Posts Tagged ‘Conference Realignment’

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)

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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 we recover from an ‘80s/’90s-style Super Bowl blowout, here are some random thoughts:

“It’s Not Business. It’s Personal.” – Considering how much time that this blog has analyzed objective measures for conference realignment (including the Big 12 Expansion Index late last year), it’s always fun to see how expansion decisions aren’t necessarily always performed using financial analysts and lawyers poring over reams of data and documents. Dennis Dodd told the tale this week of how TCU ended up in the Big 12 during the chaotic realignment days of Fall 2011:

[TCU AD Chris] Del Conte admitted, “the pressure of the entire institution was on my shoulders” to join the Big 12. He worked the phones, calling every Big 12 contact he knew. Support within the Big 12 was growing, including at Oklahoma where good friend Joe Castiglione had been encouraging. But Del Conte knew if he didn’t have Texas, he didn’t have a chance.

“I’ve got one shot,” he recounted, “to go see DeLoss.”

It was a quite a visit. Del Conte grabbed a car, a driver and a bunch of reference material, binders, extolling the advantages of TCU and Fort Worth.

“I get up at 8 o’clock in the morning and drive to Darrell K. Royal Stadium. I get to [Dodds'] office. Nine comes around, 10 comes around. I’ve got a GA [graduate assistant] outside waiting for me, by the way. I tell him, ‘Just wait 10 minutes I’ll be back.’ Pretty soon it’s 3:30.

“[DeLoss] comes out and says, ‘Who are you?’ Chris Del Conte, Texas Christian U. He doesn’t hear ‘Chris.’ he hears ‘Del’. ‘Del, let’s go get ourselves a drink and discuss it.’

“We went to a restaurant and had a little libation at 3:30. By the time 8:30 rolls around, we were [into it] pretty good but we got ourselves in a situation. I kept trying to give him my [binders]. He said, ‘I’ve heard enough, Del’ and just walked away.”

The Big 12 ADs had a conference call the next day.

“The next morning I got up. Joe [Castiglione] goes, ‘I don’t know what you did but it worked.’ We got the vote. The Frogs are in,’ Del Conte said.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like for a Cincinnati or UConn fan whose programs are twisting in the wind when it appears that all it took to get Deloss Dodds to throw the support of the almighty University of Texas behind you was getting him liquored up on tequila shots. Granted, TCU’s addition to the Big 12 wasn’t that simplistic (at least I think so… right?) as it was coming off multiple BCS bowl appearances and a Rose Bowl victory. I had been a champion of TCU long before that when they were still dreaming of just an invite to a then-BCS-level Big East (much less the Big 12). Regardless, it goes to show you that personal relationships still matter beyond the quantitative analysis behind conference realignment. Oliver Luck of West Virginia and Tom Jurich of Louisville were tireless advocates for their respective schools and built up incredible networks of connections that they tapped into when the old Big East was collapsing. Former Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti was critical in getting the school into the Big Ten when the conference was looking for a partner with Maryland. When Creighton got the call to go to the new basketball-focused Big East as opposed to more geographically-friendly and larger market schools like St. Louis and Dayton, it could point to the fact that Creighton’s president happened to be on the Marquette Board of Trustees.

So, it looks like the lesson for any school still trying to get out of the Group of Five ranks is to send booze over to its power conference counterparts early and often on top of all the binders and PowerPoint presentations.

Conference Championship Games the Way We Want ThemJohn Swofford and the ACC sent the NCAA over a proposal to give leagues more flexibility in determining who can participate in conference championship games. The ACC wants the ability to remove the requirement to have divisions in order to hold a conference championship and let conferences determine how the participants are chosen by any criteria that they’d like, such as simply taking the top two teams with the best conference records and having them face off. Personally, I am all for it and hope that Jim Delany and the Big Ten hop aboard in support of the measure. As much as conference realignment fascinates me and believe that power leagues such as the Big Ten need to constantly be on the lookout for expansion opportunities, the obvious drawback as a fan is witnessing the games and rivalries that I actually care about get reduced. No amount of exposure in New York City or Washington, DC for Illinois is going to replace the excitement of playing Michigan or Ohio State. At the same time, if a school is only playing teams in the other division once out of every 6 years (as the SEC is set up now outside of cross-division rivals), that’s more akin to a non-conference scheduling arrangement as opposed to an actual unified conference. Therefore, if there’s a way to continue to hold conference championship games while eliminating divisions (or at least modifying the rules where teams don’t have to play round-robin schedules within their divisions), that provides a lot more ability for expanded conferences to adopt scheduling policies to play everyone within a league more frequently.

If I was running the Big Ten, I’d use the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) strategy of assigning every school 3 permanent rivals that it will play annually based on geography. That would then leave 6 other games to fill on the 9-game schedule every year. This setup allows each school to play everyone else in the conference 6 times every 10 years (a cycle of 2 years on, 2 years off, 4 years on, 2 years off), which keeps conference unity strong while still integrating the benefits of geographic expansion. Here’s how I’d assign the Big Ten rivalries:

SCHOOL RIVAL #1 RIVAL #2 RIVAL #3
Illinois Northwestern Indiana Purdue
Indiana Purdue Illinois Northwestern
Iowa Nebraska Wisconsin Minnesota
Maryland Michigan State Rutgers Penn State
Michigan Ohio State Michigan State Rutgers
Michigan State Maryland Michigan Ohio State
Minnesota Wisconsin Nebraska Iowa
Nebraska Iowa Minnesota Wisconsin
Northwestern Illinois Purdue Indiana
Ohio State Michigan Penn State Michigan State
Penn State Rutgers Ohio State Maryland
Purdue Indiana Northwestern Illinois
Rutgers Penn State Maryland Michigan
Wisconsin Minnesota Iowa Nebraska

The top two schools would then advance to the Big Ten Championship Game. Let’s get this done ASAP.

