I don’t exactly have a perfect record of predictions on this blog (as evidenced by the regular stream of friendly visitors from TexAgs that still remind me of what I wrote about Texas A&M and SEC expansion a few years ago), but one big picture issue that I understood from day one (meaning literally right when it was announced in 2006) was that the Big Ten Network would be a massive game changer for the conference and college sports overall. What others saw as vanity project destined to fail compared to the SEC’s then-traditional TV deal with ESPN, with the harshest criticism coming from Big Ten country itself, I looked at as the platform to turn the Big Ten into the New York Yankees of college sports financially. Many sports fans look at the BTN as shooting fish in a barrel money-wise now, but a lot of them have collective amnesia about how much criticism the network took in its first year of existence (including Tom Izzo publicly calling it a “PR nightmare”) and beyond when the SEC signed what was a then-large guaranteed deal with ESPN in 2008. Even when the Big Ten initially announced that it was looking to expand in 2009, many commentators didn’t bother taking into account how much the BTN would drive the process. If it wasn’t clear with the addition of Nebraska (which, despite its small market, could effectively have the BTN charge whatever it wanted to games and Husker fans would pay up), it was blatantly obvious with the expansion with Rutgers (New York/New Jersey market) and Maryland (Washington, DC/Baltimore market).

So, I can imagine how satisfied Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and the rest of the conference officials must feel with the BTN on the precipice of capturing the great white whale of college sports: the New York City market. According to the Star-Ledger, BTN has entered into deals with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision for basic cable carriage of the channel in the NYC area (with discussions with Comcast moving along well). That means every the BTN (and by, extension, every Big Ten school) is going to receive a significant chunk of change from each Time Warner Cable and Cablevision basic subscriber covered under the deal. (Awful Announcing had a back-of-the-napkin calculation of at least $48 million per year for the Big Ten just from this single carriage deal, although that likely overstates the immediate impact since it doesn’t take into account Fox’s 51% ownership interest in the network and various expenses. Still, this market represents tens of millions of dollars per year for the Big Ten solely based on the BTN.) The skeptics of whether Rutgers would pay off for the Big Ten (myself included) are about to eat crow. This was the financial end game for the Big Ten when the expansion process began nearly 5 years ago: the addition of a massive market the size of either Texas or New York for the BTN. The Texas Longhorns weren’t willing partners on the former, so the Big Ten moved onto the latter.

Frankly, the fact that the BTN was able to negotiate a deal this quickly (several months before football season starts) in any part of the New York DMA was surprising (and bodes very well for the Washington and Baltimore markets where Maryland has a stronger sports presence compared to Rutgers in the New York area). Cable and satellite industry consolidation (the ongoing regulatory approval process of the Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable and AT&T’s newly announced deal to acquire DirecTV) is likely in the backdrop, while BTN co-owner Fox has the ability to leverage its cross-ownership of YES (and there isn’t much more powerful programming in the NYC market than Yankees games).

Now, no one should be naive enough to believe that this cable TV money train will run into perpetuity. Cord cutting is on the rise and that will likely continue to accelerate among non-sports fans that can get their programming fixes from online sources such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. However, sports are still the killer app when it comes to live TV, which is why NBC/Comcast signed yet another expensive long-term extension of its Olympics rights that will last until I’m close to retirement age in 2032. Meanwhile, the Big Ten itself is gearing up to go to market with its first tier sports rights (with the new contract starting for the 2016 2017 football season) and will almost assuredly sign what will be the largest TV deal in college sports history without even including BTN money in the equation.*

(* For what it’s worth and this is strictly my semi-educated guess, but I believe that the Big Ten will end up with a split of rights between ESPN and Fox similar to how the Pac-12 and Big 12 deals are structured. It makes sense from the exposure and financial perspectives, while ESPN and Fox have clearly shown a willingness to partner with each other on large deals. The latest example of this is the recently-announced MLS/US Soccer deal with ESPN and Fox splitting the rights.)

With the Midwest having a lower proportion of the US population each year**, the East Coast has become a critical focus for the Big Ten out of necessity. The recent announcements of the Big Ten/Big East basketball challenge and the awarding of the Big Ten Tournament to the Verizon Center in Washington, DC in 2017 are important pieces to the league’s Eastern strategy, but the BTN carriage is definitely the clinching factor in all of the B1G plans.

(** Note that this different than the gross misnomer of the Midwest “losing population” that is often perpetuated in the national media, which simply isn’t true. What’s occurring is that the Midwest’s growth is much slower than other regions of the country. Granted, the legacy populations of places like Illinois, Ohio and Michigan are still extremely large to the point where it would still take many years, if not decades, for smaller faster growing states to catch up to them.)

(Image from CBS Chicago)

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I’ve been getting a lot of requests for comment on some proposed legislation by an Illinois state representative from Naperville to have a feasibility study performed on whether another Illinois public university can be added to the Big Ten. Here is the full text of the proposed bill. Note that I actually live in Naperville, but the applicable representative (Michael Connelly) doesn’t represent the portion of town that I live in.

