Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

The new college football season is finally upon us! Let’s get to some quick hits on college sports business news from the past few weeks:

(1) Sports TV Rights: Bubble or Not? – Even before the broader stock market swoon over the past two weeks, cable companies have been getting hammered by investors due to continued decline of the basic cable model due to cord cutting.

This potentially has a large impact on sports fans, particularly college sports fans, since so many off-the-field issues are directly related to cable rights fees for sporting events that have largely grown unfettered for the past decade. Conference realignment doesn’t happen if the Big Ten Network isn’t formed and becomes enormously successful. Major League Baseball, NBA and NHL franchises are buoyed from attendance peaks and valleys by massive regional sports network deals. The NFL receives more rights fees from ESPN for Monday Night Football and DirecTV for Sunday Ticket exclusivity than from its over-the-air network partners that are showing higher profile games than the former and are actually producing the games for the latter.

This begs the question that has been circulating quite a bit these days: is there a sports TV rights bubble that is about to pop?

It’s a lot more complex question than many observers give it credit for. On the one hand, cord cutting is accelerating with a major complaint being that non-sports fans are having to pay higher cable and satellite bills for sports networks that they do not watch. As a result, cable subscriptions rates are going down, which drags down the subscriber fees that networks such as ESPN depend upon. On the other hand, sports programming is one of the few (if not only) exclusive draws to cable and satellite television in the first place, so the relatively inelastic demand from sports fans is arguably even more important to cable networks than ever. In essence, when push comes to show, cable networks may rather lose the more price sensitive cord cutters than lose the higher paying sports fans.

Even with the impact of cord cutting becoming clearer in recent months, cable networks are still charging ahead with large sports rights deals. In early August, NBC and Comcast ponied up a 100% increase in rights for English Premier League games compared to the last deal that was signed only two years ago. The St. Louis Cardinals similarly just scored a doubling of its rights fees from Fox Sports Midwest on the regional sports network front.

It’s an interesting paradox: sports rights fees are arguably both the largest cause of cord cutting and the largest hedge against cord cutting. A non-sports fan is rightly going to question the wisdom of paying for cable when he or she can get the same lineup through a less expensive combination of Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or Hulu (plus maybe even HBO Now). By the same token, sports fans are more dependent upon cable than ever. Cable is no longer just a repository for surplus niche events, but now is the home (whether in whole or part) of the NCAA Tournament (including the Final Four), the College Football Playoff and nearly all bowls (including the bluest blue blood brand of the Rose Bowl), and MLB, NBA and NHL playoff games. More importantly, sporting events are exclusive and unique – a viewer can get news coverage as easily from an over-the-air network or Internet as he or she can from cable, but an over-the-air Ohio State game is not a replacement for a Michigan game for a Wolverines fan.

As a result, I don’t see complete doom and gloom for ESPN and sports networks in the future. For all of the alarmist articles about ESPN’s supposed impending demise over the past few weeks due to employee shuffling and Disney’s earnings reports, ESPN is still the single most valuable media and entertainment property on Earth. The reason why investors are scared isn’t because ESPN’s revenue and profit levels are bad, but rather that they have set such an insanely high bar financially that anything that deviates from that bar is worrisome. To put it into perspective, ESPN is still averaging about $6.61 per subscriber per month with over 92 million subscribers, which translates into $7.372 billion per year before they sell a single advertisement. That is over $614 million per month in just subscriber revenue (once again, we’re not even talking about the commercials that ESPN sells), which is more than the domestic gross of any movie released by Disney in history (and in fact, more than the domestic gross of any movie in history except for Avatar and Titanic). Just think about that: ESPN is generating revenue from just subscriptions that is more than what Disney grosses domestically from any Marvel, Star Wars or Frozen movie every single month… and once again, before they sell a single advertisement.

To be sure, the incredible amount of money that ESPN is generating that is propping up the entire Walt Disney Company (and national and regional sports networks are similarly propping up companies such as 21st Century Fox and Comcast) is exactly why investors are so spooked by any deterioration of the basic cable model. When Disney has been able to set ESPN on auto-pilot and generate more revenue than a new Star Wars movie without lifting a finger every month, both companies and investors start taking that seemingly endless cash flow for granted.* Still, there’s so much money at stake that cable networks are unlikely to stop investing in sports since they are what will keep such cable networks relevant regardless of whether the industry moves from a basic cable to a la carte or over the top environment. Hence, the Big Ten will still likely rake in massive record-setting cash for college sports deals when it signs its new TV contract(s) over the coming year.**

(* Speaking of Star Wars, Disney just announced that it is building a new Star Wars Land built at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. I’ll admit that I’ve had schematics created in my head for a Star Wars Land ever since I was 3 years old with a Millennium Falcon ride and fully operational Death Star. So, this is as exciting to me as it is to my uber-Disneyphile sister.)

(** Just my semi-educated guess: look for the Big Ten to split its first tier rights between ESPN and Fox, where the ABC/ESPN package will effectively be the same as today, but the games that are currently on ESPN2/ESPNU/ESPNEWS getting sent over to Fox/FS1 with some provisions for better game picks if they are carried nationwide over-the-air. The BTN contract is locked-in going until the 2031-32 season, so that won’t be changing. I don’t believe that the Big Ten is truly interested in selling all of its rights to solely Fox, as exposure is still extremely important the conference in the same manner as the NFL. In fact, the NFL TV rights model is a good template for what the Big Ten wants to do, which is to ensure that it’s getting exposure and revenue from several of the top media players instead of just one.)

(2) House of the Rising Sun Belt Expansion (and Contraction?) – As much as the college football world is most interested in whether the Big 12 and/or its individual schools (i.e. Oklahoma) will decide to get back into hot conference realignment action, the Sun Belt has made the latest expansion move by adding Coastal Carolina as a new all-sports member. On paper, Coastal Carolina seems like a fairy good addition for a Group of Five non-power conference since it’s a school with a rising enrollment and solid TV market and recruiting location in the Myrtle Beach area. The Sun Belt may also be turning its focus back on being an all-sports conference as Commissioner Karl Benson has hinted at the league dropping football-only members Idaho and New Mexico State. Those two football programs might soon be joining the homeless UMass as independents against their will (unlike Notre Dame, BYU and Army). If that occurs, it’s going to be tough since there isn’t any natural home for those schools and independence is effectively a death sentence for those schools for more than a couple of years. UMass will be hoping for the AAC to lose a school or two to the Big 12, which would then open up a spot for them. In turn, that could open up other spots down the line for Idaho and New Mexico State. As much as the powers that be in college sports probably like the general slowdown in conference realignment, there are several schools out there that want and/or need chaos.

