Archive for the ‘Big Ten’ Category

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)

Every once in awhile, there’s a bandwagon worth jumping onto, so I’ve taken the Ice Bucket Challenge (you can see my son dousing me with my daughter filming here on YouTube) and made a donation to the ALS Association. I challenge all of the readers here to do the same. Also, if you haven’t done so already, please watch this great ESPN piece on former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who inspired the Ice Bucket Challenge. Onto some of the last mailbag questions of the summer:

This is referring to a list of “Winners and Losers” from the great Mr. SEC regarding the SEC Network. Generally, I agree with his overall premise: the SEC Network is going to be extremely successful and fill the coffers of the likes of Ole Miss and Mississippi State as well as the Alabamas and Floridas of the world. I’m actually more optimistic about SEC TV ratings than Mr. SEC (which he listed as a “loser”) since many of the SEC Network games will be ones that would otherwise have been in the old ESPN Regional syndication package or as part of individual schools’ third tier rights deals similar to how the BTN largely took the Big Ten’s old ESPN Regional syndication package to a national audience. The BTN hasn’t really impacted the national ratings of the best Big Ten games (and instead expanded the audience for lower tier games), so I’d expect the same with the SEC.

On the other hand, ESPN has been using a bit of puffery when it states that the SEC Network is “available” in 90 million homes. Being “available” is quite different than actually being subscribed to in those homes – the SEC Network could be “available” in a home but such home may not be able to receive it on a basic tier or without having to buy a sports pack. A network only gets a fee if it’s actually subscribed to in a home instead of being merely available. For example, the mothership ESPN itself is has nearly 100 million actual subscribers, so it’s getting $5.00 or more per month for every single one of those households. (That’s why ESPN is very literally the most powerful media company on Earth today, and that’s saying something considering that it’s part of the ubiquitous Walt Disney Company that has been eating my credit card over the past several months with a spring break trip to Disney World, buying Disney Princess, Frozen, Marvel and Star Wars toys for my kids’ birthdays, etc.)

To be sure, the BTN is just as guilty of trumpeting of the artificially high “available homes” number in many of its press releases. There will inevitably be a lot of comparisons between the SEC Network and BTN, but at the end of the day, they have similarly-sized geographic footprints where their networks are carried on basic cable on very high rates and then will be carried at lower rates and/or on sports packs outside such footprints. The SEC Network essentially gets the SEC back on more of an even TV revenue playing field with the Big Ten… at least until the Big Ten enters into brand new first tier/high second tier national TV deals in a couple of years that most observers believe will completely blow away any other college sports deal signed up to this point.

l received several questions about the Ed O’Bannon case, where the NCAA was found to be in violation of antitrust law for prohibiting players from receiving compensation for the use of their names, images and likenesses (i.e. video games, apparel, etc.).

My general feeling over the past several years is that the NCAA has been unbelievably and incredibly misguided and naive about student-athlete compensation issues. Regardless of fans’ feelings on either side of the debate about whether student-athletes should be paid, it continues to boggle my mind from a practical standpoint that the NCAA’s argument has essentially been reliant on tradition (“It has always been done this way!”) with an all-or-nothing zero sum approach. The problem is that once you find even isolated examples where players bring more than “nothing” in terms of market value, the entire crux of the argument breaks down in front of a judge. That’s exactly what occurred in the O’Bannon case.

Still, if the NCAA looks at the O’Bannon ruling from a rational practical standpoint, it’s actually a positive ruling for them where the judge allowed for a trust fund cap of $5,000 per year. Of course, the NCAA won’t look at it that way – it will continue to make the all-or-nothing zero sum argument on appeal because it doesn’t have any sense to take what was essentially a compromise ruling and run with it. Now, the NCAA opens itself up on appeal to the argument that even the $5,000 trust fund cap shouldn’t apply and there ought to be unlimited compensation available to student-athletes, which could very well happen with the liberal and labor-friendly U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

I’ve been fairly upfront on this blog that I’m an ardent free marketer when it comes to college sports: conferences and schools should be free to make whatever arrangements that are best for them to maximize revenue and, in turn, student-athletes should be able to seek compensation commensurate with their free market value from such conferences and schools in the same manner. (Antitrust economist Andy Schwarz had an excellent breakdown of college athlete compensation issues on Deadspin earlier this month. I’m firmly on the side of “Team Market” as opposed to “Team Reform”.) Even if you personally don’t agree with me (and based on the comments on previous posts, I know that many of you don’t), the reality is that the O’Bannon case is only the start of the college sports world heading in that market-based direction.