Most people that have a passing understanding of conference realignment know that the odds of the feasibility of the Big Ten expanding with any school from the state of Illinois is less than zero (but we’ll spell it out here for any first time readers that haven’t been paying attention to this issue for the past several years). First of all, what the Illinois State Legislature wants is completely irrelevant to Big Ten expansion. They might have some control over the University of Illinois specifically, but Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and every other Big Ten school (even Northwestern) would laugh off any attempt for some type of legislative intervention. Second, a viable Big Ten candidate needs a combination of FBS football credentials, academic prowess (preferably membership in the Association of American Universities, which is an extremely select group of top tier research institutions) and, most importantly of all, additional media value in the form of new TV markets and/or a national brand name (i.e. Notre Dame). Considering that the entire state of Illinois is already receiving the Big Ten Network at the maximum cable carriage rate, any additional school from the state would add exactly $0 in TV revenue for the conference. That would actually mean that all other Big Ten universities would lose money with an Illinois-based expansion by splitting the pie further without making the overall pie larger… and the Big Ten isn’t making moves in order to lose money. Plus, the only other public university that even plays FBS football is Northern Illinois, who isn’t anywhere near AAU status on the academic front (and realistically never will be with its mission). If the State of Illinois wants to spend a single dime on whether it’s feasible for another public university here to join the Big Ten, then the legislature is flushing money down the toilet that it doesn’t have.

That being said, let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater on what ought to be the real intent of this legislation: creating a stronger #2 public university in the State of Illinois behind the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (abbreviated as UIUC for ease of discussion here, although I’ve always thought that was a clumsy abbreviation as an Illinois grad) regardless of any Big Ten prospects (which are non-existent in reality). What I hope is that my fellow Naperville native can’t possibly be this naive and is just using the Big Ten name as a headline grabber in order to shine the light on the very real problem that the academic quality gap between UIUC and the rest of the state’s public universities is so large that Illinois high school grads are heading to out-of-state colleges at a rate that dwarfs almost every other state in the country.

In the typical competitive Chicago suburban high school, the top 5% of the class or so is generally gunning for the Ivy League and Ivy-caliber schools (i.e. Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, etc.). The next 5% is the group that UIUC generally targets (with a little bit of variation depending upon the program – engineering and business require top 5% credentials these days, whereas an applicant might be able to get by with being in the top 15% for liberal arts). Regardless, an Illinois high school grad is pretty well-covered if he or she is in the top 10% of his/her high school class and the 90th percentile in SAT or ACT scores.

The problem is the massive academic reputation gap between UIUC  and the rest of the in-state schools. For the very large group of kids that rank between the top 10% and top 30% of their class (people that still have good-but-not-elite grades and test scores and make up a huge share of the college student population), UIUC is getting too tough to get into while the rest of the in-state schools are way too easy to get into in relation to their credentials. There’s no compelling option in-between that’s a solid fit for that group of students. In the latest US News rankings for undergraduate programs at national universities, UIUC is ranked #41 in the nation, but then there isn’t another Illinois public school until the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) at #128. Farther down the list are Illinois State (#152), Northern Illinois (#177) and Southern Illinois (#177). It just so happens that neighboring schools like Indiana, Purdue, Iowa and Missouri are in the top 100 of the US News rankings and have admissions standards that perfectly align to those top 10%-30% students that can’t get into UIUC, so Illinois kids go to those schools in massive numbers* and are willing to pay out-of-state tuition for them (which is still relatively less expensive compared to a lot of lower-ranked private university options). According to the Chicago Tribune, there was an outflow of 30,000 freshmen students from Illinois to out-of-state schools and an inflow of 17,000 last year, which is a negative outflow of 13,000.** The academic quality gap is exactly why this is occurring.

(* Last year, the Chicago Tribune put together this fascinating database of where Illinois high school students currently go to out-state colleges. Not surprisingly, schools in neighboring states drew the largest numbers, with Iowa and Missouri having more than 1000 Illinois students each in their respective freshmen classes last year, while Indiana, Marquette, Wisconsin, Purdue, St. Louis University and Iowa State all had over 500 Illinois freshmen. Interestingly, Arizona State, Colorado, Kentucky and Kansas all drew more Illinois students than Ohio State, with all of them getting just under 200 Illinois freshmen each. Other popular power conference destinations for Illinois students outside of the Midwest are Arizona, Vanderbilt and Miami, with over 100 Illinois freshmen each. After this hellacious winter, I can’t blame any Chicagoan heading to some place where you can wear shorts in the middle of January. Meanwhile, Alabama and Ole Miss surprisingly draw more Illinois students than Nebraska, while Rutgers only has 10 Illinois freshmen. Maryland and Penn State don’t show up in this data set, which doesn’t mean anything one way or another, as some schools like Harvard that definitely have Illinois students aren’t listed here.)

(** New Jersey is a state with an even larger outflow of college students and has almost the exact same issue as Illinois: a very large drop in the rankings of its public universities after its flagship of Big Ten newcomer Rutgers.)

UIC is probably the only public school in Illinois that has a realistic chance of filling that gap since its faculty quality is already on the higher end compared to its admissions standards, the school is solid in STEM areas since it houses the University of Illinois system’s medical and pharmacy schools, and has what is now considered to be a very desirable location in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. (UIC was actually a visiting member of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) that’s considered to be the academic arm of the Big Ten for nearly 30 years, but that status was revoked following the conference’s admission of Nebraska.) The main issue is that UIC’s reputation in professional circles (outside of medicine and pharmacy) actually lags behind its perception in academia, and changes there seem to be glacial. Every Big Ten school has a stronger professional network in Chicago in the finance and tech areas that fuel the influx of new college grads every year in Lincoln Park and Lakeview, and UIC still has to catch up to regional private Catholic schools like Loyola, DePaul and Marquette on that front, too. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy – UIC won’t move up in professional prestige without attracting better students, but such better students won’t go there until UIC moves up in professional prestige.