(3) Illini Coaching Dumpster Fire – As many of you know, I’m an Illinois alumnus and fan. I’ve seen enough dysfunction with Illini football over the years that I barely batted an eye when they fired their head coach only a week before the season opener. At a core level, Tim Beckman was a terrible football coach, awful in press conferences, disjointed with the media and, according to the evidence, abusive to his players. The question in my mind isn’t whether Tim Beckman should have been fired, as that was obvious to me after his first season in Champaign. Instead, the question is what the heck did Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas ever see in Beckman in the first place? If Beckman had an interview that was anything like his conversations with the media, what possessed Thomas to see anything in him? Let there be no doubt: this was a CYA firing by Mike Thomas, but the seat under his own “A” is going to be burning hot coal for awhile. To be fair, many of the non-revenue programs have seen quite a bit of success under Thomas, particularly volleyball, tennis, golf and baseball. However, football and men’s basketball are where power conference athletic directors are ultimately judged and Thomas has, at the very least, underachieved with both of them.

Here are my basic expectations for the Illinois football program: considering its location with access to the Chicago and St. Louis recruiting areas along with Big Ten membership, this team should at least be winning 6 to 8 games per year to consistently make it to bowl games while challenging for the weaker Big Ten West every 4 years or so when senior-laden teams cycle through. This shouldn’t be much to ask for. I’m not delusional in believing that Illinois should be having Ohio State-level success in football or becoming the dominant team in the Big Ten West. However, I also don’t buy some of the national narratives that Illinois football has to be inherently bad. Illinois is not like Indiana or Kansas where football will always be a placeholder until basketball season starts, so I’ll never accept the “Illinois is a basketball school” excuse for football ineptitude. (Besides, a top tier athletic department should have the ability to perform well in both football and basketball. See Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin just in the Big Ten.) Instead, Illinois is simply a fairweather football school in the same manner as 90% of other college programs: they sell tickets when they win but fans won’t come out when they lose. The Illini football fan base is similar to the fan base of my Chicago White Sox – there are large numbers of us out there, yet we aren’t paying to watch a poor product like, say, Cubs fans have historically done. Illinois has made several terrible bad football decisions in the past, but there isn’t any structural reason why the school can’t have at least a competent football program. The immediate issue is that I don’t trust that Illinois will make a competent football decision until Mike Thomas is gone.

Of course, even with the turmoil surrounding Illinois football, I’m still pathological enough of a football fan to get excited for a Friday night game against Kent State. I’m fairly certain that my hopes and dreams for the Illini and Bears this year will be quickly crushed within the next 4 weeks, but until then, que sera, sera. Enjoy the games and holiday weekend!

(Image from News-Gazette)

It might be legitimate smoke or just the hot summer air of the peanut gallery, but conference realignment talk is still percolating in the wake of University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s comments last month about wanting Big 12 expansion. Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald reported that five Big 12 schools approached the Big Ten back in 2010 (intimating that they were Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa State and Texas A&M) about joining forces with Jim Delany. Today, Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman (essentially OU’s home newspaper) explained why Nebraska would never leave the Big Ten and noted that OU was “thrilled at the prospect of joining a conference that included the likes of Stanford and Cal-Berkeley” when it was considering the Pac-12. Finally, Dick Weiss (a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee for sportswriting as opposed to a plebeian blogger like myself) “casually” Tweeted the following on Monday:

Weiss has been on the conference realignment beat before as he was one of the first to report about the “Catholic 7” breaking away from the Big East and then forming… the Big East.

Edit: Weiss has clarified his Tweet:

I don’t position this blog as a newsbreaking site, but I have heard from a knowledgeable person with extensive contacts with current and former Big 12 members (i.e. knew specific details about Nebraska heading to the Big Ten and Texas A&M to the SEC beforehand that couldn’t have been simply guessed from the news) that basically had this to say: Oklahoma isn’t happy with the Big 12 and wants to get out.

Putting aside all of the valid issues of whether the Big 12’s grant of rights agreement can be broken or whether Oklahoma could politically leave Oklahoma State behind (both of which need to be cleared before any moves are even possible), it doesn’t seem as though OU wants to stand pat. David Boren’s comments about wanting Big 12 expansion with the “right schools” was more of a warning shot to the rest of the league because, frankly, the “right schools” wouldn’t ever take a Big 12 invite. As a result, everyone in Sooners land seems to agree on the overarching desire to leave the Big 12, but there are two mindsets within the school: the academic wishes of Boren and the athletic interests of OU Athletic Director Joe Catiglione. (Emphasis that these are currently mindsets that could take years to play out – please don’t interpret anything here as “Oklahoma is leaving for Conference X by the end of the year.”) Boren, not surprisingly, wants a more academic league, but it seems as though his focus is more on the Pac-12 as opposed to the Big Ten as of now. That’s not to say that OU wouldn’t consider the Big Ten (as it did in 2010), but there are still apparently concerns that the B1G would find OU to be academically acceptable. In contrast, the Pac-12 would like Oklahoma if they came with, say, Kansas. The West Coast league just doesn’t want an OU/Oklahoma State expansion (which is what OU had offered back in 2011 in the wake of Texas A&M bolting the Big 12 for the SEC). Meanwhile, the athletic side of the school would relish going to the SEC. Once again, the SEC would take Oklahoma in a heartbeat without Oklahoma State coming along. The SEC would likely prefer Kansas, as well, provided that the biggest dog of them all of Texas rejects their overtures.

Ah yes – Texas. The Longhorns aren’t oblivious to their rivals to the north. In a perfect world for Texas (as described to me by my Big 12 guy), they would want to join the ACC as full members with… wait for it… Notre Dame. Apparently, the UT people are convinced that the new College Football Playoff system will eventually drive the Irish to join a conference and Texas wants to be right alongside them. In turn, UT would also have Oklahoma and Kansas follow along to create an 18-school ACC behemoth. Texas would be fine with the same type of move to the Big Ten (although Notre Dame is contractually obligated to join the ACC if it chooses to drop independence until 2027, which would seemingly make that prospect impossible). The new Texas leadership doesn’t have the West Coast preference that their leaders circa 2010 had, so any new deal with the Pac-12 seems to be out. At the same time, the SEC continues to be simply a non-starter for the Longhorns.

Personally, I reflexively reject the viability of any realignment move predicated on Notre Dame joining a conference as a football member, where we might as well say that Texas would be willing to join the MAC if Notre Dame comes along with them. Also, the Irish would have 100% made a 4-team playoff in a year like 2012, so I consider any supposed South Bend-based worries about the CFP system to be false hopes for Texas partisans. Until I see actual consternation from Notre Dame itself about today’s college football world, they are going to be an immovable object. In that sense, it seems as though the smoke from Texas is more of a “If we get the PITCH PERFECT deal to move, then sure, we’ll move.”

Contrast this with Oklahoma, where they appear to be making public comments and private moves to put themselves in position to bolt from the Big 12 with merely a passable offer (as opposed to the perfect one that Texas would require). It then becomes a matter of whether it’s worth the risk of breaking the Big 12’s grant of rights of agreement with unpredictable damages claims (which I wrote about a couple of years ago) and/or any political fallout if Oklahoma proactively leaves the Big 12 without Oklahoma State.

