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AI and The Future of College Football
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AI and The Future of College Football

Last Updated on August 29, 2023 by Editorial Team

Author(s): Giovanni Malloy

Originally published on Towards AI.

Here is how AI thinks conference realignment ends

The landscape of college athletics has once again shifted thanks to money and football. The SEC struck first, grabbing Texas and Oklahoma, followed by the Big Ten picking up Pac-12 powers USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington, and the Big 12 rebuilding with Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Cincinnati, Houston, BYU, and UCF. There are currently rumors circulating that Stanford, Cal, and SMU are headed to the ACC. Conference realignment is not new, but the forces driving it are becoming stronger. The college football playoff is expanding, television revenues are more lucrative than ever, and live sports are the latest weapon of choice in the streaming wars.

Photo by Maximalfocus on Unsplash

As much as I love speculating on realignment, I found myself wondering how will this all end. Like any good data scientist, I developed an AI model for determining the economic value of every possible college football game, scheduling the highest payoff football season possible, and identifying the resulting conferences. If you’re interested in my AI model and want to play around with the code, check it out here. I have written an entire series about using AI, ML, and data science to analyze conference realignment.

My AI model came up with some interesting conference alignments:

Image created by the author.

There are clearly three distinct tiers of conferences that emerged. Tier 1 is the Super 20. It is made up of the best of the best, plus a few random additions of Texas Tech, Illinois, and TCU (these were borderline inclusions). Tier 2 is the ACC+, Pan-American 17, and the Power Group. This is where we see almost all the remaining current Power 5 teams end up. Tier 3 includes the remaining four conferences, which closely resemble today’s Group of 5 cohort.

There are several major takeaways the college football community can derive:

  • A super conference is coming: Buckle up because the inevitable will happen. How much longer will teams like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, and LSU continue to split revenues with teams like Indiana and Vanderbilt? Certainly, there are traditional bonds between schools based on geography and shared values, but the importance of these considerations is fading. And fast. Before August 2023, the Pac 12 had been in existence for over 100 years and prided itself on its West Coast roots and conference-wide commitment to academic excellence. By 2024, it will be a relic of a bygone era of college football. Despite fan and alumni objections, money is absolutely in the driver's seat of college football. Unless and until college football fans are willing to rise up and revolt like Premier League fans did when a soccer super league was proposed in Europe, current trends will continue.
  • SEC and Big Ten moves added value: With the SEC grabbing the top prizes in Texas and Oklahoma and the Big Ten adding the most valuable schools of the Pac 12, together, they grabbed a vast majority of the future AI-predicted super conference. The pie charts below show how the top two conferences will include most of the Super 20 teams in the country by the start of the 2024 season.
Image created by the author.
  • The stable Big 12: The Big 12, on the other hand, found stability in its recent addition of eight new teams. At this point, stability might be as powerful as money for many of the Big 12 members. There is great parity within the conference in terms of performance on the field and revenue generation. This directly contradicts problems that caused Pac-12’s demise and problems that are currently bubbling up in the ACC.
  • (Almost) Every school needs a plan B: With the exception of about 10–15 of the top college football schools in the country, every school needs a plan in place for when they end up with the last team standing when the music stops. Every current Power 5 school needs to take this risk seriously. Most recently, we have seen Oregon State, Washington State, Cal, and Stanford struggling to cope with newfound homelessness. When the Super Conference comes, the Super 20 will take their money with them. Schools at risk of being on the outside looking in should have doomsday scenario plans in place in case their athletic department suddenly loses 50% or more of their revenue. Even schools that do not find themselves homeless might find themselves with a smaller revenue share as the Big Ten, Big 12, and ACC all have enacted or are considering non-equal revenue distribution schemes.
  • A few high-value Group of 5 teams remain: Boise State and UConn snuck into the Pan-American 17 while several other current Group of 5 schools found their place in the Power Group conference: Navy, Fresno State, San Diego State, and Army. This suggests that there might be some existing value to be extracted and absorbed into Power 4 conferences. I don’t think that these schools will be the focus of realignment discussions any time soon, but potentially in the future.
  • The remaining ACC teams may not get picked up by the Big Ten or SEC: Florida State has recently been making a lot of noise about wanting to leave the ACC. There are a number of legal complications preventing them from doing so. Even if they do clear the legal hurdles, my AI model isn’t convinced that Florida State would find a new home so easily. The Super 20 conference left out all current ACC members suggesting the value proposition might not be there. The top ACC teams still found themselves in good company in the ACC+, but there exists enough doubt to wonder whether the Big Ten or SEC will extend an invitation any time soon.
  • Conferences will continue to get less regional: College football was traditionally a regional sport, yet six of the eight conferences proposed by AI spread from sea to shining sea. This only serves to support the conclusion that the existing trend of establishing conferences with broad appeal across the nation will continue and the regional focus of college football will ride into the sunset.

AI doesn’t get everything right, and I’m sure the future landscape of college football won’t look exactly like this, but we can glean insights from AI and start to envision the college football of tomorrow.

Interested in my content? Please consider following me on Medium.

Follow me on Twitter (X?): @malloy_giovanni

Did AI get it right? What’s next in college football realignment in your mind? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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