The Big East won’t ever end up as part of the Power 5 conferences from an NCAA autonomy perspective. FBS football is such a dominant and driving force with respect to NCAA autonomy issues that having the Big East (or any other non-football league) as part of the “cartel” is a non-starter. The Big Ten and SEC don’t want conferences that aren’t dealing with football to have any say over what are largely football-driven decisions. That being said, the Big East isn’t really any worse off than the Group of 5 non-power FBS conferences within the NCAA structure itself. The marketplace is really where the Big East can distinguish itself – the league (despite low ratings) have an excellent TV deal with Fox that pays it more for only basketball than what any of the Group of 5 conferences (including the American Athletic Conference that has the remnants of the old Big East football league) are getting paid for TV rights for both football and basketball. The Big East also has a new non-conference challenge set up with the Big Ten next season, which indicates that it is considered to be a power conference for basketball purposes. It’s not an easy world out there for leagues that aren’t part of the Power 5, but the Big East may very well be the healthiest of any of them despite not playing any FBS football.

Enjoy the last days of a “Fancy”/”Rude” summer* and be sure to take the Ice Bucket Challenge if you haven’t done so already. Only one more week until the college football season starts!

(* You won’t be able to make it through this list of top songs from each summer for the last 20 years without either laughing uproariously at or being mortified about what we were listening to back in the day. There are some badly dated duds every year, but I have fond memories of the summers of 1992, 1997 and 2007.)

(Video from YouTube)

I don’t exactly have a perfect record of predictions on this blog (as evidenced by the regular stream of friendly visitors from TexAgs that still remind me of what I wrote about Texas A&M and SEC expansion a few years ago), but one big picture issue that I understood from day one (meaning literally right when it was announced in 2006) was that the Big Ten Network would be a massive game changer for the conference and college sports overall. What others saw as vanity project destined to fail compared to the SEC’s then-traditional TV deal with ESPN, with the harshest criticism coming from Big Ten country itself, I looked at as the platform to turn the Big Ten into the New York Yankees of college sports financially. Many sports fans look at the BTN as shooting fish in a barrel money-wise now, but a lot of them have collective amnesia about how much criticism the network took in its first year of existence (including Tom Izzo publicly calling it a “PR nightmare”) and beyond when the SEC signed what was a then-large guaranteed deal with ESPN in 2008. Even when the Big Ten initially announced that it was looking to expand in 2009, many commentators didn’t bother taking into account how much the BTN would drive the process. If it wasn’t clear with the addition of Nebraska (which, despite its small market, could effectively have the BTN charge whatever it wanted to games and Husker fans would pay up), it was blatantly obvious with the expansion with Rutgers (New York/New Jersey market) and Maryland (Washington, DC/Baltimore market).

So, I can imagine how satisfied Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and the rest of the conference officials must feel with the BTN on the precipice of capturing the great white whale of college sports: the New York City market. According to the Star-Ledger, BTN has entered into deals with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision for basic cable carriage of the channel in the NYC area (with discussions with Comcast moving along well). That means every the BTN (and by, extension, every Big Ten school) is going to receive a significant chunk of change from each Time Warner Cable and Cablevision basic subscriber covered under the deal. (Awful Announcing had a back-of-the-napkin calculation of at least $48 million per year for the Big Ten just from this single carriage deal, although that likely overstates the immediate impact since it doesn’t take into account Fox’s 51% ownership interest in the network and various expenses. Still, this market represents tens of millions of dollars per year for the Big Ten solely based on the BTN.) The skeptics of whether Rutgers would pay off for the Big Ten (myself included) are about to eat crow. This was the financial end game for the Big Ten when the expansion process began nearly 5 years ago: the addition of a massive market the size of either Texas or New York for the BTN. The Texas Longhorns weren’t willing partners on the former, so the Big Ten moved onto the latter.

Frankly, the fact that the BTN was able to negotiate a deal this quickly (several months before football season starts) in any part of the New York DMA was surprising (and bodes very well for the Washington and Baltimore markets where Maryland has a stronger sports presence compared to Rutgers in the New York area). Cable and satellite industry consolidation (the ongoing regulatory approval process of the Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable and AT&T’s newly announced deal to acquire DirecTV) is likely in the backdrop, while BTN co-owner Fox has the ability to leverage its cross-ownership of YES (and there isn’t much more powerful programming in the NYC market than Yankees games).

Now, no one should be naive enough to believe that this cable TV money train will run into perpetuity. Cord cutting is on the rise and that will likely continue to accelerate among non-sports fans that can get their programming fixes from online sources such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. However, sports are still the killer app when it comes to live TV, which is why NBC/Comcast signed yet another expensive long-term extension of its Olympics rights that will last until I’m close to retirement age in 2032. Meanwhile, the Big Ten itself is gearing up to go to market with its first tier sports rights (with the new contract starting for the 2016 2017 football season) and will almost assuredly sign what will be the largest TV deal in college sports history without even including BTN money in the equation.*

(* For what it’s worth and this is strictly my semi-educated guess, but I believe that the Big Ten will end up with a split of rights between ESPN and Fox similar to how the Pac-12 and Big 12 deals are structured. It makes sense from the exposure and financial perspectives, while ESPN and Fox have clearly shown a willingness to partner with each other on large deals. The latest example of this is the recently-announced MLS/US Soccer deal with ESPN and Fox splitting the rights.)

