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Traxler: Regional interests set aside in big-time college sports consolidation

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College sports and their fandom are inherently regional.

The top rivalries at the college level have involved schools that are in the same state or are next-door to each other. Over the last 100-plus years, conferences have generally been grouped by geography and common interests.

After the news of UCLA and USC joining the Big 10 Conference, the regional nature of big-time college sports is on the backburner.

It’s not hard to see why. UCLA and USC bring big brands and a lot of interest to the Midwest-based conference, which is what television partners are willing to pay the conference for in its upcoming new media deal that could make the Big 10’s member schools even more annually than the current $31 million they take in per institution from its current contract. For college athletics, how many people are watching on TV is far more important than how many watch in person and it’s been that way for a while.

Big-time college football is set to consolidate to some degree, although it’s not clear how much. Will only two conferences — the Big 10 and SEC — be all that matters when the dust settles? Four? Who knows?

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But the fracturing of college sports’ traditional conferences means some regionality will continue to be lost. Now you might have West Virginia and Arizona and Iowa State in the same conference, if a quasi-merger between the Big 12 and PAC 12 takes place.

I’ve never lived in Oklahoma or Washington, but the idea of the primary universities in each of those states — Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and Washington and Washington State — potentially not playing each other in the same conference would bother me too. That’s set to happen with Oklahoma’s move to the SEC and could happen with Washington looking more likely to jump conferences and leave Washington State behind.

It was easier to rationalize Nebraska jumping to the Big 10, moving to the next geographic conference over and with ready-built regional contests of interest awaiting with Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s harder to wrap your head around USC and UCLA to jump two time zones and 1,500 miles to play a conference game in Lincoln.

But from the standpoint of watchability and curiosity, I’m intrigued with the idea of UCLA and USC joining the Big 10. They are strong programs in nearly every sport and as of now, the Bruins and Trojans are generally more interesting opponents in football, for example, than playing Illinois or Purdue. (Hopefully I feel the same way in a few years when Big 10 games end on the West Coast at 1:30 a.m. Central time at the end of a packed college football Saturday.)

Some pundits have said to expect the Big 10 and the SEC to form NFL-like conferences, eventually creating a schedule and a postseason similar to professional football. Obviously, a conference with 16, 18 or 20 teams is untenable in the traditional fashion. That’s why the comparisons to the AFC and NFC in the NFL start to make a lot of sense for a potential college football playoff, where only 40 or so teams start in the hunt and everyone else is on the outside looking in.

If college sports look more and more like pro sports -- not to speak of the impact of name, image and likeness policies that are changing matters quickly on big college campuses around the country -- will fans still have the same level of interest? Maybe not, especially for those without the connection of an alma mater. Just like everything else in sports, the NFL is going to win the battle for attention and interest.

Longterm, college sports will survive as long as the money keeps showing up. There has been conference realignment or rearranging in the past and most schools have gotten on just fine.

But the powers that be are giving up what so many fans are drawn toward, something that has nothing to do with dollar bills or television revenues.

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Geography and regional rivalries helped to build the sport and it’s a shame to see that pushed to the side.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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