(* Up until 20 years ago, that location was considered to be a major liability when it was far from gentrified. I know this area well since my parents both graduated from there and my father worked there for 30 years, so I have a lot of affinity for the school. My father used to get his hubcaps stolen quite frequently back in the day and we used to joke that we could buy them back at the old Maxwell Street market adjacent to UIC, which was featured in the John Lee Hooker scene in The Blues Brothers. Needless to say, the old Maxwell Street was moved for UIC’s expansion several years ago and what used to be a seedy neighborhood has turned into a land of high-priced condos and restaurants.)

The other practical problem is that it would take a ton of investment from the state to get UIC up to the level of schools that are strong non-flagships (i.e. Michigan State, Purdue, Miami University of Ohio, etc.), yet the state keeps reducing the money to public universities every single year (and as noted, the state doesn’t have the money to give it to them even if they wanted to). Regardless, I hope that some type of better realistic in-state option exists by the time my 4-year old twins are ready to go to college in 13 years. If Representative Connelly can ensure that the focus is on that particular academic goal (as opposed to Big Ten membership specifically, which is a waste of time and resources because it will never happen), then I’m game.

(Image from PIPBlog)

As many of my regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of both the NBA and college basketball. While this blog has generally focused on college football over the past few years since that has been the driving force behind conference realignment, I’m still a hoops guy at heart. As a result, I’m constantly thinking about how to balance all of the interests of the NBA, colleges and individual players while maintaining a high quality on-the-court product at all levels of the game.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently touched off another debate about “one-and-done” players in college basketball and whether they would be better off going straight to the NBA Developmental League:

“I think what will end up happening — and this is my opinion, not that of the league — is if the colleges don’t change from the one-and-done, we’ll go after the one,” Cuban said. “The NCAA rules are so hypocritical, there’s absolutely no reason for a kid to go [to college], because he’s not going to class [and] he’s actually not even able to take advantage of all the fun because the first semester he starts playing basketball. So if the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League.”

Notwithstanding the fact that Cuban erroneously assigns blame to the NCAA for not allowing players to enter into the NBA Draft immediately out of high school (that’s completely an NBA collective bargaining rule), what’s interesting over the past couple of days is that I’ve seen a lot of both NBA and college basketball fans agree with this sentiment. To the extent that they are in separate camps, NBA fans generally just want to see the best players in the pros ASAP, while college fans hypothetically don’t want to spend time worrying about players that are only going to spend a year on campus.*

(* Granted, I believe most college basketball fans are being disingenuous about this issue. If a bunch of freshmen can lead your favorite team to the national title like Kentucky in 2012, you generally get comfortable with the one-and-done concept pretty quickly. Most college basketball fans complaining about the practice are grousing about teams or rivals other than their own.)

However, while I generally sympathize with Mark Cuban and the basketball fan masses on a lot of issues, this is one area where I believe a lot of people are having collective amnesia of what both the NBA and college basketball looked like in the early-2000s before the NBA age limit was put into place. Simply put, basketball at both the pro and college levels sucked back then. The NBA was drafting high schoolers such as Kwame Brown in the lottery based on raw athleticism that were thrown into the league prior to being ready, which created a sloppier and less polished on-the-court product. Meanwhile, the college ranks were depleted of a critical mass of top-level players in a way that ended up pushing down the quality of the play across-the-board. Even if the one-and-done year gets transferred to the D-League as Cuban proposes, this can have a disastrous effect on both the pros and college levels.

This issue is a tough one for me because I’m someone that normally believes that if you’re good enough to perform a job or task, you should be allowed to do so regardless of your age. Yet, basketball seems to be the one area the laissez faire approach has proven to not work because of the nature of the sport. The main problem is that virtually everyone involved in the NBA Draft process needs to be protected from themselves (as the system provides incentives for everyone to take actions that are detrimental to the quality of the game overall). If I had faith that the only high schoolers that NBA general managers would draft were like LeBron James that were ready immediately at age 18 and, at the same time, only high schoolers that were of a LeBron-quality entered the draft into the first place, then it would be easy to say that anyone should be able to go to the pros immediately. However, we have empirical proof from the early-2000s that this simply doesn’t happen. Basketball, unlike football and baseball, is a game where obtaining an individual star matters more than anything. In contrast, stars in football and baseball might be important, but depth generally trumps stardom.

As a result, NBA GMs were (and still are) significantly more mortified about missing out on the next Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett compared to their football and baseball counterparts (and it makes sense considering the type of superstar that you need in order to viably compete for the NBA championship) and they overvalued raw athleticism in high schoolers back in the early-2000s. Meanwhile, top high school players saw all of their AAU buddies getting massive paydays at age 18, so anyone with a prayer of getting into the draft jumped in (whether it was by their own volition or pressure from family members and/or street agents looking for a financial meal ticket). This created a vicious cycle where NBA GMs were taking unproven high school players based on raw athleticism with lottery picks that were previously used on seasoned college players (many of which were already household names by the time they entered the draft), such lottery picks were getting stuck on the bench with high bust rates as opposed to contributing right away, and college programs were left with the scraps. Blowing a top 5 pick in the NFL or Major League Baseball is not a good thing for a GM, but it’s at least recoverable or mitigated if the team has the right depth. In the NBA, though, blowing a top 5 pick can mean that your franchise is set back for a decade… and we saw a whole lot of NBA franchises blow their top 5 picks in the early-2000s.