NFL Thursday Night Games – The NFL agreeing to simulcast a portion of its NFL Network Thursday night package on over-the-air CBS has some major implications both in terms of the entertainment industry in general and college football. First, the fact that CBS ended up winning the package despite already having the top-rated Thursday night lineup led by The Big Bang Theory just goes to show you the power of the NFL compared to everything else on television. Initially, I thought that CBS was going to be the least likely to end up with the NFL package as a result of its monster lineup, but it makes a bit more sense as a defensive move. Note that Disney pushed back on the NFL’s request to move Sunday Night Football games from ESPN to ABC back in 2004 because of an extremely strong prime time lineup featuring Desperate Housewives. That SNF package ended up on NBC, which now has such high ratings that it has turned Sunday night from the place where networks would always put their very best shows (as it has historically been the night when the most people will watch TV) to a scheduling triage unit for half of the year until football season is over. CBS likely noted the history of ABC and moved to protect its Thursday night lineup. Now, CBS can show NFL games on Thursday nights for the first 8 weeks of the season (thereby weakening the strong ratings competition of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal on ABC in the process) and then debut The Big Bang Theory just in time for November sweeps month. This move could have a radical change to how networks schedule on Thursday night (which had turned into the new evening where networks all placed their best shows after SNF ravaged its Sunday night competition).

College football will certainly be affected further as this will draw further exposure away from ESPN’s Thursday night games. Over the past 6 or 7 years, Thursday night had developed into an acceptable time slot for power conference schools to move games to away from Saturday, but that enticement might be eradicated with much stronger over-the-air NFL competition (and it was already getting that way with the NFL Network’s full season Thursday night schedule over the past 2 years). As a result, Thursday night might end up being the purview of non-power conferences again. Also, Friday nights aren’t as attractive to top schools because of conflicts with high school football in many states and lower TV ratings on that evening in general.

At the same time, the NFL’s willingness to move games off of its own network (which has the highest subscriber fees of any national cable network outside of ESPN) shows the tension between maximizing revenue (which would point to maximizing the value of their cable network) and maximizing exposure (going to over-the-air channels or ESPN). The Big Ten should take note as it heads into a period where it may end up renegotiating its TV deals sooner rather than later (as John Ourand of Sports Business Journal has predicted will happen this year). I often get asked about how many more games that the Big Ten will retain for the BTN in its next TV deal and my response is, “Not as many as you think.” As much as the BTN is filling up the Big Ten’s coffers, Jim Delany is smart enough to know that there still needs to be a balance of exposure on entities such as ESPN and over-the-air networks to keep the product viable in the long-term. The BTN is still intended to be a supplement to the widespread coverage as opposed to a replacement – we’re not going to be seeing Michigan-Ohio State on BTN anytime soon. If anything, look for broader distribution for Big Ten games on ABC, ESPN and possibly Fox whenever the conference signs its new TV deals.

Semi-off-topic: City Branding in Columbus – One of my random interests is studying urban development plans and how metro areas can attract investment and transplants, so Urbanophile is one of my favorite blogs to follow these days. Much of the blog’s focus is on Midwestern and Rust Belt cities, so there’s’ a lot of quantitative and qualitative analysis about the economic growth prospects (or in some cases, the lack thereof) of the Big Ten footprint. A recent post dealt with whether Columbus needs better branding in order to attract attention on par with other media-hyped college town/state capital combos such as Austin and Madison or if better job and population growth in and of itself is enough. You’ll see a fairly vigorous discussion in that post, including several comments from me. Anyway, I thought that would be of particular interest to the Ohio State fans reading here and it’s a great place to discuss how many of the other Big Ten markets are doing (which, in turn, impacts the strength of the Big Ten itself will be in the future).

Finally… if there’s a silver lining to the authoritarian, anti-free speech, homophobic and dog killing regime of Vladamir Putin, it’s that it’s going to be really easy to root against Russia in the Olympics again. No one else has really stepped in to fill the U.S. rival role since the Soviet Union fell. (Granted, I’m half-Chinese, so it’s a bit more difficult for me to demonize China as the enemy.) This is as much of a throwback to the 1980s as terrible Super Bowl matchups, so that will certainly add some flavor to the Olympics.

Enjoy the weekend!

(Image from Third City)

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)

Conference realignment at the power conference level has seemingly ground to a halt after what has been nearly four years of rumors, Tweets and blogs speculating on apocalyptic moves. When I created the Big Ten Expansion Index, there seemed to be endless possibilities of how the college sports world would shake out. Now, tools such as grant of rights agreements have at least temporarily paused any realignment within the power conference ranks. However, there’s still a nagging feeling that the 10-member Big 12 won’t stay at its current size. While any belief that some outside force would demand that the Big 12 expand (i.e. the SEC or other power conferences in the new playoff system) should be discredited as completely erroneous (as every conference wants to respect each others’ full autonomy in determining its membership levels), the practical reality is that the Big 12 is the odd duck in a world where other conferences are seeking size and depth in terms of brand names and TV markets while adding conference championship games (as opposed to eliminating them). Just as there will continue to be speculation about the Big Ten expanding to 16 members until it actually does so (particularly with comments such as the recent ones in Inside the Hall from Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass calling 16 schools a “sweet spot”), the Big 12 is going to face the same questions until it gets back up to 12 schools.

With the peripheral rumor mongering noise dying down for the most part, I though it would be a good time to take a step back and create The Big 12 Expansion Index to assess where the viable candidates for that conference stand. To be clear, the purpose of this post is not to endorse the expansion of the Big 12. It’s perfectly reasonable for a Big 12 partisan to see the realistic expansion candidates as the equivalent of looking at a bar full of butterfaces at 3 am while “Closing Time” is playing in the background and saying, “No thanks. Call a cab for me to get the hell out of here.” Personally, I believe that the Big 12 needs to expand in the long-term regardless of any short-term revenue splitting implications, but this analysis can just as easily serve as justification for the conference to not get larger.

I. ASSUMPTIONS

In examining the Big 12 candidates, the following assumptions will be applied:

  • ASSUMPTION #1 – Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.

This was the most important rule when constructing the Big Ten Expansion Index and it continues here with the Big 12. Conference realignment decisions aren’t driven by which school is most highly ranked in the latest BCS standings, who the fans like, or even what coaches and athletic directors may want (no matter how powerful they might be at their respective schools). Instead, university presidents are the ones that ultimately make realignment decisions and they’re looking at the long-term off-the-field big picture much more than short-term on-the-field issues that fans are generally focused upon. To be sure, how well a school plays football (and to a much lesser extent, basketball) is certainly relevant, but TV markets, demographic changes and academic rankings are factors that really get university presidents get much more engaged.

