Ben Goff, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Razorbacks' SEC move still causing ripple effects 25 years later

It has been 25 years since the University of Arkansas fired a shot heard across college athletics.

It has been 25 years since the University of Arkansas fired a shot heard across college athletics.

In the summer of 1990, the Razorbacks made a move that seemed unfathomable just months earlier. Arkansas joined the Southeastern Conference, leaving behind a 76-year partnership as a member of the Southwest Conference.

It ended a quick courtship that lasted less than two months. The SEC approached Arkansas about membership in June of that year. Then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer invited the Razorbacks to the league on Aug. 1, 1990, and the university’s board of trustees unanimously approved the move the same day.

With a quarter-century of retrospect, leaders across college athletics made statements that day that bordered on prophetic.

“I think it will make others think they need to move faster than before,” then-Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles said. “Regardless of what Arkansas has done, I see a major upheaval around the country. I think the times of the ’90s are going to be so different that schools have got to get ready and position themselves if they want to keep up with the Joneses and be competitive.”

Arkansas’ move began a tidal wave of expansion that reshaped the college athletics landscape and redefined the identity of conferences.

Twenty-five years later, gone are the days of smaller leagues built on rivalries and geographic likeness. Today’s growing conferences are dictated by TV market impressions and revenue sharing. Three conferences have 24-hour TV networks, rapidly widening the chasm between the haves and the have nots in college athletics.
Steve Dittmore, a professor of sport management at the University of Arkansas, said TV rights have been at the center of conference expansion and cites a 1984 Supreme Court case as the starting point. Several universities filed a class-action lawsuit claiming the NCAA had no legal jurisdiction to control TV rights for college football games.
In NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the NCAA’s model for selling TV rights violated antitrust laws. It allowed universities - and by extension the conferences with which they were affiliated - to negotiate their own TV rights agreements instead of the NCAA doing it for them.
“It became important for conferences to have schools that were prominent in football,” Dittmore said. “We saw the first round of realignment with Arkansas, Florida State and South Carolina. It was a direct result of that Supreme Court ruling that gave power to the individual schools, which subleased that to their conferences.”

In addition to allowing conferences the right to negotiate TV rights, the Supreme Court ruling also ended the NCAA’s archaic structure of limiting football teams to one national and one regional TV appearance per season.

The timing couldn’t have been better. With burgeoning cable networks like ESPN, conferences quickly made new deals that resulted in unprecedented exposure for their product.
In 1984, the entire college football TV package was sold for around $49 million. In 2014, ABC bought broadcast rights to the Rose Bowl for $80 million.
The SEC Network, launched in 2013, helped increase the conference’s payout to its members by around $10 million in its first year. Other schools have negotiated their own broadcast agreements with major networks.
Notre Dame football’s contract with NBC Universal is worth a reported $15 million per year through 2025. Texas’ Longhorn Network partnership with ESPN will pay $300 million over 20 years.
“The conferences (and teams) that have won the most national championships … those are the ones that can command the most in their media rights deals,” Dittmore said. “It’s been tougher sledding for the mid-majors — the Tulsas, the Memphises and schools in those conferences — to find conferences that has the benefits that others have.”
Arkansas wasn’t the first school with a major college football program to join a conference in search of expansion. Penn State had joined the Big Ten the eight months earlier.
But the Nittany Lions were an independent in football while participating in the Atlantic-10 for other sports. The Razorbacks’ move to the SEC was unique in that Arkansas left one major conference for another - a move repeated by several top programs in the years since.
Prior to inviting Arkansas, the SEC had not added a new member since 1933. The league would go on to add South Carolina in 1990 and expanded again in 2011 when Missouri and Texas A&M were invited for membership.
As Broyles predicted, the SEC’s initial expansion created an upheaval in college athletics.
Florida State ended its status as an independent in 1991 and joined the ACC. That same year the Big East, a conference which built its identity in basketball, expanded to add five teams - including Miami - for the purpose of playing football.
With dwindling attendances across the league, the SWC folded less than five years after the Razorbacks played their final game as a league member. Four teams from that conference — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor — would merge with the members of the Big 8 to create the Big 12 in 1996.
There were 107 schools playing in the NCAA’s largest division in 1990. Of those, 51 have changed conferences in the quarter-century since (three no longer play football).
Among major universities to switch conference affiliations since Arkansas’ move include: Florida State, South Carolina, Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, Nebraska, Miami, Texas A&M, Missouri, Virginia Tech, Colorado, West Virginia, Maryland, Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Utah, with several switching conferences more than once.
All have moved to one of the NCAA’s Power 5 conferences, of which four have at least 12 teams — the threshold set by the NCAA to play a conference championship game in football. The SEC Championship Game is worth more than $15 million for the conference.
“It became imperative for conferences to get to 12 teams so they can have that conference championship game,” Dittmore said. “From a television standpoint, it’s an additional revenue source.”
Smaller leagues like the Mid-American Conference and the American also play football championship games. The moves by power teams toward power conferences have allowed less prominent schools such as Boise State to build football powerhouses in their wake.
TCU, a casualty of the SWC’s collapse, has played as a member of five conferences since 1995, winning conference championships in four of them. The Horned Frogs were a co-champion last season in the Big 12, the only power conference that doesn’t have a conference championship game.
The league, which has 10 teams after the latest round of expansion, is the wild card in the next wave of expansion, Dittmore said. In 2011, the Big 12 approached Arkansas about membership, but the Razorbacks declined. League officials have said in recent months they don’t plan to expand, but university presidents within the conference have said doing so is necessary for the well-being of the conference.
“Until the Big 12 settles on being what it is or going and trying to find some other school, I don’t think it’s settled yet,” Dittmore said. “I think there’s still probably one last wave and once that hits, I think we’re done.”
Any future waves can be traced back to Arkansas’ decision to take a leap of faith 25 years ago. College athletics would have changed with or without the Razorbacks’ move, but Arkansas holds a unique place in history as one of the first dominoes to fall.
”There’s been a lot of talk about expanding conferences, but they actually moved,” said Larry Wahl, a Miami athletics director on the day of the Razorbacks’ decision. ”It may be the thing that really starts something.”
Twenty-five years later, that something hasn’t stopped.

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