The current one-and-done system, while imperfect, at least provides a checkpoint for all parties involved: NBA GMs can watch players compete against people other than 5′ 11″ power forwards in high school (like I was back in the day) in pressure situations, while the players themselves get a reality check of where their skills really stand. Unfortunately, shifting the one-and-done year to the D-League in the manner that Cuban suggests would likely bring up the same problems as the old open NBA Draft without an age limit. NBA franchises would go back to drafting raw prospects (now for the D-League) as opposed to obtaining the best players that are ready for the NBA immediately, while top high school players will get delusions of grandeur and/or chase after the easy paycheck.

Note that Mark Cuban isn’t really proposing anything new: 18-year olds already have the option of giving up their NCAA eligibility and spending a year in the D-League (such as P.J. Hairston, who left UNC in the middle of the season this year and is now playing with the Texas Legends) or Europe (a la Brandon Jennings). So, why aren’t top players choosing that option en masse? Part of it is that the special branding in college sports matters quite a bit, as outlined by Dave Warner of “What You Pay for Sports” (who happens to be an outspoken critic of the cable subscriber fees that people pay for sports networks). As Warner stated about why minor leagues in basketball and football haven’t been successful financially:

Minor league basketball has had a bit more traction — the Continental Basketball Association survived for decades as an NBA minor league before finally folding in 2009 — but it doesn’t come close to outdrawing big-time college basketball. Go to any NBA D-League game, and you’ll be lucky to find a few thousand fans in the stands. More importantly, you won’t find the top high school prospects at those games. Jabari Parker gets more attention playing for Duke than he would playing for, say, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

This is where we begin to understand the status quo. What we have here is an issue of branding. Minor league football and basketball have no traction in America, because fans have declared their loyalty to the brands of college football and basketball teams. College football, in particular, has a century’s worth of rich history in America. College students attach themselves to their schools’ teams, remain attached through adulthood, and spread those attachments to children and other family members. You can’t sell the Omaha Nighthawks to an army of die-hard Cornhuskers fans. They’ve spent decades engrossed in the University of Nebraska’s football team and all of its traditions. Supporting a group of guys trying to play their way into the NFL is not enough. These people demand Nebraska football.

The point about Jabari Parker getting more attention playing for Duke than the Fort Wayne Mad Ants is particularly exacerbated in the NBA context even compared to the NFL because it relates back to the star system that’s inherent in pro basketball specifically. While Jabari Parker might get more specific basketball-focused training, avoids having to go to class, and even would earn a paycheck in the D-League, the exposure that he gets with nationally-televised games of Duke and constant SportsCenter highlights aids his own personal brand off-the-court and the long-term financial effects of that could vastly outweigh a year’s worth of earnings in the D-League. In turn, the NBA itself benefits from this as it gets to leverage the pre-made stardom of players like Jabari by the time they enter the draft, which creates further interest in the league. That aspect was completely lacking in the early-2000s (with the exception of LeBron, who legitimately was a household name by the time he graduated from high school) and we’d go back to that malaise if top players enter the D-League and Europe instead of going to college. The NBA has a golden goose here that it ought to be extremely wary of messing with again.

To that end, the best approach going forward is the simple one that new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has already suggested: raise the NBA age limit to 20. That effectively means that top high school players would need to play 2 years of college basketball prior to entering the draft. While that might delay the LeBron-types from entering into the league even further than now, the early-2000s should have shown everyone that the LeBron-types are so rare that the NBA needs to care more about its year-to-year product as a whole. That requires another year of vetting in college in order to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff along with building the anticipation of stars like Jabari Parker even further. At the same time, college basketball programs get the benefit of having top players for at least 2 years, which is a good balance between having such players on campus for a long enough time that programs feel confident in investing time and money into them while being short enough to prevent holding back the true superstars from going to the next level for too long.*

(* I’ve seen a number of people suggest that the NBA approach the draft in the same manner as MLB, which is that high school players can either choose the enter the draft immediately or go to college for at least 3 years. While it’s not a bad suggestion, I disagree with it as applied to basketball because of the nature of the sport that I’ve noted above. All that would happen is the same thing that occurred in the early-2000s, where every high school player convinced that he’ll get drafted will enter the draft and NBA GMs will be de facto forced to pick them out of fear. That would lead the exact same on-the-court quality problems that we saw in that era. Plus, the MLB draft goes for 50 rounds and GMs are generally rewarded for building depth as opposed to getting a single superstar. In contrast, the NBA draft is the reverse where there are only 2 rounds, GMs are rewarded for finding a single superstar instead of building depth, and the practical reality is that only 15 or so players in any given NBA Draft ever becomes a regular rotation player (much less a superstar or even a starter). The simple numbers show that the opportunity cost of foregoing college eligibility is several magnitudes greater for basketball player compared to a baseball player. As much as I hate paternalistic rules, this is exactly why people in the basketball world need to be protected from their own worst instincts.)

So, that’s why I support raising the NBA age limit to 20-years old. It’s long enough for the NBA to get a solid evaluation of players and colleges to obtain the benefit of having top players on campus, yet short enough for the legitimately elite players to get into in the NBA relatively early. The next step is to get both the NBA and NCAA on the same page on this matter, which is probably the most difficult piece of all in this entire discussion.

