There is a difference between pessimism and pragmatic realism _ even though at times, they can feel like the same thing.
The thought that the Big 12 as we’ve known it now since 1996 is not going to last much longer may seem pessimistic to those who’ve become fans of the league. But the more one reads and interprets, it seems more just an idea to get used to.
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the Big Ten (11) and the Pac-10 are itching to expand, and if one or both take schools from the Big 12, then the SEC may step in, too, and grab what it would consider the best of what’s left.
Last week, broadcaster Brenda VanLengen and I spoke with Texas women’s athletic director Chris Plonsky as part of Brenda’s radio show, “She’s Got Game.” We discussed several topics, including whether the women’s hoops NCAA tournament should go back to top-16 seeds hosting the early rounds, and various scheduling questions.
Of course, when Texas officials talk about any college athletics topic, no matter how earnest and informative they are, I always think, “Yeah, but, you’re Texas … you’re not like most everybody else.”
I don’t mean anything derogatory by that. It’s just that Texas is a crown jewel, a major “have” even among other “haves,” and so far from the have-nots as to almost be living on a different planet. That doesn’t mean that Plonsky doesn’t keenly understand budget issues (even reductions) or the entire spectrum of athletics, men’s and women’s. She does. But whatever happens, Texas will be fine.
In regard to the scheduling and NCAA tourney sites topics, I want to discuss that more here soon. But first I want to get a better sense from various sources if any of the ideas Plonsky suggested would actually be seriously considered by television. Because anything that might happen in regard to the overall college women’s hoops calendar or alternations in the NCAA tournament would have to be not just accepted by but advocated by television.
In other words, everyone can talk as much as they like about ideas for improving the tournament, but it’s not happening unless TV wants it to happen.
Television dictates virtually all sports now, and the revenue from televised football is a driving force in this latest game of musical chairs, aka conference expansion/realignment. And, as we talked to Plonsky, I knew that any big-picture discussions now about individual sports are secondary to the potential upcoming league-membership changes.
I asked her about how sports other than football – particularly the so-called “Olympic” sports – are essentially “collateral damage” after the dust settles in various league expansions/subtractions/re-arrangements. And she pointed out that, actually, you could use what sounds like a very odd term – collateral beneficiaries – instead.
Meaning that while, certainly, all these conference moves are motivated by football, the revenue that’s produced benefits every other sport in those leagues. And I do understand what she means. But I was thinking of the “damage” part, though, mostly in regard to what realignments can do to geographical rivalries. And how that impacts fan support for those sports that are concerned with attendance – women’s basketball obviously being one – plus how it affects academics and the overall student-athlete experience because of travel.
Women’s basketball has helped the Big 12 and vice-versa. Big 12 women’s hoops has offered a variety of playing styles, coaching personalities and success stories. In 14 seasons of competition, nine schools have won or shared the regular-season title, and seven schools have won the league tournament.
The women’s hoops fans in the Big 12 have networked a lot amongst themselves and have kept the HoopScoop web site a place of intelligent discussion about the sport. There are some “brawls” there occasionally, of course, and there is always some strife about the North/South scheduling set-up (which reflects the conflict the coaches themselves have on that topic.) But, overall, it’s been a site that’s remarkably civil and supportive of players from every school.
In the end, though, I go back to the pessimism/pragmatic realism mindset. Whatever is most financially beneficial for the power players in college athletics will largely determine how this is all going to end up. The fact that the Big 12 has led the nation in women’s basketball attendance for the last decade is a point of pride that the league likes to trumpet … but will have no bearing on whether some of its schools decide to stay put if they are offered a landing spot somewhere else.
In the most extreme scenarios that have been hypothesized about conference realignment, the Big 12 would have about six or seven of its current members still together once all the “big-time” poaching was done, and the entire landscape of college athletics would change. That doesn’t seem like the most likely outcome, but it’s at least in the realm of possibility.
Other scenarios have Missouri and Nebraska (along with some of the Big East’s schools such as Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Syracuse) going to the Big Ten (11), with Colorado heading to the Pac-10. Others have suggested only Missouri will leave the Big 12. Others say it will be Texas.
Ultimately, we’ll watch to see what it will be and then figure out how that affects the “collateral damage/beneficiaries.” Because there almost certainly will be both. Whatever happens, it won’t be because of any potential benefit or harm to women’s athletics. People involved in those sports aren’t participants in this particular “game” … they are also just awaiting its outcome, and then must adjust.