I often hear that the best sporting atmosphere in the world is an English Premier League game. Just as often as I hear that, though, I feel it necessary to dispute it. The best sporting atmosphere in the world, I will let any European kind enough to lend me an ear know, is a college sports game. The most electric games I’ve been to in my just over 19 years of life have been college volleyball and softball games. The dedication and passion Americans feel towards their schools creates an inimitable energy that is palpable every time you step into a stadium.
But in towns like Pullman, WA or Corvallis, OR where there used to be roaring crowds and electric gamedays, the energy has changed. Fall sports begin in less than a month for Washington State and Oregon State, but dread now permeates the air more than the usual excitement that comes at this time of year.
Both Washington State and Oregon State stand as two of the last four remnants of the Pac-12 Conference, along with Stanford and UC-Berkeley. UCLA and USC — two soon-to-be former members — announced that they would leave the conference for the BIG 10 just under a year ago. Back then it seemed like there was an easy fix to this problem, that all the conference would just have to do would be bring in two other local schools to make up for the loss.
Colorado announced they would be returning to the Big 12. Then left Arizona a day or two later, then Oregon and Washington, and finally Arizona State and Utah. The Pac-12—commonly known as the Conference of Champions—in just a few days, had been reduced to four members (though still with 150+ titles between them).
Stanford and Cal are now in talks to join the ACC, with a vote just on the horizon. That move would be the killing stroke to the Pac-12. There were hushed whispers of the Pac-12 being merged and rebuilt with the mountain west, but that too seems like a mirage thought up just to cope with the loss of a behemoth of college sports.
I grew up with the Pac-12. As a kid, the greatest thing your youth team coach could ever do for you was take everyone to a Stanford game. In fifth grade, my softball team attended a Stanford game at Smith Family Stadium, and varsity volleyball players in high school went to see Stanford play at Maples Pavilion. When Oregon volleyball or UCLA softball came to town, it was a must see event.
While doing radio commentary for Stanford my senior year of high school, I would still see local youth teams coming to games together; excited to see the rivalries they had grown up with and to see the best of the best duel it out on the field. In these past few days, I’ve seen that experience gutted in front of my very eyes.
Seeing the programs I love being sacrificed on the altar of college football and in the name of lining a select few’s pockets is devastating to me. I suspect I’m not alone in that sentiment either. And, as this week has passed and I’ve seen team after team jump ship, one has to wonder what the point of all of this is? Who is this conference realignment really helping?
Does it help the athletes?
Conference realignment is great because money from streaming deals allows for programs to become more competitive, which is an idea that would make sense if all of your athletes didn’t need sleep or downtime. Maybe their training facility will get a few new machines, but the loss in this scenario is so much higher than any potential gain. I am forced to wonder if this decision was made with the wellbeing of any athlete in mind.
The most obvious argument against realignment will remind you that some of these athletes will be traveling up to 2,500 miles for most away games that they play. For softball and baseball players, who often compete in three-game weekend series, they would need to leave late on Thursday or early on Friday, returning late on Sunday or early on Monday. At the very least that's one day of classes missed. At the most, it’s three.
Weather is also a concern to the wellbeing of these athletes. Athletes who are used to playing in 50-70 degree weather who could now be competing in temperatures below freezing will no doubt have to reacclimate for outdoor games, potentially affecting their game.
Some of Oregon softball’s biggest names have spoken up about the travel distance and the waning ability to be able to study and socialize during the season. People often joke that the word student is silent in ‘student-athlete’ but, with this decision, it seems struck through entirely.
Women’s sports as a whole are also taking a huge hit with the dissolution of the Pac-12. The conference has famously excelled in women's sports and volleyball, women’s basketball, women’s soccer and softball have all proven to be some of the best in the nation year after year. Of the eight teams in June’s Women’s College World Series, three of them were from the Pac-12. Seven Pac-12 teams qualified for Women’s March Madness earlier this year, all of them holding an eight seed or better.
With costs of travel rising as teams are forced to go further from campus, women’s and Olympic sports will also become an easy target for budget cuts. One of the greatest prides a school can have is seeing their athletes representing the country at the oldest and most prestigious sporting event in the world. One writer for the New York Times pointed out in a Q&A that if the Pac-12 had competed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as its own country, they would have come second in the medal count, just behind the United States. Why schools would voluntarily place themselves in a position that threatens these programs and the athletes within them is baffling.
