Round Two: How long will the MAC hold out?

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

If you’re a fan of college sports, take as much in as you can in the 2023-24 athletic season. Because life as we know it will change forever starting in fall 2024.

That’s when USC and UCLA join the Big Ten, Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC, and both superconferences expand to 16 teams — meaning, in football, each conference by itself will be exactly half the size of the entire National Football League.

But it raises more questions than answers in every sport:

How many schools are enough for a conference? Considering the Big Ten and SEC are devouring the other three Power 5 conferences the way black holes devour matter, apparently there’s no such thing as enough. And by no such thing as enough, I mean there’s no limit to the greed of either conference. It’s college athletics’ answer to the Cold War arms race.

Texas and Oklahoma may have some cultural commonality with the Southeastern Conference, particularly Texas, but how, exactly, are USC and UCLA — Los Angeles schools — a fit with schools from the Midwest and Eastern seaboard that comprise the Big Ten? Short answer: Obviously, they’re not. Longer answer: USC and UCLA will make money for the Big Ten, and the Big Ten will make money for USC and UCLA. End of story. Everyone will be California Dreamin’ all the way to the bank.

Are the Big Ten and SEC done expanding? Reports out there now indicate that the Big Ten is looking at poaching Oregon, Washington, California and Stanford from the Pac-12, which is already about to lose much of its identity with the pending departures of USC and UCLA. Not to mention, Colorado recently announced it is leaving the Pac-12 for the Big 12 (where it belongs anyway) in 2024. If the Ducks, Huskies, Golden Bears and Cardinal also leave, then it’s down to the Pac-5 — which obviously isn’t going to work. That means, to survive, a Pac-5 will have to raid other conferences for schools, which means those conferences will have to raid other conferences, and on and on it goes.

How much conference expansion can the college landscape absorb until it implodes and becomes the Big Ten and SEC in a classification all their own, and the rest of the Power 5 conferences in another tier? If the Big Ten adds Oregon, Washington, Cal and Stanford after already adding USC and UCLA, it will have 20 schools in the conference. Florida State, North Carolina, Clemson, Miami (Fla.) and Oklahoma State are rumored to be targets for the SEC. If all five make that move, then, along with Texas and Oklahoma, that would be 21 schools for the SEC. So the Big Ten and SEC would combine to possess 41 of the 69 schools that currently comprise the Power 5 conferences — leaving the other 28 schools to twist in the wind. Clearly, that’s not workable.

With the Big Ten and SEC hoarding a great majority of the available media rights money in college sports, will the other teams and conferences want anything to do with them? After all, the rosters of those programs are already getting picked clean through Name/Image/Likeness and the transfer portal. It’s easy to envision a scenario where what’s left of the Power 5 combines with the Group of 5 schools (mid-majors) to form their own athletic division and let the Big Ten and SEC fight amongst themselves.

We’re in Portage County, so let’s get down to brass tacks: How does all this affect the Mid-American Conference and Kent State? At the moment, the MAC says it’s not going to expand or contract. In fact, the MAC might be the most stable conference in college sports: Its 12 members have been in the conference since 1998 (when Buffalo joined), and nine of its members have been in the conference for 50 consecutive years.

Compare that to Conference USA which, like the MAC, is a Group of 5 conference. C-USA is less than three decades old, yet it has no founding members remaining.

But then consider this: According to the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics database, the Mid-American Conference brought in $288.03 million in revenue in 2022 — the lowest of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences. So it would be hard to blame the MAC if it wanted to expand to increase revenue, especially in this current “survival of the fittest” era. The conference did flirt with the idea of adding Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky from Conference USA in 2021 but decided against it.

So why doesn’t the MAC want to expand, especially since expansion appears to be the chief means of survival these days? The conference has this going for it: The farthest distance between two schools in the MAC is 600 miles — the distance between Northern Illinois and Buffalo. Compare that to the farthest distance in the Big Ten after its 2024 expansion: Trips from Los Angeles to Rutgers University in New Jersey or the University of Maryland will total well over 2,600 miles one way. That ought to be fun for Trojan and Bruin student-athletes in the dead of winter. (If Stanford joins the Big Ten, that’s a nearly 3,000-mile trip one way — almost twice the distance from Paris, France to Moscow, Russia). There’s something to be said for travel costs.

The MAC has something else going for it as well: It has the smallest gap between the highest and lowest budgets in all of FBS. Which means, unlike a lot of conferences (ahem, Big Ten and SEC) where the rich-and-getting-richer at the top steamroll everyone else — on the field and at the bank — the MAC’s level playing field keeps members from having a wandering eye.

Add that to its fairly small footprint — most athletic travel in the MAC can still be done by bus — and the conference seems to be on firm ground compared to the quicksand that’s swallowing everything else in college sports.

So does this all mean that Kent State and the MAC are safe, at least for now? “For now” is the operative phrase. The fact that the conference has been immune to the greed disease infecting college sports at unprecedented levels is a testament to its leadership and vision. Its model works for what the conference wants to be: a league of like-minded institutions similar in size within reasonable geographic proximity of one another. Schools stay in the conference for 50 years for one fundamental reason: They feel they belong there. As Northern Illinois Athletic Director Sean Frazier told The Athletic in a story posted July 20, summing up the conference’s sentiment: “We know who we are.”

And, ultimately, that’s the glue that has held the MAC together.

So far.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.