With the Midwest having a lower proportion of the US population each year**, the East Coast has become a critical focus for the Big Ten out of necessity. The recent announcements of the Big Ten/Big East basketball challenge and the awarding of the Big Ten Tournament to the Verizon Center in Washington, DC in 2017 are important pieces to the league’s Eastern strategy, but the BTN carriage is definitely the clinching factor in all of the B1G plans.

(** Note that this different than the gross misnomer of the Midwest “losing population” that is often perpetuated in the national media, which simply isn’t true. What’s occurring is that the Midwest’s growth is much slower than other regions of the country. Granted, the legacy populations of places like Illinois, Ohio and Michigan are still extremely large to the point where it would still take many years, if not decades, for smaller faster growing states to catch up to them.)

(Image from CBS Chicago)

I’ve been getting a lot of requests for comment on some proposed legislation by an Illinois state representative from Naperville to have a feasibility study performed on whether another Illinois public university can be added to the Big Ten. Here is the full text of the proposed bill. Note that I actually live in Naperville, but the applicable representative (Michael Connelly) doesn’t represent the portion of town that I live in.

Most people that have a passing understanding of conference realignment know that the odds of the feasibility of the Big Ten expanding with any school from the state of Illinois is less than zero (but we’ll spell it out here for any first time readers that haven’t been paying attention to this issue for the past several years). First of all, what the Illinois State Legislature wants is completely irrelevant to Big Ten expansion. They might have some control over the University of Illinois specifically, but Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and every other Big Ten school (even Northwestern) would laugh off any attempt for some type of legislative intervention. Second, a viable Big Ten candidate needs a combination of FBS football credentials, academic prowess (preferably membership in the Association of American Universities, which is an extremely select group of top tier research institutions) and, most importantly of all, additional media value in the form of new TV markets and/or a national brand name (i.e. Notre Dame). Considering that the entire state of Illinois is already receiving the Big Ten Network at the maximum cable carriage rate, any additional school from the state would add exactly $0 in TV revenue for the conference. That would actually mean that all other Big Ten universities would lose money with an Illinois-based expansion by splitting the pie further without making the overall pie larger… and the Big Ten isn’t making moves in order to lose money. Plus, the only other public university that even plays FBS football is Northern Illinois, who isn’t anywhere near AAU status on the academic front (and realistically never will be with its mission). If the State of Illinois wants to spend a single dime on whether it’s feasible for another public university here to join the Big Ten, then the legislature is flushing money down the toilet that it doesn’t have.

That being said, let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater on what ought to be the real intent of this legislation: creating a stronger #2 public university in the State of Illinois behind the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (abbreviated as UIUC for ease of discussion here, although I’ve always thought that was a clumsy abbreviation as an Illinois grad) regardless of any Big Ten prospects (which are non-existent in reality). What I hope is that my fellow Naperville native can’t possibly be this naive and is just using the Big Ten name as a headline grabber in order to shine the light on the very real problem that the academic quality gap between UIUC and the rest of the state’s public universities is so large that Illinois high school grads are heading to out-of-state colleges at a rate that dwarfs almost every other state in the country.

In the typical competitive Chicago suburban high school, the top 5% of the class or so is generally gunning for the Ivy League and Ivy-caliber schools (i.e. Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, etc.). The next 5% is the group that UIUC generally targets (with a little bit of variation depending upon the program – engineering and business require top 5% credentials these days, whereas an applicant might be able to get by with being in the top 15% for liberal arts). Regardless, an Illinois high school grad is pretty well-covered if he or she is in the top 10% of his/her high school class and the 90th percentile in SAT or ACT scores.

The problem is the massive academic reputation gap between UIUC  and the rest of the in-state schools. For the very large group of kids that rank between the top 10% and top 30% of their class (people that still have good-but-not-elite grades and test scores and make up a huge share of the college student population), UIUC is getting too tough to get into while the rest of the in-state schools are way too easy to get into in relation to their credentials. There’s no compelling option in-between that’s a solid fit for that group of students. In the latest US News rankings for undergraduate programs at national universities, UIUC is ranked #41 in the nation, but then there isn’t another Illinois public school until the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) at #128. Farther down the list are Illinois State (#152), Northern Illinois (#177) and Southern Illinois (#177). It just so happens that neighboring schools like Indiana, Purdue, Iowa and Missouri are in the top 100 of the US News rankings and have admissions standards that perfectly align to those top 10%-30% students that can’t get into UIUC, so Illinois kids go to those schools in massive numbers* and are willing to pay out-of-state tuition for them (which is still relatively less expensive compared to a lot of lower-ranked private university options). According to the Chicago Tribune, there was an outflow of 30,000 freshmen students from Illinois to out-of-state schools and an inflow of 17,000 last year, which is a negative outflow of 13,000.** The academic quality gap is exactly why this is occurring.

(* Last year, the Chicago Tribune put together this fascinating database of where Illinois high school students currently go to out-state colleges. Not surprisingly, schools in neighboring states drew the largest numbers, with Iowa and Missouri having more than 1000 Illinois students each in their respective freshmen classes last year, while Indiana, Marquette, Wisconsin, Purdue, St. Louis University and Iowa State all had over 500 Illinois freshmen. Interestingly, Arizona State, Colorado, Kentucky and Kansas all drew more Illinois students than Ohio State, with all of them getting just under 200 Illinois freshmen each. Other popular power conference destinations for Illinois students outside of the Midwest are Arizona, Vanderbilt and Miami, with over 100 Illinois freshmen each. After this hellacious winter, I can’t blame any Chicagoan heading to some place where you can wear shorts in the middle of January. Meanwhile, Alabama and Ole Miss surprisingly draw more Illinois students than Nebraska, while Rutgers only has 10 Illinois freshmen. Maryland and Penn State don’t show up in this data set, which doesn’t mean anything one way or another, as some schools like Harvard that definitely have Illinois students aren’t listed here.)

(** New Jersey is a state with an even larger outflow of college students and has almost the exact same issue as Illinois: a very large drop in the rankings of its public universities after its flagship of Big Ten newcomer Rutgers.)

UIC is probably the only public school in Illinois that has a realistic chance of filling that gap since its faculty quality is already on the higher end compared to its admissions standards, the school is solid in STEM areas since it houses the University of Illinois system’s medical and pharmacy schools, and has what is now considered to be a very desirable location in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. (UIC was actually a visiting member of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) that’s considered to be the academic arm of the Big Ten for nearly 30 years, but that status was revoked following the conference’s admission of Nebraska.) The main issue is that UIC’s reputation in professional circles (outside of medicine and pharmacy) actually lags behind its perception in academia, and changes there seem to be glacial. Every Big Ten school has a stronger professional network in Chicago in the finance and tech areas that fuel the influx of new college grads every year in Lincoln Park and Lakeview, and UIC still has to catch up to regional private Catholic schools like Loyola, DePaul and Marquette on that front, too. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy – UIC won’t move up in professional prestige without attracting better students, but such better students won’t go there until UIC moves up in professional prestige.

(* Up until 20 years ago, that location was considered to be a major liability when it was far from gentrified. I know this area well since my parents both graduated from there and my father worked there for 30 years, so I have a lot of affinity for the school. My father used to get his hubcaps stolen quite frequently back in the day and we used to joke that we could buy them back at the old Maxwell Street market adjacent to UIC, which was featured in the John Lee Hooker scene in The Blues Brothers. Needless to say, the old Maxwell Street was moved for UIC’s expansion several years ago and what used to be a seedy neighborhood has turned into a land of high-priced condos and restaurants.)

The other practical problem is that it would take a ton of investment from the state to get UIC up to the level of schools that are strong non-flagships (i.e. Michigan State, Purdue, Miami University of Ohio, etc.), yet the state keeps reducing the money to public universities every single year (and as noted, the state doesn’t have the money to give it to them even if they wanted to). Regardless, I hope that some type of better realistic in-state option exists by the time my 4-year old twins are ready to go to college in 13 years. If Representative Connelly can ensure that the focus is on that particular academic goal (as opposed to Big Ten membership specifically, which is a waste of time and resources because it will never happen), then I’m game.

(Image from PIPBlog)

As many of my regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of both the NBA and college basketball. While this blog has generally focused on college football over the past few years since that has been the driving force behind conference realignment, I’m still a hoops guy at heart. As a result, I’m constantly thinking about how to balance all of the interests of the NBA, colleges and individual players while maintaining a high quality on-the-court product at all levels of the game.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently touched off another debate about “one-and-done” players in college basketball and whether they would be better off going straight to the NBA Developmental League:

“I think what will end up happening — and this is my opinion, not that of the league — is if the colleges don’t change from the one-and-done, we’ll go after the one,” Cuban said. “The NCAA rules are so hypocritical, there’s absolutely no reason for a kid to go [to college], because he’s not going to class [and] he’s actually not even able to take advantage of all the fun because the first semester he starts playing basketball. So if the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League.”

Notwithstanding the fact that Cuban erroneously assigns blame to the NCAA for not allowing players to enter into the NBA Draft immediately out of high school (that’s completely an NBA collective bargaining rule), what’s interesting over the past couple of days is that I’ve seen a lot of both NBA and college basketball fans agree with this sentiment. To the extent that they are in separate camps, NBA fans generally just want to see the best players in the pros ASAP, while college fans hypothetically don’t want to spend time worrying about players that are only going to spend a year on campus.*

(* Granted, I believe most college basketball fans are being disingenuous about this issue. If a bunch of freshmen can lead your favorite team to the national title like Kentucky in 2012, you generally get comfortable with the one-and-done concept pretty quickly. Most college basketball fans complaining about the practice are grousing about teams or rivals other than their own.)

However, while I generally sympathize with Mark Cuban and the basketball fan masses on a lot of issues, this is one area where I believe a lot of people are having collective amnesia of what both the NBA and college basketball looked like in the early-2000s before the NBA age limit was put into place. Simply put, basketball at both the pro and college levels sucked back then. The NBA was drafting high schoolers such as Kwame Brown in the lottery based on raw athleticism that were thrown into the league prior to being ready, which created a sloppier and less polished on-the-court product. Meanwhile, the college ranks were depleted of a critical mass of top-level players in a way that ended up pushing down the quality of the play across-the-board. Even if the one-and-done year gets transferred to the D-League as Cuban proposes, this can have a disastrous effect on both the pros and college levels.

This issue is a tough one for me because I’m someone that normally believes that if you’re good enough to perform a job or task, you should be allowed to do so regardless of your age. Yet, basketball seems to be the one area the laissez faire approach has proven to not work because of the nature of the sport. The main problem is that virtually everyone involved in the NBA Draft process needs to be protected from themselves (as the system provides incentives for everyone to take actions that are detrimental to the quality of the game overall). If I had faith that the only high schoolers that NBA general managers would draft were like LeBron James that were ready immediately at age 18 and, at the same time, only high schoolers that were of a LeBron-quality entered the draft into the first place, then it would be easy to say that anyone should be able to go to the pros immediately. However, we have empirical proof from the early-2000s that this simply doesn’t happen. Basketball, unlike football and baseball, is a game where obtaining an individual star matters more than anything. In contrast, stars in football and baseball might be important, but depth generally trumps stardom.

As a result, NBA GMs were (and still are) significantly more mortified about missing out on the next Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett compared to their football and baseball counterparts (and it makes sense considering the type of superstar that you need in order to viably compete for the NBA championship) and they overvalued raw athleticism in high schoolers back in the early-2000s. Meanwhile, top high school players saw all of their AAU buddies getting massive paydays at age 18, so anyone with a prayer of getting into the draft jumped in (whether it was by their own volition or pressure from family members and/or street agents looking for a financial meal ticket). This created a vicious cycle where NBA GMs were taking unproven high school players based on raw athleticism with lottery picks that were previously used on seasoned college players (many of which were already household names by the time they entered the draft), such lottery picks were getting stuck on the bench with high bust rates as opposed to contributing right away, and college programs were left with the scraps. Blowing a top 5 pick in the NFL or Major League Baseball is not a good thing for a GM, but it’s at least recoverable or mitigated if the team has the right depth. In the NBA, though, blowing a top 5 pick can mean that your franchise is set back for a decade… and we saw a whole lot of NBA franchises blow their top 5 picks in the early-2000s.

The current one-and-done system, while imperfect, at least provides a checkpoint for all parties involved: NBA GMs can watch players compete against people other than 5′ 11″ power forwards in high school (like I was back in the day) in pressure situations, while the players themselves get a reality check of where their skills really stand. Unfortunately, shifting the one-and-done year to the D-League in the manner that Cuban suggests would likely bring up the same problems as the old open NBA Draft without an age limit. NBA franchises would go back to drafting raw prospects (now for the D-League) as opposed to obtaining the best players that are ready for the NBA immediately, while top high school players will get delusions of grandeur and/or chase after the easy paycheck.

Note that Mark Cuban isn’t really proposing anything new: 18-year olds already have the option of giving up their NCAA eligibility and spending a year in the D-League (such as P.J. Hairston, who left UNC in the middle of the season this year and is now playing with the Texas Legends) or Europe (a la Brandon Jennings). So, why aren’t top players choosing that option en masse? Part of it is that the special branding in college sports matters quite a bit, as outlined by Dave Warner of “What You Pay for Sports” (who happens to be an outspoken critic of the cable subscriber fees that people pay for sports networks). As Warner stated about why minor leagues in basketball and football haven’t been successful financially:

Minor league basketball has had a bit more traction — the Continental Basketball Association survived for decades as an NBA minor league before finally folding in 2009 — but it doesn’t come close to outdrawing big-time college basketball. Go to any NBA D-League game, and you’ll be lucky to find a few thousand fans in the stands. More importantly, you won’t find the top high school prospects at those games. Jabari Parker gets more attention playing for Duke than he would playing for, say, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

This is where we begin to understand the status quo. What we have here is an issue of branding. Minor league football and basketball have no traction in America, because fans have declared their loyalty to the brands of college football and basketball teams. College football, in particular, has a century’s worth of rich history in America. College students attach themselves to their schools’ teams, remain attached through adulthood, and spread those attachments to children and other family members. You can’t sell the Omaha Nighthawks to an army of die-hard Cornhuskers fans. They’ve spent decades engrossed in the University of Nebraska’s football team and all of its traditions. Supporting a group of guys trying to play their way into the NFL is not enough. These people demand Nebraska football.

