It has been a long summer hiatus here, so it’s great to be back! Let’s get to the piled-up mailbag with questions on power conference autonomy, TV rights, conference realignment, the college football playoff system and more:
After many months of procedural wranglings and committee meetings, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors finally approved the autonomy of the five power conferences (Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12) to pass rules in a number of subject areas (such as full cost of attendance coverage for athletes and liberalization of athlete/agent contact rules) today. There’s no real set criteria for another conference to join that group outside of the “Power 5″ letting them in. For practical purposes, the free market is really the driver in terms of determining power: if a non-power “Group of 5″ conference could obtain TV revenue and bowl tie-ins on par with the Power 5 leagues, then it could argue that it a “high resource” league (as the NCAA has termed it in the past) that ought to have the same type of autonomy. However, even if a Group of 5 conference were able to achieve that (which is virtually impossible considering how much difficulty the post-2006/pre-2011 Big East had in keeping up with the other power conferences in terms of revenue and exposure despite having a better slate of bankable football brands compared to the entire rest of the current Group of 5), there’s no provision to mandate a move-up without the good graces and approval of the Power 5. (Good luck with that!)
As we have seen in conference realignment, individual schools might move up to power status (see TCU and Utah), but leagues as a whole don’t move up at all (and if anything, they are much more likely to get stripped of their most valuable assets by the Power 5 and then get relegated). I’ve pointed out this simple statistic many times before on this blog: in the first year of the BCS system (1998), there were 63 total schools in the power group of the 6 AQ conferences plus Notre Dame, while in the first year of the new CFP system (2014), there will be 65 total schools in the power group in the Power 5 plus Notre Dame. That’s only a net change of 2 total schools added to the power group over the past 16 years with one conference (the old Big East) getting demoted. Simply put, there won’t be any mass addition of an entire conference to the power level. Whoever wants to be a power school going forward is going to need an invite from the Power 5 because none of the Group of 5 conferences will move up on their own.
As of now, the only conference that will be negotiating a new TV deal in the near future is the Big Ten, whose current Tier 1 deal with ABC/ESPN expires in 2016-17. The other four power conferences have deals that stretch out for the next decade. It’s extremely doubtful to me that the Big Ten will act again prior to their new TV deal with the grant of rights agreements that are in place within the Big 12 and ACC, which are where the primary targets for Jim Delany (i.e. Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, maybe Kansas, maybe Oklahoma, maybe Georgia Tech) are located. Hypothetically, schools that aren’t under grant of rights arrangements such as the SEC members (i.e. Missouri, Vanderbilt) and UConn could be targeted by the Big Ten, but I don’t see anyone leaving from the SEC at all with their own gushers of TV money coming in (more on that in a moment) and UConn, for all of its strength as a basketball brand, doesn’t have the football value (either in terms as a program itself or, what a lot of realignment observers have missed, the strong football recruiting territory that Rutgers and Maryland have in their respective home states) that drives expansion or, somewhat less importantly, AAU membership on the academic side. (I do believe that if there’s a legitimate marquee football brand available that doesn’t have AAU membership, such as Oklahoma, then the Big Ten will consider them no matter what else they might say publicly.) The Big Ten has achieved its financial goal of getting into the New York City and Maryland markets for Big Ten Network carriage, so it would literally take a Texas-sized footprint addition to make it worth it for the conference to expand for TV territory alone. National name brands for football for the Tier 1 contract are going to be more important in the near-ish future for the Big Ten, and those types of schools simply aren’t available today.
In response to Question #1, I believe the Big 12 will end up expanding to 12 within the next 5 years and that will be all of the changes that we’ll see to the power conferences. Now, it won’t be because they’ll be “forced” to do so by the other power conferences or that the new College Football Playoff system starts punishing the league for not having a conference championship game (as Dennis Dodd has recently suggested). Instead, we’re simply living a world where each conference needs to diversify its portfolio of markets for long-term strength and the Big 12, by FAR, is the least diversified at all. I suggested last fall in The Big 12 Expansion Index that Cincinnati and BYU were clearly the two best candidates for the league and nothing has changed my view of the landscape since then.
For Question #2, I’d put the odds of the powers-that-be changing the CFP system to an 8-team playoff prior to the 12-year contract being completed at about 60% yes/40% no. No matter what platitudes that the conference commissioners and university presidents might be putting out there, we’re inexorably heading toward a postseason system where all 5 power conference champions will automatically have a shot at the national championship… and the best way to do that is to grant them 5 auto-bids with 3 at-large slots. (How the Group of Five would be represented, if at all, is an open question.) Personally, I favor using the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta Bowls as the quarterfinal sites using traditional conference tie-ins and then go on from there. This protects the bowl system (which should never be underestimated as a driving force since its the contractual mechanism that allows the power conferences to maintain their access and control advantages) and, in my opinion, continues to provide a balance of maintaining the importance of the regular season (which wouldn’t be possible at all in a 16-team playoff), rewarding concrete objective on-the-field accomplishments without the use of polls or committees (conference championships), creating massive stakes for all of the conference championship games (as they’ll become de facto playoff games in their own right) and still allowing enough at-large slots to reasonably include all of the teams that have a legitimate case to play for the national championship. This type of system would be such easy money for the powers-that-be just for the playoff portion (not to mention the boost in rights fees that each league would receive for their respective conference championship games) that it makes little financial sense for anyone not to do it. However, the historical glacial pace of the college football world to enact postseason changes is the reason why I only put this at 60/40 within 12 years instead of the 90/10 that it would be in virtually any other business.
Depends on what you mean by “watering down” the conference. In the short-term on-the-field, these aren’t sexy additions for football. Maryland has an excellent men’s basketball history, while Rutgers is non-existent in that sport. However, from a revenue perspective, they’re massive home runs by getting the BTN onto basic (or widely-enough distributed packages that are de facto basic) cable packages in the New York City and Washington, DC markets. Only adding the state of Texas can compete with that market-wise. At the same time, this is a critical move for the long-term for the Big Ten’s recruiting territory for both athletes and regular students. The states of New Jersey and Maryland are specifically the two top non-Sun Belt state producers of FBS football recruits that are not already in the Big Ten. (Meanwhile, New York State and all of the New England states are among the worst producers of FBS football talent in the country whether looking at sheer numbers or on a per capita basis.) At the same time, New Jersey and Maryland are among the best producers of Division I basketball talent regardless of region (with Maryland actually coming out #1 in the country on a per capita basis – that state is to basketball players as Texas and Florida are to football players). Nebraska is the large national football brand name that the Big Ten couldn’t pass up, but bringing in Rutgers and Maryland is what can enable to conference to maintain the necessary demographics to continue to be strong two, three or four decades from now.
I have some more mailbag questions that I’ll get to next week regarding the SEC Network and divisional alignments. If you have any other questions in the meantime, feel free to leave them in the comments section here or contact me on Twitter at @frankthetank111. Enjoy the weekend!
(Image from al.com)