If I were running the Big Ten, it’s time to take advantage of one of those rare moments where a national football brand name is essentially begging for offers. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if we assume that Texas, Notre Dame and ACC schools are off the table, then the single most valuable expansion that the Big Ten can have at this point is adding Oklahoma and Kansas. These are two of the most elite blue blood brand names in college football and college basketball, respectively, and their small markets on-paper compared to Eastern options are irrelevant when they can effectively turn the Big Ten Network into a legit national network instead of a mostly regional one (which may become more important as cable cord cutting continues and the TV industry starts moving toward an a la carte or at least less-than-basic cable model). Also note that Kansas actually had the highest third tier TV rights revenue of any Big 12 school prior to the formation of the Longhorn Network, so it has been shown that the BTN can basically charge any price within KU’s market (and presumably OU’s market) and garner a ton of more revenue even with fewer households on paper.

Finally, I’m as much of a Big Ten academic snob as anyone, but Oklahoma’s academic reputation rankings have long been right in line with Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa State despite OU never having had membership in the Association of American Universities. If the Big Ten is fine with Nebraska no longer being an AAU member from an academic standpoint, then that should make any concerns about OU’s academics much less of a roadblock. The prospect of Oklahoma and Kansas moving within the next few years is simply much more likely than schools like Virginia and North Carolina leaving the ACC within the next generation, so an OU/KU combo is the best viable expansion option for the Big Ten by far as of today.

(Image from KOTV)

The comments from University of Oklahoma President David Boren last week voicing his desire for Big 12 expansion has kicked up some dust on conference realignment speculation. National media people such as Andy Staples from Sports Illustrated and Jake Trotter from ESPN have started weighing in on at least the possibility of the Big 12 expanding (even if there is a wide range in opinions about how likely that will be in the near future). The Twitter universe continues to be a source of rumors of all types (and for those of you that follow the NBA closely like I do, this is the most rumor-filled week of the year on Twitter with free agency starting), including the following:

Yeesh. A Paul Finebaum Tweet that quotes Colin Cowherd*. All we need to do is add in the HOT TAKES of Stephen A. Smith and (IMHO, the absolute worst) Skip Bayless and we would have an ESPN shock jock grand slam.

(* What’s interesting is that if you’ve ever heard Cowherd in interviews outside of his own show, he actually comes across as a measured and analytical guy with a ton of business savvy. I didn’t even feel he was out of line in his awkward interview with Jim Harbaugh yesterday that received a lot of attention. Cohwerd reminds me of a sports version of Howard Stern in a way, where I never really enjoyed Stern’s show but it was clear that he was a media business genius. Of course, that makes Cowherd’s liberal use of HOT TAKES on his show that much more disappointing. Finebaum, Smith and Bayless are just plain terrible and don’t know any better.)

It’s all interesting speculation to get people to call in on radio shows, but there’s not much substance. Even if we were to buy that Oklahoma were to go to the SEC, how do we rectify the clash of interests between the Pac-12 Network and the ESPN-owned Longhorn Network if Texas were to go to the Pac-12? I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Texas will never get a better offer than the Pac-16 deal from 2010 that would have brought Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State along with them. That would have given them a power base in a superconference with a division largely made up of their historical rivals. Now, Texas A&M has gone its separate way to the SEC and the Texas TV deal with ESPN complicates any potential move. Honestly, it’s hard to see Texas ever agreeing to be an equal member of any conference. Sure, the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 all want Texas (just as the Big Ten wants Notre Dame), but it’s with the caveat of the Longhorns being an equal member. Outside of the Big 12, the only other viable power conference option would be for Texas to go independent in football and then join the ACC for other sports in the same manner as Notre Dame. This allows Texas to receive the special treatment it desires/needs if it ever wants to leave the Big 12.

That being said, one of the things that I was very wrong about in 2010 was thinking that Texas wanted to get away from the Big 12 members that weren’t bringing in much revenue and that they could make so much more in the Big Ten (or Pac-12 or SEC) by aligning themselves with much stronger brands and markets. Instead, Texas has proven that it wants other schools like Texas Tech and Baylor to be dependent upon them. Notre Dame wants everyone to get off of their lawn as an independent, whereas Texas wants a huge estate with lots of worker bees from Lubbock and Waco. Controlling a conference (even if it’s weak) has shown to be more of an end game for Texas than merely being a member of a strong conference.

With that backdrop of the Texas desire for control, here is a sampling of direct Big 12 expansion Tweets from Dave Sittler over the past few days that conference realignment observers should be much more aware of, as he is known to have very close connections with David Boren and administrators throughout the Big 12:

Putting aside the Big 12’s obvious delusions of grandeur of reverse raiding the Big Ten for Nebraska or adding Notre Dame and/or Florida State, this actually appears to be some legitimate information from someone with contacts with people that control the situation. Follow Sittler’s Twitter timeline for some further comments. Bottom line: Houston has seriously vaulted itself into Big 12 expansion talks. Now, this makes little sense for the Big 12 when looking at the typical goals of power conference realignment, such as expanding into new TV markets and recruiting territories. However, we would be remiss to forget that Texas politics (whether we’re talking about the state itself or the university) effectively control the Big 12 (as Sittler alluded to in his Tweets). The Big 12 was initially formed with heavy demands from then-Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and other Texas politicians in order to get Texas Tech and Baylor to tag along with UT and Texas A&M. It’s a bit of surprise to see such relatively strong statements about Houston’s Big 12 candidacy here, but not completely shocking when looking at the political history of the conference. Back in the midst of conference realignment mania in 2010, I recall then-UT President Bill Powers stating that it was a goal for Houston to become a “Tier 1” university, so there was an acknowledgment even back then of some broader goals to elevate the stature of that school.

This is just my personal reading between the lines, but it’s noteworthy to me that these quotes and sources are coming out of Oklahoma. There isn’t any obvious reason why Oklahoma itself would be pushing Houston specifically over the likes of BYU or Memphis (note that it seems that Cincinnati is still a frontrunner for a Big 12 spot) – it’s hard for me to fathom that the Sooners have a strong feeling either way outside of who can make them the most money. As a result, these aren’t quotes that seem to be pushing a specific school’s agenda, but rather a reflection of what the Big 12 overall is thinking… or more specifically, what Texas is thinking (as the Longhorns do have a very specific interest one way or another about Houston). This is critical because if Texas wants (or outside forces like politicians force them to choose) Houston, then that’s going to be a game-changer for Big 12 expansion candidacies. If a spot is effectively reserved for Houston by the powers that be, then that is going to be disheartening for schools like BYU, Memphis and Tulane. Cincinnati seems to be in good shape with the right combination of a solid athletic program in an advantageous location as a bridge between West Virginia and the rest of the Big 12.

