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Realignment: The Power of 'The Best Brand'

JJ McCarthy and Michigan hoist the Rose Bowl trophy

An age of great change has come upon college athletics. The age of commercialization has reached college athletics and has superseded the "beauty of amateurism" many in college athletics held dear, but what determines this impending future movement? Why did a school in southern California like USC have any interest at all in traveling across the country to compete in the Big Ten Conference? Two big words come to mind: money and branding. Let's explore how college athletics programs are capitalizing on the new age.

Realignment: Money Talks

Let's be realistic and state the obvious here: Money is the driving force behind all these changes. TV deals, ad revenue, NIL fundraising and other revenue-driving forces are the biggest reasons schools are shipping off to different conferences. What brings in the most money? Football. However, conferences aren't just looking at good football programs for candidates. Yes, having a good football program that generates revenue is still imperative. Eventually it will be unsustainable to be without at least a decent football program in the Power Four, should it remain the Power Four, and again, football is a money maker. In 2022, Power Five conferences combined to bring in a whopping $3.3 billion in revenue from football.

However, what conferences are looking for is versatility and revenue-producing potential across an entire athletic department. Conferences are looking for a brand that they can flex. In order to become a brand that a conference can be proud of, a school must maximize its revenue streams and show that those revenue streams are sustainable. Every revenue stream must be healthy and consistent and schools need to be innovative and proactive in building these revenue streams to build their brand.

Why do we think the Big 12 Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference outlasted the Pac-12 Conference? Believe it or not, it wasn't just because of the TV deals, though those were a big part of it. Schools in the Big 12 and ACC have more brand versatility in the athletic departments than the schools in the Pac-12. USC, Oregon, Washington and UCLA are the biggest brands in the former Pac-12, which is why they were so readily invited to the Big Ten. The Big 12 and ACC saw the writing on the wall and made sure to pay attention to the next biggest brands they could get their hands on. Schools with solid athletics programs could boost the conference brand at large in more than just football.

Basketball's (and Other Sports) Place in Brand Building

A prime example is Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark recognizing the value in basketball, which is why he invited brands like Houston and Arizona to join the conference. With regard to the growing popularity of women's basketball as well, brands like Utah are included in this grouping. Basketball has a place in the grand landscape of realignment, after all, March Madness is a huge revenue producer for conferences and schools, producing roughly $1 billion in revenue for the NCAA at large according to Investopedia.

NCAA March Madness basketball
© Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal/USA TODAY SPORTS

Realignment is one of the driving forces behind talks of tournament expansion, the bigger conferences get, the more bids that will need to be available. Basketball is also the main reason why many think the Big 12 will outlast the ACC, they got to the more well-rounded brands that were left over first. Good football programs paired with other programs that are consistent moneymakers as well. Money builds brands and brands are what conferences look for.

Think of it like a math equation: A well-rounded athletics department equals more revenue opportunities which equals better branding for both school and conference. Overall, this equals a stronger conference with more buying power, which is what the conferences want for the endgame.

Having a big presence in college athletics' second biggest revenue producer is huge, as it could help save the programs that are just getting their football programs off the ground should realignment call for further chaos. Having one or the other simply isn't sustainable anymore and athletics programs must find a way to maximize their revenues and success in every sport, but having that in basketball is massive.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Schools like Kansas, Arizona, North Carolina and others that have historically great basketball programs with up-and-coming football programs have the right idea. Greg Flugaur, who was the first to report on the mutual interest of the Big Ten and USC, has signaled potential smoke between these schools and the two potential "Super Conferences" due to the brand building these schools are doing and the opportunity basketball has to be another massive revenue producer. They've established the second-biggest revenue producer already and the writing on the wall regarding realignment obligates these athletics programs to invest more in football.

They are in the process of doing so, but is it too late for them to keep up with the Joneses should the Big 12 and/or the ACC fold? With the successful basketball programs, they have more of a safety net though than programs like Iowa State, Kansas State, Florida State, and others who have successful football programs, but inconsistencies in other revenue-producing sports could damn them.

Schools that are blue bloods in basketball are seeing newfound success on the gridiron and must have that success translate to College Football Playoff appearances, fan participation and fundraising, with consistency at that. The reasons Texas, Oklahoma, USC and others were able to move so quickly into what will likely be the two conferences should "Super Conferences" become a thing was because the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten are looking for that well-roundedness and revenue potential. They have all-around "good" athletics programs and the SEC/Big Ten took notice, but it was good football that brought them that initial attention. They would not have been looked at though if all they had was football.

While the SEC and Big Ten are keeping an eye on these programs due to their recent successes and historical records in other sports, football success is once again, imperative. A school must be able to make money, otherwise what good are they to the conference's brand? The reason Oregon State and Washington State were left behind was because they didn't make enough money and didn't have the well-rounded athletics programs to give them the best opportunities to bring in as much revenue as possible. We may see schools like Rutgers and Vanderbilt also fall out of favor should they not improve their athletics programs and overall brand along with OSU, WSU and the Group of 5 schools.

College sports is an arms race, and these schools will adapt, even if they have to be forced to. We may see the Group of 5 and the Pac-2 get stronger due to this realignment or become their own separate division, depending on how schools and conferences adapt to this new, "brand-based" system. TCU and other schools that have made the jump from Group of 5 to power conferences showed that it can be done and that they're competitive with these power conferences. "Super Conferences" may not even form depending on how this brand-based approach works out and we may see a strengthening of these schools that choose not to go to the SEC or Big Ten. Make enough money in football as well as keep good flow from other departments and good things might just happen.

College sports are more of a business than ever. Gone are the days of non-profit statuses and amateurism. In are the days of NIL innovation, building your moneymakers and becoming the most well-rounded athletics programs you can be to have the most brand power. You may not like it, but it is the way of the world today. Big brands that create the most revenue will be the darlings of future realignment, unfortunately, we may see some programs get left in the dust due to failure to act on their brand or failure to produce the most revenue possible.


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