Archive for April, 2010

Ah, I love the smell of napalm and crushed Big Ten expansion dreams in the morning.  Judging by the over 1000 comments to last week’s post (a record number for the blog), we’re all exasperated that Jim Delany and the Big Ten have at least publicly stated that they will stick to original timetable of 12-18 months to examine expansion candidates.  This is certainly a fascinating topic, but Lord help me if I’m still speculating12 months from now about who the Big Ten will be adding.  At that point, I’d rather be speculating about… Big East expansion!  Let’s get to my thoughts on last week’s events:

(1) You lie!!! – In all seriousness, I’m not one of those people that subscribe to conspiracy theories and break every conference official comment down like the Zapruder film.  However, if there’s one thing that needs to be beaten into people’s heads after this past week, it’s this: TRUST NO ONE.  The various of lists of 5 and 15 candidates that the Big Ten leaked and every public comment that has been uttered mean nothing to me at this point.  The one reporter that seemed to actually have a decent clue as to what was going on in the Big Ten expansion story, Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune, appeared to get solid information that the conference was fast-tracking adding new schools and then had to make a complete retraction a couple days later.  If Greenstein is getting played by the Big Ten, then every other reporter is getting played, as well.  I’ve received info from credible people that Texas and Notre Dame are definitely still in legitimate play for the Big Ten and other info that the conference has moved on regarding both of them.  Commenters have posted information suggesting that Maryland preemptively nixed any consideration for Big Ten membership and that Northwestern’s president revealed to a sorority that the conference had actually made a decision as to who it was inviting.  Tom Shatel, one of the Nebraska beat writers at the Omaha World-Herald, shared his frustration that people he trusted last week that stated that the Cornhuskers weren’t part of the Big Ten expansion talks are now saying that the school is definitely in the mix.  It’s impossible to parse through what’s true or false in all of this.

At this point, there is no combination of Notre Dame and/or any Big East and/or Big 12 schools that are AAU members that would surprise me.  If the Big Ten announces in June 2011 that it’s adding Pitt, Syracuse and Rutgers, I wouldn’t flinch.  If the Big Ten announces in 2 weeks that it’s adding Texas, Texas A&M and Notre Dame, it wouldn’t faze me at all.  It’s all fair game at this point.  The leaks so far have been so contradictory that we’re all better off assuming that they’re red herrings.  There’s a plan out there that might be way more aggressive than even the Super Death Star Conference that I’ve brought up or it could very well be a conservative addition of a geographically contiguous school or 3 purely for households.  No one except for Jim Delany and the Big Ten university presidents knows WTF is going on.

Of course, we’ll still have fun pouncing on every leak and rumor in the meantime.

(2) Backdoor meetings are where it’s at – Some commenters astutely noted that Jim Delany isn’t going to call a press conference one day and say, “I’ve just informed the Big East and Big XII that they need to bend over and assume the position.”  If and when Delany talks to his fellow commissioners, it’s going to be private and it’s likely such commissioners would want to keep it that way so they can start planning for their own raids of leagues like the Mountain West and Conference USA.  Delany would certainly not want anything to do with speaking about anything substantive with the feeding frenzy of the media horde gathered at the BCS meetings last week.  This seems like such a simple and logical concept, yet in a world where we’re craving information on this subject, we’re dying for any type of official statement of a go-ahead.

(3) Time is on the Big Ten’s side – I really doubt the Big Ten is going to take the full 12-18 months to examine this expansion issue.  That’s just my gut feeling as the university presidents likely wouldn’t be able to stomach having this story hanging over their heads in the press for such a long period of time.  It could very well be the case that the Big Ten’s university presidents know how they want to proceed and that they simply didn’t want Delany to inform the Big 12 and/or Big East commissioners of the Big Ten’s targets at the media-filled BCS meetings.  Honestly, I don’t know what could be taking so long unless the Big Ten is vetting every single possibility with the two schools that matter the most: Notre Dame and Texas.  Those are certainly two schools worth waiting for if the Big Ten believes that either of them would be willing to join.  Every single other school in the Big East and Big XII would leap toward Big Ten membership, so if the Big Ten was solely targeting non-Notre Dame/Texas schools, this could’ve been wrapped up weeks ago.

(4) Big East being “proactive” by “hiring” Paul Tagliabue and expanding to Jacksonville – As Brian Cook of Sporting News and mgoblog (not the former Illini quasi-great) stated, “Soviet Big East Raids You!”  (I’m not going to lie – I could keep myself entertained making up Yakov Smirnoff-isms for hours at a time.)  On paper, it sounds like a massive coup that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been tapped as a strategist for the Big East.  He’s actually providing his services pro bono because he has a very direct interest in how all of this plays out as Chairman of the Board of the Directors at Georgetown.  What does this mean?  Well, if Tagliabue has anything to do with it, the hybrid format of the conference will continue on into perpetuity.  Georgetown would be severely damaged if the Big East split up and one of his tasks will be to ensure that doesn’t happen.  If the Big East were to lose multiple schools, he has the gravitas to tell schools that might be ready to split (i.e. Louisville) that the hybrid is still the revenue maximization model for the conference.  The Big East football schools might not trust anything that the Big East office says anymore, but if the former commissioner of the NFL says that ESPN will still pay a lot more money for a hybrid league than a split league, then that’s going to carry a lot of weight.  As a DePaul law grad, though, I really hope that Tagliabue doesn’t decide that the Big East would be better off skipping the Los Angeles market in favor of the next municipality that whores itself with a taxpayer-financed stadium.

Honestly, there is absolutely nothing “proactive” that the Big East can do at this point to prevent a member from leaving for the Big Ten.  Even if the Big East could somehow create a new TV network that could generate large amounts of cash, there’s no way that could be up and running even if the Big Ten takes the maximum amount of time to complete its expansion process.

Of course, Tagliabue unintentionally torpedoed the prospect of the Big East ever creating its own network by dumping on the thought that the Big Ten adding schools in the New York area would deliver homes for the Big Ten Network by saying the following:

“One of the real challenges for the networks is to provide value, but you only provide value in markets where you provide traction,” he said. “Is Minnesota and Rutgers going to get a big rating on Long Island? Give me a break. Every game isn’t Michigan and Michigan State.” He added, “Am I going to rush home from a tennis game on Saturday to watch Minnesota and Rutgers if I live on Long Island?”