It goes to show you that whatever might seem logical in conference realignment can get changed up by outside forces (such as politicians in the form of a Bob Bullock-type) or personal connections (see how the athletic directors at TCU and Louisville won over their counterparts in the Big 12 and ACC, respectively, while BYU’s personnel seemed to have turned off the Big 12). Who knows when or where Big 12 expansion will happen, but it’s fair to at least move Houston onto the short list of candidates (as opposed to being a complete long-shot) based on these Tweets. These comments carry a lot more weight than what Finebaum and Cowherd are throwing out there. At the same time, if both Texas and Oklahoma want the Big 12 to expand, then expansion will likely happen sooner rather than later.

Have a great Fourth of July!

(Image from Pinterest)

I know that is has been a looooooooong time since my last post. Between coaching basketball and baseball teams for both of my kids and work, it’s been tough to write lately. The patience of the readers and commenters here is sincerely appreciated.

Not much has gone on in the conference realignment world over the past couple of months between a few smaller moves on the margins, such as the Big Ten adding the Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse team as an affiliate member. (They didn’t join the B1G at the same time as the men’s team.) However, University of Oklahoma President David Boren had some interesting direct comments yesterday about Big 12 expansion. Some quotes from NewsOK about his desire for the Big 12 to add teams:

University of Oklahoma President David Boren on Wednesday reiterated his stance that the Big 12 should expand to 12 teams.

“I think it’s something we should strive for while we have the time, stability, all of that to look and be choosy,” Boren said. “(We) can be very selective about who we want to add. It would have to add value to the conference. I think we should.”

Boren said he worried about not only the perception of the league as other major conferences have expanded but there long-term health of such a setup.

“How many years can this go on?” Boren said. “Finally, it just gets to be really debilitating. I worry about that. That’s something I just worry about long-term about the conference, not short term.”

Boren also threw some shade on the Longhorn Network and the notion that the Big 12 TV revenue distributions would be reduced by expansion:

Boren also said without explicitly naming it that the Longhorn Network—which keeps the Big 12 from having a conference network like the SEC, Big 10 and Pac 12—is a big problem for the conference.

“The elephant in the room remains the network south of us that has struggled and has in a way as long as it’s there,” Boren said. “And we have done quite well with our network and if anything ever changed, it has value to it which we see. But someday, maybe we’ll get past that other problem as well. It’s a problem.”

Boren said the problem of reduced revenue per school with expansion wasn’t as big of a hurdle as it had been made out to be.

“The contract says that our main television contract … if we grow from 10 to 11 or 11 to 12, their payments to us grow proportionally,” Boren said. “So everybody’s share stays the same. If it’s ‘X’ dollars, it stays ‘X’ dollars.

“Our main media contract says it’s not the same pie now cut 12 ways instead of 10.”

Boren did say that that only includes the primary television contract, not other revenue that is split between the schools.

“It’s not total because there’s some smaller—much smaller—amounts of money around the edges but if you can find the right people, it should be additive even though it’s split 12 ways instead of 10.”

Boren provides an important confirmation that the Big 12’s first tier TV contracts would increase proportionally in the event of expansion. Essentially, the notion that each Big 12 member’s revenue slice would be reduced in the event of expansion is largely a non-factor. As a result, any potential Big 12 expansion school doesn’t need to show that they would directly increase the value of the league by $20 million (as some Big 12 expansion opponents have suggested) – that increase is already baked into the conference’s TV contracts.

West Virginia Athletic Director Shane Lyons also indicated support for Big 12 expansion earlier this month (albeit athletic directors generally do not drive conference realignment talks in the way that university presidents have done, notwithstanding the efforts of special exceptions such as Tom Jurich of Louisville and

Does this mean that the Big 12 will take my advice and invite BYU and Cincinnati (or Memphis or other potential candidates)? I’ll reiterate my belief that the Big 12 has been focusing on short-term revenue dollars at the expense of long-term stability… and Boren indicates that there isn’t even much of a short-term revenue upside to avoiding further expansion. The worst thing that happened to the Big 12 leadership (and in turn, many of their fans) is that they deluded themselves into believing schools from the ACC (notably Florida State) could possibly be interested in joining the Texas-centric league. Ever since that occurred, the Big 12 has been paralyzed on the expansion front with an overrating of their position in the conference realignment marketplace (which is #5 out of the 5 power conferences). The Big Ten might have initially wanted Texas and Notre Dame (and to be sure, I wanted them as a fan), but the league moved on with adding a national brand in Nebraska and two mega-markets with Rutgers (New York City) and Maryland (Washington/Baltimore). The Pac-12 had a Pac-16 proposal to create a superconference that would have completely upended the college sports world by adding Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado, but when that fell through, the league quickly shifted gears to solidify the Rocky Mountain region with a smaller expansion with Colorado and Utah. The SEC surely would have wanted Texas and Oklahoma, too, but they went out and nabbed Texas A&M and Missouri. The ACC will always dream of getting Notre Dame as a full member while harboring their own delusions of thinking that they could ever raid the Big Ten, but that league still got the Irish to commit to being a non-football member with 5 football games per season against ACC opponents and pilfered much of the value of the old Big East.

The point is that the other 4 power conferences gained more power and adjusted even when they didn’t get their #1 and/or #2 expansion options, whereas the Big 12 simply survived. Now, the Big 12 will always survive as long as Texas stays there. The MAC could add Texas and it would be automatically deemed to be a power league. However, if the Big 12 ever wants to get past mere survival and continuing to be the primary target for raiding by the other power conferences, it needs a more cohesive long-term strategy that doesn’t involve pie-in-the-sky hopes and dreams. The only realistic pool of expansion candidates for the Big 12 exists in the non-power “Group of Five” conferences plus independent BYU. The Big 12 can’t just sit back and wait for much longer – it needs to proactively find a way to extract value from 2 (or even 4) expansion candidates from that group in order to be more than a very regionalized (with a West Virginia appendage) conference.

Otherwise, the words of David Boren should be cautionary to the Big 12: this doesn’t sound like a guy that would turn down an invite from the Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC. Indeed, once you get past the expansion targets that multiple conferences lust after because of their combination of athletic value and academic prestige (i.e. Texas, Notre Dame, North Carolina), Oklahoma is probably the single most valuable school that you could plausibly envision actually moving conferences in the nearish-term (defined as the next 10 years). I’ve stated here previously that if you take away any Texas/Notre Dame/Florida State expansion scenarios, the Big Ten adding Oklahoma and Kansas is probably the most valuable expansion that the league could realistically obtain. Their respective direct markets might not be the largest, but the national brand values of Oklahoma football and Kansas basketball are massive. With the NYC and DC markets already in the fold, the Big Ten Network is not necessarily going to be swayed by market size unless it’s the size of California, Texas or Florida (all of which might be unrealistic). Instead, expansion is about taking the last step of turning the BTN into a true national network, which is something that OU football and KU basketball can do. (Think about how much more attractive the Big Ten West looks as a division with Oklahoma in the fold, too.) On paper, Oklahoma may have some academic issues with the Big Ten since it is not an AAU member, but I believe the conference would look at form over substance in this instance with such an elite national football brand. Oklahoma has long been in the same academic tier as its neighbors of Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, so this would not be a completely outside-the-box expansion. To be sure, it would be a much easier case for OU if it did have AAU membership, but they’re such a valuable potential addition (like non-AAU member Notre Dame) that I think that it would tip the balance.

