What NCAA Conference Realignment Means for Student Athletes
By Steven Maffiore
Ever since major shifts in 2021, college football conference realignment has triggered a domino effect. The landscape of college football as we know it continues to transform as conferences look to boost profits, expand media rights deals, and diversify match-ups. Fans shouldn’t be so surprised, as the seismic shift in the NCAA has been in motion for the past decade. The last two years have drastically altered college football's future as Texas and Oklahoma are set to join the SEC; USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington will be joining the Big 10; Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah are the newest members of the Big 12, and Cal, Stanford and SMU are joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. With the rise of name, image, and likeness, college athletes are taking advantage of the realignment to help benefit their own personal brands, but new challenges may be on the horizon.
By 2024, the Big 10 will consist of eighteen teams. The Big 12 will have sixteen teams, and the ACC will make its expansion into the west coast. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 could face dissolution: the conference has dwindled down to two teams as colleges begin to favor coast-to-coast competition over regional rivalries. Many are wondering what impact this has on college athletes and their respective conferences.
Conferences stand the most to gain here, as the driving force behind college football realignment is sheer revenue. Media rights are quickly growing in value and realignment sweetens the deal. In 2020, the SEC signed a $3B television deal with Disney, and the Big Ten followed up by signing a $7B deal with Fox, NBC, and CBS just last summer. According to U.S.A. Today, the Power 5 conferences combined raked in over $3.3B of total revenue in 2022. Colleges received their fair share as well, with the Big Ten distributing close to $60M per school. The SEC came in close second, giving nearly $50M per school.
The realignment has benefits that reach beyond just the schools. Passed in 2021, the NIL rule change has allowed college athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness through endorsement deals and sponsorships. In the first year of the ruling, NIL netted an estimated $917M for student athletes. Players in dominant conferences like former University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young had NIL valuations easily exceeding $2M. The potential earnings involved for the players have changed the way schools recruit as well as how the transfer portal may look going forward. Just as schools are joining conferences to help generate new revenue, athletes are looking for schools that will give their personal brand the most recognition. Thanks to expansive media rights deals, players in major conferences and universities can receive attention and exposure, ultimately leading to larger brand deals.
In fact, athletes in recent years have deferred from entering the draft as they can make more money from collegiate NIL than signing a rookie deal. Players who leave school early for financial reasons now have the opportunity to remain in school, improve on their draft stock, and bring in a lucrative income. Talented Michigan running back Blake Corum chose to return to school for his senior year rather than go pro, and he now possesses an NIL evaluation of over $1.2M. Notre Dame transfer quarterback Sam Hartman, who was projected to be a late-round pick in last year’s NFL draft, boasts an NIL evaluation of $1.1M after signing a deal with Beats by Dre.
As great of an impact NCAA conference realignment has on athletes and their personal brands, it does raise some concerns. Many worry how student athletes will be able to juggle the explosive NIL business with their mental health, training, and coursework. Considering NIL success largely relies on an influencer marketing business model, psychologists fear social media stressors could exacerbate an athlete’s mental health. Athletes in dominant conferences may become hyper-focused on social media performance as they look to hit it big financially. In reality, only a select few will hit the jackpot, and others may suffer from the stress of social media.
Other issues of realignment and its impact on NIL include fairness and equity for those who do not play in large-scale sports such as basketball and football. With the majority of the realignment discussion focusing on football, other sports such as swimming, diving, volleyball and soccer won’t see the same benefits. While football players may receive greater exposure, the same cannot be said for more niche college sports. The students' potential NIL earnings lessen as a result.
In addition, student-athletes will be required to travel much longer distances. When an athlete commits to a university, they understand both the academic standards and travel requirements that come with their commitment. But now, new ACC members like student athletes from Stanford will find themselves traveling cross-country for away games. Depending on the sport, the percentage of these athletes going on to play at the professional level is less than 10%. This means that for the majority of college athletes looking to build a future career, classroom performance trumps on-field performance. The stress of constant long distance travel may divert and disorient these efforts.
No matter how divisive NCAA conference realignment seems, only time will tell if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Student athletes in dominant conferences will take advantage of the greater media exposure to boost their personal brands. Colleges will benefit from the profits in growing media value. Die-hard fans will eventually come to terms with the new match-ups and rivalries. And of course, the future is still unfolding. In the coming years, we are likely to see even more changes to the NCAA conferences fans know and love.