Nick Saban, the highest paid person at the University of Alabama warned recently that mega-conferences in football threatened to create a “caste system” in college football.
But the fact is, we already have a caste system.
There’s a vast difference between the SEC and the SunBelt conferences. Even more between the Ivy League, which simply puts up a white flag and says, “Show us debate team!”
Still, if you’re a university leader, especially at a public institution, the thought of any “caste” in your midst must be offensive.
Castes are unfair systems of social stratification. They’re patently undemocratic, and to anyone committed to diversity and downright blasphemous.
But according to Sabin, it’s where college football is heading, and he should know. Predicted to have the No. 1 team going into this football season, the coach has played the system as well as anyone.
And just like other castes systems, he knows it’s all about money.
Ivies may pride themselves in their great Science, History and English departments, but we’re in an era in higher ed where if you’re into revenue and brand building, it’s probably better to have the best O-line.
Schools like Harvard with an endowment of more than $50 billion, may not care if the Crimson don’t play the Crimson Tide. But I’ll bet other schools big and small are envious.
Because Alabama is so much better, they get to play other schools that have adopted the same attitude, play in the same conference, and make the most money for their schools.
The television contract for games in the SEC in 2021 on CBS was worth $55 milion a year to the entire league. But the SEC’s new deal with ESPN, schools can expect $40 million each. And there’s tens of millions more if you get into the College Football Playoffs.
Now compare that to the poor Sun Belt conference. The whole conference gets about $500,000 annually from its ESPN deal.
A bit better is the Mountain West conference which sees about $270 million from CBS and Fox. And each school gets $4 million.
Even better is the Pac-12 on a 12-year, $3 billion contract with Fox and ESPN that gives each school $21 million.
And that brings us to the UCLA problem.
About a month ago, UCLA and its crosstown rival USC both announced they were leaving the Pac-12 in 2024 and heading to the Midwest’s Big 10 conference.
The Big 10’s current contract expires in 2023 and is currently worth $2.64 billion from Fox and ESPN. Each school gets $31 million now. And with USC and UCLA joining, that number is expected to reach the stratosphere. 10x? Not inconceivable.
USC is a private school which has had much negative press in recent years for poor decisions by faculty and administrators. Maybe they need the money to pay for lawyers.
UCLA is a public school in the University of California system overall and not just the athletic Pac-12. Maybe going with USC to the Big 10 was like keeping up with the Jones. The decision process probably went like this. “Hmm, $21 million from the Pac-12, and maybe three times that from the Big 10?”
Higher math? It’s just arithmetic.
But divorcing the caste you were born into to jump to a better caste is not easy. What about the others in the UC system? Not the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, but specifically the other UC Pac-12 member, the Cal Golden Bears.
Governor Newsom meets the Regents
This is so serious California Governor Gavin Newsom, an ex-officio member of the University of California regents actually showed up at a meeting in person recently to discuss the issue.
The UC system isn’t letting UCLA go without a fight.
“UCLA must clearly explain to the public how this deal will improve the experience for all its student athletes, will honor its century-old partnership with UC Berkeley, and will preserve the histories, rivalries, and traditions that enrich our communities,” Newsom said in a statement.
But is knowing the Bears were once great and routinely beat the Bruins worth tens of millions of dollars to anyone?
The Regents acknowledge they can’t force UCLA to stay, but it can make UCLA pay an exit fee or share TV revenue.
The right divorce settlement is likely to make everyone happy, enough, if UCLA wants to share its windfall revenues.
I just don’t think people care about the UCLA/UC Berkeley rivalry as much as Newsom thinks.
Do you remember Oct. 16, 2004, when Aaron Rogers, now of the Green Bay Packers, along with former Seattle Seahawk champion Marshawn Lynch, were both in college and led the 8th ranked Cal Bears to a thrilling 48-25 demolition of the UCLA Bruins?
I didn’t think so.
But moving to the Big 10 now will get UCLA maybe $20 million or more a year than they’re getting now. Share a bit with the others in the UC system and call it a business day.
Newsom, who signed into law in 2019 a measure that allowed for payments to student athletes, is now sticking up for the institutions now.
It’s a quaint notion to think that some sentimental values have some meaning. But we’ll see how much it matters in the divorce settlement.
For the rest of the schools not in the big conferences, it may be time to adopt an Ivy League way of thinking.
The English Department and a line from Shakespeare is more important than your team’s O-line.
Time to recommit to your core values.
Don’t let big money sports distract, not if you’re really in the business of higher education.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist, commentator, and college lecturer. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok