Long Strange Trips: Does Conference Realignment Benefit College Athletes?

The news about UCLA and USC leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024 reignited discussions about conference realignment. While some may discuss potential revenues or lament the loss of tradition and rivalries, I am more concerned with the athletes at those universities—and left to wonder if the academics and well-being of the athletes at UCLA and USC were considered when administrators made this decision.

In a recent study, I examined how athletes perceive the effects of travel on their athletic and academic performance. When committing to a university, a majority of athletes understood the travel requirements. However, when conference realignment occurs, those requirements change, and in the case of UCLA and USC, those requirements will change drastically. Longer trips and travel times equate to an increase in time away from campus, missed classes and jet lag. These increases have been shown to have a negative effect on academic performance and the athlete’s physical and mental health. The NCAA states its mission is focused on “cultivating an environment that emphasizes academics, fairness and well-being across college sports.” In essence, conference realignment is having the opposite effect of what the NCAA’s mission states.

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Athletes also stated that they believed the travel demands, especially to locations farther away, had a detrimental effect on their athletic performance. Jet lag and travel legs were real problems for the athletes. One athlete stated that “time zone change with noon games means an early start to everything.” This is going to be a problem for UCLA and USC athletes as they travel to the eastern and central time zones to play their new Big Ten opponents.

While the majority of the discourse of conference realignment focuses on football, there are other sports and athletes involved. The travel demands that will now be placed on soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, swimming and diving, and volleyball athletes have also increased—and many of these teams play contests more than once a week.

The opportunity to play in new stadiums and facilities is exciting, but this travel may have a negative effect on academics, as noted by athletes in our study and previous research. Given that the probability of competing in their sport as a professional is incredibly low (between 0.8-7.4% depending upon the sport), it is essential that administrators prioritize the athletes and their academics.

University administrators should reexamine if their current or potential conference affiliations are in the best interests of their athletes. If the travel is causing the athletes to perform at a level that is not ideal for their sport or in the classroom, is that conference affiliation worth it? College administrators seem to need a reminder that the all athletes (not just football players) should be prioritized and at the center of all discussions about potential conference realignment.

Amanda L. Paule-Koba is a professor of sport management at Bowling Green State University and editor of the Journal of Athlete Development and Experience. Her research investigates contemporary prevailing problems that impact athletes in collegiate sport.

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