Colleges Switching Conferences: Markets in Sports

A few weeks ago, 7 teams in the Big East conference voted to remove their men’s basketball teams from the conference. That’s a lot of teams to leave a conference at one time! Truth be told, I’m not an “avid” fan of college basketball, but I do like to catch some games every now and then and like most people, I always keep an eye on March Madness.

When I first heard the news of this happening, the first thing that came to mind: economics.

I never had an economics professor tell me, ‘it’s simply economics!’ but I certainly imagined one telling me this right along with this piece of news. How is it economics? Well, it’s all about markets. Markets? Yes, markets!

In hearing about this, I suspect that the seven teams that voted to leave the conference were noticing all the other teams that were leaving their conferences (in different sports). Many of those teams were moving conferences because of the possibility of more money. There are certain teams that play in certain markets (think: Big Ten) that are able to make a great deal of money for the networks that carry their games (is there any other conference that has its own TV channel?) This is probably why Nebraska joined the Big Ten and probably why Maryland and Rutgers will be joining in 2014.

So, as 7 of the teams that helped to make up the Big East conference in basketball watched as teams like Nebraska, Boise State, and Rutgers moved conferences, I’m sure that this helped to “light a fire” in motivating the teams in the Big East to consider a move.

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All that being said, I’m certainly sympathetic to those fans who hate to see these kinds of moves happen. Why? Rivalries are bound to die. In fact, I remember a time when this idea of a team switching conferences ended (or severely hampered!) one of the most famous rivalries in the sport! The Toronto Maple Leafs vs. the Detroit Red Wings.

The Leafs were moved to the Eastern Conference in 1998 and when that happened, the number of times the Leafs and Red Wings played diminished — a lot. I remember being crushed as a kid because Leafs/Red Wings games were a delight to see. Of course, there’s talk of realignment now, which might see the Red Wings/Leafs back in the same conference (or division)!

In looking back at the history, the Leafs did quite a bit of moving around in the 1990s. This was, in part, because the NHL was going through a great deal of change. In fact, with the switch to Eastern and Western Conferences, the Leafs/Red Wings were relegated to the Western Conference, initially, with the understanding that they would (both!) eventually get moved to the Eastern Conference. This change happened in 1993 and five years later, the Leafs did get moved to the East. Although, The Red Wings remain in the Western Conference.

I don’t know if the moving around of teams in college sports is a perfect comparison to those teams being moved around in the NHL, but with rivalries likely to be greatly diminished, I can certainly empathize.

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