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July 2, 2014

LINDLEY: Follow closely as 12 colleges do the conference shuffle

The most tenured coach at the University of Louisville might not find joining a new athletic conference so special. But for tennis coach Rex Ecarma, the Cardinals’ move is a moment to celebrate.

Ecarma has been at Louisville for 23 seasons, battling the competition in four different conferences, which now becomes five as the Cardinals officially join the Atlantic Coast Conference. The long journey to big-time status is complete.

Ecarma’s experience at Louisville reflects the evolution — some might say turmoil — in college sports over the past two decades or more. Gone are tradition-bound leagues that generally defined a region of the country. They’ve been replaced by five so-called power conferences — the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern Conference and ACC.

Twelve teams have adopted new conference affiliations this summer. As Louisville moves to the ACC, the Big Ten adds Maryland and Rutgers. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa are new members of the American Athletic Conference. Western Kentucky and Old Dominion go to Conference USA. Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Idaho and New Mexico State join the Sun Belt Conference.

Regional affinity has been tossed aside in favor of a new identity that favors large television markets that fuel athletic departments with untold amounts of cash. For instance, Maryland stands to rake in an extra $100 million over the next five years from the Big Ten’s lucrative network contract.

Here’s one indicator of how fast things have changed: The venerable Big Ten conference now has 14 teams, but the same name.

The whirlwind of conference expansion will likely never end, but there’s sure to be a pause in the frenetic growth of recent years. Today’s league members are locked into long-term television packages, which contain prohibitive financial consequences for those wanting out. Checkmate.

In years to come the Big 12 seems to be the only major conference ripe for growth. The great league from the heartland now has 10 teams. There are open spots but not an openness by the league to consider expansion — at least for now.

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