The point about Jabari Parker getting more attention playing for Duke than the Fort Wayne Mad Ants is particularly exacerbated in the NBA context even compared to the NFL because it relates back to the star system that’s inherent in pro basketball specifically. While Jabari Parker might get more specific basketball-focused training, avoids having to go to class, and even would earn a paycheck in the D-League, the exposure that he gets with nationally-televised games of Duke and constant SportsCenter highlights aids his own personal brand off-the-court and the long-term financial effects of that could vastly outweigh a year’s worth of earnings in the D-League. In turn, the NBA itself benefits from this as it gets to leverage the pre-made stardom of players like Jabari by the time they enter the draft, which creates further interest in the league. That aspect was completely lacking in the early-2000s (with the exception of LeBron, who legitimately was a household name by the time he graduated from high school) and we’d go back to that malaise if top players enter the D-League and Europe instead of going to college. The NBA has a golden goose here that it ought to be extremely wary of messing with again.

To that end, the best approach going forward is the simple one that new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has already suggested: raise the NBA age limit to 20. That effectively means that top high school players would need to play 2 years of college basketball prior to entering the draft. While that might delay the LeBron-types from entering into the league even further than now, the early-2000s should have shown everyone that the LeBron-types are so rare that the NBA needs to care more about its year-to-year product as a whole. That requires another year of vetting in college in order to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff along with building the anticipation of stars like Jabari Parker even further. At the same time, college basketball programs get the benefit of having top players for at least 2 years, which is a good balance between having such players on campus for a long enough time that programs feel confident in investing time and money into them while being short enough to prevent holding back the true superstars from going to the next level for too long.*

(* I’ve seen a number of people suggest that the NBA approach the draft in the same manner as MLB, which is that high school players can either choose the enter the draft immediately or go to college for at least 3 years. While it’s not a bad suggestion, I disagree with it as applied to basketball because of the nature of the sport that I’ve noted above. All that would happen is the same thing that occurred in the early-2000s, where every high school player convinced that he’ll get drafted will enter the draft and NBA GMs will be de facto forced to pick them out of fear. That would lead the exact same on-the-court quality problems that we saw in that era. Plus, the MLB draft goes for 50 rounds and GMs are generally rewarded for building depth as opposed to getting a single superstar. In contrast, the NBA draft is the reverse where there are only 2 rounds, GMs are rewarded for finding a single superstar instead of building depth, and the practical reality is that only 15 or so players in any given NBA Draft ever becomes a regular rotation player (much less a superstar or even a starter). The simple numbers show that the opportunity cost of foregoing college eligibility is several magnitudes greater for basketball player compared to a baseball player. As much as I hate paternalistic rules, this is exactly why people in the basketball world need to be protected from their own worst instincts.)

So, that’s why I support raising the NBA age limit to 20-years old. It’s long enough for the NBA to get a solid evaluation of players and colleges to obtain the benefit of having top players on campus, yet short enough for the legitimately elite players to get into in the NBA relatively early. The next step is to get both the NBA and NCAA on the same page on this matter, which is probably the most difficult piece of all in this entire discussion.

(Image from Sports Illustrated)

When it comes to conference realignment-related lawsuits, every school that has left a conference has attempted to claim that it owes nothing in exit fees. In turn, every conference has attempted to claim that the defecting school owes every single penny. Ultimately, though, it’s all a dance to get to a settlement (as is the case in 99% of all lawsuits as a general matter) and the parties invariably meet somewhere near the middle.

As a result, Maryland’s new counterclaim filed on Monday against the ACC (see the full complaint here) needs to be viewed through that prism. Maryland is now claiming that the ACC is liable for $157 million, which reflects treble damages for allegations of anti-competitive behavior (which we’ll get to in a moment). The ACC’s original claim states that Maryland owes the entire amount of the $52.2 million exit fee that the conference passed a couple of months prior to the Terps defecting (although Maryland and Florida State voted against it). The reality is that Maryland doesn’t truly believe that the ACC is going to pay $157 million and the ACC doesn’t truly believe that Maryland will pay the full $52.2 million exit fee. It’s just that they can’t say anything less along those lines in court or public or else they’ll lose a massive amount of leverage.

The headlines for the counterclaim focus on two tantalizing allegations that the ACC (1) attempted to recruit 2 Big Ten schools after Maryland announced that it was leaving and (2) received “counsel and direction from ESPN” on expansion targets. Now, my semi-educated guess is that these allegations are blowing some fairly mundane conversations out of proportion. Conferences are constantly recruiting schools, as the Big Ten has done quite a bit over the past several years. The word on the street is that Penn State was definitely one of the Big Ten schools that was contacted, while Northwestern appears to be the most likely other target. Note that Maryland stated that the ACC did not recruit any schools west of the Mississippi River (which was a distinction to bolster their argument that the “relevant market” that needs to shown in antitrust cases was as limited as possible and that the ACC had market power in such market), so it looks like the ACC didn’t want to go after Minnesota, Iowa or Nebraska.  Regardless, the fact that representatives from Wake Forest and Pittsburgh* attempted to recruit Big Ten schools in and of itself doesn’t mean very much other than showing that there’s no limit to John Swofford’s hubris. Pitt’s president calling up Penn State’s president with a “Want to join the ACC, bro?” inquiry and quickly getting rebuffed is a recruitment on paper, but it never went anywhere. The real test is whether there was any evidence of reciprocal interest (i.e. the Big Ten entering into confidentiality agreements with multiple ACC schools besides Maryland in 2012) and Maryland didn’t present anything to that effect.