Now, I’m not exactly a favorite person with the Rutgers message board crowd, but I’ve got to defend the school here.  WTF was Tagliabue doing completely ripping apart a current member of the Big East when his job is to presumably keep the conference intact?  Maybe he was suggesting that Midwestern schools like Minnesota wouldn’t exactly attract the Long Island tennis club crowd, which is likely true, yet that’s quite a disingenuous statement coming from someone representing a league that includes Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati (who don’t conjure up images of summer parties in the Hamptons).  In fact, the highly-rated 2006 Rutgers game where the Empire State Building was lit up in scarlet red was against Louisville as opposed to an Eastern school, which goes to show you that New Yorkers simply want to watch good teams play other good teams regardless of geographic location.  If I were a Rutgers fan, I don’t know how I could deal with someone in a leadership position in the Big East saying that about my school.  At worst, it was a complete cheap shot and at best, it came off extremely wrong with logic that didn’t follow considering that the Big East isn’t a purely Northeastern football league anymore.

(5) ESS – EEE – SEE SPEEEED! – SEC Commissioner Mike Slive articulated the real reason for expansion: it’s a high stakes pissing contest to see who can lay claim to the “Bad Motherfucker” wallet.  More than anyone, there’s kind of this lingering assumption that if the Big Ten expands to 16 schools, then the SEC MUST respond because it simply can’t handle not being the biggest (and therefore, the best).

Frankly, this line of thinking doesn’t make sense to me at all.  I know a lot of fairly knowledgeable people are convinced that we’re going to end up with 4 16-team superconferences after everything shakes out, yet too many people seem to forget that every single conference other than the Big Ten doesn’t have a financial vehicle like the Big Ten Network that would make it financially viable to perform such a large-scale expansion.  The Big Ten isn’t expanding just to expand – it’s looking to maximize the per-school payout for each of its members.  All of the other conferences are going to do the same and I fail to see how any of them would be able to make it a profitable venture to expand beyond 12 without its own conference network.  Heck, even the Big Ten isn’t guaranteed a windfall by going beyond 12 schools (even though it at least has an argument with the Big Ten Network).

In the case of the SEC, there are very few schools that make sense for it in terms of expansion at all.  I see names thrown around like Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson, but all of them would be duplicate teams in markets that the SEC already owns.  There’s very little point in the SEC adding more schools within its current footprint.  In fact, there are only two markets that would add value to the SEC:  Texas and North Carolina.  The problem is that in order to obtain those markets, it would need to try to add the University of Texas and UNC, both of whom would likely completely shun the SEC due to academic reasons.  Throughout this process, I’ve corresponded with many Texas alums (NOT the T-shirt fans that just care about football) and they’re pretty much unanimous in stating that the UT administration will NEVER entertain any thought of joining the SEC.  It cannot be underestimated how much the academically-minded administrators at Texas loathe the thought of the SEC.  I think about this every time I see a columnist wrongly assume that “Texas = South” and therefore “Texas = SEC”, when in reality UT likens itself to be more like Berkeley or Michigan as opposed to any of the SEC schools.  UNC is even more snobby with respect to academics and the Tar Heels have emotional ties to the ACC that go far beyond what Texas has with the Big XII.  So, the chances of the SEC adding either of those schools is between slim and none.  Without them, there aren’t any other worthy markets in the South that the SEC hasn’t already covered.

(6) Why is this topic addictive? – A number of commenters have been wondering about why this expansion topic is so fascinating.  As someone that had been writing this blog for 5 years about a variety of subjects and didn’t focus on conference realignment until the last few months, I’ve also been thinking about how I got hooked on it.  At least for me, I’ve always enjoyed writing about big-picture movements in the sports world and you really can’t get much more big-picture than power schools switching conferences.  Could you imagine if the Yankees and Red Sox approached the Cubs and Dodgers to join the AL East in order to form a super-division of all of baseball’s most popular teams?  (Please note that as a die-hard White Sox fan, it pains me to admit how popular the Cubs are and will likely always be.  I take solace in the fact that they’re paying $19 million to an 8th-inning setup guy.)  Well, the equivalent isn’t just possible in college sports, but it’s happened numerous times.  Within the past 20 years, Penn State joined the Big Ten, Miami joined the Big East and then later switched to the ACC and Texas helped form the Big XII and could be on the move again.

Let’s face it, though: this is like crack-cocaine to the sports blogging world.  As regular commenter allthatyoucanleavebehind noted, it’s a lot more fun to talk about expanding with schools like Syracuse and Rutgers (or really anyone other than the massive players like Texas, Notre Dame and Nebraska) than to actually have to play them when expansion finally occurs.  Once the Big Ten actually makes an announcement regarding expansion, we won’t have a quick fix of speculative blogging material anymore… at least until we start talking about Big XII expansion.

At that point, all I’ll want to do is to rush home from my tennis match to catch the Illinois vs. Rutgers game.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

(Image from Retecool)

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The Big Ten appears to be stepping up the timetable for expansion dramatically, where what once looked like a 12-18 month process might now result in announcements prior to the end of June.  So, this is a perfect time for a guest post from Slant reader Patrick, who is a long-time veteran of the television industry.  (This means that he can actually drop some knowledge, as opposed to being a speculative Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer like myself.)  If you’ve been following the comments on last week’s post, Patrick has been providing incredibly insightful analysis based on industry information and has pinpointed some critical items in the Big Ten Network revenue model that definitely has changed some of my prior thoughts on expansion.  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that he has provided the most informative viewpoint that I’ve come across since the Big Ten announced that it was exploring expansion back in December and it has changed a number of my views on the candidates.  So, everyone should give Patrick some major kudos for investing his time on this critical issue.  Here’s what he has to say (and my take on it thereafter):

