The biggest story in college athletics over the last three years didn’t take place on the field, nor was it an NCAA investigation into a sensationalized scandal. Rather, the biggest story in college athletics from 2010-13 revolved around the business of college sports. Over the last three years, conference realignment not only reshaped the playing landscape of college athletics, but brought home the point that college sports is about more than winning. Today, while winning serves its purpose, alignment with the right conference provides the added bonus of access to greater revenue streams and increased exposure.
One athletics program that traveled a tenuous route during conference realignment was Texas Christian University. The story of how TCU ultimately landed in its current conference resting spot, the Big 12, is one punctuated by the athletics department seeking to achieve two goals through realignment: Access to bowl game revenue and generation of more exposure.
Initially an independent athletics program, TCU joined the Southwest Conference in 1923. There, it developed in-state rivalries with competitors including Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor. Those rivalries would come to an end, however, in 1995-96, when the four schools departed the Southwest Conference to join what would become the Big 12. As the Southwest Conference met its fate, TCU found itself conference hopping for nearly twenty years, making stops in the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA and Mountain West Conference.
While each of those conferences provided TCU with a home, beginning in 1998, none provided TCU with one thing that matters the most monetarily in college football: The opportunity to become an automatic qualifier for a BCS bowl game. The BCS set-up provided six conferences with automatic bids to one of five BCS bowl games: ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12 and SEC. Automatic qualification, in turn, guaranteed teams in those conferences the opportunity to compete for the big revenues distributed to participants, ranging most recently between $17-$18 million.
Teams who were not members of the automatic qualifier conferences ultimately succumbed to a free-for-all to gain a spot in a BCS bowl game. In turn, that free-for-all oftentimes left many said teams on the sidelines when it came to BCS bowl game participation. As such, these schools were not getting their hands on as much BCS revenue as their automatic qualifier conference member counterparts. Thus, it’s no surprise that when the Big East came knocking with an invitation to join the conference in 2010, TCU jumped at the opportunity.
Under the offer from the Big East, it was expected that TCU would join the conference in all sports beginning in 2012. However, one thing that TCU likely did not foresee when it entered into its agreement with the Big East, was that many of the conference’s members would be poached during the course of conference realignment. With a strong roster of member institutions, the Big East arguably fell victim to the conference realignment carousel due to the fact that it was the only BCS automatic qualifier conference that did not have an exclusive contract with any BCS bowl. Ultimately, the poaching of the Big East would leave the landscape of the conference looking much different–and less competitive–in 2012 than in 2010.
As the Big East continued to lose members, late in 2011 TCU received an offer it had been waiting for since 1995: The opportunity to become a member of the Big 12. TCU informed the Big East of its decision to not enter the conference, was hit with a lawsuit by the conference and ultimately joined the Big 12 in 2012. “Joining the Big East was an access move for BCS purposes. Getting into the Big 12 is where we always wanted to be. We wanted to be playing regionally, but in 2010, that opportunity wasn’t there, because the Big 12 wasn’t pursuing new members. When the second shift of conference realignment happened, though, the Big East was no longer the same–with schools like Syracuse and Pittsburgh announcing their departures. Then, Missouri and Texas A&M announced their departures from the Big 12, and that opened up the opportunity for us to join,” said TCU’s athletics director, Chris Del Conte.
Since joining the Big 12, TCU has seen success beyond the football field. Increased fan interest in the athletics department was sparked as a result of rivalries between former Southwest Conference members being renewed. This spark in fan interest has caused season ticket sales for TCU’s football program to increase by 275-percent over the last five years. This year, TCU sold nearly 33,000 season tickets for its football games. In 2010, when TCU announced its move to the Big East, that number was 19,000. In 2011 when it announced it would join the Big 12, the number jumped to 24,000. In 2012, its first year of Big 12 membership, TCU sold 32,000 season tickets for its football program.
Del Conte argues that access to BCS bowl games is not only important from a revenue generation standpoint, but also because of the national exposure teams receive from competing in BCS bowls. A Navigate Marketing study found that Stanford received $11 million worth of television exposure value from playing in last year’s Rose Bowl. The exposure TCU received from participation in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl and 2011 Rose Bowl generated interest from two important groups: alumni and potential TCU students.
From an alumni standpoint, TCU used its appearance in back-to-back BCS bowl games to fund-raise for a $164 million renovation of Amon G. Carter Stadium, where TCU’s football team plays. Funding for the stadium renovation was driven by 140 donors, six of whom donated $15 million. Del Conte says that the donor’s gifts were not motivated by conference affiliation, but by the overall success of the university, which he largely attributes to the university’s chancellor, Dr. Victor J. Boschini, Jr. “People were motivated to give, because they saw how successful TCU was becoming–not just in football, but also academically,” Del Conte noted. Similarly, that motivation was likely the reason for TCU seeing its most successful fund-raising effort in the school’s history, which raised $434.1 million over the seven years leading up to May 31, 2012.
When it comes to potential TCU students, the exposure TCU has gleaned from its football program’s success is helping drive applications to the university. Since 2009, freshman applications to TCU have increased by 155-percent. The greatest number of applicants in the last five years came in 2012, the year TCU joined the Big 12.
While TCU’s applicant numbers are notable, perhaps what is more interesting is the number of out-of-state undergraduate students attending the institution. In 2009, Texas residents made up 74.2-percent of TCU’s student body. This year, that number has decreased by 16.2-percent, as Texas residents currently account for 58-percent of TCU’s student body. Arizona, where TCU played the Fiesta Bowl in 2010, is sending 215-percent more students to the school in 2013 than it was in 2009. California, where TCU played the Rose Bowl in 2011, is sending 358-percent more students to the school in 2013 than it was in 2009.
When it comes to the future of TCU, Del Conte is hopeful for continued success both on the field and in the classroom. “Ten years ago, we were a really good institution. Today, we are ranked 82nd in the country. This has happened because our board of trustees and chancellor have transformed the university to be great both academically and athletically,” Del Conte remarked.