The news this week that Texas and Oklahoma were looking into possibly leaving the Big 12 Conference for the SEC were the first rumblings of what could be an earthquake in college sports.
While the move of these schools is not coming tomorrow, where there’s smoke, there is fire. I can’t recall any of these trial balloons not coming to pass.
When this happens, there will be an obvious movement of dominoes among Division I-FBS schools from those in the Big 12 to independents like UMass and UConn.
“I think all of us have anticipated some reorganization of some conferences,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford told me, “given the pandemic and what we’ve gone through for the last year and a half. If there is movement, there will be a trickle-down effect, I’m sure. There will be some repositioning of some institutions. I think everybody’s evaluating where they are, what the strengths of those relationships are now and their standing in the conferences now, and if they feel like they can improve that standing, I think people are going to be active participants trying to get themselves settled.
“I would say this has the potential to be another large reorganization in college athletics” if there is a lot of movement.
Bamford is starting his eighth school year at the helm in Amherst. He was not at UMass when the last seismic shift of schools took place, a shift that saw the old Big East lose flagship programs Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College to the ACC, and the Big Ten taking on Rutgers and original ACC team Maryland. That came one year after Texas A&M and Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC.
Now, if this move takes place, the SEC would become even more of a “Super Conference” for football than it is now. It would also make the conference a better basketball league and in baseball and softball, forget about it.
“The NCAA, it remains to be seen, what the future holds for the organization and how much impact they’ll have,” Bamford said when we spoke Thursday morning. “There’s a lot of thought in the industry that conferences will be autonomous and control a lot of the competitive environment moving forward. Obviously, there’s a need for championships and what does that look like in the future? We’re at the beginning stages of what is going to be a real sea change in college athletics in the next 10 years.”
Bamford said that the divide in Division I athletics could grow because of this.
“It’s all driven, it’s predicated on the financials on television agreements. Now you have the [NIL] where our student-athletes can monetize that, which is a good thing. But it’s trending toward a real different financial investment model for institutions and for athletic departments,” Bamford said. “I think it’s going to potentially create an even bigger gap and an even bigger divide between those Power Five, Autonomy Five schools and the rest of us in Division I.”
Which, of course, could have an impact on Bamford’s own athletic department. The football team operates as an independent, while the vast majority of UMass teams compete in the Atlantic 10. The A-10 is anything but a Power Five league.
“I want to make sure the University of Massachusetts is positioned for the next 100 years of college athletics. This is going to be a very important time period as we try to think about what’s next for our athletic program as an institution,” he said. “Making sure that we’re setting ourselves up for success in the long-term is going to be crucial with the decisions that we make in the short term.”
Might that short and long-term future include UMass adjusting to a different conference, maybe an all-sports league if the Big 12 falls apart?
“We love the Atlantic 10. We love our all-sports conference. I want to make sure we’re in good shape there with the right partners and the right peers. That’s the most important thing for us,” Bamford said. “Then making sure that if we stay independent in football, that we have competitive opportunities, that we have a chance to go to bowl games, that we have the opportunities to be visible from a television and a streaming standpoint.”
The athletic director said that being a football independent allows UMass to be “nimble” if a conference comes calling that the school believes fits where it is going athletically.
Knowing what’s going to happen now is another issue.
“Trying to predict where this is going to go is really a hard thing to do,” Bamford said. “I would tell you that I actually feel that we’re in a little bit of a position of strength being an independent [in football]. I think you’re going to see potentially more schools take their football programs to independent status and try to find an all-sports conference. Football is really the outlier here. We’ve seen it with the advent of the college football playoff. The NCAA does not control that event and the monies coming into it. That is, in some way, the tail that wags the dog here.
“I think it’s going to continue to be a major decision and inflection point for ADs across the country.”