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Does conference realignment pay off? No, according to this research

A Georgia State professor researched the last wave and found no improvements in money, wins or applications for schools that changed conferences.
The allure of the Big 12 has been big for UCF and USF.
The allure of the Big 12 has been big for UCF and USF. [ RON JENKINS | AP ]
Published Feb. 3

As USF, Florida State and other schools across the country look ahead to the next wave of conference realignment, they should make a call to Georgia State University professor Stephanie K. Herbst-Lucke.

Her dissertation at Case Western Reserve University studied the 2012-15 round of conference expansion to see whether programs made more money, fielded better teams or got any educational bumps by changing leagues. Her conclusion?

“From an economic and outcome performance,” Herbst-Lucke said, “there was no improvement.”

Related: Why Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC matters to FSU

No jump in revenue. No drop in expenses or debt. No boost in football performance. No increase in general applications or quality applications. No spike in graduation rates or retention rates.

No improvement at all from how schools were trending before the move.

“Honestly, I was shocked,” Herbst-Lucke said.

Anyone who has followed realignment should be shocked, too. Athletic departments with nine-figure budgets spend months weighing and negotiating these complex maneuvers, sacrificing decades of history for the allure of bigger paydays and better Saturdays.

And, according to Herbst-Lucke, they end up with no statistically significant improvement to show for it.

How can that be?

UCF fans will soon be cheering for the Knights in the Big 12, not the AAC.
UCF fans will soon be cheering for the Knights in the Big 12, not the AAC. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

Start with the factor that, according to conventional wisdom and every powerbroker Herbst-Lucke and her colleagues interviewed, drives these decisions: money.

In the 2019-20 fiscal year, the SEC distributed an average of $45.5 million to its schools. The Big 12′s payout was $37.7 million. Moving from the Big 12 to the SEC, then, means an extra $8 million for a school, right? Not necessarily, said Herbst-Lucke, a professor of marketing strategy and the director of student success for marketing at Georgia State’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business.

Her analysis of the 47 Division I-A schools that switched leagues in the last cycle showed other revenue changes. Donor contributions often went down, including at Nebraska (which moved from the Big 12 to the Big Ten). Ticket revenue fell, too, perhaps because schools lost some of their biggest draws (rivalry games) and replaced them with new, less appealing opponents from outside the region.

Related: What USF football can learn from this round of AAC expansion

“That is a huge source of funding for these organizations, and when those numbers drop, it affects their overall revenue,” Herbst-Lucke said. “So it has to be considered in addition to conference distribution.”

Especially when expenses didn’t fall, either. In fact, they rose slightly (but not a statistically significant amount), potentially because of greater travel costs.

Missouri has been an outlier among schools that changed conferences in the last wave, according to a Georgia State professor's research.
Missouri has been an outlier among schools that changed conferences in the last wave, according to a Georgia State professor's research. [ L.G. PATTERSON | AP (2021) ]

Herbst-Lucke, a former national championship runner at Wisconsin, found only two notable exceptions. Missouri won the SEC East in two of its first three seasons after moving from the Big 12, and Rutgers reported spikes in sponsorships and revenue after going from the Big East/AAC to the Big Ten. That means the other 45 schools she analyzed did not appear to come out ahead. Not USF, which went to the AAC after the Big East split. Or UCF, which moved from Conference USA to the AAC. Or SEC newcomer Texas A&M. Or ACC additions Pitt, Louisville and Syracuse.

It’s possible that the benefits — financial and otherwise — take years to materialize and were beyond her study’s timeframe. It’s also possible that the benefits administrators tout are overblown, if they exist at all.

If nothing else, an hour on the phone with Herbst-Lucke is enough to make you rethink realignment. Focusing on the benefits UCF expects to get — or USF would love to get — in the Big 12 overshadows the risks of a school in the Southeast moving to a league centered in the Great Plains.

Related: How Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC will affect recruiting

In the business world, something as subtle as a logo change can weaken a brand. What about the damage caused by changing the makeup of an established conference? Or by ending rivalries like USF-UCF, Pitt-West Virginia or Kansas-Missouri?

Nebraska and Oklahoma used to play regularly but now only meet occasionally after the Cornhuskers left the Big 12 for the Big Ten.
Nebraska and Oklahoma used to play regularly but now only meet occasionally after the Cornhuskers left the Big 12 for the Big Ten. [ SUE OGROCKI | AP (2021) ]

“It’s depleting the brand,” said Herbst-Lucke, who launched more than 15 brands in her business career before getting into academia. “It’s depleting the mission, and the system itself is becoming regionalized, which in the end becomes less valuable for everyone.”

Her last point is critical. As part of her research, she and her colleagues interviewed 77 industry executives, including 14 conference commissioners and 43 athletic directors. The powerbrokers, she learned, felt powerless. They were (and still are) beholden to a diverse group of stakeholders — boosters, trustees, politicians — looking out for their school at the expense of everyone else.

Related: Will USF football be another UCF or UConn?

In an industry with no central leadership, that approach has consequences. The individual actions intended to strengthen one school or league have collectively weakened the entire enterprise. What’s good for Missouri or FSU or UCF can be bad for college sports as a whole … which in turn hurts the Tigers, Seminoles and Knights. Which, to Herbst-Lucke, means no one really wins.

“Shame on all of us,” Herbst-Lucke said. “We so badly wanted to win. We so badly wanted bragging rights. We burned it all down for one chance to get ahead.”

• • •

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