(* It’s not surprising that Wake Forest and Pitt were chosen as the schools to put out feelers because they are probably the last two schools from the ACC that would garner any interest from the Big Ten. Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them, but rather they are the two schools that do the least to fill what the Big Ten specifically would be looking for in expansion. Wake is a small enrollment undergrad-focused private school that shares its state with 3 other schools with larger fan bases, while Pitt is the only ACC school that is located in a current Big Ten state and wouldn’t bring any new markets to the table. Everyone else in the ACC would bring in a new TV market and recruiting territory to the Big Ten at a minimum putting aside any academic and cultural fit issues.)

At the same time, ESPN’s “counsel and direction” isn’t unique to the ACC. While I have seen a number of people try to argue today that the ACC is an “ESPN property” while the Big Ten is a “Fox property”, this belies the fact that ESPN’s top college football package still consists of the Big Ten’s first tier rights, the Big Ten continues to receive more money from ESPN than the BTN even under an older pre-sports rights boom contract, and Disney will very likely be paying a monster amount (as in the largest contract in college sports history) to retain those rights sooner rather than later (which is a topic for another day). The reality is that ESPN is having these types of conversations with everyone. If the ACC lobs in a call to Bristol and asks whether they’d be willing to pay more if they added Penn State, they’re probably giving an honest affirmative answer. Likewise, if anyone thinks that Jim Delany and the Big Ten didn’t have the exact same conversations with ESPN about what they’d be getting if Maryland and Rutgers joined (the latter being the old Big East that had all of its rights owned by ESPN), then that’s a serious case of naivete. That doesn’t mean that ESPN is actually directing conference realignment decisions, although it highlights the substantial conflict of interest that ESPN has by having so many contracts with a multitude of competing parties.

Separately, it appears that the quote of former Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo in Boston Globe after the ACC added Syracuse and Pittsburgh, where he says, “We always keep our television partners close to us. You don’t get extra money for basketball. It’s 85 percent football money. TV – ESPN – is the one who told us what to do. This was football; it had nothing to do with basketball,’’ will probably live on in infamy for the foreseeable future in conference realignment lawsuits. Granted, my belief is that the quote is taken a bit out of context where the emphasis that DeFilippo was likely trying to get across was that ESPN was telling conferences that football was worth more than basketball as a general matter as opposed to providing actual membership directions, but it shows that the public will pounce on any hint of meddling from Bristol because they want to believe that ESPN constitutes the Conference Realignment Illuminati behind every move.

For all of the lawsuits, mudslinging and public posturing, we’re probably going to see the ACC and Maryland end up splitting the baby in a settlement in relatively short order. Absolutely no one involved – Maryland, the ACC, the Big Ten, ESPN – wants anything to do with this matter going to trial. A year ago, I thought that this would settle for between $25 million and $30 million, and that still seems to be the likely outcome from my standpoint.

(Image from Fansided)

Time is a bit cramped this week with Thanksgiving upon us, so I’ll be tackling one mailbag question below this week. Also, I need to wallow a bit in my misery about Derrick Rose being out for the rest of season with a torn meniscus in his right knee after having just been out for 18 months for a torn ACL in his left knee. If you were following my Twitter feed on Friday night when the injury occurred, you probably were hoping that I didn’t have access to any sharp metal objects – it was a dark, dark evening. As a 35-year old Chicago sports and Illini fan, I’ve seen more than my fair share of debilitating sports moments, but nothing has been as bad as these back-to-back Derrick Rose injuries. I had dreamed of the Bulls somehow landing D-Rose in the draft back when he was still not even halfway done with his high school career at Simeon and the night that the franchise won the 2008 NBA lottery with a 1.7% chance was the greatest off-the-field sports moment that I had ever witnessed (if that makes sense). By the end of his rookie season, he had quickly vaulted to one of my 5 favorite athletes of all-time (the others being Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, Frank Thomas and Illini era Deron Williams). So, this has been an excruciating process to witness and there’s a palpable feeling here that Rose may end up on the list of “What might have been?” athletic enigmas such as Gale Sayers, Bill Walton and Bo Jackson. From an overall Bulls team perspective, the franchise is now in the “basketball hell” danger zone where they’re not good enough to win a championship yet not bad enough (even with Rose being out and presumably trading Luol Deng and his expiring contract) to realistically tank to get a legit shot at a top 5 lottery pick in next summer’s loaded draft. (Granted, I’ll keep praying for the sports gods to throw us the bone of Rose’s fellow Simeon alum Jabari Parker ending up in a Bulls uniform.) In summary, thank goodness for the Blackhawks!

