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How the politics of college football could thwart Rick Perry's presidential bid

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  September 2, 2011 11:45 AM

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Could a controversial shift in college football conferences sink Rick Perry’s presidential campaign? As a Texas A&M stalwart who has been at the head of the school’s drive to leave the Big 12, the Texas governor has staked himself to a cause that may be great for his beloved alma mater — but is stirring up a lot of anger among some of the heartland voters that he needs to win the GOP presidential nomination.
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Last Thursday, after weeks of rumors that the university was planning to bolt the Big 12, Texas A&M made it official. The College Station university is moving to the SEC in hopes of higher television revenues and to avoid being over-shadowed by its arch-rival, the University of Texas, which just started its own cable network this year to showcase Longhorn athletics.

To fans of other Big 12 schools like Baylor, Texas Tech, and Iowa State, the fear now that the departure of Aggies will cause the Big 12 to implode — and that when the dust settles, their teams may wind up in a second-tier conference.

To be sure, it’s a stretch to imagine that consternation over the Big 12’s future will translate into votes against Perry. But imagine, for a moment, if New Englanders were asked to support a politician responsible for consigning the Patriots to the Canadian Football League. That’s not how Perry wants to be viewed when he goes courting voters in Iowa.

And the governor can hardly claim to be just a bystander to the process. Perry, who served as the “yell-leader” at the school as an undergraduate, has taken an active role overseeing his alma mater. In fact, it was Perry, and not the university’s president, who was first to leak the news that Texas A&M was seeking to join the SEC.

Both Colorado and Nebraska left the Big 12 starting this season, and when they broke away the conference itself almost folded. Texas A&M’s departure would push it closer to the brink. While the University of Texas, due to its size, reputation, and strong fan base, would likely find a new home in a top-tier conference, Baylor and Texas Tech might be stuck going to less prestigious conferences. This not only would lessen the level of competition for their athletic programs, but would significantly reduce their revenues from sports, which would have a detrimental impact throughout the school’s budget. The Big 12 currently has television contracts worth $150 million a year. If the conference breaks up, Texas Tech and particularly Baylor might be hard-pressed to join conferences with similarly lucrative broadcasting deals. This could leave their fans, most of whom come from more rural and conservative areas, highly displeased with Perry come Super Tuesday.

But while Perry might be able to risk losing some rural conservative Texans in his presidential campaign, there’s another group he ought to think twice about alienating: rural conservative Iowans.

Perhaps the most vulnerable member of the Big 12 if it breaks up is Iowa State. In fact, Iowa State’s fate became a major political hot potato when Colorado and Nebraska left the Big 12 last year and Iowa politicians from both parties were ready to use whatever leverage necessary to keep the Cyclones in a BCS conference. Further, Iowa State’s fan base is concentrated in the more conservative western third of the state, where, incidentally, there are also a disproportionate number of GOP caucusgoers. (In fact, the Ames Straw Poll is held outside Iowa State’s basketball arena, the Hilton Coliseum.)

In these vast stretches of rural Iowa, Iowa State sports, be it football, basketball, or wrestling, is the only show in town. But while Western Iowa may be devoted to Iowa State, it’s not exactly considered a promising market or exciting television for the rapacious athletic conferences that will feed off the remnants of the Big 12.

While it is unlikely that many voters in Iowa or Texas choose their president based on their favorite college team, it’s not going to help Perry’s image if he’s seen as taking selfish actions on behalf of Texas A&M that end up hurting other schools. Perry should tread carefully; although his actions may only undermine him with the most rabid Iowa State supporters, that may be still enough to cost him the caucuses. And what does it profit a governor if he gains an annual football matchup with LSU, but loses the presidency?

Reuters/Jim Young: Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to people during a campaign stop in Walcott, Iowa, last month.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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