The massive mountain-sized caveat, though, is that Oklahoma and Kansas aren’t schools that have complete autonomy over their conference decisions. Oklahoma State and Kansas State need to be taken care of if those schools move, which means either (a) the Big 12 can’t collapse (AKA Texas can’t move anywhere else) as a result of OU and KU ditching the league or (b) OSU and KSU have to come along with them as a package. This is big difference from the decisions of Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri leaving the Big 12 and even Texas A&M was able to avoid outside political pressure (which had occurred during the collapse of the Southwest Conference in connection with the formation of the Big 12 and the potential leaving behind of Baylor in the Pac-16 proposal) since Texas had (and still has) such huge financial incentives with the Longhorn Network that provide it with golden handcuffs to the Big 12.

Indeed, the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 would all take Oklahoma in a heartbeat, but the existence of Oklahoma State could limit the options of the Sooners. Note that the Pac-12 turned down an expansion proposal from Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the chaotic days following Texas A&M’s announcement that it was leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, which means that the Pac-12 did NOT reject Oklahoma as an individual expansion candidate. If Oklahoma and Kansas were making that expansion proposal instead, then they would almost assuredly be Pac-12 members today.

Regardless, David Boren is pretty directly stating that Oklahoma isn’t that happy with where the Big 12 is today. Whether OU has any leverage to do anything about it depends upon whether it can act alone (in which case it has all of the options in the world with the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) or needs to do everything in tandem with Oklahoma State (where the only option might be to grit their teeth and stay in the Big 12).

(Image from Wikipedia)

After Iowa State lost within the opening hours of the first round (sic) of the NCAA Tournament, I didn’t even bother checking my bracket (IlliNIT Blues) until yesterday since I had figured my horrible Final Four prognostication skills (having had first weekend losers Iowa State and Villanova in addition to Kentucky and Wisconsin) would leave me in smoldering ashes. So, I was quite surprised to see that I’m second place in my work pool and nearly in the top 5% of the ESPN brackets nationwide. Granted, my entry is guaranteed to have a Harrison Ford-piloted crash like the 1969 Cubs (or 1984 Cubs or 2003 Cubs or 2008 Cubs) since my points possible remaining are extremely low (as in Illinois basketball scoring in crunch time low), but it goes to show you how there’s still life even when half of your Final Four is gone within a 72 hour period.

As noted in last week’s post, the conference realignment front is fairly quiet these days for the power leagues with the exception of the prospect of Arizona State joining Big Ten hockey. However, there are some rumblings in the non-FBS Division I conferences that are basketball-focused, so let’s get the lay of the land:

(1) Big East Expansion (or lack thereof) – The Big East has the ability to poach any non-FBS Division I school that it wants (which is something that not even the Big Ten or SEC can say at the FBS level). Every school from the Atlantic 10, West Coast Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and any other non-FBS league would take a Big East invite immediately. From there, any Big East expansion would have a massive trickle-down effect on the conferences below them. However, the Big East is sort of in the same position as the Big 12: it really does want to expand (regardless of what their respective commissioners and other PR people might say publicly), but the issue is that there aren’t 2 glaringly obvious candidates. As I’ve stated previously, St. Louis University seems to be the main lock for a future Big East invite regardless of how they might be performing on-the-court at any given time. SLU has the TV market, academic institutional fit as a private Catholic university, geographic location as a bridge between Creighton and the rest of the league, and facilities that the Big East is looking for as a total package. So, the primary issue is finding a partner for SLU, which isn’t as clear. Dayton has played very well on-the-court with a great fan base along with being a private Catholic school, but its TV market isn’t as attractive, Xavier is close in proximity, and there’s going to be consternation within the league about adding two Midwestern schools (as opposed to finding at least one Eastern expansion candidate). VCU has also been great on-the-court and has a desirable location, but it’s a large public school that isn’t an institutional fit with the rest of the Big East. Wichita State (which we’ll examine even further in just a moment) has the same institutional fit problems as VCU with a much less desirable location and TV market. Richmond is a great academic school with a solid basketball program, but it competes in the same market as VCU with fewer fans and a lower national profile. Davidson is similar to Richmond and has the advantage of the Charlotte market, but has a very small enrollment and alumni base (albeit wealthy and academically elite).

If I were a betting person, SLU and Dayton are still the odds-on favorites to eventually get into the Big East once it decides to expand. I feel that the fact that VCU is a public school ultimately tanks their candidacy even though they are attractive on virtually all other factors that the Big East desires in terms of location, TV market, fan base and location. Wichita State has never been a realistic Big East candidate since their issues are much broader beyond being just a public university (as you’ll see below). Richmond might be able to wedge into the mix if they can get some more high profile NCAA Tournament runs – as of now, their on-the-court attributes are going to matter more than their off-the-court attributes (which already fit well with the Big East).

For now, the biggest emerging challenger to Dayton for spot #12 in the Big East is Davidson. The small number of students at Davidson isn’t optimal, but the Big East has always been more of a TV league dependent upon casual large market fans as opposed to an alumni-based league (unlike the Big Ten and SEC). Davidson is within the Charlotte TV market, has legitimately elite level academics, performs well on-the-court, and would address the wariness of Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s of adding two Midwestern schools. So, keep an eye out on Davidson on the Big East expansion front.

(2) Wichita State: Nowhere to Run – The non-FBS school that I get asked about the most lately regarding switching conferences is Wichita State (and that has accelerated this past week with their current Sweet Sixteen run). I certainly understand the fan love – as you can see from my bracket, I have the Shockers going to the Elite Eight (and as far off as I was on Iowa State, I was equally convinced that Wichita State would come out blazing against Kansas). However, as much as Wichita State was wrongly underrated by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee this year, the school is overrated by most sports fans as a conference realignment candidate. When I started writing about conference realignment with the Big Ten expansion index, my credo was always: “Think like a university president, not like a sports fan.” Wichita State is a perfect example of the disconnect between the thought processes of sports fans and university presidents. Sports fans see Wichita State as a school with great fans and astounding on-the-court success with a recent Final Four appearance and a memorable takedown of Kansas to get to the Sweet Sixteen this year. However, university presidents see Wichita State as a non-flagship public school that’s ranked in the 200s in the U.S. News rankings that’s located in a small TV market with little recruiting value (whether for athletes or “regular” college students). Remember that university presidents care just as much about what a school brings to the table when it’s awful on-the-field/court compared to how well it’s performing at its peak. Wichita State is a classic case of looking great for fans when they’re playing well, but it’s extremely tough for university presidents to see their value when they’re not playing well (as they’re not bringing academic prestige, an institutional fit, a major TV market, etc.).