  • ASSUMPTION #2 – The Big 12 lacks the ability to raid another power conference.

A number of Big 12 partisans wanted to believe over the past year that the league would be able to poach high profile schools from the ACC such as Florida State and Clemson. However, that prospect was simply never realistic due to a number of issues that the Big 12 needs to address, namely the demographics of the league outside of the state of Texas (which will be explained further in the index criteria below), overall academic reputation and national football brand names beyond Texas and Oklahoma. The Big 12 was able to save itself due to Texas wanting the Longhorn Network over the creation of the Pac-16 and Fox and ESPN paying a lot of money to keep the league together, but it is a paper tiger when it comes to expansion. As a result, the schools being evaluated in the index are all from the “Group of Five” non-power conference ranks.

II. EXPLANATION OF THE BIG 12 EXPANSION INDEX

The Big 12 Expansion Index assesses candidates on a 100-point scale. Please note that the schools are being graded on their values relative to only other Gang of Five schools. So, it doesn’t mean that if a school that receives a perfect score in the index that it would be as valuable as Florida State or USC. These values also have no relation to the figures that were calculated in the Big Ten Expansion Index*. This is only measuring the distinctions within the Group of Five universe that serves as the realistic pool of Big 12 expansion candidates. Here are the categories:

Football Brand Value (30 points) – As it was with the Big Ten, this is the most heavily weighted category as a reflection of the reality of the college sports landscape. The revenue generated from football is so massive in comparison to the other sports (including basketball) that it is the ultimate driver for expansion in every conference (including more historically basketball-focused ones such as the ACC).

It must be emphasized that Football Brand Value puts much more weight on the long-term history and financial underpinnings of a program over short-term or recent success. Thus, Team A that has sold out stadiums for years whether it wins or loses is much more valuable than Team B that only sells out a 40,000-seat stadium when it’s in the national championship race, even if Team A has had a mediocre seasons recently and Team B happens to rank in the top 25 of the BCS rankings this year. A lengthy tradition of playing football at the top level also carries more cache compared to being a noveau riche program. The “What have you done for me lately?” attitude of most sports fans doesn’t apply here. Instead, the proper question is the opposite: Even if the target school goes 0-12 in a season, will it still attract TV viewers and attendance? In other words, the true value of a football program is really measured by how much attention it still receives when it’s down as opposed to how much attention it gets when it’s up. Granted, it is much more difficult to find schools under this standard at the Group of Five level compared to at the power conferences, which is a large reason why those Group of Five schools aren’t in power conferences in the first place as of now.

National TV Value (15 points) – The calculation for TV values is a bit different for the Big 12 compared to the Big Ten. With the latter’s Big Ten Network, there was more of an emphasis on the value that schools would bring to that channel (which meant it was fairly large market-focused, albeit the Big Ten still ended up small market Nebraska first when all was said and done because of its extraordinary national TV value). The Big 12, though, is more concerned with the value of its national TV contract above all else since the league doesn’t have a conference network (and in fact, grants third tier TV rights to its individual members who then keep all of that revenue to themselves). Losing Nebraska was a major hit on that front and it led to the Big 12’s decision to add West Virginia instead of Louisville in 2011. As with the Football Brand Value category, there is much more weight on programs with longer histories of being national TV draws as opposed to the flavors of the moment. The issue with Big 12 expansion, of course, is that there are really only a handful of Group of Five schools that have any national TV value at all with respect to football.

Local TV Value (10 points) – While national TV value is more important to the Big 12 with respect to expansion candidates, there’s certainly still an interest for the Big 12 to expand to new TV markets (as the national TV contract can be impacted by local TV market coverage). The defections from the Big 12 over the past 4 years caused the conference to lose its only two top 25 TV markets that were located outside of the state of Texas (Denver and St. Louis). For this category, 10 points will be granted to a top 25 market, 7 points to a 26-50 market, 3 point to a 51-75 market, and then 0 points after that. Please note that any school that is already located in a Big 12 market will receive zero points in this category no matter how large its local market might be.

Demographics/Recruiting Value (20 points) – This was a category that wasn’t included in The Big Ten Expansion Index, but it would have been if I knew then that Jim Delany was going to use the word “demographics” in conjunction with expansion more than any other word over the past 4 years. While there’s some correlation between demographics and local TV value (as a larger market generally means more favorable demographics), the word “demographics” is really a code word for a very tangible concern for football fans and coaches: football recruits. It always irks me whenever I see comments to the effect that the Big Ten’s additions of Rutgers and Maryland didn’t do anything for the conference in football. Quite to the contrary, that expansion was very important for on-the-field matters because New Jersey and Maryland, according to a study by Football Study Hall, happened to be the top two non-Sun Belt states not already in the Big Ten footprint in terms of producing Division I football recruits (and it wasn’t even close).

The very real danger for the Big 12 compared to the other power conferences is that its coverage in the state of Texas (which is the nation’s top football recruiting state and a beast in terms of population growth) has masked its completely poor demographics in the rest of the conference. There’s no demographic depth at all in the conference once you get beyond the Lone Star State, which has come so close to collapse on multiple occasions over the past few years. Without Texas, the Big 12 dies (whereas each of the other power conferences might be severely wounded if their very top brand name school left, but they would likely still find a way to carry on since they have fuller slates of markets and populous states). In this category, 20 points go to any school in a state that is in the top 5 of Division I recruits annually under the Football Study Hall study (as there’s a huge gap between #5 and #6), 15 points go to any school in a state ranked 6 to 10, 10 points go to any school in a state ranked 11 to 20, 5 points go to any school in any other state that produces at least 20 Division I recruits per year, and 0 points for states under 20. As noted by Football Study Hall, the states that have 20 or more Division I recruits per year have produced 93% of all Division I football players since 2008, so any state under 20 isn’t helping the Big 12’s demographic cause. As with the Local TV Value category, any school that is already located in a Big 12 state will receive zero points in this category.

Academics (5 points) – The Big 12 would certainly like to add top tier academic schools, but it won’t necessarily nix any expansion candidate on those grounds. This is in contrast to the Big Ten, where the Academics category was weighted heavily enough to effectively exclude any school that didn’t meet the threshold as being a viable candidate. For the purposes of the Big 12, 5 points will be assigned to any school that has at least 2 of the following 3 qualifications: an AAU member, ranked in the top 100 of the US News undergraduate rankings and/or ranked in the top 300 of the ARWU world graduate school rankings. A school that has 1 of those qualifications will receive 3 points. Everyone else will receive zero (as the Big 12 would likely only be swayed by truly exceptional academic reputations).

