In 1896, a group of Midwestern college administrators met in Chicago to set the rules for what was then the Western Conference, later known as the Big Ten. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune the next day, they agreed in writing to “keep intercollegiate athletic competition within its reasonable limits.” One of those boundaries was geographical: for the sake of travel and tradition, the schools largely played the regional rivals who populated their conferences.
So it’s hard to imagine how the founders of the country’s oldest athletics conference would have reacted to the recent realignment news that has shaken college sport to the core. Last year, the Southeastern Conference announced it would add Texas and Oklahoma to a 16-team mega-conference. Not to be outdone, the Big Ten announced this summer that they will also expand to 16 teams with the addition of UCLA and USC.1 For the first time, a major collegiate track and field league will be bicostal.
UCLA, USC, Texas and Oklahoma take second, third, fifth and share 16th placeth in Division I history in NCAA team national titles. Historically schools like this build the foundation of conferences rather than destroying them. Only one of the four has changed the conference opponents significantly in the past century.2 Now they all fit into two superleagues, and it’s possible the Big Ten isn’t done yet: Commissioner Kevin Warren said he could see an expansion to 20 teams. The development of the collegiate sports card over the last few decades has been startling and has shattered any notion of regionalism that conferences once bestowed.
As late as the 2000s and early 2010s, college leagues generally still fit into small geographic pockets. For example, under the old Bowl Championship Series (BCS), there were six major football conferences (the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big East, and ACC), most of which were very closely related — and none more so than that Big Ten. We calculated the distance from each school to the geographic center of all schools in their conference, and every Big Ten team was within 500 miles of the conference center in 2010. Across the country, no Power Five school was within 1,000 miles of their conference center.
But the next four years brought a flurry of conference swaps. From 2011 to 2014, 47 Football Bowl Subdivision schools switched leagues, marking the busiest four-year period in history for a realignment.3 The SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, and the Big Ten added Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland, venturing into a new state each time. These moves – and the corresponding dominoes that fell as a result – wiped out a football league (The Big East) and created a Power Five, and it was clear that the classic boundaries of college football were being pushed. However, you could still see decisions made under the auspices of geography if you squinted. (For example, the Big Ten’s newcomers were at least in states contiguous to the old conference footprint.) The furthest away schools in the Big Ten and the SEC were Rutgers and Texas A&M, covering distances of 593 and 560 miles, respectively , from their new conference centers.
Even with their expanded boundaries from the 2010s, the Big Ten and SEC were still the most compact of the Power Five leagues at the start of 2021. But that changed last summer when the SEC moved further west by agreeing to add Texas and Oklahoma. In doing so, the league not only increased its presence, but also clinched the fourth- and fifth-place schools on the all-time college football wins list. While overall profits are not a perfect metric,4 The Big 12 are now without classic powerhouses, with West Virginia being the second most successful school at No. 27. In more modern terms, Oklahoma was the only Big 12 school to make the college football playoffs.
Texas and Oklahoma aren’t entirely outlandish cultural or geographic fits in the SEC. They will be 576 and 489 miles from their new conference center, compared to the 425 and 84 miles they sat from their Big 12 enemies in 2010. They can also keep the Red River rivalry and Texas will resume their rivalry with Texas A&M. While the new distances are an adjustment, 29 schools (across eight leagues) are farther from their conference centers than any other team in the redesigned SEC.
However, the way other conferences have reacted to the SEC’s amendments has significantly distorted the map of collegiate sports. To fill their vacancies, the Big 12 added Brigham Young, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston and now stretch from Provo, Utah to Orlando, Florida. BYU and UCF are 986 and 917 miles from their conference enemies. As answer to thethe American Athletic Conference sacked Conference USA, and Conference USA did what it could to stay intact – so that this league now stretches from Miami to Las Cruces, New Mexico.
And the real nail in the coffin of the whole “regional conferences” idea will be the new Big Ten, the first truly national collegiate league. While in 2010 only Penn State and Minnesota were more than 300 miles from the center of the Big Ten, 10 schools in the conference now exceed that mark after including UCLA and USC.5 The distance from Los Angeles to the geographic center of the Big Ten is a whopping 1,621 miles.
The recent inflation in average distances between schools and their conference competitors is evident in the totals. In 2010, the average distance from an FBS team to its conference center was 336 miles. By 2021, that average had increased to 365 miles. Within four years, the average will be 412 miles.
It is also important to remember that all of these distances are measured as the crow flies and not as road trips. This is particularly important for the sports outside of football and basketball – and for smaller schools in general – both of which rely more on bus travel than charter flights. (Everyone has a different definition of “driving distance,” but by any definition, for obvious reasons, BYU seems to be the first school alongside Hawaii not to have the ability to drive to a conference opponent.)6 When it comes to non-profit sports, the Big Ten’s UCLA-USC fit is deeply odd for many reasons: Both schools operate sports that the conference doesn’t offer and don’t play sports that the Big Ten compete in. You could dominate her cold. Weather mates in some sports, like softball and baseball, and fights in others—all while tackling that grueling travel schedule through bus rides.
All of this means that the days of conferences as we once knew them – small, regionally limited groups of similar colleges with a common history – are all but over. And the Superliga era seems to be taking its place. Of course, the idea of a nationwide sports league with 20 teams is not unknown. All four major North American men’s leagues, as well as Major League Soccer and most major European soccer leagues, have at least that many clubs. No one thinks twice about the Indianapolis Colts playing road games in Las Vegas and East Rutherford, New Jersey in the same season. That’s because the NFL is a financially driven organization that strives to maximize its market. But that’s the point – college football is looking more and more like the NFL every year. And if they weren’t already, the conference ideals devised in Chicago in 1896 are a relic of the past.