College World Series: Will fans root for conference rivals when a national title is on the line?

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OMAHA, NEB. — The power conferences are well represented at the 2021 College World Series. The SEC leads all comers with three teams — Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State. The ACC and Pac-12 have two apiece — NC State and Virginia and Arizona and Stanford, respectively. As well, Texas bears the flag for the Big 12. 

Speaking of those power conferences, it says here that intra-conference rivalries have over time become more nuanced and complicated, and nowhere is this more evident that within the ecosystem of the majors college sports circuits like the SEC and Big Ten (not that the Big Ten counts as a baseball power conference). Anecdotally, it seems more than ever fans of teams are tabling their contempt for conference rivals when said rival is competing for a championship against a team from another conference. How can an LSU fan who would otherwise be gnashing teeth and double-birding the heavens over a loss to Alabama swiftly pivot to supporting the Tide’s efforts at Rolling when the opponent is, say, Ohio State and both belt and title are on the line? Is it unseemly to condition our hatreds in such a manner? “I don’t know,” and “yes,” this scribe answers those questions, respectively. 

It didn’t used to be this way, probably. This writer grew up an Ole Miss fan, and under no circumstances would he have cast his lot with, say, Mississippi State, LSU, or Alabama solely because the stakes were raised and the opponent hailed from parts unknown. This writer even leveraged the occasion of his father’s eulogy to insult Alabama football, of which his father was lamentably a devotee (he was otherwise terrific).  

As for when things changed, there’s no clear answer, and it’s of course possible to deny the premise that things have changed at all. The onset of the bygone BCS era may have played a role, during which conference pride seemed to be on the uptick. Perhaps it was conference expansion and realignment, in which a number of schools barged into their new affiliations with the zeal of the converted. 

Flowing from that latter phenomenon is the most enduring symbol of the Conference Solidarity Era — the “S-E-C!” chant. Found most commonly as the auditory branding of the SEC Network, the chant is also encountered in the wild as a bizarre gesture of conference triumphalism. Perhaps it takes that third syllable to allow for proper chanting, otherwise the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 might behave similarly. No word on what the hold-up is with the ACC. Anyhow, ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg traced the origins of the chant to fans of the Arkansas Razorbacks in the early 1990s. Arkansas made the jump from the old Southwest Conference to the SEC in 1990, along with South Carolina. So, yes, the zeal of the converted. 

Another, perhaps more compelling explanation for the shift in fan mindset is financial in nature. “Conference membership became lucrative following the 1984 Oklahoma v. the NCAA Supreme Court Case that deregulated television broadcast rights,” Dr. Andrew McGregor, a professor of history at Dallas College, told CBS Sports. “This changed the power structure of college sports, and things got settled over the next few years. Colleges banded together in the Bowl Alliance and in athletic conferences to negotiate television rights. Being a conference was equivalent to a sort of ‘collective bargaining’ to get better deals with TV networks. The conference then shared the revenue, so if your rivals did well in bowl games or championship games, your team/school might get a piece of that pie.”

Dr. McGregor summarizes: “Today we root for conferences for a variety of reasons that include regional pride, money payouts that are shared among member schools, and wanting our conference to seem stronger so that we can brag about being the best which will help us recruit athletes. Again, I see this as a late-1980s and 1990s development tied to the deregulation of media rights from the NCAA.”

That makes for a compelling self-interest argument as opposed to simple provincialism, and it likely motivates fans with high levels of emotional investment to set aside their disdains when it’s expedient. 

As for this year’s College World Series in Omaha, a brief and tiny sampling of fans in attendance suggest there aren’t any hard-and-fast policies when it comes to rooting for a conference rival. “It depends,” said a Mississippi State fan tailgating outside TD Ameritrade Park on Saturday who did not wish to disclose her name, perhaps given the fraught nature of the subject, about the prospect of rooting for Tennessee or Vanderbilt in the tournament. “I hate the [Vanderbilt] whistler, so there’s that. It depends on who they’re playing.” 

