The echo chamber of conference realignment rumors continues on Twitter, blogs and message boards everywhere continues with thoughts of the destruction of the ACC by the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and MEAC and superconferences going up to 20 teams or more (16 is for chumps). Let’s try to separate the wheat from the chaff by addressing some frequently asked questions regarding Big Ten expansion:
(1) Is the Big Ten done expanding? – From the standpoint of the Big Ten initiating another expansion, yes, I believe that they’re done for the time being. In my opinion, it would take another move from the SEC and/or Big 12 for the Big Ten to act again since the most likely targets for Jim Delany won’t want to move unless they are absolutely forced to do so. (We’ll get to those schools in just a moment.) Ultimately, the Big Ten’s expansion with Maryland and Rutgers needs to be looked at in conjunction with the decision to add Nebraska in 2010. When Delany first announced that the Big Ten was looking to expand three years ago (and kick-started a conference realignment process that continues to this day), addressing long-term demographic concerns was right alongside improving athletics (AKA improving football) as the top goal. The Big Ten’s home population base of the Midwest has been slowing in growth for many years (although too many people on the coasts tend to overstate this since their image of Rust Belt tends to focus upon Detroit, whereas places such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Columbus have been growing at a perfectly fine clip), which meant that it was imperative for the conference to address that issue while it was still in a position of strength. For all of the talk about how conference realignment has largely been about TV dollars, the Big Ten’s addition of Nebraska was probably the purest football move that any conference made in this round of realignment with the Cornhuskers bringing along one of the most tradition-rich football programs and a rabid fan base. Nebraska, though, didn’t do anything to address the need to expand the conference’s footprint, hence the latest moves with Rutgers and Maryland. Getting into the New York City/New Jersey and Washington, DC/Baltimore regions addressed the overall demographic concerns for the Big Ten, so there isn’t any urgency to do more. Outside of adding Texas, the conference can’t really add more households with two schools than the #1 (New York) and #4 (DC/Baltimore) combined statistical areas on top of the #3 (Chicago) CSA that it already has. As a result, I don’t see the Big Ten on the proactive prowl unless moves by other conferences (or threatened moves by other conferences) shake some of the schools that I’m about to mention loose.
(2) If you’re wrong, Frank, who would the Big Ten go after? – Let’s assume that the SEC and Pac-12 aren’t going to be poached and the Big 12, with each school having assigned its TV rights for the next 13 years to the league (called a “grant of rights”), probably won’t lose anyone else, either*. The amount of a buyout of a grant of rights would likely need to be equal to the present value of the applicable school’s home TV rights for football and basketball games for the rest of the grant of rights period. For example, any conference that wants Texas needs to pay the Big 12 the equivalent of the rights to all Longhorn home games for the next 13 years, which could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars considering what ESPN is willing to pay for not-very-desirable third tier games. This is what makes a grant of rights (which the Big Ten and Pac-12 have in addition to the Big 12) such a powerful deterrent to schools leaving. As a result, that basically means that the “realistic” (and I use that term very loosely) targets for the Big Ten would come from the ACC or, much less likely, Big East.
(* Besides the obvious value of adding Texas, if the Big 12 were poachable, Kansas would be the most attractive target for the Big Ten out of the Big 12. One thing to remember is that basketball actually matters quite a bit for the purposes of the Big Ten Network, where the sheer volume of hoops content drives the need for cable companies to carry that channel. As a result, the normal “football means everything” mantra that normally applies to conference realignment and TV rights doesn’t necessarily hold for the BTN. Kansas actually made the most revenue off of third tier TV rights in the Big 12 prior to the formation of the Longhorn Network due to the strength of Jayhawks basketball. On a related note, that also means that the value of Maryland basketball is as important to the Big Ten as Maryland football in terms of being able to monetize that school.)
Rumors over the weekend indicated that the Big Ten was poised to invite Virginia and Georgia Tech (which have since been dismissed by Georgia Tech’s president). Certainly, those two schools would fit the Big Ten in terms of institutions, but the question is more about whether they would add enough athletic revenue and can integrate into the league culturally. For all of the consternation about the Big Ten supposedly leaving its Midwestern roots by adding Rutgers and Maryland, those were fairly mild changes geographically and culturally in the context of conference realignment over the past three years (both for the Big Ten and the new schools themselves). Those two institutions are in states that are geographically contiguous with the existing Big Ten footprint and there is much more of cultural difference between the the North and South (like oil and water) compared to the East and Midwest (distinct but complementary with each other). I’m fairly certain that Virginia would be in the long-term plans for the Big Ten as an elite academic institution that’s the flagship in what will now be another contiguous state with the addition of Maryland. However, UVA still very much considers itself to be a Southern school (whereas Maryland has really turned into a Northern school for all practical purposes over the past couple of decades) and that’s going to be a cultural barrier for it to joining the Big Ten no matter how much Jim Delany can offer Thomas Jefferson’s creation. While the influx of transplants to Northern Virginia just south of Washington, DC have been “Northernizing” the Commonwealth, that process isn’t anywhere complete yet.
