Conference restructuring will permanently alter college sports, especially for women

Concerns about parity

The essence: One of the biggest concerns surrounding conference realignment is the consolidation of power among the Power Four football programs, specifically the Big Ten and SEC, whose 18- and 16-team consortia now include most of the country’s richest and most prestigious brands.

  • This centralization could widen the parity gap, creating a system of elites and… everyone else. But this is far from over.

The rest of the FBS: When it comes to factors like revenue and recruiting, the gap between the Power conferences and the Group of Five (G5) is nothing new. But as the Power conferences grow larger, Ahempowerful, it will be increasingly difficult for programs like Boise State and Liberty to compete on the gridiron, a major disadvantage in a world where football is king.

Among the Powerful Four: It’s not just non-major league teams that are worried: As conferences add more top-tier teams, mid-tier teams will be left out of contention for conference championships and national tournament bids.

  • For example, UCLA’s move to the Big Ten brings its athletic department an estimated $60 million per year, but its moderately successful football team can’t buy wins against the Big Ten’s top teams. Is that money worth losing on the field? Only time will tell.

The impact on women

Source: StanfordWSoccer/X

The essence: This wave of reorganization was designed to maximize the revenue and influence of the top (notably men’s) football programs. Every other college team was forced to adapt in its wake, and women’s sports, already fighting tooth and nail for institutional support, are particularly vulnerable to undesirable outcomes.

Travel: The most immediate concern is the new cross-country footprint of these massive power conferences. Athletes will be spending a lot more time (and schools will be spending a lot more money) on travel. That’s tough enough for the once-a-week, 12-game regular season in football, let alone the grind of a women’s volleyball season, which includes 30 midweek games.

  • Athletes, coaches and administrators fear this new reality so much that the National College Players Association has even asked Congress to impose regional restrictions on college competition.

Deprioritization: The more college sports revolve around football money, the less important the experiences of female athletes will be to athletic departments. Sure, football-driven initiatives will boost department-wide revenues…but schools must also spend More investment is needed in football to remain competitive. Investments in women’s sports will likely take a backseat.

Cuts: Title IX (where it applies) ensures that women’s sports won’t be completely dismantled. But cuts to women’s (and men’s) Olympic sports seem inevitable, especially at less affluent schools struggling to remain relevant on the playing field. Illinois professor Michael H. LeRoy says it’s already happening, and Title IX advocates will need to be on red alert to stop the bleeding.