PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY EMILY SCHERER / GETTY IMAGES
In 1896, a group of administrators from Midwestern colleges met in Chicago to settle the rules for what was then called the Western Conference, which would later be known as the Big Ten. They agreed in writing, according to an account in the next day’s Chicago Tribune, “to keep inter-collegiate athletic contests within their proper bounds.” One of those bounds was geographic: For the purposes of travel and tradition, schools largely played the regional rivals that populated their conferences.
It’s difficult to imagine, then, how the founders of the country’s oldest athletics conference would have reacted to the recent realignment news that has shaken college sports to its core. Last year, the Southeastern Conference announced it would add Texas and Oklahoma to form a 16-team megaconference. Not to be outdone, the Big Ten announced this summer that it was expanding to 16 teams as well by adding UCLA and USC.1 For the first time, a major college athletics league is going bicoastal.
UCLA, USC, Texas and Oklahoma rank second, third, fifth and tied for 16th in Division I history in NCAA team national titles, respectively. Historically, schools like those form the bedrock of conferences, as opposed to shattering them. Only one of the four has substantially changed conference opponents in the past century.2 Now, they all fit into two super-leagues, and it’s possible the Big Ten isn’t done yet: Commissioner Kevin Warren said he could see expanding to 20 teams. The evolution of the college sports map over the past several decades has been startling, dismantling any notion of regionality that conferences once conferred.
As recently as the 2000s and early 2010s, college leagues still generally fit into small geographic pockets. Under the old Bowl Championship Series (BCS), for instance, there were six major football conferences (the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big East and ACC), most of which were very close-knit — and none more so than the Big Ten. We calculated the distance from each school to the geographic center of all schools in its conference, and every Big Ten team was within 500 miles of the conference’s center in 2010. Across the country, no Power Five school was even 1,000 miles away from its conference center.
But the next four years brought a flurry of conference swaps. From 2011 to 2014, 47 Football Bowl Subdivision schools changed leagues, making that the busiest four-year period in history for realignment.3 The SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, and the Big Ten added Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland, venturing into a new state each time. These moves — and the corresponding dominos that fell as a result — wiped out one football league (the Big East), creating a Power Five, and it was clear that college football’s classic boundaries were being stretched. You could still see decisions made under the auspices of geography if you squinted, though. (For instance, the Big Ten’s new additions were at least in states adjacent to the conference’s old footprint.) The most far-flung schools in the Big Ten and SEC were Rutgers and Texas A&M, which carried distances of 593 and 560 miles, respectively, from their new conference centers.
Even with their expanded boundaries from the 2010s, the Big Ten and SEC were still, entering 2021, the most compact of the Power Five leagues. But that changed last summer, when the SEC moved further west by agreeing to add Texas and Oklahoma. In doing so, the league not only increased its footprint but also plucked the fourth- and fifth-ranked schools on college football’s all-time wins leaderboard. While total wins aren’t a perfect metric,4 the Big 12 is now bereft of classic powerhouses, with West Virginia its next-most successful school at No. 27. In more modern terms, Oklahoma was the only Big 12 school that has reached the College Football Playoff.
Texas and Oklahoma aren’t totally outlandish cultural or geographic fits in the SEC. They will be 576 and 489 miles from their new conference center, versus the 425 and 84 miles they sat from their Big 12 foes in 2010. They can also preserve the Red River Rivalry, and Texas will resume its rivalry with Texas A&M. While the new distances are an adjustment, 29 schools (across eight leagues) are more removed from their conference centers than any team in the new-look SEC.
However, the way other conferences responded to the SEC’s additions has significantly warped the college-sports map. To fill its vacancies, the Big 12 added Brigham Young, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston, and now stretches from Provo, Utah, to Orlando, Florida. BYU and UCF are 986 and 917 miles from their conference foes. In response to that, the American Athletic Conference plundered Conference USA, and Conference USA did what it could to stay intact — so that league now stretches from Miami to Las Cruces, New Mexico.
And the real nail in the coffin of the whole “regional conferences” idea will be the new Big Ten, the first truly nationwide college league. Whereas only Penn State and Minnesota were more than 300 miles from the center of the Big Ten in 2010, now 10 schools in the conference exceed that mark, after factoring in UCLA and USC.5 The distance from Los Angeles to the geographic center of the Big Ten is a whopping 1,621 miles.
The recent bloat in average distances between schools and their conference rivals is evident in the overall numbers. In 2010, the average distance for an FBS team to its conference center was 336 miles. By 2021, that average rose to 365 miles. Within four years of that, the average will be 412 miles.
It’s important to remember, too, that all of these distances are measured as the crow flies, rather than as road trips. This is particularly important for the sports outside football and basketball — and for smaller schools in general — both of which rely on bus rides more than charter flights. (Everybody has a different definition of “driving distance,” but by any definition, BYU appears to be the first school — besides Hawaii, for obvious reasons — to be unable to drive to visit any conference foe.)6 In non-revenue sports, the Big Ten’s UCLA-USC fit is deeply strange for many reasons: Both schools play sports that the conference doesn’t offer and don’t play sports the Big Ten does compete in. They could dominate their cold-weather counterparts in some sports, such as softball and baseball, and struggle in others — all while keeping up that grueling travel schedule via bus rides.
All of this means the time of conferences as we once knew them — small, regionally constrained groups of similar colleges with shared histories — is all but over. And the era of the super-league appears to be taking its place. Of course, the idea of a 20-team, nationwide sports league isn’t unheard of. All four major North American men’s leagues, plus Major League Soccer and most of the major European soccer leagues, have at least that many clubs. Nobody thinks twice about the Indianapolis Colts playing road games in both Las Vegas and East Rutherford, New Jersey, during the same season. That’s because the NFL is a financially driven organization intent on maximizing its market. But that’s the point — more and more every year, college football starts to look like the NFL. And if they weren’t already, the conference ideals drawn up in Chicago in 1896 are a relic of the past.
Just weeks before signing a seven-year, $7 billion media-rights agreement.
Texas moved in 1996 from the Southwest Conference to the Big 12. Oklahoma last switched in 1920 from the Southwest to the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which eventually became the Big 12. UCLA and USC have only competed in the various iterations of one league, the Pac-12.
This counts schools that moved up from the Football Championship Subdivision during that period, such as Appalachian State, which moved up from the Southern Conference to the Sun Belt. It does not count name changes, such as the MVIAA to the Big 6 to the Big 7 to the Big 8 to the Big 12.
Yale, for instance, ranks 20th despite moving down Division I-AA starting in 1982.
Of course, this has a lot to do with UCLA and USC moving the geographic center of the Big Ten further west.
The closest trip is Provo to Lubbock, Texas, which would take more than 14 hours.
Elena Mejía is a visual journalist at FiveThirtyEight. @elena___mejia
Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal. @jakelourim