(Image from Sports Illustrated)

As we recover from an ‘80s/’90s-style Super Bowl blowout, here are some random thoughts:

“It’s Not Business. It’s Personal.” – Considering how much time that this blog has analyzed objective measures for conference realignment (including the Big 12 Expansion Index late last year), it’s always fun to see how expansion decisions aren’t necessarily always performed using financial analysts and lawyers poring over reams of data and documents. Dennis Dodd told the tale this week of how TCU ended up in the Big 12 during the chaotic realignment days of Fall 2011:

[TCU AD Chris] Del Conte admitted, “the pressure of the entire institution was on my shoulders” to join the Big 12. He worked the phones, calling every Big 12 contact he knew. Support within the Big 12 was growing, including at Oklahoma where good friend Joe Castiglione had been encouraging. But Del Conte knew if he didn’t have Texas, he didn’t have a chance.

“I’ve got one shot,” he recounted, “to go see DeLoss.”

It was a quite a visit. Del Conte grabbed a car, a driver and a bunch of reference material, binders, extolling the advantages of TCU and Fort Worth.

“I get up at 8 o’clock in the morning and drive to Darrell K. Royal Stadium. I get to [Dodds'] office. Nine comes around, 10 comes around. I’ve got a GA [graduate assistant] outside waiting for me, by the way. I tell him, ‘Just wait 10 minutes I’ll be back.’ Pretty soon it’s 3:30.

“[DeLoss] comes out and says, ‘Who are you?’ Chris Del Conte, Texas Christian U. He doesn’t hear ‘Chris.’ he hears ‘Del’. ‘Del, let’s go get ourselves a drink and discuss it.’

“We went to a restaurant and had a little libation at 3:30. By the time 8:30 rolls around, we were [into it] pretty good but we got ourselves in a situation. I kept trying to give him my [binders]. He said, ‘I’ve heard enough, Del’ and just walked away.”

The Big 12 ADs had a conference call the next day.

“The next morning I got up. Joe [Castiglione] goes, ‘I don’t know what you did but it worked.’ We got the vote. The Frogs are in,’ Del Conte said.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like for a Cincinnati or UConn fan whose programs are twisting in the wind when it appears that all it took to get Deloss Dodds to throw the support of the almighty University of Texas behind you was getting him liquored up on tequila shots. Granted, TCU’s addition to the Big 12 wasn’t that simplistic (at least I think so… right?) as it was coming off multiple BCS bowl appearances and a Rose Bowl victory. I had been a champion of TCU long before that when they were still dreaming of just an invite to a then-BCS-level Big East (much less the Big 12). Regardless, it goes to show you that personal relationships still matter beyond the quantitative analysis behind conference realignment. Oliver Luck of West Virginia and Tom Jurich of Louisville were tireless advocates for their respective schools and built up incredible networks of connections that they tapped into when the old Big East was collapsing. Former Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti was critical in getting the school into the Big Ten when the conference was looking for a partner with Maryland. When Creighton got the call to go to the new basketball-focused Big East as opposed to more geographically-friendly and larger market schools like St. Louis and Dayton, it could point to the fact that Creighton’s president happened to be on the Marquette Board of Trustees.

So, it looks like the lesson for any school still trying to get out of the Group of Five ranks is to send booze over to its power conference counterparts early and often on top of all the binders and PowerPoint presentations.

Conference Championship Games the Way We Want ThemJohn Swofford and the ACC sent the NCAA over a proposal to give leagues more flexibility in determining who can participate in conference championship games. The ACC wants the ability to remove the requirement to have divisions in order to hold a conference championship and let conferences determine how the participants are chosen by any criteria that they’d like, such as simply taking the top two teams with the best conference records and having them face off. Personally, I am all for it and hope that Jim Delany and the Big Ten hop aboard in support of the measure. As much as conference realignment fascinates me and believe that power leagues such as the Big Ten need to constantly be on the lookout for expansion opportunities, the obvious drawback as a fan is witnessing the games and rivalries that I actually care about get reduced. No amount of exposure in New York City or Washington, DC for Illinois is going to replace the excitement of playing Michigan or Ohio State. At the same time, if a school is only playing teams in the other division once out of every 6 years (as the SEC is set up now outside of cross-division rivals), that’s more akin to a non-conference scheduling arrangement as opposed to an actual unified conference. Therefore, if there’s a way to continue to hold conference championship games while eliminating divisions (or at least modifying the rules where teams don’t have to play round-robin schedules within their divisions), that provides a lot more ability for expanded conferences to adopt scheduling policies to play everyone within a league more frequently.

If I was running the Big Ten, I’d use the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) strategy of assigning every school 3 permanent rivals that it will play annually based on geography. That would then leave 6 other games to fill on the 9-game schedule every year. This setup allows each school to play everyone else in the conference 6 times every 10 years (a cycle of 2 years on, 2 years off, 4 years on, 2 years off), which keeps conference unity strong while still integrating the benefits of geographic expansion. Here’s how I’d assign the Big Ten rivalries:

SCHOOL RIVAL #1 RIVAL #2 RIVAL #3
Illinois Northwestern Indiana Purdue
Indiana Purdue Illinois Northwestern
Iowa Nebraska Wisconsin Minnesota
Maryland Michigan State Rutgers Penn State
Michigan Ohio State Michigan State Rutgers
Michigan State Maryland Michigan Ohio State
Minnesota Wisconsin Nebraska Iowa
Nebraska Iowa Minnesota Wisconsin
Northwestern Illinois Purdue Indiana
Ohio State Michigan Penn State Michigan State
Penn State Rutgers Ohio State Maryland
Purdue Indiana Northwestern Illinois
Rutgers Penn State Maryland Michigan
Wisconsin Minnesota Iowa Nebraska

The top two schools would then advance to the Big Ten Championship Game. Let’s get this done ASAP.

