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)