Money, Conferences, and Realigning Your Expectations
By: Jeff Postus
Recently there has been a developing narrative that the influx of money coming into the WVU Football program, as a result of its membership in the Big 12, should alter the competitive landscape for The Mountaineers. The theory is that this new money will lead directly to improvements (beware those who assume linear progressions) and that those improvements will manifest themselves on the field as wins. I struggle to accept this projection, for two main reasons.
Firstly, there is the assumption that West Virginia’s new found wealth will allow them to “jump” other programs in the arms race that is college football resource collection. Problem is, everyone is getting rich off college football these days (well, not everyone…). The Mountaineers’ nearly $30 million payout in 2014 is certainly cause for celebration, but, on the national scale, with the Big 10 projecting $45 million payouts in the coming years, and lucrative TV deals in the Pac 12 and SEC, they are just keeping up with the Joneses. Secondly, the progression from payout to performance is being taken for granted, or, at best, accelerated. $30 million dollars, however, is not spent – it is invested. Invested in building projects, marketing plans, raises, renovations, repairs. These things take time, their impact is not guaranteed, and their obsoletion is inevitable. The hierarchy and resource shares in the world of college football are the result of a 100 year old rock tumbler. It has been rounded into a shape. It would take a great deal of money to change that in a span of few years, and though it has happened (The Oregon Ducks and Nike come to mind), it did not occur on the strength of a $30 million conference payout.
I suspect it will be years before we know how all this money (not just West Virginia’s share) was spent, and what difference it made – and I am certain it is unfairly burdensome to expect the current roster, or even next year’s, to somehow perform better because the check was bigger this year.
That said, it is summer and it’s nearly 3 months till the next snap, so let’s take a little deeper look. Afterwards, you can watch 2011 Orange Bowl highlights on YouTube. Reminder: Tavon Austin was really really good.
We can look to the history of college football power conference realignment in an attempt to get an understanding of how this process usually goes. Beginning in 2004, 18 schools have made 19 power conference allegiance changes. Using the conference identifiers shown below, I broke those 19 moves down into 4 “move-type” groups – High Major to High Major, Major to High Major, Non Major to Major, Non Major to High Major.[table “17” not found /]
Those moves are listed below (High Major to High Major = HMHM, etc):[table “18” not found /]
Considering we are only attempting to see if teams are changed by large increases in conference revenue, it is appropriate to eliminate the High Major to High Major moves, as one can assume the difference in payout (while certainly the motivation behind the move) was likely not large enough to be compared to the exponential increase experienced by teams making much larger jumps. The data is available, however, and if you’d like to see it, please say so in the comments.
So, when counting only upward jumps into Major or High Major conferences, we have 11 teams making 12 moves. We will not count Boston College, as they were only a year removed from High Major status when they made their Major to High Major move, so despite an assumed one year dip in payout funds, they were certainly accustomed to High Major money. The Mountaineers, on the other hand, for example, spent 8 full seasons without a High Major conference affiliation. We will also not count Rutgers, as they have only spent one year in High Major since 2004, and therefore would have yet to show any results from new money. Nor will we use Louisville, as they were in such financial flux (4 conferences in 10 years) that their data is too… noisy… for use.
You are beginning to see how small our sample is – a sign that we really don’t know how this money will impact the program. So few have made similar increases in revenue, that it is very risky to assume a certain outcome.
We now, however, have our sample. 8 teams, making 8 moves, all with a full level jump on the Non Major – Major – High Major scale. These teams can be defined as programs that have experienced extreme changes in conference related revenue since 2004. In the cases of USF, Cincinnati, and UConn, teams had brief Major conference affiliations before returning to the “have-nots”. The final team list is shown below:[table “19” not found /]
We will use these teams to get an idea if programs really do perform better when they are… in the money, so to speak. All records shown below are 2004 – 2014:[table “20” not found /]
We see above that WVU and Utah have yet to adjust to the increase in competition, that people have already forgotten TCU’s early Big 12 struggles, and that the last phase of realignment may have crippled USF and UConn beyond repair. What we do not see, however, is any pattern. It shows that not only is it too early to begin demanding increased success, but that there may be no link at all. Indeed, demanding wins as a result of conference money might be like demanding a student ace his history exam because he or she got a new calculator.
College football success has always been based on two things – coaching and recruiting. Coaching and recruiting may have less to do with conference payout than many are willing to admit. The ability to bring in coaches and recruits seems to be impacted by that which does not change – geography, program DNA, and wealth of alumni base.
It is for that reason, and many others, that I find asking this Mountaineer team, and Dana Holgorsen specifically, to turn these new millions into wins to be unreasonable request.