Yes, I’m alive and so is this blog. With the slowdown in conference expansion news, it was a good time to take a summer break after going non-stop for the first 6 months of the year. However, the start of the football season is only a couple of weeks away, so the activity will be picking up once again (less on expansion and more on actual football). I’ll be voting in the BlogPoll (which will likely continue to be found on CBS Sports.com) this year, so there will be a weekly post during the season with my selections at the very least, which all of you can rip apart with impunity. If you want to lobby me on behalf of your favorite team, please feel free to do so, as well. To keep you occupied until that starts up for the year, here’s my look at where the BCS conferences stand regarding realignment issues using the Department of Homeland Security Advisory System:
OSCAR THE GROUCH THREAT LEVEL
The Big Ten continues to be in control of any future conference expansion nationwide. With the addition of Nebraska, the conference now has a championship game and can expect to receive a large uptick in its national TV revenue in the next few years with the popularity of the Huskers. The East Coast bastion of the Wall Street Journal, which one might have expected to push the Big Ten to grab Rutgers or Syracuse, showered a ton of praise on the conference’s marriage with Nebraska last week and pointed out that this was a significant shift in college football that has flown under the radar with all of the Texas/Big IIX drama. I believe that I speak for the majority of Big Ten fans in being incredibly excited to see Nebraska start Big Ten play in 2011.
I just hope that the Big Ten doesn’t f**k things up with a wacky divisional alignment. I’ll repeat what I noted in my post from a few weeks ago: Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). Most proponents of a gerrymandered divisional alignment like to point out the dominance of the Big 12 South over the Big 12 North over the past several years as an example of the danger of a pure geographic alignment, yet forget that the Big 12 North was the dominant division for the first few years of that conference’s existence. I’m exponentially more fearful of the aimless ACC divisional alignment which has no logic and broke off natural rivalries. Karma has been a bitch for the ACC since it has never ended up its intended result of a Florida State-Miami championship game. I don’t want to see the Big Ten make the same mistake.
I’m not surprised by the choice of Indianapolis as the site of the first Big Ten Championship Game, although my preference would’ve been Chicago, which is the conference’s marquee market and has a cross-section of alums from all of the Big Ten schools. Personally, I don’t think cold outdoor weather really should be an issue for Big Ten football from a competitive standpoint, but it does matter to TV interests. The Big Ten and ABC likely want to place the Big Ten Championship Game in a prime time slot, and while the cold weather is bearable when at least the first half is played in the daylight, it is a rough experience at Soldier Field or Lambeau Field for a typical December night game. I blame all of this on the choice of the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois to drop a UFO in the middle of the Soldier Field columns instead of building a brand-new domed/retractable-roof stadium for the same cost (or even less) that could’ve been in the rotation for Final Fours and Super Bowls. (Cost to renovate Soldier Field from 2001-2003, which reduced seating capacity by over 5,000: $625 million. Cost to build University of Phoenix Stadium from scratch from 2003-2006 with a retractable roof and North America’s first roll-out grass field: $455 million. Which taxpayer base got its money’s worth?) It is ridiculous that Indianapolis is consistently beating out Chicago for top-tier sports events – this is the equivalent of Hartford getting marquee properties over New York City.
As for future expansion, the Big Ten would likely be able to grab any school other than Notre Dame and Texas. The issue, of course, is that it’s doubtful that the Big Ten really wants any school other than Notre Dame and Texas right now. If Rutgers or Syracuse can go on a run of BCS bowl appearances to generate New York/New Jersey interest in college football again, then that could change things, but all indications right now are that integrating Nebraska is the top priority unless the Irish or Longhorns change their minds.
Notre Dame still remains a Big Ten expansion possibility in the long-term for one major reason: academics. The leadership at the school has continued to be open to joining the Big Ten because it believes that could aid Notre Dame into gaining membership with the American Association of Universities. This top-line academic priority for the university directly clashes with the Irish alumni base’s unwavering need to retain independence at all costs. Notre Dame’s leadership is in a bind since the school arguably grants more power to its alumni base over university affairs than any other BCS school, which means that crossing them results in putting their own heads on the chopping block regardless of whether they believe moving to the Big Ten makes sense academically and financially. I don’t envy the people in charge of Notre Dame at all – independence is an integral part of the school’s identity, which is why the alumni base fights so hard for it, but it may hold the school back from achieving its ultimate academic goals and, as the Big Ten and SEC continue to expand their revenue advantages over everyone else, will negatively impact the athletic program’s success, as well. Eventually, there will be a group of leaders at Notre Dame that will be willing to risk career suicide by having the school join the Big Ten, but those people will likely be from the current undergraduate population’s generation that cares more about ND being an academically elite school than its football status. That group likely won’t come into power for another two decades.
