The Big Ten athletic directors and coaches are meeting this week, where supposedly nothing regarding what we actually care about will be talked about. (Of course, I’m very ready to find out why Jim Delany went Tony Montana on someone’s ass in a conference meeting.) So, in light of the anticipated non-news that will doubtlessly spur about eighty rumors anyway, let’s take a look at some of the players and issues in conference realignment that actually haven’t been talked about enough by the national media and blogosphere.
1. Fox – There were two very surprising developments out of the new ACC TV deal that is reportedly close to being finalized. First, the ACC received a substantial increase over its previous deal from ESPN, which was a feat in and of itself considering the “meh” football play coming out of that conference since it expanded, the still dragging economy, and the fact that everyone thought that ESPN blew its college sports wad on the SEC and Big Ten a couple of years ago. Second, that substantial increase was forced on ESPN by Fox as a legitimate competing bidder for the ACC’s TV rights. There had been a lot of speculation that Fox was simply getting out of the college sports business at a national level after losing the rights to the BCS bowls, yet it looks like Rupert Murdoch’s empire is thinking otherwise.
Now, as many of you know, Fox is a 49% partner in the Big Ten Network with the Big Ten Conference, so it has already had a significant role in conference realignment in an indirect sense (unless you buy into the theory, as some readers have suggested, that this is really a ploy for Murdoch to take over all of college athletics). Still, the fact that Fox was seriously in play to get the ACC games can alter the strategic thinking of the Big XII and Pac-10. One of my readers that does some consulting work for a conference speculated that having Fox as a potential deep-pocketed TV suitor for marquee games puts the Big XII, even without Nebraska and Missouri, in a much more stable position down the road… assuming that schools like Texas can stick around for a few years before the conference’s current TV deal expires. That arrangement might not make the Big XII on par with the Big Ten or SEC in terms of TV revenue, but if the Longhorn Sports Network (which I’ll get to in a moment) is a viable property for Texas, then UT in particular might be satisfied and continue to make a go of it with whatever is left in the Big XII. This also gives more credence to the possibility of a “Western Alliance” that is aligned with Fox for media purposes even if the Big XII is depleted and the Pac-10 doesn’t expand, where that alliance could form its own network or enter into joint ventures on TV deals.
So, maybe Fox has a bit more up its sleeve than slamming Glee down our throats during May sweeps.
2. Longhorn Sports Network – The commenters on this blog have been going back-and-forth for quite awhile about the prospect of Texas starting its own TV network, but it seems as if though the national media has paid scant attention to it other than a cursory acknowledgment from time-to-time. The thing is that outside of the Big Ten Network itself, there’s arguably nothing more important in this conference realignment cycle than the Longhorn Sports Network. The fate of the LSN is likely going to determine which conference Texas is going to be in a couple of years from now over possibly every other issue (although there is another potential Texas-based complicating factor that I’ll describe later on). While other Big XII schools may complain that Texas is looking to make more revenue that those other schools can’t take advantage of, it’s in their best interests (at least the ones that don’t end up in the Big Ten or Pac-10) to ensure that the LSN works. It’s really the only conceivable way that Texas could possibly make as much TV money in the Big XII as all of the schools in the Big Ten and SEC and that’s what it’s going to take to get Texas to stay and not completely demolish its current conference. Otherwise, there’s literally nothing else for the Big XII to give to Texas – it’s already given the Longhorns as much as it can handle and it’s still far behind what the Big Ten and SEC could provide, so the notion that Texas is trying to extract more concessions from the Big XII is laughable.
The mere threat of this network could also be used as leverage by Texas in negotiating with the Big Ten or Pac-10, just as the SEC used the threat of a network to get ESPN to give it a Godfather offer to prevent that from ever happening. One way or another, the LSN seems to be conceptually far along at Texas and it’s going to be used to extract as much as possible from whichever conference that it ends up being a member of (whether it stays or goes).
3. Texas Tech – Beyond the LSN, there’s a matter of Texas politics for wherever the Longhorns might end up. Frequent commenter Hopkins Horn has been covering conference realignment for Burnt Orange Nation and put together an excellent piece speaking to a top state political observer. The general assumption is that Texas A&M needs to move with Texas or at least find an acceptable alternative home, which isn’t surprising. Of course, Texas A&M is a top 20 athletic revenue school with huge fan bases in places like Houston and Dallas and a better academic research reputation than schools such as Nebraska and Missouri. In other words, A&M can stand strongly alone on its own merits. The Aggies are not some type of political albatross.