Just look at the conferences that would be a step up from the MVC for Wichita State. The Big East, as noted above, is one of the most institutionally-aligned conferences outside of the Big Ten and Ivy League, where all members are private urban schools with a basketball focus. As a result, Wichita State simply isn’t a viable Big East candidate. The Atlantic-10 has some public universities, but it’s still more similar to the Big East as being private school-centric and the league may very well retrench from the Midwest if/when the Big East takes SLU. The American Athletic Conference (AAC) and Mountain West Conference (MWC) don’t seem interested at all in adding non-football members, so Wichita State won’t be considered. Even the West Coast Conference (which is a geographic stretch for Wichita State) has the same type of private school lineup as the Big East.

Unfortunately for Wichita State, it doesn’t matter how well the Shockers might perform on-the-court. Much like the power conference invite prospects for UConn (who has been an elite men’s and women’s basketball power), the off-the-court issues prevail in conference realignment and, as the old adage goes, “It takes two to tango.” Wichita State can want to leave the MVC all that it wants, but the conferences hold the power here. It’s not Wichita State’s choice to make to leave, so its only realistic option is to strengthen the MVC.

 (3) MVC Expansion and UAB (and the Chain Reaction for the Horizon League and Others) – Fortunately for Wichita State, the debacle of UAB getting its football program stripped by the University of Alabama power brokers in Tuscaloosa (with new allegations that it was a predetermined decision that was railroaded through the UAB leadership) might end up having a solid UAB basketball program that just scored a huge upset of my Final Four pick Iowa State fall right into the laps of the MVC. Conference USA appears to want to have all members to have football, so the league may kick out UAB for having had the misfortune of being governed by self-interested political appointees from a more powerful campus. As a result, UAB’s future conference membership for basketball and other sports is in flux, with reporting that there is mutual interest between UAB and the MVC. As horrible as the UAB football situation has been, the MVC would be about as good of a landing spot for the UAB basketball program as it could reasonably expect and, in turn, UAB is about as good of an expansion candidate that the MVC could realistically invite.

If the MVC adds UAB, the league would be unlikely to stay at just 11 members. This means that it will have to find a 12th school somewhere, which could then cause a chain reaction throughout many of the non-FBS conferences below them. When the MVC was exploring expansion a couple of years ago and ultimately decided upon inviting Loyola, the league had explored UIC and Valparaiso of the Horizon League heavily. This makes sense from a university president perspective – all 3 of Loyola, UIC and Valpo are located in the Chicago market, which is where a disproportionate number of MVC students and alums live. (A notable exception to this is Wichita State, which doesn’t have much of an alumni presence in the Chicago area.) The basketball fans within the MVC would probably prefer a pure on-the-court-focused addition like Murray State (although Valpo does have some on-the-court bona fides), but I’d expect MVC school #12 to be another Chicago market school. The demographics of the MVC generally look like the old Big 8, which isn’t sustainable for a league for the long-term. The irony is that Wichita State, the most important school in the MVC, would likely be unhappy about another Chicago area school, yet the rest of the MVC membership knows that Wichita State can’t go anywhere else for the reasons set forth above (which means that the most valuable school in the conference might have the least say in expansion matters).

This prospect of MVC expansion might be why the Horizon League commissioner has already said that it’s in the “active phase” of expansion and the league would likely expand in the near future. The Horizon League has already been interested in schools like Northern Kentucky (currently in the Atlantic Sun) and Belmont (an Ohio Valley Conference member) and the conference may need to also backfill in the event that it gets raided by the MVC (which could put Summit League schools such as Nebraska-Omaha into play).

As you can see, even one move by a smaller conference like the MVC could end up triggering large repercussions throughout Division I conferences. If the Big East were to expand, it could cause mass-scale change for non-FBS conferences on the level that we saw in 2010-2013. Of course, if the Big 12 were to expand, then all bets are truly off throughout college sports.

(Image from Fox Sports)

After a long Chicagoland winter that included coaching my twins (and future hopes and saviors for the Illini men’s and women’s basketball programs) in the Naperville YMCA Kindergarten Basketball League, it’s time to get back to blogging. Fortunately, not much has occurred on the conference realignment scene since December when the Big 12 was coming right off of the sting of being left out of the College Football Playoff. After some expansion rumors that included Cincinnati and Memphis, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and his conference brethren have a long string of denials about any desire or need to expand. Personally, I don’t believe them – I think the Big 12 is fully aware that they need to expand for the long-term. Whether the Big 12 has any consensus on who they should expand with is an entirely different matter, particularly when those additions will need to come from the pool of non-power schools.

Interestingly enough, the latest expansion scuttlebutt is coming from the Big Ten. Granted, it’s only for hockey, but it’s still an intriguing indicator for the Big Ten’s overall plans (as you’ll see further down in this post). The Minneapolis Star Tribune had an in-depth article last week about how Penn State’s successful start to its hockey program is spurring schools across the Big Ten and the rest of the country to consider adding the sport. Arizona State recently announced that it will be starting a Division I hockey program… and according to the Star Tribune, the Sun Devils have been speaking to the Big Ten about its conference home on the ice:

Arizona State and the Big Ten both confirmed they’ve discussed a hockey future together. An outside school competing in one Big Ten sport already occurs in men’s lacrosse with Johns Hopkins.

Two other conferences with a major presence in the Midwest, the WCHA and the NCHC, are also engaged in conversations with the Sun Devils.

“I think being in a conference with like institutions is important,” [Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer] Heppel said. “[Arizona State] is going to have to think about that from an institutional and sport perspective. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have a historic relationship.”

Heppel oversees men’s hockey for the Big Ten, so her on-the-record quotes directly about Arizona State indicate that this isn’t a fly-by-night rumor.

My knee-jerk reaction: Sounds good to me. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has said before that the Phoenix market is actually home to more Big Ten alums than Pac-12 alums. If you’ve ever visited the Phoenix/Scottsdale area (particularly in the winter and spring), you could certainly believe it with the overwhelming number of Midwestern transplants and retirees (even compared to other Sun Belt locations like Florida). Phoenix/Scottsdale is to Chicago snowbirds as Miami/Ft. Lauderdale is to New York City snowbirds. Arizona State isn’t an AAU institution as of now, but it’s one of the largest universities in the country with respected graduate programs (even with the party school and Girls Gone Wild reputations of its undergrad population). Plus, the fact that Arizona State is in the Big Ten’s brother of the Pac-12 makes a bit easier to envision the Sun Devils as a hockey member compared to, say, Notre Dame.