Basketball Value (5 points) – As I stated in the Big Ten Expansion Index post, personally, there’s nothing that would make me more delirious as a sports fan than Illinois winning the national championship in basketball. However, when it comes to conference expansion discussions, basketball has been even less of a consideration than I originally thought 4 years ago. This is too bad since there is a whole slew of excellent or even elite basketball programs available in the Group of Five (much more so than football programs). That being said, if all things are relatively equal in the other categories, then basketball considerations could be the tipping point. An elite program and/or fan base will receive 5 points and a solid program and/or school with a fair amount of tradition will get 3 points.

Geographic Fit/Need (5 points) – Normally, this is a category that is based on pure geographic proximity. However, the Big 12 also has a geographic need to bridge the distance gap between West Virginia and the rest of the conference. As a result, schools in states that are located within that gap along with other states immediately adjacent to the current Big 12 footprint will receive 5 points, while everyone else will receive zero. This is an all-or-nothing category – either a school meets the geographic need or it doesn’t.

Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power (10 points) – This is a category that wasn’t considered for the Big Ten since it was really looking for established old money schools. In the Big 12’s case, though, its realistic expansion candidates almost all have warts of some nature. In fact, there are quite a few candidates that would be looked at in an entirely different light in a positive way if they were merely competent in on-the-field football performance (much less being powers). As a result, much like an unpolished prospect with a lot of athleticism in the NFL or NBA draft, the upside potential of a school should be taken into consideration by the Big 12. This is especially true for a school that could potentially have “monopoly power” of being the only power conference program in its home state. Other factors include whether a school is a flagship or academically elite, has a proven basketball fan base, or has made a lot of recent investments in football facilities.

(* Note that the Mutual Interest category that was in the Big Ten Expansion Index was eliminated here. Any Group of Five school would join the Big 12 in a heartbeat.)

III. EVALUATION OF BIG 12 EXPANSION CANDIDATES

The candidates are listed in reverse order from least desirable to most desirable. Once again, for the purposes of this evaluation, it is assumed that the only viable Big 12 expansion candidates are not currently power conference members and the calculations are based upon comparisons only to other schools within that non-power conference school group.

A. ALL HAT, NO CATTLE

RICE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 5
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 35
Overview: Fantastic academic institution with a lot of history with the former Southwestern Conference teams in the Big 12, but the lack of a new market or recruiting area is a killer for its candidacy. It would take some massive on-the-field accomplishments (i.e. winning the Group of Five bid to a top bowl in the new College Football Playoff system multiple times) for Rice to move up here.

UNLV
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 37
Overview: The Runnin’ Rebels score low right now due to a horrid stretch of on-the-field football performances over the past several years, but they’re a program to watch if it can get a new state-of-the-art football stadium into place. This is a school that provides the highest profile sports teams in the Las Vegas market with a strong basketball fan base, so their value skyrockets if they can avoid complete ineptitude in football.

COLORADO STATE
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 5
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 43
Overview: It’s a mystery why Colorado State doesn’t ever seem to be able to get its act together on-the-field. On paper, this is an institution that ought to be attractive to a power conference with its solid academics and location in fast growing and demographically desirable Colorado, yet their putrid football performances over the past decade have nixed them from any type of consideration. CSU, like UNLV, is looking to build a new football stadium to increase its chances to move up in the athletic world.

SMU
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 43
Overview: The issue with SMU (and any other Texas-based school) is that they’re not bringing any new TV markets or recruiting areas that the Big 12 doesn’t already have blanketed. Now, that isn’t an automatic disqualifier for a Big 12 candidacy (see the addition of TCU in 2011), but it would likely take perfect scores in the Football Brand Value and National TV Value categories to make that happen.

NEW MEXICO
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 45
Overview: New Mexico is in a very similar situation to UNLV with an excellent basketball program and fan base with potential monopoly power in its home market… but its on-the-field football product has been unacceptably terrible for a long period of time. The Lobos actually have a leg up on UNLV in terms of academics and being a geographic fit with the Big 12, so they’re a school that can rise rapidly in the pecking order with merely some football competence (much less prowess).

HOUSTON
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 3
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 48
Overview: See the comments about SMU, only Houston has more basketball tradition. There is also the wild card that the Big 12 may want a physical presence in the Houston market in the same way that TCU is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, but the Cougars would still need to have some overwhelmingly extraordinary football success for this to be a possibility.

MEMPHIS
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 10
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 7
Total: 49
Overview: Memphis is essentially an Eastern mirror of UNLV: large urban basketball school with historically terrible football over the past decade. The advantage that Memphis has by comparison is that it’s located in a rich football recruiting area and aids in bridging the geographic gap between West Virginia and the rest of the Big 12. Memphis has shown that they have excellent basketball fans – if they can get that to translate to football, they have quite a bit of upside. The main drag is being the midst of heavy SEC competition.

B. INTRIGUING, BUT NOT PRACTICAL

BOISE STATE
Football Brand Value – 30
National TV Value – 15
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 7
Total: 52
Overview: From a national TV contract standpoint, Boise State might be the single most valuable school that is outside of the power conferences as of today. The question that university presidents will always ask, though, is, “How long will this last?” As you can see, Boise State doesn’t bring anything else in terms of demographics, academics, basketball or geography. This is a school whose attributes are purely based upon on-the-field football performance, which is actually exactly what university presidents tend to shy away from since such success is difficult to maintain even when a program has all of the financial resources in the world (see Texas and USC right now and Alabama prior to Nick Saban coming in). There might be a point where Boise State becomes the Gang of Five equivalent of Nebraska where markets and demographics become completely irrelevant with having such a strong football brand, but we aren’t there yet.

TEMPLE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 15
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 3
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 53
Overview: This is an interesting potential play for the Big 12 by going directly east of West Virginia. The good news is that Philadelphia is a massive market with access to an excellent football recruiting state*. The bad news is that Philly is a tepid college football market (and those that follow college football there tend to follow the king program of Penn State) and there’s a sense that Temple won’t ever develop into much more than what is now (which isn’t satisfactory for the Big 12). The school has had plenty of chances to become a legit power program and never succeeded.

