FEATURE: The Sports Blawg with the Fordham Sports Law Forum - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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FEATURE: The Sports Blawg with the Fordham Sports Law Forum

FEATURE: The Sports Blawg with the Fordham Sports Law Forum

The Fordham Sports Law Forum is dedicated to bringing interesting issues in sports law to the Fordham legal community. Each week, in conjunction with the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, members of the Fordham Sports Law Forum write posts about current sports law issues and events.

Conference Shuffle Leads To New Round of Litigation

Autumn in modern day America means  Halloween, Thanksgiving, and… college football conference re-shuffling?  It seems like every year when the leaves begin to turn, so do college football teams—to new conferences, away from old rivalries, and towards murky legal situations that accompany escaping old conference affiliations and entering new ones.  Rumor and innuendo are the new rite of fall for college football fans.  Before the start of this college football season, rumors began to swirl that Texas A&M, upset (and jealous, perhaps?) about in-state rival Texas’s plans to start its own television network, had been flirting with the Southeastern Conference (SEC) about potential membership.  Texas A&M had been an original member of the Big 12, a conference featuring only ten teams in 2011.  (Colorado and Nebraska used to be members 11 and 12, until they left in 2010.  Nebraska is currently the 12th team in a conference called the Big Ten.  You get the idea—this happens so often, the conferences don’t even change their names anymore.)

In this game of musical chairs, when a conference grows others must grow to keep up. When Texas A&M’s move to the SEC became official, the 12-member Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), feeling vulnerable, decided to scoop up Big East members Pittsburgh and Syracuse.  The SEC, to keep up with the ACC, decided it needed a 14th team as well.  It poached Missouri from the Big 12.  The Big 12, in turn, decided to offer membership to Texas Christian University (TCU) and West Virginia, both technically members of the Big East (TCU was planning on joining the Big East in 2012).

Why in the world is this happening?  Why would teams go through the trouble of hopping around from conference to conference, leaving old rivals and tradition behind?  The answer: money.  In 2009, the SEC, considered the premiere football conference, signed two separate 15-year television deals for a total of over $3 billion.  Most conferences have clauses in their contract allowing them to re-negotiate if they add more teams.  The possibility of jumping to a new conference and earning your school that much more money causes teams to throw rivalries and tradition out the window.

Now the litigious fun happens.  West Virginia, because of bylaws enacted by the conference in 2008, would be stuck in the Big East for another 27 months.  Not wanting to be in limbo, West Virginia sued the Big East, arguing that the Big East breached its fiduciary duty to the school to keep the conference competitive.  The Big East, famous for its 2003 lawsuit against the ACC for luring away the University of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College, decided to countersue West Virginia, accusing it of breaching its Bylaws.

So what will happen here?  Will a court get to weigh in on the fiduciary duties owed by conferences to their members?  Probably not. If history is any guide, we can expect a payout from West Virginia of $5 million, which is the “exit fee” for any school to leave the Big East, in addition to some punitive fee.  This would be similar to the final settlement between the ACC and the Big East in 2005.

My guess is the Big 12 will have TCU and West Virginia as members by next football season.  Perhaps the conference shuffling will cease.  In that case, maybe we can finally get some new names for the 12-team “Big Ten” and the 10-team Big 12.

Tim Kelly

Tim Kelly graduated Boston College in 2008, where he was a color commentator for WZBC (90.3 FM) Sports. Tim is currently a second-year student at Fordham University School of Law, and serves as the Publicity & Marketing Coordinator for the Fordham Sports Law Forum’s Symposium.