The Potential Effects of Conference Realignment on College Swimming

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The Potential Effects of Conference Realignment on College Swimming

On July 1, 2022, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), two of the most storied athletic programs in the NCAA, shook the college sports world when they announced they would leave the Pac-12 Conference in 2024 to join the Big Ten Conference. The announcement surprised many for a variety of reasons and while many looked to the effect this move would have on football, far fewer looked to how it would affect Olympic sports, specifically swimming.

The Pros

If one thing motivates college athletic departments more than anything else, it’s money. And with these plans for conference realignment, a lot of money is involved. 

Before USC and UCLA announced they were going to join the Big Ten, multiple media reports stated that the conference’s new media-rights deal could be worth up to $1 billion, leaving each school to make anywhere from $80-$100 million per year in just TV revenue. Currently in the Pac-12, USC and UCLA are making around $19.8 million per year from their conference.

This newfound money could save or reinstate sports like swimming.  Olympic sports generate low revenue and are constantly on the brink of being cut by athletic departments. By becoming more national through realignment, it gives many universities (and swim teams) the opportunity to expand their national brand. In the case of UCLA, it cut its swimming program in the early 1990s, so a financial windfall at least brings reinstatement of the program into the conversation.

For many young swimmers who look to compete in college, they typically get exposed to the teams that are near them or come to their closest college. National realignment provides young athletes with exposure to teams they never would have seen before, fostering a competitive drive to reach that next level and swim for that respective team.

Lastly, the UCLA athletic department announced that joining the Big Ten Conference would save a number of low-revenue sports, showing that conference realignment can have positive effects on sports such as swimming.

The Cons

Although conference realignment can bring a plethora of positive developments to college sports, including swimming, not everything is perfect. 

As previously mentioned, one of the biggest draws to joining a new conference is the money available. While it may initially help save sports such as swimming, in the long term, there could be drastic effects. With conferences becoming more national in comparison to the number of regional conferences we currently see, increased travel is inevitable and with additional travel, more money is spent. Due to the fact that swimming is a low-revenue sport, swim programs could find themselves in danger due to the fact the programs are not bringing in the money it costs to pay coaches, train and travel. Even though schools may receive more money from their enhanced conference profile, it may be seen as unfeasible to keep a program that has high costs. 

Many of the negative elements that come from conference realignment relate to the increased travel teams will face. It’s no surprise that traveling can be draining. College swim season starts in October and lasts into March. It is a lot to ask for these young athletes and coaches to pack up their bags on a weekly basis for travel, and sometimes for multiple trips.

On top of that, increased travel leads to less time in the classroom, which raises questions about the focus of college athletics is. Athletic departments placing a greater emphasis on money than the degree students are earning can be viewed as more of a business. 

Finally, if conferences become so big, it may end up taking away from the NCAA as a whole, not just swimming. Mega-conferences are a very realistic possibility and with that potential comes a journey into the unknown that could result in each respective mega-conference developing into its own governing body. That scenario could hurt traditions the NCAA currently has, such as the NCAA Championships.

The Future

Sports talk show host Dan Patrick compared the conference realignment we are seeing today to the game of Risk. This analogy is spot on, and much like in the game, we watch as some conferences try to eliminate fellow conferences through tactical maneuvers which lure away schools to their network.

With everything going on in the world of college athletics from NIL opportunities to the transfer portal, and now conference realignment, the world of college athletics is changing. Certainly, these changes will have major effects on college swimming. 

Could we see the creation of three super conferences with close to 50 schools, where conference championships are akin to the NCAAs? Could more swim programs be saved with the influx of money athletic departments will be receiving? Or, on the other hand, do more swim programs end up on the chopping block due to higher costs associated with travel?

As the last few schools make their decisions for what is best for their athletic programs, nothing is off the table and in a not-so-distant future, college swimming may not be the same. 

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Steven Woolf
24 days ago

Unless the Pac-12 “merges” with the Big 10, this short sighted cash grab will ruin USC and UCLA LONG TERM! Just ask Nebraska football and Maryland basketball how well they’ve been doing since leaving their previous conferences that they were very successful in.

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