(* For fans of “Friday Night Light”s (the TV series), just picture that fantastic final scene in the finale with the football in the air transitioning from Texas to Philly. If only conference realignment were as smooth.)

CONNECTICUT
Football Brand Value – 20
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 5
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 57
Overview: In a vacuum, UConn is arguably the most power conference-like school that isn’t in a power conference today. If this were an ACC Expansion Index, then UConn would be close to a perfect score. Frankly, there’s still a part of me that’s surprised that UConn isn’t in the ACC already, but I perfectly understand why Louisville got the nod last year. The problem with the prospect of UConn going to the Big 12 is that it’s not a good fit for what the conference is seeking in expansion. UConn has actually performed aptly in football over the past decade outside of the last couple of years, yet the New England region is a black hole when it comes for football recruiting (particularly considering how it’s a high population area) and the school’s men’s and women’s basketball prowess probably has the least value to the Big 12 out of any of the power conferences (as hoops mainly benefit conferences that either have networks like the Big Ten has or strong basketball syndication deals like the ACC). Now, UConn’s Big East pedigree and relatively strong brand name means that the school has a large amount of upside, but it may not matter to the Big 12 with Connecticut being so far geographically from the conference’s core.

C. NEEDS WORK, BUT KEEP AN EYE ON THEM

TULANE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 3
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 15
Academics – 5
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 58
Overview: Tulane has been in the on-the-field football doldrums since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but the Green Wave might be resuscitating itself at just the right time. The school is building a brand new right-sized on-campus stadium and the football team is bowl eligible this season. Tulane’s academics are arguably the best of any school in the Group of Five besides Rice and the state of Louisiana is one of the best pound-for-pound football recruiting areas in the country. Honestly, out of all of the schools on this list, Tulane has the best chance out of anyone to realize its Tremendous Upside Potential and moving up to the top.

D. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

SOUTH FLORIDA
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 63
Overview: The allure of USF is purely about a demographic play – athletic directors and coaches fall all over themselves over the thought of combining the recruiting territories of Texas and Florida. (Note that this is a bigger reason for any fan of a school that’s not in the SEC to be scared of how successful that league can integrate Texas A&M.) USF has shown some flashes of football ability, but it’s been inconsistent. There is also extremely heavy power conference competition within the state of Florida (with Florida, Florida State and Miami gobbling up market shares), so there’s a limit to how large of a fan base that USF can realistically build.

CENTRAL FLORIDA
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 7
Total: 65
Overview: UCF has the exact same overview as USF above (just switch USF with UCF) except that UCF has a bit more upside as (a) being one of the largest schools by enrollment in the country and (b) having fresh chances to perform at higher levels of college football (whereas we’ve already seen what USF was and wasn’t able to do in the old Big East).

SAN DIEGO STATE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 67
Overview: San Diego State has similar attributes as UCF and USF on the opposite coast when it comes to football, but the Aztecs have the advantage when it comes to basketball value and the fact that it is the primary Division I sports school in the San Diego market. While Florida and Florida State have statewide fan bases in the Sunshine State, California is much more fragmented by market, which means that SDSU has more potential to “deliver” its home market despite the on-paper proximity of UCLA and USC compared to the AAC’s Florida schools.

E. THE ONLY CHOICES TODAY

BYU
Football Brand Value – 30
National TV Value – 15
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 5
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 75
Overview: BYU has strong enough of a national brand to garner an independent TV contrac with ESPN, a massive worldwide fan base, its own TV network and a solid football tradition. My criteria for demographics and academics likely undercount the true value of BYU, as its relevant demographics are really related to the world’s Mormon population and it has top tier undergraduate academics. Boise State might have the best record of recent on-the-field achievements out of any non-power conference school, but BYU is the one institution at this level that legitimately looks, feels and acts like a power conference program.

CINCINNATI
Football Brand Value – 30
National TV Value – 15
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 90
Overview: I’ve been mentioning Cincinnati as a strong Big 12 expansion candidate for awhile, but it wasn’t until constructing this index did I see how the school really does hit virtually every metric that the conference should be seeking. Among the Group of Five schools, its Football Brand Value is strong with multiple BCS bowl appearances and consistent performances over the past several years despite a number of coaching changes. The state of Ohio is a football recruiting powerhouse with only one in-state power conference competitor (albeit a massive one in the form of Ohio State). The school’s academics are solid, it has a great basketball history and its location is in a major market with probably the best geographic bridge to West Virginia of any viable candidate. The only question with Cincinnati is whether it can really perform any better on-the-field that it already has in football during the past few years. Still, that’s a minor issue compared to how the school has created a consistently competitive football program.

So, if the Big 12 were to expand today, it’s clear that Cincinnati and BYU have a huge gap over the rest of the field. Whether that type of expansion would be compelling enough to the Big 12 to make a move at all is still an open question.

(Image from Wikipedia)

For the past year, I’ve been pointing out that conference realignment really hinges on three primary schools: Texas, Notre Dame and North Carolina. The first two are fairly obvious to football-focused fans, but UNC is really the true lynchpin to the ACC. So, it was interesting to see the emails that were circulated within the UNC leadership ranks in the wake of Maryland’s defection to the Big Ten last year that The News & Observer procured. Here are some key excerpts and my thoughts:

Emails to and from Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, reflect the uncertainty that fans, boosters, administrators and Cunningham himself shared in the days after Maryland announced its decision to leave the ACC. Financial concerns drove the speculation surrounding conference realignment. According to Maryland, those concerns also drove it out of the ACC.

Hours after Maryland announced its move, Sports Illustrated posted a story on its website that detailed how much more money Maryland would make in the Big Ten. The first paragraph read: “The University of Maryland stands to make nearly $100 million more in conference revenue by 2020 with its switch from the ACC to the Big Ten. …”

Martina Ballen, the Chief Financial Officer of the UNC athletic department, emailed the link to Cunningham and UNC’s associate athletic directors. She included a short note: “Wow! Big $$$ if this is accurate.”

***

Other emails Cunningham received expressed shock that Maryland would leave, and they questioned whether the money in the Big Ten was that much greater than in the ACC. One came from Cappy Gagnon, a longtime Notre Dame athletic department employee who retired in 2011.