So, the critical question for any conference that really wants Texas isn’t whether it’s willing to take Texas A&M because that’s an easy answer: HELL YES. Instead, the real dilemma is whether that conference is willing to take Texas Tech, which is in the Big XII in the first place because of political protection and is exactly the type of school that could seek such protection again. The political source that Hopkins Horn spoke to personally believed that Tech may not have to be part of a deal, yet that was the only time that he threw in the caveat that he could be wrong on that issue. Note that UT president William Powers has been rumored to say that Texas can’t go anywhere without Texas Tech. Whether that’s ultimately going to be the case is speculative, but having to take Tech on top of UT and A&M might have to be the assumed price for any conference that wants to break into the state of Texas and that certainly wouldn’t be acceptable to either the Big Ten or Pac-10.
4. Nancy Cantor - Ms. Cantor is the Chancellor of Syracuse University. Prior to that, she was the Chancellor of my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a result, Cantor is the only person at any of the usual suspects of candidate schools that has had direct working relationships with all of the decision makers in the Big Ten, ranging from the university presidents to the conference office run by Jim Delany. Considering that there aren’t really 100% no-brainer candidates outside of Texas and Notre Dame, this is not an insignificant connection.
5. The LDS “No Playing on Sunday” Rule – I’ve long thought that BYU would be an obvious choice for the Big XII if it needed to find any replacement teams. (Note that there’s NFW that BYU gets into the Pac-10. I explained it here before and Jon Wilner from the San Jose Mercury News expands upon it further.) The fact that Baylor only recently allowed frisky moves such as the Charleston and Waltz on campus seemed to indicate that the Big XII wouldn’t have a problem with religious peccadilloes. However, I’ve been seeing a number of insights indicating that the inability to participate in athletic events on Sunday due to LDS rules could be a bigger sticking point than anticipated. The rule isn’t a problem for football, yet virtually every other sport is affected.
Whether the Big XII can deal with that rule (and personally, I think that they should in order to get such a solid fan base if it loses a school like Nebraska) could determine whether the conference replaces any lost members from the west or east. That has very significant “second wave” repercussions after the Big Ten and/or Pac-10 make any expansion moves. If the Big XII doesn’t take BYU (due to the “No Playing on Sunday” rule) or TCU (since it doesn’t add a new market as long as Texas and Texas A&M are in the league), then the Mountain West Conference is looking in great shape to survive or even thrive, especially if it ends up adding Boise State as expected in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I’ve seen a surprisingly large amount of smoke that the Big XII might pick on the poor Big East even further by taking Louisville and potential Big East replacement member Memphis before it even had a chance to replace anyone in that conference. Louisville certainly makes a lot of sense to me even if it would be on the geographic fringe of the conference since it has a good football fan base (who has simply suffered through a couple of horrific seasons) and a world-class basketball program that will likely cement itself permanently as the nation’s top revenue generator in that sport once the new KFC Yum! Center (or as I affectionately call it, the “KenTaco Hut Center”) opens up next season.
(On a side note, I’m a little bit frightened to try the KFC Double Down Sandwich. It’s certainly not because I don’t like the ingredients. Quite to the contrary, I’m a certified sommelier of bacon and having lived close to the only KFC buffet in the Chicago area for a couple of years means that I no longer can eat Original Recipe like a normal human being anymore – there are no limits to how many pieces I can throw down. I’m concerned that trying the Double Down Sandwich will end up being like that first hit for a crack addict, which will then doom my body to needing 20 angioplasties by the time I’m 40. My metabolism has fortunately always been pretty good, but I know that I’m going to slam into that wall sooner rather than later if I start making bacon/Original Recipe combos a regular habit.)
So, what the Big XII thinks about BYU could determine the ultimate fate of Big East almost as much as the Big Ten can. I’ve actually been someone that is skeptical that there won’t be as many proverbial dominoes falling as predicted even if the Big Ten goes up to 16 schools, but the BYU dynamic is something that have a multitude of repercussions.
We’ll keep a watch out this week to see anything substantive comes out of the Big Ten athletic meetings. In the meantime, I’ll get my fill of LeBron-to-the-Bulls speculation (I’m not going to lie – when Chad Ford wrote that 3 NBA GMs texted him that LeBron James would end up with the Bulls AND the team could trade the cap killing Luol Deng contract to clear space for signing Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, I almost wet myself), watching the Blackhawks and pondering the final hours of my favorite show LOST. Don’t ask me about White Sox baseball, though.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from Mediamonster)