The climate costs of conference realignment

On Sept. 1, the ACC unofficially became the All Coast Conference after its additions of Stanford, Cal and SMU. Like a vulture feeding on a rotting carcass, the ACC capitalized off the surprisingly swift decline of the Pac-12 (the most prominent college athletic conference in the Western US) to expand its national appeal. While ACC executives framed the move as necessary for survival in the anarchic world of college sports, it is apparent that the primary motivation for this move was TV revenues. The ACC is posed to gain over $600 million from its contract with ESPN as a result — and that doesn’t include revenue earned from other multimedia companies.

The shocking gambit evoked plenty of punditry from the sports world — mostly reminiscing about the tragedy surrounding the downfall of the ‘Conference of Champions.’ But the real tragedy lies off the field. Conference realignment entails thousands of miles of transcontinental travel on a weekly basis. That travel will emit billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, despite many universities identifying climate change as an institutional priority. However, these concerns get drowned by trivial discussions of a potential Stanford-Duke rivalry or what the new divisions of an 18-school ACC will look like. Only when conference realignment eventually runs into the realities of climate change will the foolishness of universities be exposed.

Just a mere 20 years ago, the ACC contained eight teams (three of which were in the Triangle), with the longest trip a visiting team would have to make being 732 miles from Florida State to the University of Maryland. The other power five conferences also were geographically compact, limiting the need for long flights or travel across time zones. But this harmonious balance of power was quickly upended when in the early 2010s conferences began to poach other schools — including the notable moves of Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big-12 to the SEC and Maryland from the ACC to the Big Ten. With the advent of cable TV, conferences realized adding more TV markets to their portfolio would supersize earnings, spurring the realignment revolution. These changes — though minor — awakened conference commissioners to the power that they possessed. Hardly constrained by insufficient state and federal regulations or the toothless NCAA, conferences realized schools were willing to enter a Faustian bargain with the highest bidder.

As the SEC and Big Ten gained sports hegemony with their additions of flagship institutions such as Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Maryland and Rutgers, the remaining 3 power five conferences felt they needed to play the acquisition game to survive. Still reeling from the loss of its two biggest members, Texas and Oklahoma, the Big-12 responded decisively, snagging four Pac-12 schools. Not to be left behind, the ACC sounded the death knell of the Pac-12 by adding Cal and Stanford. Never mind that Palo Alto is 2,380 miles away from Durham.

In the old days when conferences followed the rules of geography, most away games could be reached by bus, which is far more environmentally friendly than air travel for short trips. But, given that it is infeasible for a visiting team to drive across the country, a larger share of away games will now require flights. A single round trip (economy class) from RDU to San Fransisco emits 1.04 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. While that may not seem like much, remember that the average traveling party for a football team is around 100 members including players, coaches and support staff. Moreover, this does not include the thousands of die-hard fans who religiously travel to all the away games. Furthermore, this mass migration must now occur five or six times per season. Unfortunately, these metrics only account for one team in a now 18-member conference.

Based on these assumptions (which definitely can be further refined), the emissions from air travel alone for a single team and its fanbase for one season would be around 47,000 CO2 metric tons of emissions. In other words, emissions from this travel would cause just over 26 football fields of polar ice caps to melt. This does not account for the realities of radiative forcing, where sources of emissions at high altitudes (think airplanes) have a greater impact on global warming. And this only accounts for one football team, not the plethora of other sports that will now have to make this arduous cross-country trek.

While severe, the climate impacts must not overshadow the human impacts of conference realignment. Athletes will have to miss more classes, recover from jetlag and navigate long stints away from home. Family and friends who want to watch their athlete play in person will now have fewer opportunities to do so. Coaches will have less time to devote to recruiting and game preparation. These concerns — which were raised by Professor Donald Taylor at a recent academic council meeting — have profound implications for an academically rigorous school like Duke.

The irony of the debacle is that the people who are most negatively impacted by realignment, athletes, do not receive any additional compensation for the increased burden. It is unlikely that scholarship amounts or Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals are dependent on how many teams the ACC has. While conference realignment was clearly driven by the revenue earning sports (football and basketball), the ramifications apply to all sports. Many Olympic sports, such as baseball and softball, have far more games than the football team, meaning that they will bear an even greater travel burden.

If these sports aren’t the reason for conference realignment, then why should they have to suffer from it? To protect both climate and athlete health, Division I schools should return to their old conferences for all sports except for football and basketball. While it would be ideal if all sports played teams in their region, I acknowledge that no amount of climate science will ever convince university administrators to forgo millions of dollars of TV revenue. But, universities could still have their pots of gold and some climate impacts could be mitigated if conferences varied based on sports. In fact, the athletics departments would actually save money by not sending their Wrestling or Field Hockey teams on transcontinental flights.

Already, some athletic programs have found success with this model. Johns Hopkins University competes in Division III’s Centennial Conference while its premier sport, lacrosse, participates in the Big Ten. Similarly, Division I hockey has unique conferences which closely align with geographic regions. These successes should be replicated across all of Division I sports.

Conference realignment isn’t only a tragedy because of the death of classic rivalries but of the planet itself. However, separating conferences based on sport can bolster athletic revenues while keeping significant amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere. In this way, we can salvage both athlete health and environmental sustainability from the dumpster fire of conference realignment. Let’s take this sensible action so that college sports will still be around a century from now.

Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


Share and discuss “The climate costs of conference realignment” on social media.