True sports fans understand that the highest level of competition doesn’t always equal the best entertainment. Some fans decidedly prefer college sports over professional because of the atmosphere of the games, competition for the love of the sport, and most importantly, the bitter rivalries. However, as conference realignment continues to reshape college athletics to better benefit football, some of the most storied college basketball rivalries are disappearing.
Sure, professional sports has great rivalries like the Red Sox and Yankees, Lakers and Celtics, or Packers and Bears, but none take on the same ferocity as seen in college sports. In the past, professional athletes would remain with one team for the majority of their career, allowing heated rivalries to build with other franchises. Today, with the frequency players change teams, athletes are buddy-buddy with competitors, as they were at one time teammates in another city. In this current era it’s not uncommon for a player to bounce between four teams in six seasons, negating any real opportunity for professional rivalries.
In college sports this problem doesn’t exist and fans get treated to rivalries like nowhere else. Earlier this season Michigan State head basketball coach Tom Izzo was quoted referring to rival Michigan saying, “Do I respect John Beilein? Tremendously. Do I respect their school? Tremendously. Do I like them? Not one bit.”
The question is why would colleges do anything to disrupt these rivalries? The answer is money and football.
The majority of funding for a Division I program comes from television. And the most watched college sport is football. So in the most essential form, conferences want to add more schools, increasing their viewing window and driving up the price of a television contract.
One of the most recent examples of this was the former Pac-10 adding two schools, Utah and Colorado, to become the Pac-12. Conference commissioner Larry Scott was then able to strike a three billion dollar television deal with ESPN and Fox, dispersing $20.8 million a year to each team in the conference.
While this seems like a win-win all around, it doesn’t account for the basketball rivalries that will be lost when schools jump to different conferences.
The Pac-12 has only added teams and has thus not affected rivalries. But the longtime rivalry between Kansas and Missouri, referred to as the “border war,” has likely seen its last game, as Missouri will move to the SEC in July.
The backyard brawl between West Virginia and Pitt will soon end. The two have played at least once every season since 1915, but West Virginia is heading to the Big 12 next season.
Syracuse will be departing from the big east in 2014, putting an end to a historic rivalry with Georgetown. Syracuse head basketball coach Jim Boeheim described the whole situation best when he said, “If conference commissioners were the founding fathers of this country, we would have Guatemala, Uruguay and Argentina in the United States. This audience knows why we are doing this. There’s two reasons: Money and football.”
Few have been this candid in their comments about the realignment, but it’s refreshing to hear a coach speak his mind.
In time there’s no doubt that new and maybe even greater rivalries will form, but for now, watching history end and seeing teams you thought would play each other forever go their separate ways because of money doesn’t feel right.