When we fill up our gas tank, it is obvious our economic world has drastically changed within the last two years. Who could have thought that gasoline would be $4.00 per gallon? For NCAA Division I universities, I believe that the drastic increase in fuel costs may be the catalyst for another re-alignment of the conferences. Universities just will not continue to support spending the amount of money needed in today's economy for collegiate athletics.
A few years ago, there was a major shift in the membership of conferences. Back then, the motivation was to become the 5th power conference. It is widely acknowledged in the the college sports world that the Pac 10, the Big 10, the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) are the the elite power conferences. By chasing the Golden Goose of college football revenue, a bunch of mid-major (the nice term for being in the 2nd tier) of conferences were active in soliciting membership in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and the guaranteed double digit million dollar pay-off.
For those unaware, the biggest money making enterprise in college sports is to be a member of a high earning conference. Typically, all moneys earned for football bowl appearances and NCAA basketball tournament selection/victories is contributed to the conference for distribution to member schools. For instance, if the Big 12 generated 120 million dollars in revenue because of the abilities of its athletic teams, at the end of the year, each member school would get a check for 10 million dollars (in theory).
All revenue is not distributed in even shares, because the usual conference formula allows for awarding a double share of revenue to the team which contributed moneys. If Texas football is selected to a bowl that has a 10 million dollar payout, then the money would be split 13 ways by the Big 12 with Texas getting a double share - the reward for contributing the money.
In my example, a Big 12 team that contributes nothing to the year end totals, is still awarded a substantial amount of money for membership. I had read about the minimum payout in one of the first years of the Big 12 conference and the last place team was Baylor, who contributed nothing yet still got a check for over 10 million dollars.
This is why being a member of a power conference is so attractive - even if an athletic department has a down year, it can still count upon a multi million dollar check from the conference. This is also why there is such a desire of the mid-major conferences to try and become the next power conference. This power conference status is a result of being a BCS conference and the guaranteed selection of a school into the elite payout football bowls.
In the last round of conference shifts, I believe that the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) were able to join the BCS group, while the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), Conference USA and the Mountain West were left on the outside looking in.
While the last conference alignment was profit driven, this new alignment will be cost driven. The geographic layout of the ACC, the WAC and Conference USA are a travel agents dream. Travel budgets for teams to conduct their conference schedules near $100,000.00 per year, per team for the Olympic Sport programs. Football and the basketballs will easily surpass this total because of the use of charter airplanes.
The economic reality is that all of these conferences are running at a deficit. Even with the ACC being a BCS conference, they cannot generate enough income to off-set the costs absorbed by the majority of the schools. The money for operating athletic departments has to come from three areas - University budget, fund raised money or profit from operations/conference membership.
When we examine the economic picture of today, it is not too bright - University budgets will be trimmed because school operating costs have increased (cost of utilities, food, health insurance and state money), it is tough to raise donations when the economy is tight and only the power conferences generate enough money to make a meaningful positive impact upon member budgets.
It is not a big stretch to see the logical step in reducing the operating costs of the athletic departments by realigning the conferences into a more logical geographic membership - this decision would be made by the University presidents. When cuts are made, they are usually made in the most visible department on campus - Athletics. And when cuts are made in athletics, they are usually made in the most non-visible sports; the Olympic Sports. Cut $20,000.00 out of football and it would not even be noticed - Cut $20,000.00 out of Volleyball and you eliminate all recruiting and the spring season.
My feeling is that within 3 years there will be a major realignment of the lower BCS conferences (ACC and Big East) and the upper mid-major conferences (WAC, C-USA and Mountain West). For example, TCU and Louisiana Tech join C-USA; Miami, South Florida, Central Florida each move into a new conference with other southeastern regional teams; the Big East cuts loose those non football playing members of the conference.
I really don't think it will have a big impact upon Division I volleyball. By and large, the power conferences receive the mass majority of bids to the NCAA Championship and that will not change. The mid-majors and lower BCS's will still just put a team or two into the tournament, while the California schools will still receive a significant number of bids.
The perception of Division I volleyball will not change because we have done nothing to elevate our sport into the view of the American sporting public - Rally score did not do it, increase in AVCA fees did not do it, the 25 point camp will not do it and College Beach Volleyball only devalues indoor volleyball.
The biggest impact will be that a number of schools can stop flying everywhere and can start taking a bus to the next conference match (or vans if the budget is really cut!). With as bad as the US air travel has become, maybe this is a blessing in disguise!