Texas, on the other hand, is going to ride its proposed Bevo TV like Zorro for the foreseeable future. I’ll get to more about this later on, but suffice to say, there won’t be any marriage between the Big Ten and Texas with the school’s approach to using and abusing conferences.
So, a 12-school Big Ten is going to be the new status quo for awhile. There will still some long-term demographic challenges as the US population continues to move to the Sun Belt and the coasts, but as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the addition of Nebraska is one of those rare moves that will make both the financial bean counters in Park Ridge and the fans in the stands and living rooms happy.
The SEC stands alongside the Big Ten as the most stable and powerful conferences in the country. Whether the SEC can realistically grow is an open question. Unlike the Big Ten, which was at an unstable 11 members without a championship game and positioned in the middle of the country where it could conceivably expand anywhere except for the West Coast, the SEC hasn’t had an urgent need to get bigger. It doesn’t really want to expand unless there’s: (1) a large market added and (2) an upgrade to the conference’s academic profile. The lingering perception that the SEC wants to tear apart the ACC (or can actually do it) is a ridiculous notion. The two schools that would add the most to the SEC from the ACC, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, are two of the least likely schools to ever consider an SEC invitation (as I’ll discuss in a bit). West Virginia has the Big East’s best traveling fan base but its worst TV market, so that doesn’t make very much sense, either.
As a result, the state of Texas is the only potential goldmine left for the SEC, but as we’ve seen with the stunning non-breakup of the Big IIX, pulling off anyone from that conference would entail adding a bloc of schools en masse (and the Pac-10 found out that not even that could work). The SEC really only cares about Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma – virtually everyone else in the Big IIX is worthless filler from a financial perspective. The conference wants nothing to do with Texas Tech, Baylor and/or Oklahoma State, which may all be political requirements for those that want any of the Big III from the Big IIX. Missouri is in the same position with the SEC as it is the Big Ten – decent market with a decent sports program, but not revenue accretive enough to justify expanding for. ESPN’s analysts will continue to slob the knob of the SEC on the field, yet there really isn’t that much that it can (or should) do off the field. Mike Slive might engage in some saber-rattling about the conference maintaining its power if other conferences expand beyond 12 teams, but realistically, he knows that the SEC has a great set-up today and is never going to expand just for the sake of keeping up in terms of sheer numbers of members.
COOKIE MONSTER THREAT LEVEL
The Pac-10 went for the proverbial jugular with its offer to invite half of the Big 12, but ultimately ended up with only Colorado and Utah. These are decent additions for the Pac-10 as geographic and cultural fits, but they don’t really raise the national profile of the conference in the Eastern and Central Time Zones. The Pac-10 is obviously performing its due diligence on forming a new TV network with former Big 12 Commissioner and Big Ten Network president Kevin Weiberg in the fold. However, there is valid skepticism out there that it could ever come close to being as financially successful as the BTN (fan intensity is lower, , which means that the conference might not add that much more TV revenue taking games in-house compared to signing a larger comprehensive deal with ESPN or other established cable networks.
Still, the Pac-10’s main disadvantage from a TV perspective is a great advantage from a conference alignment viewpoint: its West Coast location. The Big Ten and SEC won’t even think of touching any of the Pac-10 schools, which means that the Western conference is safe from any possible poachers. The Pac-10 is safe and stable for the foreseeable future, which means that it’s worth any exit fee that Colorado may have to pay to the clusterf**k of the Big IIX. As with the Big Ten and SEC, the state of Texas is really the main market that actually can move the meter for the Pac-10, and considering the manner in which talks broke down between the Pac-10 and the University of Texas harem, it may forever be an unattainable goal.
BERT THREAT LEVEL
I’ll repeat what I’ve stated several times on this blog: the ACC is MUCH safer than the general public gives it credit for. Even though the SEC and Big Ten could theoretically offer more money to any of the ACC members, it may not be enough of a difference to overcome the charter member status of schools such as Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina (who have been mentioned at various times in connection with the Big Ten and/or SEC) or the academic prestige gap between the ACC and SEC. Note that the ACC is the only conference other than the Big Ten that has an academic consortium and, for lack of a better term, it has “snobby” members and leaders that aren’t very willing to jump to the SEC compared to football-focused fans. Virginia Tech on paper would seem to be the main school that might have some interest in the SEC, but with the way that the University of Virginia was hamstrung by Virginia politicians to force the Hokies into the ACC back in 2003, VT leaving the ACC and the commonwealth’s flagship university that expended a ton of political capital several years ago for more money in the SEC is not going to work with the Virginia legislature.
