It’s wrong to think of realignment as something that’s going to “shake out” into, say, four 16-team super-conferences and then go away. The incentives to a team in one of those super-conferences will be exactly the same as they are now. Most teams in most years will stay put, but of course that’s true now as well.
Granted, there was a time when realignment was sporadic and customarily traceable to a discrete occurrence. For example a decade ago the ACC decided it wanted to improve its football, and that had tremendous repercussions for the Big East (which was raided by the ACC) and Conference USA (subsequently raided by the Big East).
But it may turn out that realignment is now more systemic. Television dollars have been the mother’s milk of college sports for decades, but the creation of the Big Ten Network in 2007 ushered in a new fear of and sensitivity to revenue disparities across the major conferences. It is now the case that a major-conference program can markedly improve their balance sheet through the simple expedient of switching to a different major conference. Once that happens in one instance, realignment exerts its own perpetual motion, just like the coaching carousel does. Every conference wants an even number of teams, and every conference wants enough football programs to sit at the grown-ups’ table. One relocation made for reasons of revenue triggers other relocations made for reasons encompassing not only revenue but also simple housekeeping.
In terms of football and men’s basketball, college sports at the top of Division I is simply pro sports without the revenue sharing. What we’re seeing is exactly what we’d see if the NFC East could negotiate its own TV deal distinct from the AFC West. Denver would jump to the Giants’ division, and maybe the Cowboys would head to the AFC Central.
One way to subdue realignment would be for the top 64 or so athletic programs to mimic the professional leagues more explicitly — and particularly the NFL — and engage in cross-conference revenue sharing. Ironically this would return college football programs to where they were in the early 1980s before the NCAA lost in court, only this time the schools themselves would be running the show and doling out the revenues.
Maybe I’ve spent too much time in calendar 2012 ruminating on the towering and amazing fact that the RPI still exists in calendar 2012, but before you yell at Maryland and/or the Big Ten for being a bunch of greedy hypocrites, keep in mind we know what venerating tradition and the status quo above all else looks like, and no one seems terribly pleased with that either.