Why college sports moving to super-conferences would hurt South Carolina

·4 min read
Tim Dominick/tdominick@thestate.com

Scattered between those fireworks and sparklers smattering backyards over Fourth of July weekend, the Big Ten dropped the biggest bomb of the conference realignment shuffle to date.

News broke Thursday the league would add Southern Cal and UCLA in a move that is almost directly in line with the Southeastern Conference’s nabbing of Texas and Oklahoma last summer.

Reports also surfaced Monday that multiple Pac 12 teams have begun meeting with the Big 12 about joining the league.

Super-conferences suddenly feel like a near-certainty in college sports, and schools like South Carolina are likely to find themselves in a precarious position.

“We don’t have to go play Texas and Oklahoma,” USC head coach Shane Beamer said last year shortly after the OU and Texas news broke. “... We get to go play Oklahoma. We get to go play Texas. I mean, if you come play in the SEC, you’re going to play against the best. If you don’t want to play against the best, then you need to go play somewhere else. That’s just the way it always has been and the way it always will be in this league.”

That South Carolina already finds itself in the middle of the SEC pecking order after 30 years in the league isn’t so much a failure as it is the reality of fighting for air in the most competitive conference in college football. The league has produced five of the past seven national title winners. Four of the last past five final AP polls have included at least two SEC teams in the top five.

The Gamecocks have had their moments. Lou Holtz guided South Carolina to back-to-back Outback Bowl berths and a second-place finish in the SEC East in 2000. Steve Spurrier set the bar higher with his trio of 11-win seasons and a decade of stability.

But for all the highs USC has found over the past three decades in the SEC, it’s littered with a history of mediocrity and an institution without the financial resources to contend with college football’s true bluebloods and big spenders — That is where the crux of USC’s issues would reside in a “super conference” structure.

South Carolina spent just over $133 million on athletic department expenditures during the 2021 fiscal year, per USA Today’s college athletic department spending database. That ranked ninth out of the 13 SEC teams included in the database (Vanderbilt is a private school and not subject to Freedom of Information Act disclosures). Texas ($200.1 million) and Oklahoma ($159.1 million) also both spent significantly more than USC over that span.

Now let’s add schools that could conceivably be added to the SEC infrastructure in another round of realignment — Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and N.C. State — each of which realistically fits the geography of the league and brings enough football-wise to make sense should the sport dilute to just the Big Ten and SEC.

Florida State ($155.6 million) spent more than any other ACC institution in 2021, while Clemson ($131.8 million) was just behind South Carolina, despite making almost $20 million less than USC in revenue share from its league compared to the SEC’s 2021 payouts.

UNC ($113 million) and N.C. State ($88.7 million) both spent at least $20 million less than USC, but both schools also boast far more interest and devotion to basketball than football.

Throw in the added unknowns of name, image and likeness deals that have oozed into the seedy underbelly of the college football recruiting world, and South Carolina stands to find itself in an already uphill fight financially.

“When we look back on it you’re going to these two schools (Oklahoma and Texas) are taking the power that they have financially and everything else to align with the number one conference in the country,” Tom Regan, an expert on the economic impact of sports at the University of South Carolina, told The State last year. “Therefore, they’re moving the ball and when we look back on this at five years, we’re going to see this is going to be a huge move.”

This isn’t to say South Carolina should disband its football program, or that the Gamecocks can’t be competitive on a year-to-year basis — Spurrier’s and Holtz’s tenures prove that they can. Competing in the upper echelons of the sport, though, becomes far trickier.

It hasn’t been quite a year since news leaked that Texas and Oklahoma would join the SEC, smack dab in the middle of the conference’s media days event in Hoover, Alabama.

The SEC is slated to host its annual meeting of head coaches and reporters in Atlanta at the College Football Hall of Fame in two weeks.

The college football realignment carousel is spinning at an alarming rate, and South Carolina may find itself facing a brutal new competitive — and financial — reality, very soon.

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