The new TV deal that the ACC has in place with ESPN cements the ACC’s stability even further. Really, the only reason why the ACC is at “Bert Level” is that Maryland could very well fit into the Big Ten and there might be at least a tiny bit of mutual interest, but the Big Ten’s desire in going toward the East Coast appears to be predicated on Notre Dame coming along, too. There is definitely nothing that the Big East could offer to draw Boston College back – Eastern fans might constantly bemoan the geography, but that school is clearing so much bank compared to what it had before that its leaders don’t care. Thus, the ACC is in good shape overall.
ERNIE THREAT LEVEL
Here’s where the conference realignment discussion gets interesting again. From one perspective, the Big East could be considered extremely vulnerable due to its geographic proximity to the Big Ten and ACC, fairly good academic institutions, large markets on paper and disjointed sports membership. On the other hand, if none of the individual schools are actually revenue positive to the Big Ten or ACC, then they aren’t going to be expansion targets and the conference is de facto safe as no one has anywhere else to turn. As I mentioned in connection with Maryland above, the Big Ten’s East Coast strategy is tied in with Notre Dame, so as long as the Irish stay independent, the Big Ten is not likely to expand again in the near future.
As a result, the Big East is somewhat safe, but it’s also stuck. There isn’t an obvious football expansion candidate east of the Mississippi River (Memphis, UCF, ECU and Temple are usual “meh” suspects) and even if there was, the hybrid football/non-football membership complicates anything getting done. Villanova moving up from FCS to FBS has been thrown around as an option, yet even if the school decided to upgrade tomorrow, it would take several years to make that transition. Futhermore, if Villanova somehow completed the upgrade, it’s hard to see why the school could really draw more or perform better at the FBS level than its Philly neighbor of Temple, which got kicked out of the Big East as a football-only member even when the conference was looking for warm bodies in the wake of the 2003 ACC raid.
I’d still recommend that the Big East go after TCU plus one other school to go up to 18 overall members and 10 football members since I believe that TCU is the main school in the country besides BYU that is a true BCS-level program that’s stuck in a non-BCS conference and it’s never going to get an invite from its regionally-friendly Big IIX (as it has no need for yet another Texas-based school). The other usual suspects for Big East expansion typically use the “If we were in a BCS conference, we’d be SOOOOO much better” argument, which is akin to saying that you’re a no-talent ass clown that can churn out hit records with the aid of a vocoder. (I’m looking at you, Kei$ha.) The Big East doesn’t need project programs – it needs greater respect immediately and a material improvement to its national TV contract. TCU at least provides a chance for the Big East on those fronts. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the Big East leadership is forward thinking in that way at all.
A split between the football members and the Catholic schools has long been blog and message board fodder, yet the fact remains that the Big East basketball contract (which is larger than the football contract) depends upon the large markets that those Catholic universities provide. Therefore, a split won’t happen unless there’s a big-time incentive to do so (i.e. the Big IIX splits apart and a bunch of BCS programs need a new home).
As for the prospects of a Big East TV network, call me EXTREMELY skeptical that it could work. If the Pac-10 is going to have a tough time making a network pay off financially, and that’s a conference with significantly better market penetration on the West Coast than the Big East on the East Coast, then I don’t know how a Big East network could ever get off the ground. The Big Ten Network had a perfect storm of a top-level cable partner (Fox) that provided national carriage immediately (Fox had control of DirecTV at BTN’s launch) plus large schools with large alumni bases that REALLY care about college sports located in large markets that don’t have a lot of regional cable network competition. It’s a different proposition to attempt to get a network onto basic cable in the New York City area, which already pays for YES, SNY and MSG, when the Big East isn’t even the clear dominant conference in that region. (The most popular conference in the Mid-Atlantic according to a 2007 NCAA study: the Big Ten.) Without NYC, the Big East network simply won’t come to fruition (and conference helper Paul Tagliabue apparently agreed when he bashed the notion of people on Long Island watching Rutgers after their tennis matches).