“I don’t get this one,” Gagnon wrote to Cunningham, who started his college athletic administration career at Notre Dame. “Maryland is going to be nobody in the Big Ten, with zero natural rivals and long travel. Is the money from the Big Ten Network that much greater than the ACC TV money?”

Cunningham’s response: “Yes. Likely $20 (million)/yr by 2017.”

This was one of the more surprising points in the sense that there seemed to be a genuine lack of knowledge among top level people of how much more of an advantage in TV money that the Big Ten had (and continues to have) over the ACC. That wasn’t something isolated to UNC – recall that University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh stated that he was “stunned” at the Big Ten’s financial projections and didn’t realize the extent of the financial disparities between conferences until going through realignment discussions. It would have been one thing if these were average sports fans just focused on on-the-field results, but it’s quite amazing that university leaders and athletic department officials didn’t seem to be as informed on college sports financial matters as, say, most of the people reading this blog or those that followed the reporting of mainstream media members like Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com, Andy Staples of SI.com and Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. It’s an indication of the insularity of many universities and athletic departments and partially explains why the inertia in favor of the status quo is often stronger than many conference expansionistas would like to believe. What we’re seeing is that it takes a real external crisis for the vast majority of power conference schools to take notice of the information that’s out there and consider switching leagues. (Note that this thinking doesn’t apply to the “Group of Five” non-power conference schools, who are going to be continuously and unabashedly actively looking for greener pastures.)

Cunningham had no shortage of input. A steady stream of emails from alumni, fans and boosters began on Nov. 20.

The notes came from everywhere: from people who graduated from UNC in the 1960s, and those who graduated in the past few years. Former athletes wrote in. There were Rams Club members. And emails from fans who had no tie to the school other than their allegiance.

One came from an Army major who wrote of how he’d followed UNC athletics throughout deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He expressed concern about a conference move and wrote, “I will always love Carolina, but my fervor towards our athletic programs would die a rapid death should we choose to enter the BIG TEN.”

The emails – many coming after UNC fans on the message boards at InsideCarolina.com organized a push to fill Cunningham’s inbox – shared roughly the same sentiment: Lead the Tar Heels out of the crumbling ACC, to a better place. The overwhelming majority of fans preferred moving to the SEC. Among the more than 150 pages of emails that Cunningham received in the 10 days after Maryland’s announcement, only one email favored joining the Big Ten.

This isn’t a shock that UNC fans preferred a move to the SEC over the Big Ten, as many purely sports-focused fans are generally ignorant or dismissive of the desire of university presidents to tie academic prestige to athletic conferences along with the TV dollars involved. As I’ve stated in previous posts, this plays to the ACC’s advantage in terms of retaining UNC: Tar Heel fans want a Southern-based athletic league, but university leaders care much more about being with their academic peers and maximizing revenue. So, the ACC provides the right balance of being Southern-focused (unlike the Big Ten) and having academic prestige (more so than the SEC).

And so it went, day after day. The most dire speculation was that Florida State and Clemson might also leave for the Big 12. The possibility came up in communication between Cunningham and Dean Jordan, an ACC consultant who specializes in TV rights contracts.

Jordan, who works for the Wasserman Media Group, worked closely with Swofford and helped convince Florida State and Virginia, among others, that the grant of rights agreement would help secure the ACC’s future. Jordan also discussed with ACC schools the possible benefits of developing a TV network devoted to ACC coverage.

Back then, in the days after Maryland’s announcement, Jordan was like everyone else, trying to figure out whether Florida State might actually leave. In an email to Cunningham on Nov. 21, Jordan wrote:

“FSU’s life won’t greatly change in the Big 12. The Big 12 TV deal is pro-rata for any new member and their TV distribution is only about $1 (million) more than the ACC. The Big 12 is going to take in $13 (million) more in BCS money – around $1 (million) per school.

“So for $2 to $3 (million) bucks, FSU is going to go through the trauma of switching leagues?”

The Wasserman consultant crystallized what I had always thought about the prospect of Florida State and Clemson going to the Big 12: it just didn’t make sense when you just took a step back and saw what was involved. The Big 12 might have had the advantage in pure on-the-field football performance over the past several years, but that league is a paper tiger in off-the-field conference realignment discussions compared to the ACC and other power conferences. Florida State might have used discussions (or the rumors of discussions) with the Big 12 as leverage to get an audience with the SEC and Big Ten, but the Seminoles were never seriously considering actually joining the Big 12.

Cunningham didn’t just receive emails from interested colleagues and panicking fans. On Nov. 25 – six days after Maryland announced its move – former University of Cincinnati NCAA faculty athletics representative Frederick Russ wrote Cunningham in hopes of bolstering support for Cincinnati.

Russ and Cunningham spent time together days before at the Maui Invitational in Hawaii.

“As I mentioned in Maui, I’ve been hearing all kinds of rumors about which schools the ACC might seek to add, and I wanted to let you know why I think adding the University of Cincinnati to the ACC would benefit the conference and both UNC and UC,” Russ wrote, before listing his reasons.

The ACC, though, already was finalizing its plan. Less than two weeks after Maryland announced that it would be leaving for the Big Ten, the ACC on Nov. 29, 2012 announced that it was replacing Maryland with Louisville. About five months after that, the conference had secured a grant of rights agreement, which effectively put an end – at least for the foreseeable future – to speculation and rumors that were never more prevalent than in the days that followed news of Maryland’s impending departure for the Big Ten.

Give Cincinnati credit for this: that school has been tireless in getting its message out for conference realignment purposes and taking nothing for granted. To be honest, I didn’t even really consider Cincinnati to be a viable ACC candidate in the immediate aftermath of the Maryland defection, but they managed to at least shoehorn themselves into the conversation when all was said and done (despite the fact that Louisville was ultimately chosen). Being aggressive in and of itself isn’t going to change a school’s position in conference realignment, but with the insularity among university and athletic department officials that I described above, taking every opportunity to highlight successes and future facilities plans (particularly in football) to the right people is critical. Louisville (Cincinnati’s competition) did just that over the past couple of years and went from being a marginal ACC candidate and possibly being left out of the power conference picture completely to grabbing the last spot in the ACC against formidable athletic (at least in basketball) and academic competition (UConn). Keep an eye out on Cincinnati when (not if) the Big 12 inevitably comes to the conclusion that it needs to expand.