Conference realignment does a disservice to existing Big Ten and Big 12 athletes too. Wisconsin softball has been able to hold their own against Big Ten rivals in the past and sometimes has even landed themselves an NCAA tournament berth. But with the arrival of these new teams — UCLA, Oregon and Washington especially — getting anywhere near the top five in the Big Ten just became so much harder.
So, athletes will be struggling to find time to do their homework and being dragged across the country every other weekend, and for what? Just so that their football teams can be on TV? As we all know, when network execs say “jump!” all they can do is ask how high.
Will it help the fans?
Surely playing against football behemoths will be exciting for fans. The stakes are higher, as is the talent level. But it all feels hollow now.
Friendly rivalries and even not-so-friendly ones seem to be lost. The joy of sports can often be found in regional rivalries. It’s the Giants vs the Dodgers, the Yankees vs the Red Sox, Wisconsin vs Minnesota. Traditions like the Apple Cup (WSU vs Washington) and the Civil War (OSU vs Oregon) which have been played since the 19th century may be forever lost. Don’t expect new rivalries to pop up either, though. When your opponents are 1500 miles away, it suddenly becomes much harder to shove a win in a rival’s face and then what’s the fun in the victory anyways?.
At Wisconsin, fans can reach all road games except for Rutgers and Maryland through a driving trip. For college students who thrive in enemy territory, that dream may now be gone. Half of the fun of a rivalry game is the enemy showing up in numbers. USC fans will not be able to be in attendance against Purdue, nor will Illinois fans be making any appearances in Eugene—why would they be?
A lose-lose deal all around, even fans of teams not in new conferences are unhappy. One Washington State fan on Reddit lamented the solitude that schools like WSU and Oregon state now find themselves in.
“I’m depressed for the sport as a whole,” the user wrote. “Little by little the passion and tradition that makes college football so special will be whittled away until we’re left with a cheaper, younger, worse version of the NFL.”
Does it help the school?
Not really. Big Ten money will go to athletic programs. Don’t expect to see Ingraham Hall looking any prettier, but get ready for more athletes’ scooters.
So then who the hell does it help?
Capitalists, I guess.
The TV executives won: they’ll have the big football schools duking it out every Saturday for the rest of their lives as they roll around in the millions they’re making. But what will be left in the rubble of the conferences they destroyed to get here?
Once they claw themselves out of the remains of the Pac-12, what’s next for Cal and their mascot who haunts my dreams, or for Oregon State and their top-notch baseball program? Will Washington and Washington State ever face off again? What will happen to the Stanford Cardinal that I hold so dear to my heart? There are so many questions left unanswered with these moves and so many teams in the dark about their futures.
This whole ordeal has felt so Faustian to me. Teams are defecting now in search of money, but down the line what do they stand to gain? When Oregon football is being battered by cold weather year after year, will they miss Oregon State? The team claims that they will try and preserve this relationship, but the statement reeks of self-importance. They lean down to help their dearest rival out of a ravine that they shoved them into and act as if it does them a favor. It’s a tragedy for college sports, a capitulation to greed coupled with a fundamental misunderstanding of the beauty of the sport.
While I’m sure there will be glasses of champagne clinked tonight and toasts made to what will come of tomorrow in the Big Ten and Big 12, there is no consideration to what they leave in their wake. There never is.
I so badly want to see a new day on the horizon, a day where I see the teams I grew up with in competition again. I want to be optimistic about the future of these four teams left standing alone on the Pacific coast as the waves batter them over and over. But I can’t.
Yes, there will still be a tomorrow, the teams will still play and the schools will still exist;, but there will be an emptiness to their play, a melancholy from this betrayal.
There will be no consequences for those behind the gutting of the Pac-12. The fans and the athletes will be bearing the full brunt of that. On both sides of these deals, programs and universities will suffer.
I’m mad that this decision will tear key childhood experiences away from so many and will cripple athletic programs undeserving of this outcome; but I’m even angrier that it was all in pursuit of a few extra bucks.
I don’t think I’ll ever forgive that.
Annika Bereny is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state news and politics reporting. Follow her on Twitter at @annikabereny.