NFL Thursday Night Games – The NFL agreeing to simulcast a portion of its NFL Network Thursday night package on over-the-air CBS has some major implications both in terms of the entertainment industry in general and college football. First, the fact that CBS ended up winning the package despite already having the top-rated Thursday night lineup led by The Big Bang Theory just goes to show you the power of the NFL compared to everything else on television. Initially, I thought that CBS was going to be the least likely to end up with the NFL package as a result of its monster lineup, but it makes a bit more sense as a defensive move. Note that Disney pushed back on the NFL’s request to move Sunday Night Football games from ESPN to ABC back in 2004 because of an extremely strong prime time lineup featuring Desperate Housewives. That SNF package ended up on NBC, which now has such high ratings that it has turned Sunday night from the place where networks would always put their very best shows (as it has historically been the night when the most people will watch TV) to a scheduling triage unit for half of the year until football season is over. CBS likely noted the history of ABC and moved to protect its Thursday night lineup. Now, CBS can show NFL games on Thursday nights for the first 8 weeks of the season (thereby weakening the strong ratings competition of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal on ABC in the process) and then debut The Big Bang Theory just in time for November sweeps month. This move could have a radical change to how networks schedule on Thursday night (which had turned into the new evening where networks all placed their best shows after SNF ravaged its Sunday night competition).

College football will certainly be affected further as this will draw further exposure away from ESPN’s Thursday night games. Over the past 6 or 7 years, Thursday night had developed into an acceptable time slot for power conference schools to move games to away from Saturday, but that enticement might be eradicated with much stronger over-the-air NFL competition (and it was already getting that way with the NFL Network’s full season Thursday night schedule over the past 2 years). As a result, Thursday night might end up being the purview of non-power conferences again. Also, Friday nights aren’t as attractive to top schools because of conflicts with high school football in many states and lower TV ratings on that evening in general.

At the same time, the NFL’s willingness to move games off of its own network (which has the highest subscriber fees of any national cable network outside of ESPN) shows the tension between maximizing revenue (which would point to maximizing the value of their cable network) and maximizing exposure (going to over-the-air channels or ESPN). The Big Ten should take note as it heads into a period where it may end up renegotiating its TV deals sooner rather than later (as John Ourand of Sports Business Journal has predicted will happen this year). I often get asked about how many more games that the Big Ten will retain for the BTN in its next TV deal and my response is, “Not as many as you think.” As much as the BTN is filling up the Big Ten’s coffers, Jim Delany is smart enough to know that there still needs to be a balance of exposure on entities such as ESPN and over-the-air networks to keep the product viable in the long-term. The BTN is still intended to be a supplement to the widespread coverage as opposed to a replacement – we’re not going to be seeing Michigan-Ohio State on BTN anytime soon. If anything, look for broader distribution for Big Ten games on ABC, ESPN and possibly Fox whenever the conference signs its new TV deals.

Semi-off-topic: City Branding in Columbus – One of my random interests is studying urban development plans and how metro areas can attract investment and transplants, so Urbanophile is one of my favorite blogs to follow these days. Much of the blog’s focus is on Midwestern and Rust Belt cities, so there’s’ a lot of quantitative and qualitative analysis about the economic growth prospects (or in some cases, the lack thereof) of the Big Ten footprint. A recent post dealt with whether Columbus needs better branding in order to attract attention on par with other media-hyped college town/state capital combos such as Austin and Madison or if better job and population growth in and of itself is enough. You’ll see a fairly vigorous discussion in that post, including several comments from me. Anyway, I thought that would be of particular interest to the Ohio State fans reading here and it’s a great place to discuss how many of the other Big Ten markets are doing (which, in turn, impacts the strength of the Big Ten itself will be in the future).

Finally… if there’s a silver lining to the authoritarian, anti-free speech, homophobic and dog killing regime of Vladamir Putin, it’s that it’s going to be really easy to root against Russia in the Olympics again. No one else has really stepped in to fill the U.S. rival role since the Soviet Union fell. (Granted, I’m half-Chinese, so it’s a bit more difficult for me to demonize China as the enemy.) This is as much of a throwback to the 1980s as terrible Super Bowl matchups, so that will certainly add some flavor to the Olympics.

Enjoy the weekend!

(Image from Third City)

When it comes to conference realignment-related lawsuits, every school that has left a conference has attempted to claim that it owes nothing in exit fees. In turn, every conference has attempted to claim that the defecting school owes every single penny. Ultimately, though, it’s all a dance to get to a settlement (as is the case in 99% of all lawsuits as a general matter) and the parties invariably meet somewhere near the middle.

As a result, Maryland’s new counterclaim filed on Monday against the ACC (see the full complaint here) needs to be viewed through that prism. Maryland is now claiming that the ACC is liable for $157 million, which reflects treble damages for allegations of anti-competitive behavior (which we’ll get to in a moment). The ACC’s original claim states that Maryland owes the entire amount of the $52.2 million exit fee that the conference passed a couple of months prior to the Terps defecting (although Maryland and Florida State voted against it). The reality is that Maryland doesn’t truly believe that the ACC is going to pay $157 million and the ACC doesn’t truly believe that Maryland will pay the full $52.2 million exit fee. It’s just that they can’t say anything less along those lines in court or public or else they’ll lose a massive amount of leverage.