All-in-all, the UNC emails highlighted the consternation that school officials and fans feel in times of conference realignment instability. As much as people like me are interested in the topic, I can certainly understand that no one in a leadership position likes dealing with periods of high stakes uncertainty. That being said, UNC is one of the few schools that is legitimately in control of its own destiny – both the Big Ten and SEC would take them in a heartbeat. The worst case scenario for the Tar Heels is that they are forced to join a league against their will that is wealthier and more powerful than the ACC itself. A fellow ACC school like Wake Forest, on the other hand, would feel quite a bit differently in the face of a conference collapse (just as Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State feared back in 2010 and 2011 with the Big 12 defections and UConn, Cincinnati and USF feel today in not being able to escape the then-Big East (now AAC). Schools will continue to place quite a bit of value on stability even if there is the possibility of larger dollars elsewhere.

(Image from Now I Know – It’s Gotta Be the Shorts)

As promised, we continue to empty out the mailbag (click here for Part I):

Frank,
One of your theories is that if the Big 12 dies, Texas would try for a partial member deal like Notre Dame in the ACC instead of becoming an equal member of another conference. I had agreed with that theory up until Texas A&M exploded onto the national scene at the end of last year and has remained there ever since. Texas is going to make its money anywhere but playing 2nd fiddle to its state rival has to be a blow to the powers that be at UT. I don’t think playing a half ACC schedule mixed with a couple of 2nd tier Texas schools is going to offer enough pub to compete with A&M and the SEC especially with the coming difficultly of scheduling with conferences going to 9 games. Does Texas A&M success, and more importantly attention, change your thoughts on the future of UT? – PSUhockey

Very interesting question. I think that A&M’s success can definitely impact the long-term prospects of Texas, but that it’s a separate issue from the particular conference that UT is in (or if it’s an independent, not in). A lot of sports fans may be looking at the Big 12 through the prism of its relatively good on-the-field football success over the past few years, while the ACC has had arguably its weakest stretch over the exact same period. However, I’d argue that Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson at the very least are more valuable football opponents than any Big 12 school outside of Oklahoma. Personally, I’d put UNC, NC State and Georgia Tech ahead of anyone non-OU Big 12 school purely for football, as well. So, if Texas keeps the Red River Rivalry as an independent, plays 1 or 2 of its fellow in-state Texas schools not named Texas A&M, has a similar 5-game partial ACC schedule like ND and then fills out the rest of its schedule in a manner that’s similar to now, I think that’s very attractive compared to the normal Big 12 schedule for the long-term. We’re not even getting to basketball and baseball, where the ACC is extremely powerful.

So, A&M could certainly put a serious dent in UT’s power (and if it’s not A&M specifically, it could be simply the increased presence of the SEC in the state of Texas), but that doesn’t necessarily correlate in Texas preferring the Big 12 over partial membership in the ACC. If anything, Texas might end up with acting in a way similar to how BYU responded to Utah’s invite to the Pac-12, where independence became mechanism to show how it was “special” compared to its in-state rival.

To me, Big East expansion to 12 schools is inevitable and ought to have happened already. The fact that Xavier AD Greg Christopher mentioned St. Louis, Dayton, Richmond and VCU as the prime candidates isn’t any surprise. SLU seems to be a lock – it’s a perfect institutional fit in a large market (by college sports standards) with a competent on-the-court basketball team. As I’ve stated previously, it’s really a matter of who comes along with SLU. I don’t see the Big East being interested in creating a nationwide conference with schools like Gonzaga and BYU – that’s an interesting fantasy for those purely focused on the basketball product, but it’s a non-starter for all of the other sports. So, Dayton, Richmond and VCU are really the well-worn “other” candidates, with the Big East’s consternation on each of them being that they have major flaws from the conference’s perspective (Dayton is in a smaller Midwestern market, Richmond has a small alumni base, and VCU would be the lone public school in a league of private institutions). It’s also difficult to see many other schools outside of that group that could have both a Butler-like ascent and the institutional and market profiles that the Big East is looking for. The only ones that come to mind are Davidson (which has a small size like Richmond but has had more recent on-the-court success and is located in a college hoops hotbed) and Duquesne (great institutional and market fit, yet they have zero on-the-court credentials).

If I were running the Big East, I certainly wouldn’t see Davidson or Duquesne as panaceas that are worth holding off expansion for. University presidents have proven to be a strange bunch in conference realignment decisions, though. To me, SLU is a lock to get into the Big East when it expands (and I say when because I just don’t see Fox being satisfied with the level of inventory and market coverage that the 10-team setup offers in the long-term), with Dayton as a slight front-runner for the 12th spot. Now, VCU might end up being too much to ignore if they have another Final Four run and, maybe more importantly, keep having fans showing up in droves in Brooklyn for the Atlantic 10 Tournament (as the Big East needs to maintain ticket buyers for its own tournament at Madison Square Garden). The public school profile is definitely a major problem for VCU’s candidacy, though. That factor can’t be underestimated with the Big East presidents.

For the long-term (the next 10 to 20 years), it probably won’t look too much different than now when it comes to U.S. spectator sports: (1) football, (2) basketball, (3) baseball and then a big dropoff to get to hockey and soccer. (This is different than levels of actual participation in sports, where soccer and basketball will likely dominate.) When looking at the metrics, basketball is clearly ascendant compared to baseball: the NBA Finals have been consistently drawing better ratings than the World Series, NBA players are more recognizable to the general public, neutral sports fans are more likely to watch an NBA game that doesn’t involve their favorite team than an MLB game without their favorite team, and, most importantly, the NBA viewing audience is younger and more diverse across economic and racial lines.

I wrote a piece on soccer’s issues with viewership back when David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy a few years ago and the main thrust of that post still holds true: viewership of soccer in the U.S. will be capped as long as Major League Soccer fails to import the best players in their primes like they do in Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL. Americans want to watch the best of the best, which is why they’re willing to watch the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams play in the World Cup and other international competitions, but aren’t interested in what they perceive to be minor league pro soccer compared to the English Premier League and other top European leagues.