With all the talk of Big Ten expansion lately I could help but wonder why the richest conference with the highest pay outs would want to expand. Wouldn’t that break up the pie into smaller pieces? Wouldn’t that cut the take from the current conference members? In short, NO, a resounding NO! The Big Ten schools together made roughly  $214,000,000 as of the last report. $100,000,000 from ABC / ESPN, $2,000,000 from CBS, and the schools collected $112,000,000 from the newly formed Big Ten Network. That is $19,454,545 per school. The regular network haul of $102,000,000 per year isn’t going to change. Any new members would need to make up that difference, plus carry their own weight of $38,146,166 in new revenues to the Big 10 Network. The conference only controls 51% of the Big 10 Network, FOX News Corp owns the other 49% and takes 49% of the overall profits. So each possible addition would need to earn the conference $19,454,545 per year AND earn FOX News Corp $18,691,621 AND make up the difference in the take from ABC / ESPN / CBS to break even for the current members. Since the conference reported a $112,000,000 payout, the actual profit margin of the Big Ten Network is around $219,607,840. In addition, there are a number of news stories indicating that the universities take this year was just shy of $22,000,000. I haven’t seen anything official on that but if it is true than the BTN made around $272,000,000 in the most recent year. Almost a $50,000,000 climb year to year for a brand new network. So why would anyone mess with that? How could any university earn that much for the BTN?

Advertising!

By the Big Ten’s own admission they are clearing about $0.36 per subscriber per month for the states inside it’s footprint. They also tell us that there are 26,000,000 subscribers and it is AVAILABLE to 75,000,000 people. The BTN wants to increase the available number but even more important is to increase the subscriber numbers, and there is an opportunity to do that within the current footprint. Regardless, at $0.36 per month for 26,000,000 households over 12 months I only came up with $112,320,000 for a cable carry rate. Well short of the $272,000,000 that the network likely made last year. The other $160,000,000 is advertising revenue! Live sporting events get big advertising dollars and the BTN is loaded with them. As Frank pointed out, if the conference were to expand, many more games would be on the BTN. Football, basketball, and maybe down the road a Big Ten hockey conference. Throw in a few conference championship games in different sports and expansion makes money just by added Live programming and increased quality of programming. A few creative tweeks in the scheduling and you could have every Big Ten game make it to air somewhere, which is good for everybody. For the Big Ten to get to 12 schools the addition would need to equal $38,200,000 to break even, for 3 schools they need to reach $114,500,000 combined, and for 5 schools a whopping $190,800,000.  If I were to just pull the #2 – #6 schools from my estimate they would bring in roughly $266,000,000. In that scenario, FOX News Corp profit (by adding 5 schools) goes from $107 million up to $201 million. It would not surprise me to see FOX News Corp gently nudging this process along. If advertising is earning the BTN in the ballpark of what I am thinking, then FOX has realized they opened a gold mine and want to see how deep it goes.

But what about the schools being batted around? I did my level best to average numbers, to play it conservatively, to be fair across the board with finding any schools potential. Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are a little tough to gauge because they don’t add any new television markets. But I found that by extrapolating what is already happening with the conference and the Big Ten Network, combining that with my television experiences, and taking into account some of the posters comments and thoughts I came away with what I feel is a pretty fair assessment of the potential of the candidates. As many of you have noted, game attendance and athletic revenue are important. I used attendance to gauge the level of support and fan interest to help me put a dollar value on ratings potential. If the fans won’t even fill their own stadium, how valuable is the team overall? Any team that joins the Big Ten will share in the Big Ten pie, so I subtracted off the current tv pay out for those teams to gauge strength in their home markets. Then extrapolated to find a decent estimation of a new tv markets potential for advertising revenue. I also averaged in the carry rates for the home market or markets with the number of cable subscribers. I did add a category to try to account for additional Live programming on the BTN and gave each school a flat $10,000,000 for the additional sports coverage, that is probably too low but I am leaning to the conservative side.  The following is a summary of the totals of my findings.

CANDIDATES TOTAL ADDED REVENUE ESTIMATE
 
Texas $101,369,004
Rutgers    WITH NYC $67,798,609
Nebraska $54,487,990
Maryland $50,818,889
Boston College $48,382,692
Notre Dame $47,629,255
Kansas $46,320,092
Missouri $45,901,459
Syracuse $43,504,813
Connecticut $38,080,271
Pittsburgh $34,365,175
Iowa State $31,831,077
   
Syracuse  WITH NYC $65,874,573

For a full chart with my calculations, please see this Word document:

Big Ten Candidates TV Analysis

This table could be read many different ways, I have no clue what the Big Ten will do. I could make a strong argument for Nebraska, Missouri, Rutgers, Maryland, Pittsburgh, and Kansas. If Syracuse can deliver NYC then they might be in but the amount of research they do will hurt their cause. Texas is an absolute no brainer, they lead in almost every category. I don’t think Iowa State is viable, but I was VERY conservative with these numbers. It would be hard to ignore Notre Dame and Nebraska being the #2 and #4 most valuable college sports franchises. Interesting that Kansas is right there behind Nebraska and ND in athletic revenue. If anyone wants to pass along better or more current numbers, I would appreciate it. In addition, with the talk and discussions that were flying around Sunday about the AAU meetings and the accelerated time table, I firmly believe that my estimates are probably too low. The fact that they want to move this quickly with an expansion means that the potential revenue is HUGE and the decision isn’t even a tough or close one. Also in some of the statements coming from the Big Ten brass and Notre Dame, I highly doubt Notre Dame is going to be included in the expansion. I now think that the expansion will happen, and I think that they will go all the way to 16 teams. I believe they will get AAU member schools, and the Big Ten presidents seem to be very interested in graduate research.

 I for one can’t wait, Bucky Badger playing against Nebraska would be an awesome sight!

- Patrick

Based on Patrick’s analysis, there are a few important things that I take away from this:

(1) The 60/40 Rule – This might be the most important piece of information regarding Big Ten expansion that I’ve seen to date: the Big Ten Network makes 60% of its revenue from advertising and 40% 0f its revenue from carriage fees.  I’ll be honest with you – I thought that it would’ve been the other way around and it has definitely altered the lens through which we need to look at expansion candidates.  What this basically means that if push comes to shove, the Big Ten should pick a school that has a great fan base (which translates in viewers for ad revenue) as opposed to market size (which contributes to carriage fees).  This actually brings some common sense back to the discussion, where somehow the world has been convinced over the past few months that Rutgers must be the most valuable school on Earth due to the location of its campus.  We’ve been very focused on footprint sizes and research funding in our discussions lately, but at the end of the day, ad revenue is the #1 source of dollars for the Big Ten Network and that’s based on finding schools that Joe Blow in Anytown, USA will want to watch.  Here’s a chart of some of the expansion candidates with their football TV ratings from last year.  (Note how well Nebraska and Pitt performed compared to everyone else.)  Now, that doesn’t mean that expanding the footprint is irrelevant (as the New York City market is still an important target for the Big Ten), but it definitely lets people “think like sports fans” a little bit here.

(2) Pitt MIGHT make money for the Big Ten – Most of the readers out there know that I personally love Pitt as an academic institution and athletic program, but just couldn’t find any way how the school could add to the Big Ten’s coffers financially.  Well, if Pitt’s ratings for football and basketball are good enough (and judging by the chart I linked to above, they probably are), then the school can end up being financially viable.  Patrick has stated that his figures for Pitt and Notre Dame are very conservative, so if Pitt continues to draw high football ratings, it changes the equation significantly.   Now, Pitt can’t really be put into the same category as Notre Dame or Nebraska where the national draw clearly overrides a lack of new BTN households, yet it does have the advantage of being one of the few expansion candidates that has strong programs in both football and basketball.  Speaking of Nebraska…

(3) If the Big Ten wants to make a ton of TV money, it will invite Nebraska – I’ve been increasingly become more and more supportive of Nebraska joining the Big Ten lately and Patrick’s analysis completely sealed it.  Nebraska’s small market be damned – the Husker fan base is as rabid as any other in the country and they will tune in anytime, anywhere.  (If you were wondering, the photo at the top of this post is evidence of how Nebraska fans completely took over South Bend a few years ago when they played Notre Dame.)  In fact, Patrick’s figures mean that we should remove Nebraska from the realm of “Well, they might be coming instead of Missouri” or “They’re a good back-up if Notre Dame doesn’t want to join” and put the Cornhuskers into the “lock” category instead.  I will now officially be shocked if Big Ten expansion occurs without Nebraska involved.

(4) 16 Schools = Huge Inventory – The 60/40 rule that favors advertising revenue also gives a whole lot more credence to making a 16-school conference financially viable. I recalled this piece from Don Ohlmeyer on that examined how ESPN chose to schedule programs:

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=ohlmeyer_don&id=4582425

The message that I got from this was that LIVE EVENTS = RATINGS. A live hot rod competition after a college football game actually holds more viewers than a studio show that talks about said game, even though they have nothing to do with each other at face value.

The Big Ten expanding up to 12 schools really doesn’t increase the inventory of conference football games (which are the higher value games) very much at all. Assuming that the Big Ten continues with an 8-game conference schedule, it would have 48 conference games as opposed to 44 conference games in a season. At 14 schools, it would go up to 56 conference games. At 16 schools, though, the Big Ten would almost certainly go to a 9-game conference schedule, which would catapult the inventory up to 72 conference games.

What does 72 conference games allow you to do? Well, let’s assume that the Big Ten provides 4 games to ABC/ESPN every week (2 games on ESPN and ESPN2 at 11 am CT, 1 game on ABC at 2:30 pm CT, and 1 prime time game), which is a package that would likely see a substantial increase in rights fees when it’s now presumably including Notre Dame and/or Nebraska on top of the current Big Ten members plus a conference championship game. This leaves 2 conference games for the BTN for every single week of the season (except for maybe Labor Day weekend, which is reserved for MACrifice games). With non-conference games mixed in, the BTN could have football triple-headers virtually every week. Going up to 16 schools increases the amount of live football on the BTN in a dramatic fashion and if twice as much live football compounds the amount of ad revenue earned, then I’m starting to see how going up to 16 schools makes more financial sense under the BTN model than 12 or 14 schools.

Then, we get to basketball, where a 16-school conference can get at least one basketball game onto the BTN onto every day of the week except for Friday, whereas now the BTN usually only has games on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. That’s a dramatic jump in the number of high quality basketball games on more nights of the week. This also still leaves enough for the Big Ten to add 1 or 2 more basketball games on ESPN per week for widespread exposure (and likely garner a rights increase there, too, if schools like Syracuse or Pitt added to the mix). Of course, Friday night can be reserved for the new Big Ten Hockey Conference game(s) of the week if Notre Dame joins. There’s even some side benefits in the spring with baseball (as Nebraska and Notre Dame lift up the quality of that league substantially) and lacrosse (where a new Big Ten league could be formed with Syracuse as the national headliner if that school is invited). Other sports such as women’s basketball and volleyball can end up with new national (and TV-friendly) brand names, too.

So, maybe that’s why the chatter about a 16-school conference has taken center stage: if you have that many more high value football and basketball games plus a ton of other sports of interest where you’ve got live programming every night of the week that’s comparable to the college games on the ESPN networks, that can increase ad revenue dramatically (and in turn, carry rates could increase as the BTN becomes more “essential” to viewers’ lives).

(5) My Latest Prediction That Will Change in a Week - Looking at Pat’s figures, it’s clear to me that the Big Ten pretty much has to at least try for the New York market unless Texas and Texas A&M come walking through that door.  The question will be whether the Big Ten believes that it’s worth it to take both Rutgers and Syracuse.  I get the feeling that the Big Ten’s university presidents have a fondness for Rutgers as  fellow public flagship (and I’ve stated before that they make sense in a multi-school expansion), even though my personal choice would be Syracuse if we had to take one or the other.  The academically-minded people in the Big Ten love Pitt and I think that if there’s any financial case for the conference to to be able to take them, they’ll likely do it.  Missouri, although it doesn’t have gangbuster financial numbers, would  probably be seen as a “safe” option because it can at least be counted on with reasonable certainty to deliver any households in its home state that don’t already carry the Big Ten Network on basic cable at the Tier 1 rate.

The one item that I disagree with Patrick on is Notre Dame – if his figures are close to correct, then I have a hard time believe that the Irish will turn down such a huge windfall for playing a lot of the same teams that it already plays annually in football (especially if its home for basketball and Olympic sports is destroyed).  I feel pretty good that Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers would all be involved in a 16-school Big Ten.  This essentially leaves Pitt and Syracuse for the last spot (unless the Big Ten wants to cut further into the Big XII by taking a school like Kansas).  If the Big Ten wants the better institutional fit, it will choose Pitt.  If the Big Ten really thinks that locking down New York is possible for college sports, then it will choose Syracuse.  With such a large-scale expansion, the Big Ten may put more emphasis on institutional fit to ensure maximum cohesion (especially since renegade Notre Dame is very likely to be involved), which would give the edge to Pitt (as much as it pains me as an avowed Syracuse supporter).  I know that this an about-face from what I’ve been saying for quite awhile.

So, here’s my current bet on who will join a 16-school Big Ten: Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri, Pitt and Rutgers.  If Notre Dame continues to balk, I believe that we’ll see Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers added for a 14-school conference.  This will probably change by the end of the week (and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if Pitt is replaced by Syracuse in the 16-school scenario), but that’s my line of thinking right now.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

(Image from Ning)

As I was going through the always insightful comments (since people seem to love talking about superconferences) and pondering life’s great questions, such as what Desmond’s plan is on LOST or why Justin Bieber has been a trending topic on Twitter for the past 15 years, it occurred to me that a multi-phase expansion for the Big Ten may actually be a strong strategy for the conference.  For a very long time, I thought that if the Big Ten was going to add multiple schools, it would do it all at once because it wouldn’t want to risk not ending up with its desired end combination by inviting 1 or 2 schools and then hoping that someone like Notre Dame would join down the road.  However, what if the Big Ten could invite 2 specific schools who would accept that would (a) apply maximum pressure on the big names to join in “Phase 2″ and (b) even those big names don’t end up joining, those 2 schools plus another school that the conference apparently likes would still provide enough value where expansion would be considered to be a success?

A large part of the leverage that the Big Ten has right now is due to the fact that it stands at an odd number of 11 members, which provides the possibility of the conference adding 1, 3 or 5 schools (or even standing pat).  Basically, it’s the conference equivalent of the “triple threat” position in basketball, where the player with the ball has the ability to dribble, pass or shoot.  No one knows which direction the Big Ten is going to go right now.  The mere threat of Big Ten expansion has caused the Big East and Big XII to wonder if they’ll survive and at least making the ACC consider some contingency plans.  If the Big Ten just adds one member in an attempt to have a multi-phase expansion, then a lot of that threat goes away – the perception will be that the Big Ten is at a stable 12 members with a conference championship game and provides a strong possibility that it wouldn’t look any further.  However, if the Big Ten invites 2 strategically targeted schools that would almost certainly accept, then the conference creates even more fear and chaos in the college sports world.  Standing at 13, it’s clear that the Big Ten is pursuing a superconference strategy and there is an absolute guarantee that it needs to add 1 or 3 more members.  If there’s a frenzy about the Big Ten’s plans today, just imagine what it would be like if the conference expands with a guarantee that it will add at least one more.  The Big Ten would also show schools like Notre Dame and Texas that the conference isn’t bluffing when it says that it’s moving on.

Let’s look back at the Big Ten Expansion Index, which is likely how most of you found this blog in the first place.  After Texas and Notre Dame, I had ranked Syracuse and Nebraska as the next two best candidates for the Big Ten.  For separate reasons, Syracuse and Nebraska also happen to serve as the ideal “Phase 1″ invitees to the conference.

Reading the tea leaves from Notre Dame, a split of the Big East current hybrid structure is the most likely way to “force” it to join a conference (regardless of what the school’s alums believe).  Well, if the Big Ten were to choose just one Big East school that would most likely cause the Big East to split, it would be Syracuse.  The Orange are the glue that holds the hybrid together because no other Big East football school has as much invested in rivalries with the conference’s Catholic schools for basketball.  Without Syracuse, the other football schools would almost have to split simply for self-preservation.  Those remaining Big East football schools wouldn’t know whether the Big Ten would really want any of them in Phase 2 of the expansion and with only 7 members, they absolutely have to add another member immediately just to have the minimum number for a conference to exist in the first place.  Practically speaking, they would likely want to split from the Catholic schools to have the leeway to add 2 new members to cover the situation where the Big Ten may end up taking another Big East school in Phase 2.

On the other side of the Big Ten footprint, we should note something very important with respect to the Big XII: it takes 4 schools to stop any changes to the current inequitable revenue sharing structure that favors Texas more than any other school.  Missouri’s chancellor has complained about this openly.  Right now, there’s a solid bloc of 4 schools preventing those changes:  Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma… and Nebraska.  Those 4 schools consistently receive the most national TV appearances of the current Big XII members, so they receive the largest share of conference revenue on a year-in and year-out basis.  (Note that as much as a lot of otherwise incredibly civil Husker fans complain about how much Texas supposedly controls the Big XII, Nebraska is one of the reasons why Texas has such a large financial advantage over the rest of the conference because the Cornhuskers are still a net beneficiary from that revenue distribution model.)  If the Big Ten takes Nebraska away, then the other Big XII schools will have a super-majority to enact the revenue sharing changes that they’ve long wanted and block the prospect of allowing member schools to create their own TV channels (such as the Longhorn Sports Network).  Who is going to be really pissed off in that situation because it now no longer has the supposed financial “control” of the Big XII?  Texas, who is already behind all of the schools in the Big Ten and SEC in TV money even with the Big XII’s deck completely stacked in the Longhorns’ favor.  If Missouri could be considered a “stalking horse” to try to get Texas, actually taking Nebraska can directly hit the pocketbook of Texas like no other Big XII school except for Oklahoma (who won’t ever get a sniff of a Big Ten invite due to academic concerns).  Texas A&M would be in a similar position.  Nebraska leaving the Big XII gives those two Texas schools a clear financial reason for them to move conferences (to the extent that it’s not there already) AND the political “moral authority” (as Barking Carnival has noted before) of telling the state’s politicians that they need to move pronto regardless of what happens to Texas Tech and Baylor because the Big XII is a dead man walking.

In summary, the Big Ten can announce that it’s inviting Syracuse and Nebraska, both of whom I believe the conference likes regardless of who else might be added.  The effect of this is even more panic in the college sports world since 2 BCS conferences will have lost key members and it’s clear that the Big Ten is going to want to add at least 1 more school (or maybe 3).  This causes the Big East to split up simply for self-preservation (which would drive Notre Dame to the Big Ten) and the Big XII’s power schools would no longer have veto power to avoid changes to its revenue distribution model (which would drive Texas and Texas A&M to the Big Ten).  We would then have a Super Death Star Conference (the one that the Empire attempted to build in Return of the Jedi):  Notre Dame, Texas, Texas A&M, Syracuse and Nebraska as new members of a 16-school Big Ten.

Now, what if the desired fallout doesn’t go as planned for the Big Ten, where Notre Dame and/or the Texas schools stay put?  (In the words of future Ole Miss mascot Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!!!”)  This is not really a problem because the Big Ten has already added a huge national football name (Nebraska) and a marquee basketball school that happens to be the only BCS school in the state of New York (Syracuse).  The Big Ten would then invite Rutgers as school #14, which gets the conference to stake its geographic claim to the New York/New Jersey area.  As a result, the Big Ten has increased its national cache for both football and basketball while adding on concrete households in the form of a major presence in the nation’s largest TV market.  (This is “JoePa’s Quasi-Dream Conference” that I wrote about here.)  Adding Syracuse and Nebraska as schools #12 and #13 allows the Big Ten to disrupt the current comfort zones of Notre Dame and Texas and applies serious pressure on them to join the Big Ten themselves, but also provides a hedge in the event that those major players aren’t persuaded at the end.

I’ve stated before that Nebraska would be the one school that could make me eat my words that the Big Ten wouldn’t expand without Notre Dame or Texas involved.  Frankly, JoePa’s Quasi-Dream Conference is a pretty good outcome for everyone associated with the Big Ten.   The sports fans get great national programs in football and basketball (plus major upgrades in other sports with Nebraska baseball and women’s volleyball and Syracuse lacrosse).  The academically-minded people maintain a conference entirely composed of members of the American Association of Universities.  The traditionalists get a geographically contiguous conference that “conservatively” adds on to both sides of the league footprint.  The TV executives get another marquee football name for national TV contracts and entry into the New York/New Jersey area for Big Ten Network households.  Maybe most importantly, these are all schools that seem to actually WANT to be in the Big Ten (as opposed to feeling forced to join).  This can maintain the close-knit atmosphere that I believe is the Big Ten’s greatest qualitative strength.

That would be my maniacal multi-phase expansion plan if the Big Ten is truly looking to move up to at least 14 schools – go for the proverbial royal flush in a way where the conference is still guaranteed to be the chip leader no matter what happens.

(NOTE:  In response to several requests, I’m putting together an updated post on the potential fallout on other conferences, so stay tuned.)

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

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Tony Barnhart, a fairly well-connected college football writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, dropped some titillating tidbits about the Big Ten’s expansion plans today.  He often writes from the SEC perspective (as to be expected being based in Hot-lanta), yet he has a solid reputation of not reporting much bunk.  Here’s the money quote:

The other big topic here has a chance to completely change college football as we know it. I’ve spoken to a number of athletics directors and commissioners who are convinced that the Big Ten is positioning itself to seriously consider becoming college football first super conference by expanding to as many as 16 teams.

The Big Ten is looking at three plans: Stand pat with 11 teams, add one team (hopefully Notre Dame) or make a blockbuster move and go to 16.

“If they go to 16 and one of them is Notre Dame then we’ve got an entirely new ball game,” a conference commissioner told me confidentially.

Whoa!  I was just wrapping my head around the thought of the Big Ten moving up to 14 schools, yet Barnhart is suggesting that isn’t even an option on the table.  He seems to be saying that the Big Ten wants to either go big up to 16 or go home.  Now, I don’t personally feel the love for a 16-school behemoth in the same manner that a lot of the readers of this blog do (and I attempted to throw a lot of water on the notion of superconferences early on).  I’ve long felt that 12 schools is really the perfect number for a conference and it would take a massive financial windfall in order to make a multi-school expansion work for the Big Ten.  Still, it’s worth examining which 5-school expansion combinations could work for the Big Ten if it’s really on the table.  I’m going to use the following assumptions that will be required for any 16-school Big Ten:

(1) Notre Dame MUST be involved – The amount of chatter coming from the Domers (both in support of a move to the Big Ten and, more loudly, in support of completely removing the football program altogether) indicates that Notre Dame’s leadership (if not its alumni base) is reading the tea leaves of conference realignment and is positioned to move.  I have long felt that Big Ten expansion would not occur without either Notre Dame or Texas and this is exponentially true with any multi-school expansion.  Over the past few weeks, there have been quotes from Notre Dame’s Executive Vice President, Athletic Director, football coach and basketball coach all either being extremely squishy on the school’s future as an independent or, in the case of Mike Brey, straight-up believing that Notre Dame will be in the Big Ten sooner rather than later.  Thus, let’s ignore all proposals of Big Ten expansion combinations that don’t include Notre Dame from this point forward.  The Big Ten isn’t going to add 5 schools without one of them being Notre Dame.

(2) The Big Ten won’t kill any conferences… only mortally wound them – The Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith went on the record a couple of days ago saying that he preferred that the Big Ten expand by multiple schools.  He also noted that he had faith that whichever conference or conferences were affected would be able to find replacement schools and live on.  I buy that line of thinking – the Big Ten isn’t in the business of killing off conferences if only for the fact that it’s pointless to be a dominant force if there aren’t any other conferences to dominate.  At the same time, I’m fairly certain that the Big Ten understands that if the Big East schools were really that valuable, that Big East’s current per school TV payouts wouldn’t be less than the annual interest that Northwestern receives on its Big Ten TV paychecks.  So, I highly doubt that we’ll be seeing the Big Ten add 4 Big East schools on top of Notre Dame.  More likely, we’ll see the Big East and Big XII affected along with a small possibility of the ACC being hit.  Instead of completely murdering the Big East, the Big Ten would likely leave several conferences with flesh wounds like the Black Knight from ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’

(Speaking of murder, CBS just destroyed two decades worth of goodwill in a 3-minute span with its horrific NCAA Tournament montage last night.  That wasn’t “One Shining Moment” – instead, that was Sonny Corleone visiting a toll booth.  It was bad enough that the network decided to replace the version sung by the late Luther Vandross with a new shrill piece from Jennifer Hudson.  Yet, CBS compounded its mistake further by splicing in several shots of Hudson throughout the montage which could have been used for actual game footage that was sorely lacking.  It’s ridiculous that a “One Shining Moment” montage would have absolutely no recognition of national player of the year Evan Turner, the upset by #14 Ohio over #3 Georgetown, the existence of #1 seed Syracuse and, worst of all, ZERO footage of the double-overtime game between Kansas State and Xavier.  Advice to CBS executives: don’t tailor “One Shining Moment” based on feedback from focus groups that watch “The View”.  This way, you can avoid pissing people off that watch the NCAA Tournament because they actually like basketball instead of seeing Jennifer Hudson’s mug when “the ball is tipped.”  At least CBS News has noticed that the public isn’t very happy.  This has made me so angry that I encourage all of you to participate in faux activism via Facebook.)

(3) Rutgers and Syracuse are virtual locks – Whether you like them or not, it would be hard enough for a 14-school Big Ten to be financially viable without the New York City market sans Texas.  If a 16-school conference comes to fruition, then it removes all doubt whatsoever that adding on the NYC DMA is an absolute requirement for the Big Ten.  To me, this mandates adding both of Rutgers and Syracuse.  (I’ll again duly note a number of knowledgeable commenters that don’t think Syracuse would fit in the Big Ten, but the fact remains that it’s an AAU member in the top 60 of the US News rankings with the only BCS football program in the entire state of New York with 20 million people along with a marquee basketball program with a lot of NYC fans.  There’s a reason why the ACC really wanted Syracuse as opposed to Virginia Tech when it raided the Big East back in 2003.)

Under those guiding parameters, here are the main 16-school scenarios that I believe could work for the Big Ten:

  • JoePa’s Wet Dream Conference (Notre Dame, Rutgers, Syracuse, Boston College and Maryland)  – This is simple enough: let’s take the original “JoePa’s Dream Conference” that I had proposed with Notre Dame, Rutgers and Syracuse as additions and then tack on Boston College and Maryland on top of them.  This effectively allows the Big Ten to capture the entire Northeast while, at least on paper, adding the New York, Boston and Washington markets.  With Notre Dame and Penn State as anchors, the Big Ten Network could get into basic cable households that aren’t even necessarily in Big Ten states (i.e. the other New England states, Northern Virginia near DC, etc.).  These are all academically impressive schools (even if some people might quibble with the graduate research capabilities of BC and Syracuse) that could deliver 3 massive and very affluent markets on the East Coast.  The problem that I foresee is that I still believe that any ACC school is higher hanging fruit in terms of the Big Ten trying to lure one of them, whereas there are Big East and Big XII schools that could provide similar value as lower hanging fruit.

 

  • Imperial Star Destroyer Conference (Notre Dame, Rutgers, Syracuse, Nebraska and Kansas) – The more I look at this hypothetical conference, the more I like it.  Rutgers and Syracuse provide a concrete base of households to the East, but Nebraska and Kansas provide the national brand names to the West.  This type of expansion is less about pure market grabs and more about making the Big Ten Network into a true national property.  A football conference with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame and Nebraska going at each other in the fall?  A basketball conference with Kansas, Michigan State, Syracuse, Indiana (assuming that the Hoosiers will be resurrected at some point) and Illinois going at each other in the winter?  That’s extremely enticing from a national perspective.  I’ve been hammering away regarding the importance of TV markets to the Big Ten Network, but let’s not suspend all common sense here by trying to argue that a mere presence in a large market is always going to be more valuable than a powerful national presence that’s located in a smaller market.  Adding a football program like Nebraska and, to a lesser extent, a blue blood basketball program like Kansas could compensate for their smaller home population bases by drawing enough demand for games to raise rates within the current Big Ten footprint and inducing more basic cable operators to sign up outside of that footprint.  Plus, schools such as Nebraska and Kansas would actually be fairly happy to join the Big Ten (at least at the administrative level) and wouldn’t have to deal with torch-wielding alums like Notre Dame or crazy politicians like Texas.

    I’m sure a few of you out there are wondering: why not Missouri instead of Kansas?  Part of it is that Missouri’s potential value to the Big Ten is very overrated by outsiders.  The Big Ten Network is already on basic cable in the St. Louis market due to the presence of Illinois alums and fans, which means the main market that the conference would add with Mizzou is Kansas City.  However, Kansas is arguably much more popular in that market AND has a marquee basketball name nationally.  At the end of the day, the St. Louis and Kansas City markets really don’t provide much impact to the Big Ten, which already has Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and the entire state of Ohio in the fold.  So, the better play if the Big Ten wants to poach any schools from the Big XII is to go for the more nationally prominent programs.  I’ve emphasized that basketball isn’t a top consideration in expansion matters compared to football, but Kansas is a special case that’s up there with Duke, UNC and Kentucky in terms of national drawing power.

 

  • Death Star Conference (Notre Dame, Rutgers, Syracuse, Texas and Texas A&M) – No real explanation needed as to how adding the two main Texas schools on top of Notre Dame and the New York market would completely alter the college sports landscape.  I think even the Domers would come around to being in this type of conference.  The chatter has certainly died down about the Texas schools moving over to the Big Ten, yet it’s still an intriguing possibility.

I’m still extremely skeptical of the current Big Ten members ever voting to expand the conference by nearly 50% when it has only added two new members in the past 90 years.  That being said, the Big Ten Network has changed everything in terms of how we look at expansion and Notre Dame effectively said that it has no choice but to join a superconference if it were ever to come to fruition.  If the Big Ten can’t get the Texas schools, I’m warming up to the thought of the Imperial Star Destroyer Conference.  I’ll emphasize again that I don’t personally support having such a massive change (when you get past 12 schools, you risk of no longer being a tight conference and becoming a loose confederation).  However, it may not matter since the wild predictions of a “Big Tent” conference aren’t as crazy as I thought a few months ago.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

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Let me preface this blog post by saying that I personally loathe the idea of the NCAA Tournament expanding to 96 teams.  I believe that it will ruin the pace of the event and render an already devalued 4 months of the regular season into a pure seeding exercise like the NBA or NHL.  When NCAA Tournament expansion has been suggested before, I quickly put it down as a short-sighted CYA measure for coaches.  Uber commenters Richard and Adam have provided some good points in support of NCAA Tournament expansion, but it still makes me want to vomit at an emotional level.  I’d rather have Hue Hollins officiate my pickup basketball games or watch the final scene in LOST consist of Jack, Locke, Kate and Sawyer sitting in a diner with Journey playing in the background.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who has been an outspoken critic of NCAA Tournament expansion, stated yesterday that a super-sized tournament in the future was “probable.”  The NCAA followed that up with confirmation today that it felt that a 96-team tournament would be the “best fit” for the event and then proceeded to outline a clusterfuck proposed schedule with the first round still starting on Thursday but the third round would be played on the following Tuesday and Wednesday.  Exactly why the first round wouldn’t start on the Tuesday after Selection Sunday and then keep the same scheduling for the rest of the tournament as it is today is apparently beyond my pay grade.  There is only one possible explanation as to how a group of presumably well-educated people could come up with this completely illogical scheduling format: the chronic.

The common perception and what I had long thought is that this is purely a money grab by the NCAA, which can’t wait to fold the ho-hum NIT (which my Illini failed to win this year) that it now owns into a new first round of the NCAA Tournament that will draw a lot more revenue.  Certainly, I can appreciate the potential financial aspect of an expanded tournament.  Most of the readers of this blog know that I’m a “follow the money” type of guy almost to a fault when looking at sports decisions.  Still, I was perplexed by how the NCAA seemed to be jumping at the chance to risk killing the proverbial golden goose with such a drastic and almost uniformly unpopular change.  There just seemed to be no good reason for it other than another network like ESPN coming in with an offer to the NCAA that was over-the-top to the point where the organization would whore itself.  Then, as I was eating an Al’s Italian Beef sandwich (which you should always get dipped) at lunch today and perusing a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times that was left on the table, I came across the following quotes from a prominent college basketball voice that finally illuminated a legitimate and justifiable financial reason (other than just trying to make more for the sake of making more) why the NCAA would be doing this:

On the proposed expansion of the tournament: ”The expansion has absolutely nothing to do with the sport of basketball. It has to do with the economics of the NCAA and its broadcast partner CBS. Because this multiyear contract was backloaded at the end, CBS is looking at losing probably a billion dollars during the remaining years [2010-13] of the contract.

”Surprisingly, the way the contract was written, the ‘out’ for that last three years belongs to the NCAA, not CBS. I can assure you if it was CBS’ ‘out,’ they’d be long gone. The reason it was the NCAA’s ‘out’ was because everyone assumed the rights fees would continue to increase. So the NCAA said, ‘OK, we’ll make it a long-term deal but in 2010′ — which seemed like 100 years from when the deal was signed — ‘we want the right to opt out and see what the financial landscape is like.’

”Now they’re finding out that what CBS is paying this year and will continue to pay through 2013 is far more than any other suitor would pay. The only way the network can possibly offset those losses is to have more inventory to sell. So the expansion of the tournament would allow the rights-holder to cut down on the losses.”

On ESPN taking over the tournament: ”They’re the one guy who wouldn’t have to be covered by all of [the conventional network revenues] because of the monthly [cable-share] charge they get from viewers. Obviously, it would be an enormously prestigious property for ESPN to hold. But they have no reason to take CBS off the hook financially.”

On the NCAA and future rights fees: ”The basketball championship generates over 90 percent of the total gross revenue of the NCAA, which has 86 other championships to fund. If they were to take $300 million less for the men’s tournament, how would they afford to pay for those other championships and maintain the reimbursements back to the schools that participate? That’s why tournament expansion is being discussed. This has nothing to do with the betterment of the event.”

Those quotes came from an interview with former CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer.  Now, I personally think that Packer is a first-ballot member of the Douchebag Sportscaster Hall of Fame, but also believe that he’s a straight-shooter and on point here.  It suddenly all made sense to me.  The NCAA isn’t really expanding the tournament in order to make more money.  Instead, the NCAA is expanding the tournament because it’s the only way that it can continue to make the same amount of money that it’s making now.  This is all about avoiding a reduction in TV rights fees in the next round of contracts if the NCAA maintains the current 65-team format.  Other news stories have noted that the current NCAA/CBS deal is backloaded where there are escalating payments starting this year through 2014.  It was also believed from the very beginning of the current contract in 1999 that CBS had wildly overpaid for the rights to the NCAA Tournament.  No one can be surprised that CBS is losing a lot of money on the NCAA Tournament, as well.  Almost all sporting events on over-the-air networks, even the highest-rated ones such as NFL games, are “loss leaders” where the networks lose money on the games themselves but use them as vehicles to promote other more profitable shows.  That’s a huge reason why sports programming continues to move en masse to cable networks like ESPN since they are able to take advantage of the dual revenue stream of cable subscriber fees on top of traditional advertising (as Packer noted in his interview).

So, I’m buying what Packer is arguing: the NCAA knows that CBS is paying way over market price for the tournament and losing a lot of money, meaning that expansion is necessary in order to simply maintain the level of revenue that the NCAA receives now.  Such revenue is critical since it funds virtually everything else that the NCAA does.  If the NCAA could come out and say that to the public, then I think that sports fans might at least have a better understanding of the situation and not believe that it’s completely about greed.  Of course, the NCAA can’t do that because it would compound the very problem that it’s trying to avoid – the last thing that it would want to do is admit that CBS is overpaying for the tournament since that would guarantee that no one else would ever pay anything close to that level in the next contract cycle.

I still don’t like it, but if the NCAA Tournament expands, at least I’ll understand why it had to happen.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

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