) members are likely to end up in the same relative pecking order as before, but the coaches will be making millions more.

Since football is driving these decisions, one must wonder how impotent university presidents are. Should football have this much influence on an educational campus? In many ways, high-stakes football contradicts universities’ missions. I am not even discussing the heinous past and present big-time sports scandals embroiling Northwestern, Michigan State, Penn State, University of Oregon, and Iowa. Football should be ancillary to a university’s mission, not the driving force.

“It’s all about the money” is correct. Such a rationale is appropriate for a business concern but probably not for a university.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.