Georgia Tech is an interesting case to me. There has been quite a bit of smoke about the Yellow Jackets contemplating Big Ten membership, but this is one move that I have a hard time seeing happening. On paper, Georgia Tech seems to fit what the Big Ten is looking for as a top academic institution in the middle of a fast-growing Atlanta market that also happens to be rich with football recruits. The problem, though, is that even if the Big Ten were to add UVA at the same time, Georgia Tech makes little sense as a lone outpost in the Peach State. Atlanta is SEC territory to the core and the Big Ten attempting to challenge Mike Slive there with only Georgia Tech alone would be a complete lost cause. It would be akin to the SEC taking Northwestern and then trying to claim the Chicago market – it simply wouldn’t work. Rutgers and Maryland can combine with the presence of Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan alums in the NYC and DC regions to create positive network effects that are greater than the fan bases of those two schools. While a large number of Big Ten grads are moving to Atlanta, there are so many more SEC grads and fans (along with fans of other Southern ACC schools such as Clemson and Florida State) that it’s one of the few markets that I believe Jim Delany has no chance of ever breaking through in. To be clear, I really like Georgia Tech as a school, but in terms of Big Ten expansion, I actually believe that its location is going to work against it.
Some thoughts on other ACC schools:
- North Carolina – UNC is essentially in the same boat as UVA: likely a very top long-term target for the Big Ten, but probably a generation away from becoming “Northernized” enough for the school to consider a move. Plus, UNC effectively has the same status in the ACC as Texas has in the Big 12: the ACC is their conference. As we’ve seen with Texas, having control can often be more of an allure than having money. Therefore, as much as both the Big Ten and SEC would love to add UNC, the Tar Heels aren’t going anywhere until the ACC is completely on its deathbed. UNC certainly wouldn’t start the exodus.
- Miami - The Hurricanes have long been a sleeper pick for me if the Big Ten were serious about raiding the ACC further. While Miami isn’t an AAU member, it has research levels that would justify its inclusion in the group and would the 4th highest ranked Big Ten school in the US News undergraduate university rankings (behind only Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin). The school continues to be a top national TV draw even in its down years and is located in arguably the best pound-for-pound football recruiting territory in the country. Most importantly for me, it’s the only real power conference school that’s located in the Sun Belt but is really a Northern school culturally. Last week, the Chicago Tribune actually posted data of the most popular out-of-state colleges that Illinois residents attend. While bordering flagship schools such as Iowa, Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin draw tons of students of Illinois, there were only a handful of power conference schools outside of the Midwest and Kentucky (which borders southern Illinois) that were able to draw more than 100 freshmen from Illinois this past year: Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, Vanderbilt and… Miami. In fact, Miami draws about 5% of its students from Illinois, which is a higher percentage than any out-of-state Big Ten school other than Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan. The thing is that Miami draws even more students from the New York/New Jersey corridor that the Big Ten is now trying to lock down. This is only one piece of data, but it’s indicative of the fact that if there’s one school in the South that won’t give a crap about being in a Northern conference, it’s Miami. People can note that they’re about to be sanctioned (my retort is to look at UNC) or they have a fairweather fan base with poor attendance (my response is that we just added Maryland), but they actually have a legit football history and the home recruiting base to maintain it regardless of possible NCAA actions down the road. Much like USC, the location of Miami itself means that they will always be in position to win with the right coach. In my opinion, Miami is a potential candidate that works regarding academics, demographics, TV market, football recruiting and football history. The fact that it’s a private school shouldn’t eliminate them from consideration.
- Virginia Tech – Another sleeper pick for me for the Big Ten. The assumption of many followers of conference realignment is that the SEC would want Virginia Tech, which is exactly why the Big Ten shouldn’t let Mike Slive walk away with them. With the addition of Maryland, the Big Ten is now committed to owning the DC market. Jim Delany should be able to withstand preexisting ACC ties there, but letting the SEC in with arguably the most popular football school in that area would be particularly damaging. Remember that Virginia Tech doesn’t pose the same academic issues that, say, Texas Tech did when the Big Ten was looking at Texas a couple of years ago. Much like Miami, VT is a school that has AAU-worthy metrics despite not being currently a member and, in the US News undergrad rankings, is tied with Iowa and Michigan State and ahead of Indiana and Nebraska. Similar to Miami, it’s a school that addresses several needs regarding demographics, TV market (locking up DC) and the strength of the actual football program. If the Big Ten wants UVA and they’re say that they’re required to bring VT along with them, it’s a pretty easy decision to say yes if I were running the conference.
