ESPN May Be The Force Behind Conference Realignment, That Doesn't Necessarily Mean It is Forcing It


USA Today asks whether ESPN is the major force in conference realignment. It’s a question ESPN has not done a great job answering beyond empty assertions. The answer is complicated. Money from television rights is driving realignment. ESPN, as the dispenser of said money, plays an influential role. What’s unclear is whether ESPN has some sinister design or is responding to situations as they arise in its own best interest.

Whether ESPN has a monopoly is a semantic issue, but it’s at least the clear hegemonic power in college athletics. From former Ohio State AD Andy Geiger in USA Today:

"“We’ve created…I was going to say a blurry line, but I don’t think there is any line anymore as to who’s in charge.”"

"“We’re doing business with an entertainment company whose only way of surviving involves the number of eyeballs watching the screen,” he says. That is the driving force in what I see as all the decisions being made.”"

Is ESPN using this power to directly manipulate conference realignment? Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo implied this when he commented to the Boston Globe that “ESPN told us what to do” regarding conference realignment. DeFilippo retracted the statement claiming he “spoke inappropriately and erroneously regarding ESPN’s role in conference expansion.” He does not mention how he was inappropriate or erroneous, why he was inappropriate and erroneous or who wished him to make clear he was inappropriate or erroneous.

From ESPN’s side Burke Mangus claims decisions rest “entirely with the conferences and the universities,” but he acknowledges “lots of conversations with our partners through the day-to-day relationships that we have with them” while dispelling “specific meetings” to advise conferences on realignment.

Schools are not acting blindly. ESPN does not hold “realignment advice” meetings just as FIFA does not hold “wanton bribery” meetings but there is a “chicken or egg” question. Does ESPN approach BYU about going independent or does BYU decide to go independent and consult ESPN? Does the ACC opt for expansion or does ESPN indicate expansion is the route to improving the rights deal? Whoever started it and however formal the discussions were, the ACC knew what adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse meant for their television-rights deals from ESPN. That’s likely what DeFilippo meant, rather than implying the ACC was goose-stepping to orders from Bristol.

ESPN has expressed a preference for stability and the status quo. That makes sense. The current climate is a sweet deal. Radical change brings risk. Conferences are divided and locked down to longterm, potentially undervalued deals. Desperate for ESPN’s promotional power and influence over mainstream discussion, commissioners are reticent to test waters elsewhere. College football is, for the most part, ESPN’s private domain. Realignment means renegotiation for increased revenue, which comes from ESPN’s pocket. Wiggling BYU out of the WAC might be desirable, but it’s unclear ESPN or anyone benefits directly from nuking a BCS conference.

ESPN or, more accurately, its money may be the force behind conference realignment. That’s different from ESPN actively forcing realignment.  ESPN may be the mama pig lying with her teats exposed, but the grubby little piglets scrambling and stepping over one another to latch on are acting of their own accord.

[Photo via Getty]