The headlines for the counterclaim focus on two tantalizing allegations that the ACC (1) attempted to recruit 2 Big Ten schools after Maryland announced that it was leaving and (2) received “counsel and direction from ESPN” on expansion targets. Now, my semi-educated guess is that these allegations are blowing some fairly mundane conversations out of proportion. Conferences are constantly recruiting schools, as the Big Ten has done quite a bit over the past several years. The word on the street is that Penn State was definitely one of the Big Ten schools that was contacted, while Northwestern appears to be the most likely other target. Note that Maryland stated that the ACC did not recruit any schools west of the Mississippi River (which was a distinction to bolster their argument that the “relevant market” that needs to shown in antitrust cases was as limited as possible and that the ACC had market power in such market), so it looks like the ACC didn’t want to go after Minnesota, Iowa or Nebraska.  Regardless, the fact that representatives from Wake Forest and Pittsburgh* attempted to recruit Big Ten schools in and of itself doesn’t mean very much other than showing that there’s no limit to John Swofford’s hubris. Pitt’s president calling up Penn State’s president with a “Want to join the ACC, bro?” inquiry and quickly getting rebuffed is a recruitment on paper, but it never went anywhere. The real test is whether there was any evidence of reciprocal interest (i.e. the Big Ten entering into confidentiality agreements with multiple ACC schools besides Maryland in 2012) and Maryland didn’t present anything to that effect.

(* It’s not surprising that Wake Forest and Pitt were chosen as the schools to put out feelers because they are probably the last two schools from the ACC that would garner any interest from the Big Ten. Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them, but rather they are the two schools that do the least to fill what the Big Ten specifically would be looking for in expansion. Wake is a small enrollment undergrad-focused private school that shares its state with 3 other schools with larger fan bases, while Pitt is the only ACC school that is located in a current Big Ten state and wouldn’t bring any new markets to the table. Everyone else in the ACC would bring in a new TV market and recruiting territory to the Big Ten at a minimum putting aside any academic and cultural fit issues.)

At the same time, ESPN’s “counsel and direction” isn’t unique to the ACC. While I have seen a number of people try to argue today that the ACC is an “ESPN property” while the Big Ten is a “Fox property”, this belies the fact that ESPN’s top college football package still consists of the Big Ten’s first tier rights, the Big Ten continues to receive more money from ESPN than the BTN even under an older pre-sports rights boom contract, and Disney will very likely be paying a monster amount (as in the largest contract in college sports history) to retain those rights sooner rather than later (which is a topic for another day). The reality is that ESPN is having these types of conversations with everyone. If the ACC lobs in a call to Bristol and asks whether they’d be willing to pay more if they added Penn State, they’re probably giving an honest affirmative answer. Likewise, if anyone thinks that Jim Delany and the Big Ten didn’t have the exact same conversations with ESPN about what they’d be getting if Maryland and Rutgers joined (the latter being the old Big East that had all of its rights owned by ESPN), then that’s a serious case of naivete. That doesn’t mean that ESPN is actually directing conference realignment decisions, although it highlights the substantial conflict of interest that ESPN has by having so many contracts with a multitude of competing parties.

Separately, it appears that the quote of former Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo in Boston Globe after the ACC added Syracuse and Pittsburgh, where he says, “We always keep our television partners close to us. You don’t get extra money for basketball. It’s 85 percent football money. TV – ESPN – is the one who told us what to do. This was football; it had nothing to do with basketball,’’ will probably live on in infamy for the foreseeable future in conference realignment lawsuits. Granted, my belief is that the quote is taken a bit out of context where the emphasis that DeFilippo was likely trying to get across was that ESPN was telling conferences that football was worth more than basketball as a general matter as opposed to providing actual membership directions, but it shows that the public will pounce on any hint of meddling from Bristol because they want to believe that ESPN constitutes the Conference Realignment Illuminati behind every move.

For all of the lawsuits, mudslinging and public posturing, we’re probably going to see the ACC and Maryland end up splitting the baby in a settlement in relatively short order. Absolutely no one involved – Maryland, the ACC, the Big Ten, ESPN – wants anything to do with this matter going to trial. A year ago, I thought that this would settle for between $25 million and $30 million, and that still seems to be the likely outcome from my standpoint.

(Image from Fansided)

I’ve been meaning to write a brand new mailbag post prior to the holidays, but unfortunately life in all of its forms has been intervening over the past month. I promise that I’ll get a new post up quickly up after the new year. Until then, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Christmas clips from my childhood featuring John Denver and The Muppets. Thank you to all of my readers for making this the best place for college sports discussion on the web (and you can keep the talk going on my last post). Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and enjoy the bowls!

(Video from YouTube)

Time is a bit cramped this week with Thanksgiving upon us, so I’ll be tackling one mailbag question below this week. Also, I need to wallow a bit in my misery about Derrick Rose being out for the rest of season with a torn meniscus in his right knee after having just been out for 18 months for a torn ACL in his left knee. If you were following my Twitter feed on Friday night when the injury occurred, you probably were hoping that I didn’t have access to any sharp metal objects – it was a dark, dark evening. As a 35-year old Chicago sports and Illini fan, I’ve seen more than my fair share of debilitating sports moments, but nothing has been as bad as these back-to-back Derrick Rose injuries. I had dreamed of the Bulls somehow landing D-Rose in the draft back when he was still not even halfway done with his high school career at Simeon and the night that the franchise won the 2008 NBA lottery with a 1.7% chance was the greatest off-the-field sports moment that I had ever witnessed (if that makes sense). By the end of his rookie season, he had quickly vaulted to one of my 5 favorite athletes of all-time (the others being Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, Frank Thomas and Illini era Deron Williams). So, this has been an excruciating process to witness and there’s a palpable feeling here that Rose may end up on the list of “What might have been?” athletic enigmas such as Gale Sayers, Bill Walton and Bo Jackson. From an overall Bulls team perspective, the franchise is now in the “basketball hell” danger zone where they’re not good enough to win a championship yet not bad enough (even with Rose being out and presumably trading Luol Deng and his expiring contract) to realistically tank to get a legit shot at a top 5 lottery pick in next summer’s loaded draft. (Granted, I’ll keep praying for the sports gods to throw us the bone of Rose’s fellow Simeon alum Jabari Parker ending up in a Bulls uniform.) In summary, thank goodness for the Blackhawks!

