LEXINGTON, Ky. — News item: On Tuesday, Kansas University unveiled plans for a $300 million renovation of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, the football home of the Jayhawks. The project is part of an initiative to create a campus gateway for students and visitors.
Significance: Though a Big 12 Conference member, it’s not as if Kansas is a national college football power. The Jayhawks haven’t produced a winning season since 2008.
So much for the notion then that conference realignment would cause schools to reassess their priorities. It will have the opposite effect. If you don’t want to be left behind in the every-school-for-itself mania of conference realignment, you’d better invest in your football program.
Ask Stanford, California, Oregon State and Washington State. When poor television ratings killed the Pac-12, those four schools found themselves stranded. That Stanford and California are two of the nation’s top academic institutions meant nothing to the television executive crunching advertising rates, the only thing that counts.
This begs a bare-bones question: How close are we to the point where the top 30 or so football powers ask, ‘Why are we sharing money with these lesser lights? Why don’t we band together, tighten the revenue pool, and keep more money for ourselves?’”
Nebraska Athletics Director Trev Alberts told the Lincoln Journal Star that he could see 35 to 40 powerhouse programs joining forces to grab bigger slices of the monetary pie.
“I believe that the next go-around — that’s my basic conclusion — will be far more disruptive than anything we’re currently engaged in,” Alberts said. “We need to prepare ourselves mentally for that.”
Would Kentucky be among those programs with an invitation to the gold rush? The Cats didn’t make a prediction by Stewart Mandel of The Athletic of a 28-team College Football Premiere League. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Texas A&M were the SEC teams included in Mandel’s four-division setup. Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt were not. Future SEC members and traditional powers Texas and Oklahoma also made the cut.
UK has certainly invested in football. In 2015, the school spent $120 million renovating then-Commonwealth Stadium, now Kroger Field. In July 2016, UK opened the $45 million Joe Craft Football Training Facility which devotes 100,000-square feet to Mark Stoops’ Cats. Just this year, the school revamped the Nutter Field House to make it more football friendly. New turf was installed at both Nutter and Kroger Field. Stoops’ salary averages out at $8.6 million per year.
The investment has paid off in the win column. Under Stoops, Kentucky posted 10-win seasons in both 2018 and 2021. It finished above .500 in SEC play both of those seasons. Before that, you had to go back to 1977 for the last time the Cats won more games than they lost inside the league.
Still, if consolidation continues, spending money to build a bigger brand might not be enough. And though ADs will tell you they need the television revenue to support their entire athletics programs, they are in many ways sacrificing the sports they claim to be helping.
In a press conference last Saturday to promote Thursday’s exhibition match against Western Kentucky at Rupp Arena, UK volleyball coach Craig Skinner became emotional when talking about what conference realignment was doing to women’s sports.
While saying he was so thankful Kentucky was in the relatively sensible geographic map of the SEC, Skinner pointed out that last season UK chartered a plane for an NCAA Tournament road match at Stanford last December. Including a stop in Denver to refuel, the flight took six hours.
“If you’re making the decisions that are being made in some of the leagues, to me it’s either desperation or they haven’t been a student-athlete at the highest level,” Skinner said, adding, “I don’t know common sense or any sense it’s made. It’s obviously money.”
And the focus on money — football investment for football revenue — is not going to stop, not when schools are afraid of being left behind.