Get ready, Big 12 sports fans, for Kansas State vs. Utah and the University of Kansas vs. Arizona. The new Big 12 is coming in next year.
In the aftermath of the PAC-12 crumbling — and losing four of its teams to the Big 12 — you might wonder why the schools migrated toward our conference, centered on the plains.
How did the PAC-12 lose the two most prestigious teams in their conference to the Big 10? Announced last year, the departure of the University of Southern California and the University of California Los Angeles signaled the leverage that the football-fueled Big 10 had over the PAC-12.
How could PAC-12 conference leadership have delayed signing a media deal that would have reassured other schools who were likely to flee? Simply securing a firm television contract may have slowed (if not secured) the nervous schools.
How could the conference have allowed the University of Colorado to return to the Big 12? How could they have essentially surrendered an entire geographic quadrant of their conference, losing Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and the University of Utah?
The answer: Athletic conference commissioners should have studied the brutal economics of youth sports.
I am not talking about college-sponsored athletics or even high school sports.
These big-time league commissioners should have known the stuff that every parent in competitive youth sports knows.
Because my son has played competitive soccer for the last few years, I have seen these economics first hand. I also chat with other parents: baseball dads, basketball moms, softball parents. Their stories of youth sport echo one another and provide lessons, even for college sports commissioners.
In many ways, holding together a college sports conference is like holding together a team of young athletes. Most teams and conferences contain the same number of participants, whether it’s a dozen boys in shin guards or a dozen institutions of higher education.
So, where did the PAC-12 go wrong in gifting the Big 12 four more teams this summer? And what should the Big 12 be nervous about as conference realignment keeps rolling?
‘Follow the leader’
Alarm bells sound on a youth sports team anytime the best player leaves. The standout point guard might leave for a team that offers bigger showcase tournaments or nicer uniforms. The starting pitcher might be lured away by a former professional Major Leaguer as a coach.
The motivations of these stud players for leaving are important, especially for the players and families left behind. The remaining families are likely to stay put with the same team if they see the star player’s exit as being for a more elite opportunity, rather than fleeing an incompetent team.
When USC and UCLA left the PAC-12, you could see their departure as a step up to prestige rather than an escape from disaster. After all, they were joining one of the top two football conferences with a TV deal far more lucrative than their PAC-12 deal.
But losing a key team member — or two — also can reveal a crisis.
‘Travel be damned’
In past decades, “travel sports” used to mean jumping in the back row of the family minivan for a tournament out of town once or twice each season. The local kids from the neighborhood or your town would make up the roster.
As any sports parent these days knows, “travel” now applies to all parts of youth sports. Practices are 40 minutes away. The “local” kids are now from the wide-flung metro area and almost certainly will not attend the same high school. Even a team pool party means gassing up the car.
So it is with recent conference realignment. The Big 12 sprawls from West Virginia, through Cincinnati to the epicenter of Kansas and then down south toward Texas, Arizona and Utah. (One university athletic director apologized this week for a comment that poked at the absurdity of some of the destinations.)
Big 12 football and basketball teams will rely mostly on chartered flights and private planes to zip them nonstop to distant schools. Their travel times will only increase a bit in the air.
However, travel time will explode for so-called Olympic sports: track and field, volleyball, gymnastics, and others. These smaller teams often rely on commuter flights or buses. Travel from Tempe, Arizona, to Morgantown, West Virginia, would be a challenge to do in less than 12 hours with flights and transfers included. Not to mention the physical toll of time changes.
With a dark chuckle, Arizona State University president Michael M. Crow hinted at the possibility — and absurdity — of using buses. The absurdity comes from packing physically large athletes into small bus seats for hours before asking them to compete at their best.
The time and discomfort of more Big 12 travel will impose a tax on their bodies, and certainly their academics.
‘The middle must hold’
When players leave a competitive youth team for another team that is not more prestigious, every family starts to talk. Why would a player from the middle of roster’s depth chart leave? In some ways, this departure signals more problems than the elite player leaving.
“Sure, Emma left for the academy team because she is incredible,” a parent will say. “But something must really be wrong if Ingrid left to play for the Falcons.”
The University of Colorado wasn’t the most elite school in the PAC-12, academically or athletically. So, its late July departure signaled the greatest discord in the conference even if the Buffaloes were returning to a familiar group of schools.
If Colorado was willing to leave for the Big 12, which is now the third- or fourth-most powerful conference in college sports, the PAC-12 was in true crisis.
‘Follow the money’
It’s more cynical than following the top player, but following the money in youth sports is common. Direct payments to amateur youth players or families are rarer than the popular imagination suggests, even as name, image and likeness deals grow.
Instead, young players often follow the teams with the most money. In its most wholesome form, clubs forgive annual fees for families who cannot pay. Young athletes are also drawn by fancy uniforms, sophisticated practice facilities and top coaches (who can hop from club to club for bigger paychecks).
Of course, money is king in college athletics.
CBS Sports reported this year on the revenue earned by each conference and distributed out to schools. The chart embedded in the story reads like win-loss standings, with the Big 10 at the top. School presidents and athletic directors can see that Big 12 schools earned between $5 million and $8 million more per school during 2022 than a PAC-12 school. A transparent difference like that must have drawn the four new schools to the Big 12.
All of these lessons from youth sports to college sports — and vice versa — suggest that elitism, money and travel are driving both individual and collective decisions.
What’s missing? Concern for the athletes, of course.
The commentary was originally published by the Kansas Reflector, a States Newsroom affiliate.