Will SEC, Big Ten greed ruin college sports as we know it?

March Madness tips off next week, bringing with it America’s unique burst of spring excitement … as well as piles of money.

Its basic structure is simple:

  • Teams earn their way into the bracket either by winning the automatic bid of their conference (each conference gets one) or an at-large invite extended by a selection committee.

  • Teams earn their seed in the field via the opinion of the same selection committee.

  • Each team in the field earns one “share” of revenue for their conference, which is then divided up as the conference sees fit. Every time they win and advance to the next round, they earn another share. (This is slightly more complicated because the shares are spread out over multiple years, but it’s essentially the same thing).

It works. Opportunities, advantages and revenue are all earned. The tourney isn’t just a popular television draw, it’s a cultural phenomenon. The big schools generally win in the end but everyone has a chance to win — on the floor and at the bank.

It’s seemingly the exact opposite of how negotiations over the future of the College Football Playoff are going. Based on a series of recent proposals, the Big Ten and SEC appear interested in guaranteeing rather than earning and codifying advantages, not simply winning them.

They appear focused on vacuuming up every last crumb of money they can rather than consider what is best for the whole of the sport, including into the future.

What will the College Football Playoff look like in the future? (David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
What will the College Football Playoff look like in the future? (David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

College football has no central authority — the NCAA does not run the postseason, including the future 12 (or more) editions of the playoff. So the Big Ten and SEC are free to try to strong-arm their way to the best deals that they see fit.

As such, they’ve proposed in recent weeks:

  • The Big Ten and SEC would receive as many as four automatic bids each to a 14-team expanded playoff (the ACC and Big 12 would get just two). Additional splits have also been batted about — 3-3-2-2-1 — but always with more to the Big Ten and SEC.

  • Guaranteeing the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the field — who would get a competitively valuable first-round bye — are reserved solely for the champions of the Big Ten and SEC, even if a team from another league had a better season.

  • Divvying up the revenue not on performance — how many teams get in and win games — but by a predetermined split that greatly favors the … you guessed it … Big Ten and SEC. Those leagues would get a combined 58 percent of revenue, the ACC 17 percent, the Big 12 14.5 percent and so on. Basically the rich would get more in the future because they are the richest right now.

Washington politicians staged another in a long line of alarmist hearings on Tuesday that will no doubt continue to gobble headlines and distract fans, but this is the most pressing threat to college athletics.

You can be concerned about NIL and athlete employment and still understand that the threat to the fabric and future of college athletics is far more at stake with these football playoff discussions. The sentiments driving what the Big Ten and SEC are pushing for is what will turn major college sports into a 40-something team affair — impacting not just football, but March Madness, Olympic sports, Division III and so on.

If the Big Ten and SEC are able to set a playoff up in direct contrast to how college sports have always operated — codifying more guaranteed access, more guaranteed on-field competitive advantages (including a bye) and more guaranteed money — then the operation may be passing the point of no return.

This isn’t just about hoarding power — although that’s part of it. It’s about eliminating other teams and leagues from being able to compete on the field, therefore further destabilizing other conferences. We just saw the century-plus-old Pac-12 perish for no particularly good reason. The ACC and Big 12 might be next.

“Automatic first-round byes for the Big Ten and SEC is like the NFL saying the [Dallas] Cowboys get a first-round bye since they have more fans than the [Cincinnati] Bengals,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes noted. “How preposterous is that?”

So preposterous that the cutthroat, bottomline, chase-every-nickle NFL wouldn’t even try it. And Dykes' point extends to uneven revenue sharing and multiple automatic bids.

It’s particularly preposterous because based on the competitive strength and historic success of Big Ten and SEC teams, they would likely be able to earn those bids, byes and even money via competition. If so, good for them.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wields a lot of power in college sports. (Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wields a lot of power in college sports. (Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)

By putting it in writing though, this becomes a play to break apart other conferences and pick off a few more of the most valuable brands.

It is a step toward the AFC (Big Ten) and NFC (SEC) of college athletics, which means there’d be a whole lot of other proud and competitive schools who may not serve big markets or big states on the outside looking in (and looking for money to sustain their athletic departments).

And if you are a fan of a mid-to-lower level Big Ten/SEC team and think this is great, understand that if everything is about the maximization of revenue, you can — and will — be replaced at the adults table. At some point, Ohio State and Alabama will realize they don’t need you either.

This is what Congress should be focused on, not whether players only care about money these days. They might. If so, they learned some of it from the ADs and commissioners who are willing to transfer portal entire athletic departments after another league tampered and offered a better NIL package via ESPN or Fox.

For years, the people that ran college sports refrained from going full robber baron. There were always some — conference realignment, mostly — but there remained enough leadership who cared about all of college sports and understood what’s good for Baylor or Utah or West Virginia or Florida State is also what’s good for them. This is a national sport, part of its popularity fueled by rivalries and regionality, quirks and culture.

Lately, the guardian job has fallen to Greg Sankey, commissioner of the SEC, especially as more of his peers arrive as short-term hires from pro sports or television.

Now, who knows? Sankey was understandably frustrated when, in response to the SEC adding Oklahoma and Texas (a deal every conference would have jumped at), the ACC, Big Ten and Pac 12 formed an “Alliance” to block a good playoff deal back in 2022. That was the original sin here. How much punishment is too much though?

Sankey is a very smart guy. He understands history. He’s always acted in a reasonable manner despite unfair criticism and been a good shepherd for college sports, leading in ways fans don’t see.

All of it would go away if this path is followed. Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, new to the college ranks, may not care if he is viewed as someone that blew up college athletics. Sankey, presumably, does.

It’s not too late to pull back on these tilted playoff proposals. It’s not too late to remember that just because you can seize more turf, it doesn’t mean you should. It’s not too late to acknowledge that contracting the sport will impact the bottom line, even for the Big Ten and SEC.