The ACC and Other Conferences Are Changing College Sports


Last year, the so-called Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten, the SEC, Big 12, A.C.C. and Pac-12 generated a combined $3.3 billion, according to tax filings obtained by USA Today. The richest programs, whose latest revenue stream is partnerships with gambling companies that have brought their own problems, plow so much money into facilities, amenities and coaching salaries that calls to share revenue with players are now coming from a previously unlikely source — coaches.

Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan football coach, read a lengthy prepared statement at a news conference this week in which he called revenue sharing with athletes a moral imperative. “When student-athletes call it a game, corporate types call it a business,” Harbaugh said. “When the student-athletes call it a business, the corporate types call it a game.”

College athletics have always held themselves apart from professional sports that way, leaning into their tie to higher education. And yet, as football and some other college sports more closely resemble a professional model, their link to the educational mission of nonprofit, largely public universities is increasingly tangential.

College athletics, though, differs from the professional model in at least one way. Professional sports leagues in North America are essentially socialist structures for billionaires, with various forms of revenue sharing, spending caps or taxes, and the milking of public funds so that no team can be mismanaged into bankruptcy. (See the Oakland Athletics.)

College athletics looks more and more like an unregulated capitalist free-for-all.

Texas and Southern California, whose football teams’ television ratings have mostly outpaced their on-field records over the last decade, jumped conferences after their pleas for a greater cut of conference revenues were dismissed. Florida State has similarly squawked about leaving the A.C.C. unless it gets more revenue. Oklahoma left behind rival Oklahoma State, effectively ending their football series that has been played every year since it began in 1904.

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