At the same time, the Big Ten has the opportunity to make this into a broader relationship beyond hockey. For example, imagine if Arizona State commits to playing 1 or 2 Big Ten football teams per year, 2 to 3 non-conference basketball games, and several non-conference baseball games (where the Big Ten legitimately needs help from a powerhouse in that sport like ASU). That’s not a huge commitment from either Arizona State (and they may have wanted to schedule those types of non-conference games on their own, anyway) or the Big Ten, yet it starts building a more in-depth presence in the Phoenix area, which is a key market for Big Ten alums.

A related consideration is if other Big Ten schools will start adding hockey to further grow the league organically. If I had $100 million to spare, I’d start up an Illinois hockey program tomorrow. Alas, I don’t have that type of coin laying around and it doesn’t appear to be coming from other possible benefactors (such as the rumored interest of Jimmy John Liautaud, who is the founder of Jimmy John’s). This is unfortunate since the Illini hockey club has performed well for decades along with having a passionate fan base and that could be supercharged if it turned into the only Division I hockey program in the state of Illinois. Alas, Illinois has everything that it needs from a competition and fan base standpoint to support hockey, but none of the financial support right now.

Instead, from what I’ve heard for at least the past year, Nebraska is by far the closest to jumping up to Division I hockey. The Cornhuskers’ new Pinnacle Bank Arena has icemaking capabilities and the school is also opening a new separate ice arena that can easily be used as a practice facility. Since Nebraska has the expensive physical facilities in place already, they’ve already fought the vast majority of the battle in starting a program. Nebraska has a top tier fundraising operation, as well, so they can get the money into place once they’re given the green light. There have been rumblings about Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa looking at hockey, but if you’re a betting person, you should wager heavily on Nebraska as the next existing Big Ten school to add the sport.

What does this mean for Big Ten fans that don’t care about college hockey? Well, one open question is whether the possibility of Arizona State joining the Big Ten hockey league means that it will blow open the door for more affiliate Big Ten members in hockey or other sports. From my vantage point, not necessarily. Just as Johns Hopkins was a special case as a Big Ten affiliate in being an academic and men’s lacrosse powerhouse, Arizona State hits a lot of metrics for the Big Ten in terms of being in the Phoenix market and a friendly Pac-12 for other sports that don’t exist for other members. Big Ten hockey fans might dream of adding the likes of Boston University, Boston College and Notre Dame if the league were to let in Arizona State, but that doesn’t seem likely (not the least of which is the fact that the Hockey East is a tough nut to crack even with dangling the prestige of the Big Ten). Instead, look at some of the more unique outliers that wouldn’t have the same poaching hurdles. For instance, MIT has Division I men’s and women’s rowing (where just as Johns Hopkins is Division III for all sports except lacrosse, MIT is Division III for all sports except rowing). Could that be leveraged into a relationship between MIT (which would be academic dynamite for the Big Ten presidents) and the Big Ten? What about academically prestigious schools in the Sun Belt that could add firepower to Big Ten baseball, such as Rice or University of California system members? The possibilities are endless, but the Big Ten is also likely to be very conservative in its affiliate member picks.

Separately, the Big Ten is on the precipice of negotiating new TV deals that will start after the 2016-17 season. As Ed Sherman pointed out in the Chicago Tribune last week, the Big Ten is in a great position as the only major pro or college sports property to come onto the market for the rest of this decade. It can expect Fox to bid aggressively for tier 1 rights as well as current rights holder ESPN. In my opinion, the Big Ten will likely end up with a setup similar to the Pac-12, where tier 1 rights are split between ABC/ESPN and Fox while the rest go to its conference network of the BTN. I don’t think there’s much chance of the Big Ten taking all of its rights to Fox even if Rupert Murdoch makes a blood money Godfather offer. The ratings for Big East basketball on FS1 have been depressing beyond belief and, contrary to the rantings of some Big East haters out there, it has nothing to do with the Big East conference itself. Any random game on ESPN and, for that matter, ESPN2, is going to have a massive amount of more exposure compared to the exact same game on FS1. That speaks to a problem with the channel itself – it depresses ratings simply by channel location whereas ESPN boosts ratings.

Believe me – exposure matters greatly to the Big Ten. The money obviously matters, but that money is only there because the Big Ten has had the best TV exposure of any conference for decades. As Sherman noted in his column, the Big Ten had ESPN, CBS and BTN (a partial Fox property) all covering portions of the Big Ten Tournament. That’s akin to the setup that the NFL has – they’re essentially getting paid a lot of money by everybody in the media business. I don’t think the Big Ten is going to step away from that approach – they want as many high profile outlets covering their games as possible. So, I don’t see the Big Ten being willing to move games from ABC and ESPN to FS1 and FS2. Regardless of how Big Ten fans might personally feel about ESPN commentators (and IMHO, Big Ten fans complain too much about them as a whole), it’s horrific for conference exposure to move off of the Worldwide Leader. However, I could certainly see the Big Ten being happy with games that are currently on ESPNU and ESPNEWS being moved to over-the-air Fox and FS1. That points to maximum exposure with a ton of checks being cashed from Disney and Fox with some side basketball money from CBS.

With that, it’s time to fill out my bracket and prepare for watching basketball in the middle of the day. (My Final Four picks: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova and Iowa State, with Kentucky over Villanova in the national championship game.) Enjoy the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament!

(Image from

With our first regular season of the College Football Playoff over, I’ve got to paraphrase the ESPN commercials that have been running all year: I’M IN. It’s not perfect, as I’ve had my issues with the CFP committee and my optimal dream is to have an 8-team playoff with auto-bids for the 5 power conference champions (assuming that they are all “one true champions”), but from a pure unattached sports fan perspective (outside of sweating out whether my 6-6 Illini would actually have a bowl slot), having multiple teams from multiple conferences still legitimately in the hunt on Championship Saturday with a whole slate of games with massive stakes is a huge improvement over the old BCS system. There have been too many years where fans have been left with entrenched teams at #1 and #2  in the BCS rankings and/or several power conferences completely out of the national title chase for the last anticlimactic month of the season from a national viewpoint. That definitely wasn’t a problem this season – it felt as if though there were multiple de facto playoff games every week with a broad cross section of teams from all of the 5 power conferences (although the unrequited love for the SEC West got be suffocating after awhile). This is what I was hoping for when I wrote my “BCS Final Four” proposal four years ago that ended up looking a lot like what the new CFP system turned out to be today. It would have been nice if the Rose Bowl could have still received a traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup, but most sports fans aren’t going to be complaining about Oregon vs. Florida State and Alabama vs. Ohio State on New Year’s Day in a survive and advance doubleheader.

