Payday or Payback? The Winners and Losers of Conference Hopping

Written by Ameya Keertikar

Ready, set, HIKE! American football: a staple pastime for all Americans alike. With millions of fans in the US and worldwide, this sport has quickly risen to one of the most popular activities. Raking in billions of dollars every year, the NFL (National Football League) claims some of the most decorated athletes in American history. Names like Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson, and Peyton Manning might come to mind, with almost every professional acting as a celebrity. With the NFL hosting some of the most popular games all year, you would be surprised to know that the beloved sport of football is rooted in a simple contest between two colleges. The first intercollegiate football game was played in New Jersey, between Rutgers and Princeton back in 1869. Since then, the sport has blossomed into the game we know and love today. At the collegiate level, there are 858 teams spanning all divisions. The elites, however, are the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) level of college football. With prominent names such as Alabama, Texas, and even our beloved Michigan. Divided between 5 power conferences and almost 134 teams, the Division 1 level of CFB (college football) has cultivated rivalries, traditions, and millions of fans for over a century. Despite this fostered community, recent grabs for money and greed have come to ruin the beautiful landscape of CFB.

The Power 5: the iconic 5 conferences for mainstream CFB. With 60+ teams, these 5 conferences consist of the SEC (South-Eastern Conferences), B10 (Big 10), B12 (Big 12), ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), and the Pac-12 (Pacific 12). 

As a general summary of these conferences before the recent changes in 2023, the ACC consists of Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami (FL), North Carolina, NC State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest while generally lining the East Coast of the United States. The Big-10 consists of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, and Wisconsin and consists of many upper Mid-Western universities and the upper Northeastern area. The Big 12 consists of Baylor, BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech, UCF, and West Virginia while consuming most of the lower Mid-Western. The SEC list of colleges consists of Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt while consuming many Southeastern states. Finally, the Pac-12 is made up of Arizona, Arizona State, California (Berkeley), UCLA, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, Stanford, Utah, Washington, and Washington State while lining the West Coast of the US. 

With that in mind, college football has been a statement in the United States for over a century. Millions of people tune in to watch these Saturday-set games. Rivalries have ensued across states and generations, inciting passionate fans to devote love to their fan base from a young age. With lineages of family and friends tuning into their team’s fierce games, the love and passion that many have for college football is second to none. Notable rivalries include The Red River Rivalry (Texas v. Oklahoma), The Iron Bowl (Alabama v. Auburn), the Civil War (Oregon v. Oregon State), and the Apple Cup (Washington vs. Washington State), not to mention countless others. These clashes of fan bases have started feuds, fights, and constant tension between fans for decades, with passion on both sides. Unarguably the biggest rivalry of all time, The Game, featuring our beloved Michigan and Ohio State, this past year had nearly 20 million fans tuned in, with tickets ranging anywhere from $676 to $6,400! (Greenberg).

College football is so big, that this past year, revenues from it reached nearly $1.4 Billion (FOX Sports), which makes the business around the sport so enticing. With most money being made from media rights and broadcasting privileges, officials are eager to pounce on the money. However, not all payouts were equal, or fair in the slightest. With many of these conferences being top-heavy, some conferences have a majority of their revenue coming from championship-caliber teams. For instance, in the ACC, Clemson reigns as the superpower, winning national championships in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Despite this, Clemson as a member of the ACC with how their broadcasting rights are set up can make anywhere from $37.9 to $41.3 million (CBS). On the exact opposite side, Vanderbilt is the epitome of bottom in the SEC, having a record this past season of 2-10. Despite their abysmal team, the SEC’s streaming plan means that they still are being paid approximately $49.9 million for simply being in the SEC (CBS). Many other teams fall into the same category as Clemson, being dragged down by underperformers in their conference, eager to jump the boat.

Booting off this trend were Texas and Oklahoma, who announced that they would be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC on July 26th, 2021. As the two biggest brands for the Big 12, this took a heavy toll on the conference, forcing them to add multiple lower-tier schools. En suite came the renewal of the Pac-12’s media rights and inevitably their downfall. UCLA and USC announced they were considering joining the Big 10 in hopes of higher revenue. When asked by the Pac-12 commission why, UCLA announced that they would make $52 million as compared to the previous ~$37 million (McCollough). With hopes of keeping two of their top contenders, the Pac-12 committee promised to offer this sum for them to not leave. However, this would mean taking away profits from other more prominent schools, such as Oregon and Washington. When announcing this plan, both Oregon and Washington followed suit with USC and UCLA to join the Big-10, not willing to stay for their heavily reduced sums in the Pac-12. Like clockwork, more schools jumped off board. Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado announced they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big 12. Hoping to avoid the sinking ship that was the Pac-12, Stanford and California decided to make the bizarre decision and join the ACC, a conference situated on the opposite side of the country. That left simply Washington State and Oregon State to the remnants of their non-existent conference, turning the beloved Power 5 into the egregious Power 4.

While conference realignment has allowed certain schools to make more money and receive more viewership, this minimal gain has come at the expense of tradition and student-athletes. Beloved rivalries, such as Bedlam, a fierce Oklahoma–Oklahoma State rivalry, will cease to exist under these new rules. Additionally, while these changes lie in the sport of football, realignment affects all sports equally. While football and basketball receive hefty funding and support from schools and their fanbases, student-athletes in smaller sports now have to travel obscenely long distances regularly to keep up with their matches. For instance, a tennis player from Rutgers University (NJ) would have to travel furthest to Nebraska, roughly 1200 miles. However, some away games can now take place at the University of Washington, nearly 3000 miles away. These ludicrously long distances are simply not feasible for most students to manage on top of academics and training. 

Conference realignment might be making executive producers and networks big bucks in the grand scheme of things, but many are not ready for this new era of conference realignment. It’s hard to see how things will settle in the next few years, but the sport of college football and athletics as a whole will never be the same ever again.


Bassett, B. (2023, August 9). Complete timeline of college football conference realignments. ClutchPoints. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

Biondo, A. (2019, November 30). Ohio State Buckeyes 56, Michigan Wolverines 27: Photos from Ann Arbor. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved April 6, 2024, from

Brady, J. (2023, August 16). Inside the Pac-12 collapse: Four moments that doomed the league. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

FOX. (2024, February 2). NCAA generates nearly $1.3B in revenue for 2022-23. D-I payouts reach $669M. FOX Sports. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

Greenberg, D., Christovich, A., Young, D., Fleming, M., Schiffer, A., & Poindexter, O. (2023, November 21). Ohio State-Michigan Records Priciest Ticket In Rivalry History. Front Office Sports. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

Oriard, M. (2024, March 26). American football | Definition, History, Leagues, Rules, & Facts. Britannica. Retrieved April 7, 2024, from

Shaw, S. M. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

Straka, D. (2023, May 19). Big Ten leads Power Five conferences with $845.6 million in revenue in 2022 fiscal year, per report. CBS Sports. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from