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Realignment Is Being Discussed Again But It Won’t Be As Easy As It Has Been

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The decline of cable and the rise of new technologies and e-sports great complicate things for the traditional partnership of TV and college sports.

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The pace of change is about to pick up dramatically for sports.
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At some point in the future, realignment or expansion or whatever you’d like to call it may stop and some sense of stability may return to college sports.

Then again, maybe not.

In what seems a relatively minor impact to the overall scene, the Big East is considering expansion again, or at least talking coyly about it.

The Big East is a bit different because while football drives the process generally, the Big East is driven by basketball. So while UConn is being discussed, the Huskies have football ambitions and would prefer a conference where football is a big deal.

So the next conference to raid might be the A-10 where St. Louis, UMass, Rhode Island, Dayton or St. Joe’s might be logical fits.

If the Big East sticks to basketball, which would be wise considering their football experience didn’t work out too well last time, the options are somewhat limited. If it were us we’d go with St. Louis or Dayton. Both are basketball schools and periodically pretty good. Memphis could be a candidate too although it’s kind of out of the geographical and cultural footprint of the Big East which is mostly made up of Northern and Midwestern Catholic schools with Butler being the exception as a non-Catholic school.

However the bigger question looms in 2020 when the AAC’s ESPN contract expires and then 2025 when the Big 12’s grant-of-rights expires.

The AAC has some interesting schools and has had some football success lately. UCF has been terrific, Temple had a very good year and will see Duke in the Independence Bowl. They’re not the only ones. UCF has been good enough to have ambitions of moving up. As we understand it, the SEC prefers not to add teams from states in their existing footprints so UCF is unlikely to be a candidate there and football success is recent and not sustained for a long period of time like, say, Alabama. There’s not much of a basketball footprint either.

The AAC schools have some major decisions ahead and whatever happens with the Big 12 is several years away when the GOR runs out..

The Big 12 is a different cat than the other Power Five conferences. Texas royally pissed the rest of the conference off with the Longhorn Network which is a bonanza for UT but with greatly complicates things for the rest of the Big 12. However the conference has to keep the Longhorns happy or they could bolt and wreck the rest.

Unfortunately their options probably aren’t as open as they once were.

At one point, the PAC-12 was discussed as a destination for UT but it’s is increasingly a mess so they’re probably off the table. That would leave Texas with a choice of the Big Ten, the SEC, or possibly the ACC. Given the SEC’s preference for one team per state, not to mention Texas A&M’s departure from the Big 12 and its animosity towards UT, and that seems a tougher sell. Texas is a big property and the rest of the conference might tell A&M to stuff it but keep that in mind. Oklahoma seems like a better SEC fit at the moment.

If the Big 12 blows apart, it’s a whole new game, assuming the rules stay more or less the same.

But they may not.

As various lawsuits wind through the courts, player compensation could change everything. That’s still theoretical at this point but this isn’t: ESPN, which has been willing to lavish huge contracts that drive realignment, isn’t as healthy as it once was.

The World Wide Leader is now the World Wide bleeder when it comes to subscribers: it’s down two million this year alone. And it’s not like there are a lot of other places to go: all sports networks are struggling. Every network lost ground this summer except for the NFL Network, MLB and BEIN - but NFLN and MLBN have lost a lot since the spring and MLBN has lost 6.5 million since February 2017.

The reality is that cable’s monopoly is crumbling and it’s not clear what will replace it. Whatever happens, the math is very clear: ESPN cannot continue to raise prices for inventory when it’s shedding customers by the millions. The gravy train is going to grind to a halt.

And there’s at least one more piece to this puzzle. Those of us who grew up watching the major sports - football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer - still basically appreciate the competitions.

However, as broadcast sports decline, others are rising. An awful lot of younger people are disinterested in traditional sports and prefer e-sports. Just as we’ve seen shots of empty NFL stadiums and read about college sports losing fans, e-sports are coming up fast.

It’s a billion dollar industry now, it’s on phones around the world and it’s packing stadiums.

If you want a textbook definition of disruption, you might be looking at it. ESPN now has a toe in the water here, Atlantic City is angling to become a major player and a global tournament based on a nine-month old game was just held in Dubai.

This is all still new and the technology is not mature. However when 5G hits mobile networks with latency all but eliminated it will arrive at about the time Apple is supposed to debut AR eyewear which will likely lead to copycat hardware and a new category of wearables which will change things far more than smart phones have.

When those two things intersect, you can almost count on this: there will no longer be a need for a bundled cable subscription as we’ve known it because everything can be delivered directly, quite literally, to your eyeballs. The coax cable into your house is going to be redundant very soon.

And coincidentally, that will more or less take hold between the AAC decision in 2020 and the expiration of the Big 12’s GOR.

There’s no way to know where all this is going. Only the most brilliant savant could have predicted something as revolutionary and as brief as Pokemon Go. Not even Steve Jobs foresaw that (he had to be convinced just to do Apple’s App Store).

But it’s not hard to see that ESPN’s struggles are a long way from being over and that means that upheaval in college sports will continue.

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