Aside from hockey, I’m not a huge college sports junkie. That most likely has something to do with my sports preferences overall, though Boston College being mediocre since Matt Ryan left (and horrific this season) probably doesn’t help. However, it’s been interesting to watch the rounds of musical chairs the various college sports conferences have been going through for the last few years. I wasn’t paying much attention until I started reading rumors about the SEC poaching Virginia Tech or Florida State on the way to creating a behemoth superconference. With Miami wrapped in its own scandals, it looked like the ACC was on the verge of a collapse.
Then the domino toppled the other way.
The ACC made the surprise move of adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. I loved this just for the addition of Pittsburgh because now I’ll have some great intra-familial sports bragging to look forward to. ((That is, if BC ever decides to recover from its self-inflicted Spaz.)) In making the first big move and adding two academically-aligned colleges with good sports pedigrees and large television markets, the ACC bought itself a great deal of breathing room. Additionally, it dealt a heavy blow to the Big East, and it’s quite clear the schools getting left behind have a bitter taste in their mouths. The ACC probably won’t stand firm at fourteen teams, but it now has time to pursue the more desirable candidates to round out the conference at sixteen, which seems to be the magic number. It’ll be interesting to see who the ACC goes after and how the other conferences will react, but to look at why some schools are panicking, I want to turn back to hockey.
It’s interesting to note that these superconferences and the panic over them seemed to happen in college hockey first. Or at least that’s where everyone got to watch a worst-case-scenario play out. After Penn State was gifted a new arena and scholarships to field varsity men’s and women’s hockey teams, speculation began on if and when the Big 10 would form their own hockey “superconference.” ((It may be a superconference in terms of college hockey, but it pales in comparison to a football superconference.)) Despite various assurances that the officials involved would “do what was best for college hockey,” they did what was best for themselves. Namely, creating their own conference and adding to their television broadcast rights package.
Then the dominoes fell.
The CCHA effectively collapsed, unprepared to deal with change. It first lost Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State to the Big 10. Then Miami panicked and joined with an exodus of five teams from the WCHA to form the National College Hockey Conference. ((Enough acronyms yet?)) The WCHA invited four members of the CCHA to join, leaving Western Michigan and Notre Dame behind. These remaining two teams are being courted by the NCHC, although Notre Dame is rumored to be considering Hockey East as well.
The WCHA initially took a small, but manageable hit from the Big 10 conference, losing only Minnesota and Wisconsin. The crushing blow came when Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, and Minnesota-Duluth decided to leave and form the NCHC as their own superconference. This left five teams behind, none of which had won the national championship in the past thirty-five years. The WCHA invited the CCHA leftovers to join, but when the realignment actually occurs it will only be a shadow of its former self.
What remains to be seen is how the WCHA survives financially. The Big 10 and NCHC conferences are referred to as superconferences largely because they’re financially stable. The leftovers in the WCHA has previously survived on rivalries with the larger, more successful schools. There is uncertainty if these smaller schools will be able to field teams for long without the sustaining rivalry matchups, in addition to what will no doubt be a higher cost of travel with two Alaskan-based teams in the conference.
The eastern hockey conferences (Hockey East, ECAC, and Atlantic Hockey) were generally unaffected by the shuffling of the teams in the midwest. Hockey East has been a de-facto superconference for some time both on the ice and on the balance sheet, and that will continue. What they should do, however, is court Notre Dame for expansion, and that brings us back to the musical chairs in the football conferences.
Notre Dame’s hockey alignment will probably reflect where they go the rest of their sports. If the ACC manages to snag them, Notre Dame will probably join Hockey East. It’s the dream scenario for those two conferences. Notre Dame constantly touts their football independence, but that was with a stable Big East conference for the rest of their sports. That doesn’t exist anymore. The purpose of the football superconferences is to command a much larger broadcast rights contract. The ACC just added Pittsburgh and New York to its media footprint, and it also will be able to renegotiate its contract with ESPN to reflect that monetarily. Adding Notre Dame would cement the ACC as one of the premier conferences in college sports. The SEC would probably still hold the top spot since they seem to be able to rake in the championships every year, but the ACC would be in a good number two position. If Notre Dame chose to stay with the Big East, they’d have a much weaker conference with much less exposure. The ACC now can offer the entire eastern seaboard from Boston to Miami, and all the way out west to Pittsburgh for exposure. Madison Square Garden is now a potential host for the ACC basketball tournament. Army hosts games at Yankee Stadium for the foreseeable future, but now Syracuse could fill that option as well, especially after winning the Pinstripe Bowl there. If Notre Dame ends up joining one of the other conferences (or stays in the Big East), their hockey choice will probably be the NCHC. In this case, the ACC will probably look for another big name to join, but I don’t know what that would be. Connecticut and Rutgers seem like a backup plan in case the conference has to expand to sixteen.
The only certainty for now is that the dominos are falling.