And what if it were blood rival Ole Miss playing for top honors in Omaha? “I would say they’re not here.” 

One representative of a group of NC State fans was succinct in his appraisals when asked if it’s permissible to root for your team’s conference rivals in a championship setting: “F— ’em.” 

At this point, a qualifier is necessary. These were not “born on the soil” Wolfpack fans. Rather, they were here for Jonny Butler, NC State’s junior No. 3 hitter who mashed 13 homers and slugged .665 this season. The group said they were former teammates of Butler’s from his season at Heartland Community College in Illinois. “Find us when you’re writing the article on Jonny Butler when he goes 4 for 4 today.” 

File under “fair enough,” especially given the outcome of Butler’s first College World Series at-bat on Saturday: 

Butler wound up going 3 for 4 with a walk and a whopping five RBI in the 10-4 win over Stanford (“A-C-C!”). 

Speaking of the Cardinal, Dave (Stanford class of ’87) was a bit more pro-“conference loyalty.” Would he pull for Arizona in the event that Stanford is bounced before them? “I think I would, actually,” he said. “You know, conference affiliation. I’ve visited there, I’ve been to sporting events down there at the U of A, so, yeah, I think I actually would — as opposed to like, you know, Texas or someone I have no affiliation with.”

And what of the tangled hypothetical in which Cal-Berkeley, Stanford’s nemesis and Pac-12 label-mate, was the conference’s last squad standing? “That would be a lot tougher,” said Dave, followed by a long pause. “I probably would. And in my mind they’d probably be an underdog. That would be more difficult, but depending on who they’re playing I’d probably pull for them.” 

Firmly tacking in the opposite direction is a University of Texas rooter, name of Mike, who was in line for entry outside Gate 3. As noted, the Longhorns are the only Big 12 team in the CWS this year, but would he consider pulling for a conference rival if they were there? “Absolutely not,” he said. “Absolutely not. I’ve never believed in pulling for the conference. That’s why they’re rivals.”

Mike also agreed that “my conference uber alles” is more of a recent phenomenon. “I feel that, too. You probably notice a lot more with social media nowadays. There’s Twitter and there’s Facebook and everything. ‘If we can’t be there, then I hope you guys do well,’ that sort of thing. I don’t believe in that.”

Regarding the matter of media sociale, this scribe polled Twitter and Facebook users and asked whether they pulled for conference rivals in championship settings like the College Football Playoff, Final Four, or CWS. The results broadly track with what the fans at Omaha are saying, which is that, maybe I would, with some exceptions, but probably not. Roughly three-fourths of respondents across both platforms said that they would not pull for a conference rival that they otherwise disliked under any circumstances. The remaining one quarter said they would, but they often included qualifiers for the archest of rivals. Of those saying they would root for a rival, roughly two-thirds said it’s always been this way while one-third say their conference loyalism is at least a semi-recent development. Multiple poll-takers mentioned the sharing of revenues as motivation, which circles back to what Dr. McGregor posited. 

So we’re left with questions. Is the writer’s perception that more people these days will root for the conference flawed? Is said perception merely the residue of advancing age and related crankiness? Or is that one-quarter of fans who’ll cop to favoring conference rivals a higher figure than what it would’ve been in the pre-BCS/conference realignment/shared revenue days? The fog of unknowing shall not lift.

What we do know is that it seems quite rare for, say, an Alabama fan to align with Auburn for a few high-leverage hours or an Ohio State fan to nod approvingly at a Michigan triumph. Relatedly: “Nope, can’t do it,” Marvin, a Tennessee fan taking in the NC State-Stanford game on Saturday, said of the idea of pulling for Vanderbilt later in the CWS. “I love the SEC, but I couldn’t do that. Same for Kentucky in basketball.”

Conference hostilities have indeed become more complex because of structural changes to college sports, but it’s heartening to know that the most purifying contempts remain largely pure. Just ask Marvin. Or Mike from Texas. Maybe don’t ask Dave (Stanford class of ’87).



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