Now for our mini-mailbag question for the week (with a full-blown mailbag coming after Thanksgiving):

Yes, I believe that it’s inevitable for the playoff system to go to 8 just as it was only a matter of time that we went from 2 teams playing for the championship to a 4-team playoff. I would never have said that 2 years ago, but the tea leaves are there for further playoff expansion. Now, as I had intimated in playoff system proposals posts previously (such as this one about a hypothetical 4-team playoff system 3 years ago that actually turned out to be fairly close to what the CFP will look like), the critical question is, “Does this make sense for the Big Ten and SEC?” Anyone can slap together a playoff system that he or she personally would like to see, but the challenge is always about whether the power conferences would ever agree to it.

In this case, there’s a fairly heavy incentive for the power conferences to eventually expand the playoff to 8 teams if they can do the following: all 5 power conference champs would receive an auto-bid. That provides a host of benefits for the power conferences compared to the 4-team system, such as (a) a guaranteed playoff slot annually and all of the money that comes with that, (b) guaranteeing that their respective conference championship games become de facto annual playoff games under their complete control and all of the money that comes with that and (c) making each divisional race within each of those power conferences have national title implications in a way that would increase the competitive and media value of the regular season and all of the money that comes with that.*

(* Yes, I know that the Big 12 can’t take advantage of (b) and (c) as of now. We’ll see how long that lasts, as noted in my last post.)

Going one step further, there’s also an easy and logical framework to get that in place by using the bowls and their traditional bowl tie-ins:

Rose Bowl: Big Ten champ vs. Pac-12 champ
Sugar Bowl: SEC champ vs. at-large
Orange/Peach Bowl: ACC champ vs. at-large
Fiesta/Cotton Bowl: Big 12 champ vs. at-large

If that looks familiar, it’s because I proposed that system in one of the earliest posts on this blog over 7 years ago. The irony is that this playoff system could expand the number of participants to 8 yet the bowls would actually revert back to their traditional roots more compared to the current 4-team system (i.e. there is truly a traditional Rose Bowl every year no matter what). In essence, it’s both progressive and traditionalist. Just imagine what a TV network would pay for those 4 games split up on New Years Eve and New Years Day, 2 semifinal games a week or two later, and then the national championship game on the open Sunday between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl.* The Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and Big 12 are all already receiving $40 million per year for their top non-playoff bowl contracts above and beyond what they’re receiving for the 4-team playoff, so there really isn’t any cap for how high those rights fees can go if those games are converted to single elimination playoff games. That’s going to be really difficult to resist.

(* Yes, these games are getting played in January as opposed to the common fan request of playoff games during December. Note that December TV ratings are materially lower than January TV ratings, the bowls are a contractual mechanism that allow the power conferences to maintain control over the postseason, and the platitudes that university presidents, conference commissioners and athletic directors have given about the length of the football season are mind-bogglingly disingenuous considering how much they have all whored themselves for the almighty dollar in almost every other conceivable way. Drawing a line in the sand about 2 or 4 teams at the most playing beyond New Years Day is completely arbitrary, especially considering that the other revenue sport of men’s basketball has a season that runs from Midnight Madness in October to the national championship game in April.)

Access for the non-power conferences would likely be a hot topic, although I’d have a hard time seeing the power conferences automatically giving them a national championship playoff slot every year.* There might be some type of provision similar what is with the current BCS system, where a top 12 non-AQ champ or top 16 non-AQ champ that ranks higher than an AQ champ would get a bid.

(* Yes, I know that’s not necessarily fair when the power conferences automatically get their own slots while the non-power conferences don’t receive automatic access. Like I’ve said, what matters in reality is what the Big Ten and SEC would agree to.)

I also have a difficult time seeing a playoff ever going beyond 8 teams (and an NCAA Tournament-style system that provides an auto-bid for every conference would be a non-starter for the powers that be), so any traditionalist arguments about further “bracket creep” are tougher to take seriously at that level. The power conferences can get favored access status for their conference champs and preserve or even enhance the financial values of their respective regular seasons, conference championship games and bowl tie-ins under an 8-team system that wouldn’t be possible in a 16-team scenario. The facts that (a) the 8-team playoff that I described above is such low hanging fruit financially with relatively little disruption to the current setup and (b) there will inevitably be controversies arising from who gets in and who gets shut out of the 4-team playoff are going to be driving forces behind an eventual expansion of the playoff system. The powers that be can state all that they want that the current CFP deal will go the full 12 years, but there will surely be an assessment in a few years about what an 8-team playoff would be worth in the marketplace that will open their eyes to change once again.

We’ll get to some other mailbag questions about the state of college sports and conference realignment soon. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving!

(Image from Wikipedia)