If you follow major college sports, you’d know there’s a great deal of shifting going on. Schools are changing conferences more than ever before, often without regard for traditional rivalries or even geography. While most of these tectonic shifts have to do with the potential for increased television revenues, it’s also about positioning yourself to be amongst the haves and the have-nots.
College football at the major college level (formerly known as Division 1-A) does not have a playoff system like other sports. This means that if schools aren’t in the right conference, they lose out on massive revenues and the exposure that comes with being associated with other schools. One of the reasons that college basketball is so popular for its March Madness is because it allows minor schools from small conferences to play on the big stage with the giants for a theoretical chance at the same national championship.
The Big East conference is at the present a sixteen-team behemoth of a basketball conference. The league was founded for basketball and has always been among the better basketball leagues in the country. Anchored by eight Catholic schools that do not play FBS/1-A football and eight that do, the league retooled when it was hit by defections from Boston College, Miami (FL) and Virginia Tech who jettisoned the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2005. The Big East responded inviting schools that allowed it form the most dominant basketball conference in college sports. The league had the record for most bids to an NCAA tournament in one year (8) in 2006, 2008 and again in 2010. Last year, they topped this netting 11 bids to the tournament. We’re talking about 16% of one conference having a shot at a national championship.
There has always been consternation between the “football” schools and the “basketball-only” schools in the league. The league is headquartered in Providence, not a football hamlet and at a school that lacks football. As the Big East faces another risk of massive defections, it is considering all kinds of options to retain its automatic qualifying status in football including inviting the U.S. Air Force Academy (in Colorado Springs), Boise State University (where it’s only east of what, Washington?) and two Texas universities among others.
The real problem? Failure to recognize a shifting marketplace and understanding how to adapt in the face of it. Leadership in the Big East were content to stand pat while other leagues were moving forward and its fractured constituents with different agendas (why would basketball-only schools care about football) and surely insider baseball that we don’t know much about; leads to a situation where the public opinion of the league falls by the day.
It doesn’t help that the Big East has continually lost its signature programs. The league could’ve been refocused itself as the best basketball league on the planet. It could’ve separated its football programs keeping a loose affiliation. It could’ve aggressively pursed merger options with the upstart Mountain West that would’ve benefited both leagues. But with automatic qualifying status, the Big East saw no reason to adapt because they were safe on the inside with the others looking outside wanting what they had. Now? They find themselves vulnerable with few options for their football league to continue with the comfort it’s had through the last decade as one of the preferred members of college football’s elite.
The lesson for you in this sports example? It’s possible to be the most dominant player on the planet and have the same relationships that benefit you in one aspect of your existence, hurt you in another. Long-term planning only goes so far. The Big East couldn’t have set aside a rainy day fund for this scenario. It was initiated by conferences with members that have more clout than the current membership. It’s not as if the league lacked assets, it’s just failed to use the advantages it had by failing to articulate a vision for itself.
Now? It’s being picked apart by other leagues. No one is knocking down the doors of lesser leagues trying to find its members and destabilize them. You can’t reign forever. At some point, your dominance will be threatened and you need to have a strategy to respond. Not crisis strategy, but a proactive that sees the landscape and assess how your organizations fits into it. At the end of the day, partnerships are voluntarily associations of people with similar goals. You need to assess those relationships.
Things change. Adapt or be left as a relic.