Now for our mini-mailbag question for the week (with a full-blown mailbag coming after Thanksgiving):

Yes, I believe that it’s inevitable for the playoff system to go to 8 just as it was only a matter of time that we went from 2 teams playing for the championship to a 4-team playoff. I would never have said that 2 years ago, but the tea leaves are there for further playoff expansion. Now, as I had intimated in playoff system proposals posts previously (such as this one about a hypothetical 4-team playoff system 3 years ago that actually turned out to be fairly close to what the CFP will look like), the critical question is, “Does this make sense for the Big Ten and SEC?” Anyone can slap together a playoff system that he or she personally would like to see, but the challenge is always about whether the power conferences would ever agree to it.

In this case, there’s a fairly heavy incentive for the power conferences to eventually expand the playoff to 8 teams if they can do the following: all 5 power conference champs would receive an auto-bid. That provides a host of benefits for the power conferences compared to the 4-team system, such as (a) a guaranteed playoff slot annually and all of the money that comes with that, (b) guaranteeing that their respective conference championship games become de facto annual playoff games under their complete control and all of the money that comes with that and (c) making each divisional race within each of those power conferences have national title implications in a way that would increase the competitive and media value of the regular season and all of the money that comes with that.*

(* Yes, I know that the Big 12 can’t take advantage of (b) and (c) as of now. We’ll see how long that lasts, as noted in my last post.)

Going one step further, there’s also an easy and logical framework to get that in place by using the bowls and their traditional bowl tie-ins:

Rose Bowl: Big Ten champ vs. Pac-12 champ
Sugar Bowl: SEC champ vs. at-large
Orange/Peach Bowl: ACC champ vs. at-large
Fiesta/Cotton Bowl: Big 12 champ vs. at-large

If that looks familiar, it’s because I proposed that system in one of the earliest posts on this blog over 7 years ago. The irony is that this playoff system could expand the number of participants to 8 yet the bowls would actually revert back to their traditional roots more compared to the current 4-team system (i.e. there is truly a traditional Rose Bowl every year no matter what). In essence, it’s both progressive and traditionalist. Just imagine what a TV network would pay for those 4 games split up on New Years Eve and New Years Day, 2 semifinal games a week or two later, and then the national championship game on the open Sunday between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl.* The Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and Big 12 are all already receiving $40 million per year for their top non-playoff bowl contracts above and beyond what they’re receiving for the 4-team playoff, so there really isn’t any cap for how high those rights fees can go if those games are converted to single elimination playoff games. That’s going to be really difficult to resist.

(* Yes, these games are getting played in January as opposed to the common fan request of playoff games during December. Note that December TV ratings are materially lower than January TV ratings, the bowls are a contractual mechanism that allow the power conferences to maintain control over the postseason, and the platitudes that university presidents, conference commissioners and athletic directors have given about the length of the football season are mind-bogglingly disingenuous considering how much they have all whored themselves for the almighty dollar in almost every other conceivable way. Drawing a line in the sand about 2 or 4 teams at the most playing beyond New Years Day is completely arbitrary, especially considering that the other revenue sport of men’s basketball has a season that runs from Midnight Madness in October to the national championship game in April.)

Access for the non-power conferences would likely be a hot topic, although I’d have a hard time seeing the power conferences automatically giving them a national championship playoff slot every year.* There might be some type of provision similar what is with the current BCS system, where a top 12 non-AQ champ or top 16 non-AQ champ that ranks higher than an AQ champ would get a bid.

(* Yes, I know that’s not necessarily fair when the power conferences automatically get their own slots while the non-power conferences don’t receive automatic access. Like I’ve said, what matters in reality is what the Big Ten and SEC would agree to.)

I also have a difficult time seeing a playoff ever going beyond 8 teams (and an NCAA Tournament-style system that provides an auto-bid for every conference would be a non-starter for the powers that be), so any traditionalist arguments about further “bracket creep” are tougher to take seriously at that level. The power conferences can get favored access status for their conference champs and preserve or even enhance the financial values of their respective regular seasons, conference championship games and bowl tie-ins under an 8-team system that wouldn’t be possible in a 16-team scenario. The facts that (a) the 8-team playoff that I described above is such low hanging fruit financially with relatively little disruption to the current setup and (b) there will inevitably be controversies arising from who gets in and who gets shut out of the 4-team playoff are going to be driving forces behind an eventual expansion of the playoff system. The powers that be can state all that they want that the current CFP deal will go the full 12 years, but there will surely be an assessment in a few years about what an 8-team playoff would be worth in the marketplace that will open their eyes to change once again.

We’ll get to some other mailbag questions about the state of college sports and conference realignment soon. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving!

(Image from Wikipedia)