July 19, 2010

Penn State Abington Athletic Director Karen Weaver Pens Guest Editorial for Sports Business Journal

Penn State Abington athletic director Karen Weaver provided a guest editorial to the Sports Business Journal on "college conference realignment offers lesson in survival".  The article is as follows"

June was quite a month for college athletics. Loyalties were tested, promises may have been broken, and new alliances were formed. Some schools stayed together for historical reasons, others were nearly cast aside for similar reasons. Who became the ultimate “Survivor”? No question, it’s the University of Texas. In the conference version of Texas Hold’em, it ended up holding all the cards.

While we were caught up in the entertaining parlor game known as “Conference Expansion,” and it was great fun to guess who was in and who was out, this exercise provided some valuable lessons to those who live and work in college athletics. The remarkable story of the survival of the Big 12 Conference carries a cautionary tale. As of today, the playing field for seven of the 10 remaining schools in the Big 12 is now decidedly uneven. Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and others were faced with the unenviable task of giving up badly needed revenues just to keep Texas and Oklahoma in the conference.

So, while we catch our breath from this notable series of events that unfolded around us, what do we know now that we may not have known then?

For those conferences looking to start their own television networks, they would be wise to consider the signals sent by those in and outside the negotiations: First and foremost, traditions still matter (at least for the moment). Families that have spent generations trash talking each other about why their football team is best care that they get to have that ongoing interaction. The Hatfields and McCoys had nothing on rivalry week. Fans demonstrated they have little interest in developing brand-new rivalries when the old ones work just fine. So schools should consider the equity they have built before they destroy that rivalry.

Secondly, geography matters. In spite of the obvious economic advantages for placing a new
network in the largest media markets in the country, the fans who make a life during the fall of traveling to stadium after stadium following their teams do not want to cross time zones. (This does not apply to you, Notre Dame). Hard to imagine a Texas fan traveling to Palo Alto or vice versa.

The third, and most important, lesson from all of this mayhem is a simple one: Actions have consequences. While university presidents and their trustees have a responsibility to put the best interests of their school first, it should not be done in a vacuum. Athletics is built on a web of interconnectivity; what one does at one end of the rope eventually affects the other end.  If schools act in a way that only considers their best interests, eventually they will have
fewer and fewer opponents. “I’m the King of the World!” works for the movie “Titanic,”
but not so much when trying to keep conferences intact. Just ask the folks from some of the schools that might have been left behind.

Television revenue and opportunities to exploit broadband and mobile content represent one of the few new revenue streams coming into intercollegiate athletics and higher education in a generation. This technology provides a wonderful opportunity to present student athletes, programs and campuses in a way never dreamed of before. But like any great endeavor, it can come with a price.  If a few universities try to grab all the cash for themselves and share distribution to a select few based on tradition and advertising revenues, pretty soon the number of schools left to play will be substantially smaller.

And there is always the looming issue of congressional oversight. Indeed, Iowa Sens. Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley sent a sharply worded letter of inquiry to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany 24 hours before Nebraska left for the Big Ten. Why? Because the economic impact on their state of an imploding Big 12 Conference (and Iowa State) was too close for comfort. The questions that were raised in the letter may dampen talk of any further realignment discussions, for now.

Higher education in America is enriched by a wide diversity of institutions — public, private, large and small. Indeed, the system is the envy of the world. But college athletics could self-destruct chasing after revenue.

We love the story of the underdog; that’s why we watch. It’s reality television at its best. But if the game is rigged at the start, and the underdog has no chance to win, then why should we watch?  Why should we care?

Karen Weaver (kew21@psu.edu) is the director of athletics, intramurals and recreation at Penn State Abington. Follow her on Twitter@collegeathlete.

Sports Business Journanal: www.sportsbusinessjournal.com