- Duke – Full disclaimer here: I hate Duke. I REALLLLLLY HATE DUKE. Even as a massive Bears fan, Duke ranks ahead of the Packers as the team that I hate the most (whether college or pro) on the basis that a Green Bay win could conceivably help the Bears in a playoff race depending upon the records, whereas there is absolutely nothing positive that could come out of Duke winning a game. The thing is that there are many people that feel the same way even though (like me) they aren’t even a rival of my alma mater (Illinois), which is why they can’t be discounted as a potential Big Ten candidate or thought of as powerless in the football-focused game of conference realignment. The academics at Duke are obviously impeccable and the basketball program draws attention and ire like no one else in college sports outside of Notre Dame football. In 99.9% of the cases, basketball is truly irrelevant in conference realignment, but Duke is that 0.1%. Even though few conference realignment stories would give me greater personal joy than seeing Duke getting relegated to the Southern Conference, it won’t be happening. Much like Virginia Tech with UVA, it’s a pretty easy “yes” decision for the Big Ten if the league has a chance with UNC with Duke being part of the package.
- Syracuse, Boston College – It’s not inconceivable that the Big Ten could go after either or both of these schools as part of a Northeastern-centric expansion, but Jim Delany seemed to emphasize expansion into the “Mid-Atlantic” (which would intimate more of focus on Virginia and North Carolina in the future) much more than the Northeast and New England per se. That makes sense since the Mid-Atlantic region is where the long-term demographic shifts are very favorable (not to mention much stronger football recruiting territories, whereas Upstate New York and New England are growing as slowly as the Midwest. I was someone that always like Syracuse as a Big Ten candidate since its basketball program could actually help get BTN subscribers in the NYC market as much as any other school and it might even make more sense to pair them up with Rutgers, but the feedback that I’ve always received from Big Ten circles was that the conference has been lukewarm on the Orange. Boston College has the presence in a major market, yet it might be even tougher for the Big Ten to crack that area than even NYC. New England doesn’t have the same critical mass of Big Ten alums that the New York/Jersey area has. That being said, I think the value of BC is often underrated by fans as to how much it is overrated by conference commissioners and university presidents (if that makes sense), so I wouldn’t ever discount them.
- Florida State, Clemson, NC State, Louisville – Pure athletics focused expansion candidates with good-to-great recruiting territories and markets, but the academics likely wouldn’t be good enough for the Big Ten. Personally, I’d take a hard look at Florida State because they are so extremely valuable in a key state (especially if the Big Ten is seriously considering Georgia Tech and don’t want them to be a lone outpost), yet the tea leaves are saying otherwise.
- Pitt – As I’ve stated in previous posts, it’s a great academic school with a solid athletic department, but it is one of the few schools out there that wouldn’t add any BTN revenue at all since Penn State already delivers that market. This is too bad since the Panthers fit into the Big Ten extremely well on almost all other levels.
- Wake Forest – I personally like Wake Forest at some levels, but it’s a small private school without the research capabilities of Duke or the market of BC.
As for the Big East, the only school that would even have a chance at the Big Ten is UConn, and I’d put the odds of that merger occurring as extremely low. Connecticut is in a similar position as Syracuse and Boston College – Upstate New York and New England have large populations as of today just like the Midwest, but the demographic shifts favor the Big Ten waiting to get into Virginia and North Carolina. Also, I had previously stated how an ACC invite was UConn’s to lose and I stand by that with Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich saying, “UConn wasn’t penciled in [for the ACC]. It was penned in.” However, I underestimated how much the relative youth of UConn playing football at the FBS level could really affect perceptions of the school negatively. For better or for worse, the Big Ten wants to be able to show grainy footage of schools from the 1960s and 1970s on BTN and claim them as conference successes. (Those 5 Nebraska championship teams were among the greatest Big Ten squads of all-time!) I’m only half-joking there. The fact that Rutgers has a really long history of playing college football as the first school to participate in a game seems to trump the fact that such history hasn’t exactly been illustrious. The Big Ten is ultimately an old school league, and while UConn was at the Division I-AA level for many years prior to moving up to the top level in 2003, that history (whether fair or not) doesn’t seem to count with the power conferences.
So, this is a really long post with a ton of interesting hypotheticals, but I don’t believe that the Big Ten itself will pull the trigger on any of them unless UVA and/or UNC is ready to bolt. My feeling is that those schools aren’t anywhere close to being ready to leave the ACC, so my money would be on the Big Ten waiting for awhile as other leagues decide about whether to react. I’ll be taking a look at the realistic options of those other conferences over the coming days.
(Image from ChiCitySports)