Short on details but long on philosophy, the anticipated three-conference alliance between the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 landed with a bit of a thud Tuesday. The leagues revealed they have an agreement without a contract that is sort of a response to the SEC being … the SEC.
Still in place is a growing, general feeling that college football is simply moving too fast after Texas, Oklahoma and the SEC declared their intentions last month. High-profile stakeholders immediately expressed their concerns about College Football Playoff expansion once those teams left the Big 12 for greener, more southern pastures.
Now that resistance has a bit more clarity. While a 12-team CFP expansion may eventually happen, several stakeholders have told CBS Sports in the last month that the entire enterprise must be reimagined. That means there probably won't be meaningful progress toward a 12-team bracket at the previously scheduled Sept. 28 meeting.
That was all but assured when the three alliance commissioners avoided providing direct answers as to whether they supported the expansion as proposed. By not answering that question, Kevin Warren (Big Ten), Jim Phillips (ACC) and George Kliavkoff (Pac-12) spoke volumes. They hinted around the edges, but it's clear the alliance is a clap back at the SEC.
"What we really need is for things to be more stable," said Warren.
"There are issues at the margins," said Kliavkoff.
"We haven't made a final decision," said Phillips.
That's code for keeping the SEC from monopolizing the process. That's been the intent since the SEC shocked the world last month by taking Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12. As currently proposed, the SEC would have a theoretical shot at getting half of the 12-team field in a given season. That must be what Warren said when he referred to "turbulence" in college athletics.
Meanwhile, the alliance as laid out Tuesday is a bit at the margins itself. There were no details about a nonconference scheduling alliance. The parties did not sign a contract; they are operating on a gentlemen's agreement.
"It's about trust," Phillips said. "It's about, we looked each other in the eye. We made an agreement."
Trust? Where has that gotten college athletics in the realignment era?
There is a growing desire to maximize CFP expansion revenue no matter how long it takes. The alliance is a part of that. That could mean parceling out playoff weekends to different rightsholders like what the NFL does. To that point, ESPN has largely held the exclusive rights to the BCS and CFP -- save a four-year window when Fox controlled BCS rights from 2007-10 -- since 1998.
The current CFP contract has five years remaining. Until then, ESPN has exclusive negotiating rights. But the commissioners who run the playoff have leverage within those five years. More than one stakeholder involved in the process told CBS Sports that the commissioners could ask ESPN to open the contract to bidders.
ESPN's risk of not opening the contract before 2025 could be costly. Five years from now, there may be more, deep-pocketed bidders, especially if streaming giants become interested. If it opens the contract now, ESPN could have more cost certainty as to what the new rights would cost.
The risk for ESPN is losing all or part of a college sports property that is approaching the NCAA Tournament in annual value ($1 billion).
"I think there's a good chance we'll just run out the term [of the ESPN contract]," said one CFP source involved in the expansion process. "ESPN can sit on its rights. You have to get them to agree to participate and allow somebody else in. That was always a long shot."
Those in charge are getting past the point of fan outrage if the four-team bracket plays out over the next five years. In that time, the original $7.2 billion deal could be worth three times that amount. Fans were conditioned for rapid change when a CFP press release in April said the soonest expansion could occur is 2023. That seems unlikely now.
Add to that the perception from some conferences that the SEC is in the process of a de facto takeover of the sport. CBS Sports asked SEC commissioner Greg Sankey last month if it was a conflict of interest that he was one of four persons who worked on CFP expansion while simultaneously efforting to add Texas and Oklahoma to his league, which will help his conference's chances in that playoff.
"No," Sankey said. "There's a lot of checks and balances in the system."
Two members within the alliance, who did not want to be identified, told CBS Sports that Sankey should have recused himself from the expansion process.
If the SEC is all in with the CFP and the SEC, will there be enough money for the Big Ten (whose contract expires in 2023) and Pac-12 (2024) to get proper market value increases for their rights?
The value of the Big 12 was decreased at least 50% when the SEC admitted Texas and Oklahoma. Does the Big 12 even exist when its media rights expire in 2025? The situation has highlighted how college sports television is centered around a few main brands. It's to the point that the same ESPN that kept the Big 12 together in the last round of realignment -- because Texas and Oklahoma stuck around -- is the entity that helped destabilized it with the SEC's move.
"Is it the SEC Athletic Association?" one frustrated Power Five athletic director asked rhetorically. "Do they start their own association of … 16 institutions?"
That might be where the alliance comes in. The three conferences continue to push their philosophical similarities, but at the heart of the alliance is addressing a balance of power. Power to hold on to a shred of what used to be the collegiate (amateur) model while facing increased external pressure.
"We did the alliance to protect the collegiate model," Kliavkoff said.
Now, someone please explain what that model looks like nowadays when LSU's quarterback can get a new pickup truck as part of a name, image and likeness deal.
A nonconference scheduling agreement would, at its core, be a move to increase schedule strength and bolstering teams' chances for CFP inclusion.
Just by forming an alliance, the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 may have sent enough of a message to stop conference realignment for the moment. It remains to be seen whether the three conferences will speak with one voice in CFP expansion. However, it has been mentioned more than once that the commissioners of those conferences were not involved in the playoff expansion process.
It's also hard to question the credentials of the four who did bring a 12-team bracket to the table. Sankey, Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame athletic director), Bob Bowlsby (Big 12 commissioner) and Craig Thompson (Mountain West commissioner) were charged by the CFP presidents to begin the process in 2019 shortly after that year's CFP National Championship in Santa Clara, California.
To some in and outside of the alliance, the entire process is seen as college presidents' last chance to get control of major-college sports. The ongoing effort to rewrite the NCAA constitution will operate on a parallel track with the alliance, playoff and realignment.
NCAA president Mark Emmert in July called for decentralization of the association, putting more power in the hands of the conferences. That allows for a confusing full circle. Power Five conferences are worried about the SEC amassing too much power. And now the NCAA CEO wants to cede power to the conferences.
That would fit this year's dizzying series of developments that have left the NCAA -- and the presidents who oversee it -- increasingly powerless. The Alston decision alone highlighted how every major NCAA decision is influenced by legal liability.
Forced into a corner, the NCAA largely gave up its traditional amateurism model on July 1 when NIL debuted. Those NIL rights turn two months old next week. While administrators are frustrated at some of the high-dollar deals, competitive balance hasn't changed. For now, college athletics can seemingly live with the prospect of $1 million athletes.
The NCAA sent a survey to members on Monday seeking initial input for November's constitutional convention.
"That survey will be a guiding post for us," said West Virginia AD Shane Lyons, a member of the Constitution Committee. "What does the NCAA do well and what does the NCAA not do well? Overall, what they do well is championships … what they don't do well is enforcement and timing of cases. What's in between there?"
That survey is to be completed by Sept. 1. A new constitution could be in place by January's NCAA Convention. The irony of some of those enforcement cases lasting years and the NCAA trying to clean up its house in months has not been lost with some.
"It's like turning an aircraft carrier in a very small space," Lyons said.
That about sums up college athletics in 2021.