So, the Big East is in a stalled car. Individual members that want to get into the Big Ten (Rutgers, Syracuse, Pitt) might actually wish that things were more fluid again, but until Notre Dame wants something other than independence, the Big East will talk publicly about “exploring” plans for a TV network and expansion and implement absolutely none of them.
ELMO THREAT LEVEL
Oh, the Big IIX. The more that I think about how this conference is still alive, the more that I understand how guys like Bernie Madoff can steal millions from otherwise smart people. Dan Ponzi Beebe sold a handshake deal to academic leaders holding degrees galore with millions of dollars of unwritten promises based on (1) supposed future TV income that won’t be negotiated until a few years from now and (2) exit fees from Nebraska and Colorado that will be tied up in litigation for years and will likely be significantly discounted from the current sticker price. Not only that, but some Big IIX people have actually deluded themselves into thinking that Arkansas would leave the SEC and Notre Dame would give up its entire identity as an independent to join this “conference” based on future revenue that doesn’t yet exist and isn’t in writing ANYWHERE. WTF?!
How schools like Texas A&M bought this bullshit (and that’s what it is – complete bullshit) is beyond me. The Aggies have good reason to get quite restless without ANY paper trail regarding these promises. Of course, who knows why the heck the school would’ve agreed to all of this without something in writing in the first place, which makes it harder to defend a new ”F**k you, pay me” stance.
Outside of A&M, I firmly believe that the University of Texas will rue the day that it spurned the Pac-10’s offer to add half of the current Big 12 (even if Texas A&M went separately to the SEC) – it will NEVER get a better opportunity to be in an upgraded academic conference with larger markets AND bring along a bunch of its regional rivals. Instead, UT has banked its entire future on its own TV network and has even started making non-conference scheduling decisions based upon it by killing off a series with Minnesota over a video rights dispute. Texas better be damn sure that this TV network is going to work because I’m still flabbergasted that this is the route that it chose to take when it had virtually every single option (Pac-16, Big Ten, SEC, independence, even the ACC) on the table. In a few years, when everyone figures out that the TV revenue that Ponzi Beebe promised won’t ever materialize, Texas may not have any choice other than the Big IIX because no other conference is going to turn over the requisite TV rights that would make Bevo TV viable.
Plus, the Texas legislature made sure that everyone respected its authoritah. For all of the power that UT is supposed to have in the college football world, it was made clear in this realignment process that it will be forever shackled to at least Texas Tech, which is much more problematic than being only paired up with the fairly attractive Texas A&M. As a lone free agent, Texas is arguably the most valuable program that any conference can get (even above Notre Dame), but when it has to bring along 4 or 5 others, then it’s a completely different value proposition and the school isn’t nearly as enticing. The Pac-16 deal was the main chance that Texas could break away from at least Baylor and let Texas A&M go its own way, yet now it has foreclosed a whole bunch of long-term options unless things happen outside of its control (i.e. A&M bolts to the SEC by itself). The Big Ten and SEC aren’t going to offer to add schools en masse like the Pac-10 did and if the Texas legislature freaked out about UT separating from its other in-state brethren to go to another conference, I don’t see how it could ever try to go independent (which is probably the situation the school is best suited for in a perfect world).
Essentially, the Big IIX is held together by Bevo TV, some Texas politicians and a bunch of unwritten promises from Ponzi Beebe. No wonder why Nebraska and Colorado ran out as quickly as possible and Missouri has been begging for a Big Ten invite for months. I guarantee you that NU and CU are going to settle for a whole lot less than what the Big IIX is demanding in exit fees since UT will have zero desire to allow what they’ve done behind the scenes over the past several months to be aired out publicly in court. Big IIX could possibly add some schools from the Mountain West or C-USA if it wanted to, but with the reprieve from ABC/ESPN where it will pay the current level of TV rights fees even with two fewer members and no conference championship game, the financial incentive isn’t there. With the Longhorns’ first-priority needs to have league leadership control and its TV network above all else, I believe that the only conference other than the Big IIX that they might end up in over the next few years is a brand new one that they create from scratch as opposed to an existing BCS conference. Therefore, Texas isn’t going to be the first mover in any future conference realignment scenarios (just as it was the case this past summer). It will be up to a school such as Texas A&M to have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the legislative powers that be and act in its own interests as a university if it wants to leave the Big IIX.
As of today, all is quiet on the conference realignment front. That’s not a bad thing as we can watch some actual football again.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from flicker)