Of course, in the blog/Twitter niche that I’ve staked out, the question that I’m getting the most right now is whether the CFP committee’s snub of the Big 12 and its co-champions of Baylor and TCU will spur that conference to finally expand. Indeed, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has stated that the league coming up empty in playoff bids “will certainly be catalyst for discussion and [the Big 12 will] have to weight whether this is substantial enough to add institutions.” Now, I have been an advocate of Big 12 expansion (with Cincinnati and BYU as the top two choices) and believe that the conference badly wants two obvious non-power conference teams to rise up on their own as expansion targets (in the way that Utah and TCU had made names for themselves a few years ago in the Mountain West Conference) no matter how much they tout their company line about being happy at 10 members. However, the effect of College Football Playoff bids on conference realignment is a red herring. The Big 12’s weak TV markets, population demographics, and recruiting areas outside of the state of Texas are really what the conference needs to worry about addressing through expansion in the long-term. Conferences don’t expand to get more playoff teams; instead, conferences expand to make more money. Those might be related issues, but they aren’t one and the same. Ohio State completely taking Wisconsin out to the woodshed had more of an effect on Baylor (or TCU or whoever the Big 12 wanted to name its champ)* not getting into the playoff than the lack of a Big 12 conference championship game.

(* To be sure, I’m happy that the CFP committee didn’t end up rewarding the hypocritical and contradictory statements that Bowlsby has made over the last 6 months, whether that snub was intentional or unintentional. The misguided arrogance to have an entire league marketing campaign based on “One True Champion” touting the round-robin schedule and then blatantly backtrack to attempt to get two schools into the playoff by naming co-champions was rightly punished by the karmic sports gods.)

Even when looking at conference realignment through the prism of the new playoff system, most writers and fans have had the Big 12 expansion analysis backwards: The financial value of a conference championship game isn’t tied to how it helps (or hurts) a conference in getting into the new College Football Playoff. Instead, the critical question is how much the new College Football Playoff adds to the financial value of a conference championship game itself. The Big Ten signed a contract with Fox a few years ago that was worth over $24 million per year just in TV rights alone for the conference championship game. Remember that contract was signed in the BCS era where the ratings for conference championship games that didn’t involve a potential national championship game participant were often mediocre. With the top 4 CFP system, though, the chances are vastly increased that every conference championship game will have national title implications every year, which in turn drives up the value of those games significantly. (The SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 conference championship games all drew great overnight ratings over the weekend, even with the Ohio State-Wisconsin game being completely non-competitive after about the first half-hour.) If consolation Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl games are worth $40 million each to their participating conferences, then the conference championship games are arguably worth even more in this new system. The conference championship games are de facto playoff games that can be guaranteed every single year and easily monetized with 100% of the revenue controlled by the applicable conference. Sure, a league like the Big 12 could regularly end up having an important game on the last weekend of the season, such as the Baylor-Kansas State game this past Saturday, but the Big 12 can’t sell that matchup ahead of time for $50 million or more in the way that the Big Ten will likely be able to do with its conference championship game when it enters into a new TV contract in a couple of years. If/when we start seeing money being thrown around at those levels, then the financial argument for expansion becomes much more compelling for the Big 12 (whether it’s actually helpful for on-the-field playoff bids or not).

Considering all that has transpired over the past few days, it makes some comments last week on a Nashville radio station about the prospect of the Big 12 adding Cincinnati and Memphis (which I also discussed on Twitter on Friday) all the more interesting. I’m pretty cautious about giving too much credence to these types of rumors since sooooooooo many have turned into nothing over the years, but I’ll say this particular scenario is at least one that I’ve heard about separately prior to Friday. So, I’d put it in the plausible category – it might be a bit surprising if the Big 12 heads down that road, but it wouldn’t be shocking. IF the Big 12 decides that it wants/needs to expand (which is really the threshold question above everything else), then the reality is that (a) it’s not realistic at all that the Big 12 is going to poach anyone from the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 or ACC and (b) there’s no perfect football power-in-waiting available at the non-power “Group of Five” level. This means that Big 12 expansion candidates are inherently going to have some flaws and aren’t going to make hearts palpitate for the average fan. However, it’s very possible that any two random schools picked off the street could pay for themselves with how much conference championship games can be worth in the new CFP world.

Readers of this blog know that I have quite a bit of respect for Cincinnati and wrote in the Big 12 Expansion Index that it’s the one “obvious” expansion choice for the Big 12 (to the extent that there are any obvious choices at all). Memphis didn’t fare quite as well in that analysis from a year ago and it was mainly based on its historic football ineptitude. That being said, I’ve also always acknowledged that any school with a great basketball fan base (i.e. UConn, Memphis, San Diego State, New Mexico, etc.) could do wonders for its conference realignment prospects if it could merely be competent in football. (I’d also say the same thing about quality academic schools in attractive locations, as well – see how much Tulane and Rice could be worth if they could string a few winning seasons together.) Memphis with a solid football program can certainly be a financially viable addition and it’s in a recruiting rich area for both football and basketball players. While its market is in SEC territory, it’s a split area for football (mainly between Tennessee and Ole Miss), has shown to be unified for Memphis basketball, and it’s a region that isn’t oversaturated with power school competition (much like Cincinnati where it’s a great recruiting region with “only” Ohio State as an in-state competitor and it’s located on the outer geographic band of the flagship’s sphere of influence). In contrast, the states of Texas, Florida and North Carolina are overloaded with power conference schools already, which is a negative for the prospects of schools like UCF, USF, Houston and East Carolina even if they have a lot of other positive conference realignment attributes going for them.

This certainly isn’t a proverbial slam dunk. Like I’ve said, the threshold question is whether the Big 12 wants to expand at all (as they are awaiting feedback on their proposal to the NCAA to allow for leagues with less than 12 schools to hold a conference championship game). At the same time, Memphis isn’t suddenly a no-brainer addition – there are plenty of open issues, particularly whether its academic reputation would satisfy Texas and if its football success this past year is sustainable. Looking at conference realignment in a vacuum, the two most valuable Group of 5 schools are arguably BYU and UConn, so who knows how the Big 12 views either of those schools. I’ll re-state my firm belief that BYU would be a fantastic fit for the Big 12 both on-the-field and financially, but acknowledge that it’s the most unpredictable school that I’ve seen over the past few years of conference realignment both in terms of its own actions and how the rest of the Big 12 perceives the school. If the Big 12 expands and BYU is somehow passed over, then it would be a clear inverse of the Michael Corleone credo: “It’s not business, it’s just personal”. UConn is in a tough spot because it’s not a very good fit at all for the Big 12 culturally or geographically, yet it still needs to push hard for a place in that league since it doesn’t have any other power conference options forthcoming in the near future. It’s all an interesting set of circumstances right now. The last couple of spots in the Big 12 might be the final power conference additions that the college sports world will see in this generation, so the stakes are massive for those schools that have a viable chance.

(Image from Wikipedia)