Nick Saban, the highest-paid man at the University of Alabama, recently warned that mega-conferences in football threaten to create a “caste system” in college football.
But the fact of the matter is that we already have a caste system.
There is a big difference between the SEC and the SunBelt conference. Even more so between the Ivy League simply putting up a white flag and saying, “Show us the debating team!”
However, if you are a university leader, particularly at a public institution, the thought of having a “caste” in your midst must be offensive.
Castes are unfair systems of social stratification. They are patently undemocratic and downright blasphemous towards anyone who advocates for diversity.
But according to Sabin, college football is going there, and he should know. The coach who is predicted to be the No. 1 team going into this football season has played the system as well as anyone.
And just like other caste systems, he knows it’s all about money.
Ivies may be proud of its great science, history and English faculties, but we’re in an era in higher education where having the best O-Line is probably better if you care about sales and brand building .
Schools like Harvard, with endowments of more than $50 billion, might not care if the Crimson don’t play the Crimson Tide. But I bet other schools, big and small, are jealous.
Because Alabama is so much better, they can play against other schools that have adopted the same mindset, play in the same conference, and make the most money for their schools.
The 2021 SEC television deal on CBS was worth $55 million a year to the entire league. But the SEC’s new deal with ESPN, schools can expect $40 million each. And there are tens of millions more when you get into the college football playoffs.
Now compare that to the poor Sun Belt conference. The entire conference receives about $500,000 annually from their ESPN deal.
Slightly better is the Mountain West conference, which sees about $270 million from CBS and Fox. And each school gets $4 million.
Even better, the Pac-12 has a 12-year, $3 billion deal with Fox and ESPN that will net each school $21 million.
And that brings us to the UCLA problem.
About a month ago, UCLA and its crosstown rival USC announced they were leaving the Pac-12 in 2024 and heading to the Midwest for the Big 10 conference.
The Big 10’s current contract expires in 2023 and is currently valued at $2.64 billion from Fox and ESPN. Each school now gets $31 million. And with USC and UCLA joining, that number is expected to reach the stratosphere. 10x? Not unthinkable.
USC is a private school that has received a lot of negative press in recent years due to poor faculty and administrative decisions. Maybe they need the money to pay lawyers.
UCLA is an overall public school in the University of California system and not just the sporting Pac-12. Maybe going to the Big 10 with USC was like keeping up with the Joneses. The decision-making process probably went like this. “Hmm, $21 million from the Pac-12 and maybe three times that from the Big 10?”
Higher mathematics? It’s just arithmetic.
But divorcing the caste into which one was born in order to rise to a better caste is not easy. What about the others in the UC system? Not the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, but specifically the other UC Pac-12 member, the Cal Golden Bears.
Governor Newsom meets the Regents
This is so serious that California Gov. Gavin Newsom, an ex-officio member of the University of California Regents, personally appeared at a recent meeting to discuss the issue.
The UC system will not let UCLA go without a fight.
“UCLA must communicate clearly to the public how this deal will enhance the experience for all of its student-athletes, honor its century-old partnership with UC Berkeley, and preserve the histories, rivalries and traditions that enrich our communities,” Newsom said in a statement .
But is knowing that the Bears were once great and routinely beat the Bruins worth tens of millions of dollars to anyone?
The Regents recognize they can’t force UCLA to stay, but it can force UCLA to pay an exit fee or share TV earnings.
The right divorce settlement will likely make everyone happy, enough if UCLA wants to share their windfall earnings.
I just don’t think people care as much about the UCLA-UC Berkeley rivalry as Newsom thinks.
Remember October 16, 2004 when Aaron Rogers, now with the Green Bay Packers, along with former Seattle Seahawk champion Marshawn Lynch were both in college and the Cal Bears finished 8th in a thrilling 48-25- Demolition of UCLA resulted in brown bears?
I did not think.
But moving to the Big 10 now will bring UCLA maybe $20 million or more a year than they’re getting now. Share something with the others in the UC system and call it a business day.
Newsom, who signed a measure in 2019 allowing payments to student athletes, is now lobbying the institutions.
It’s a strange notion to think that some sentimental values have meaning. But we will see how important it is in the divorce settlement.
For the rest of the schools not attending the big conferences, it may be time to adopt an Ivy League mindset.
The English division and a line from Shakespeare are more important than your team’s O line.
Time to recommit to your core values.
Don’t get distracted by the big money sport, not if you’re really in the business of higher education.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist, commentator and university lecturer. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok