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)
(Image from Eco Auto Ninja)