Think of it this way: most sports fans can recognize the difference in the quality of play between an MLB game with a 1-0 score and a minor league baseball game with the same 1-0 score. Likewise, even relative soccer watching novices in America can see that the level of play in a World Cup or EPL match is vastly different than MLS. That’s why I’ve long said that the drag on soccer’s popularity in the U.S. has nothing to do with the supposed lack of scoring*. Instead, it’s that soccer is the main sport where we’re exporting the best players as opposed to importing them, which means we’re getting a worse product than other countries (unlike in basketball, baseball and soccer) and we know it. So, soccer can grow, but it will be limited as long as we don’t get to watch the best players here.

(* Scoring is an artificial construct, anyway. A 21-14 football score sounds a lot different than a 3-2 score (as in 3 touchdowns to 2 touchdowns) even if it reflects the same amount of on-the-field action. The “lack of scoring” argument for why Americans don’t watch soccer en masse is one of my sports pet peeves because it’s so simplistic and misses the larger picture.)

What will it mean for NCAA 14 that the conferences aren’t represented? – @Devon2012 

Ah, yes. Yet another toothless action by the NCAA and conferences in attempting to deflect criticism that they’re taking in billions of dollars on par with the largest pro sports entities in the world. I guess the NCAA has a bit more skin in the game since its brand is in the title of the game itself, but it’s pointless for the conferences to remove their names from video games, but then allow their members to continue to be included under their own separate agreements with EA Sports (and all but one of them have such agreements). We’re not talking about going to some Blades of Steel era logoless and nicknameless labeling of teams here: the Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes and all of their other conference-mates will be playing in a video game league that’s not named the Big Ten but everyone will recognize is the Big Ten. (I’m sure that EA Sports will simply use the mathematically correct “Big 14″.) Why the Big Ten, SEC and other power conferences give up their branding control when their member schools are still participating in the game is beyond me.

I don’t think ESPN and Fox are battling over conference realignment per se in the sense that the only conference where it really matters at this point for them is the Big Ten. In fact, the Big Ten’s next TV contract (which would start in 2016) is in an environment where it’s the only power conference that’s going out to the open market for the next decade, so ESPN and Fox (along with NBC and maybe even Turner) could fight for the conference with realignment being a tangential factor. At the end of the day, I believe that the Big Ten will end up with a Pac-12-style deal where the Tier 1/Top Tier 2 rights are split between ESPN and Fox and then the Lower Tier 2/Tier 3 rights go to the Fox-affiliated BTN, so neither ESPN nor Fox will push the Big Ten or the other conferences to do one thing or the other simply for the sake of TV rights. If anything, the last thing that ESPN and Fox would want is further realignment, as it has resulted in significantly higher rights fees that they’re footing the bill for. The Pac-12, Big 12, SEC and ACC rights are all locked up for a long time, so the networks are just going to end up paying more if any other schools end up defecting to the Big Ten.

Which is more likely for the NHL – expansion or contraction? Which NFL franchise(s) are most likely to land in LA? If none do in next 5-10 years, would NFL expand again? – John O

A couple of key overarching points about about pro sports realignment:

(1) Having an “acceptable” stadium is non-negotiable –  It doesn’t matter how attractive a market might be – if it doesn’t have the right stadium (which means having the requisite amount of luxury suites and sweetheart revenue streams), then it won’t be considered. (See the lack of an NFL team in LA for the past 2 decades.)

(2) The top 4 U.S. pro sports leagues will NEVER contract – Believe me – if I could wave a magic wand, there would be 8 to 10 NHL franchises eradicated tomorrow. However, when franchise values for even the worst pro teams in the worst markets are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, owners would rather (a) collect entry fees from new buyers of those dog franchises, (b) move those dog franchises to new markets with “acceptable” stadiums and (c) simultaneously scare current markets into building new “acceptable” stadiums in the process.

So, the first question is fairly straightforward at a high level – the greater likelihood for the NHL is expansion simply because contraction isn’t a viable option. That being said, when you dig down deeper, how much is it worth for any league to expand at this point? Most NBA and NHL franchises are better off using Seattle as a threat to current markets within their footprints to ram through new stadium deals than putting a team in Seattle itself. Leading into your next question, the NFL has used this type of threat better than anyone with the lack of a franchise in Los Angeles. Think about it if you’re Jacksonville, St. Louis or San Diego – if the NFL won’t put a team in LA for not having an “acceptable” stadium, then they sure as hell won’t care about you if you don’t have the right building.

The team that should move to LA is the Jaguars (nothing against Jacksonville, but it truly doesn’t make sense how that market has an NFL franchise), but it appears that their stadium lease is extremely difficult to break. That leaves LA’s two prodigal sons of the Rams and Raiders as frontrunners (franchises with aging stadiums and relatively low contractual barriers to deal with) along with the Chargers (a fairly short geographical move).

Of course, remember point #1: LA must have an “acceptable” stadium. That has always been the dilemma. The proposed Farmers Field in downtown LA near the Staples Center and LA Live had always made the most sense to me from afar since it presents the best opportunity to be a catalyst to further economic development in that area. Downtown LA still isn’t anywhere near as walkable as New York City, Chicago or San Francisco, but a football stadium is a logical addition to what the LA Live complex has already brought there. Unfortunately, that proposal seems to be dead right now.

The problem is that the massive size of the LA market almost works against it in an environment where getting the right stadium deal matters more than anything else in attracting an NFL (or any other pro sports) franchise. The LA market is so lucrative that tons of potential high profile investors want to get into the action, which means that the region as a hole continuously fails to coalesce around a single stadium proposal. The City of Industry and Orange County, for example, see Downtown LA as a competitive threat as opposed to a partner, so we’ve been seeing lots of stadium proposals from various municipalities and factions over the past two decades without any of them getting broad support. In contrast, smaller markets have a better ability to get behind a single proposal with little infighting.

I’ve been thinking that LA would have an NFL team within the next 5 years for the past 15 years, so while it makes sense to virtually everyone with half a brain, it’s pretty obvious that the NFL won’t budge whatsoever on the stadium issue even with a gaping hole in the #2 TV market in the country. Roger Goodell would rather work with markets that have top tier stadiums in place… like London*.

(* Look – I love London. It’s one of the few places that I’d ever consider moving to by choice from Chicago. However, Goodell’s continuous rhetoric about possibly putting a Super Bowl and/or team in London is wearying. The NFL needs to separate the interest of the American expat population in England that’s interested in the league with the fact that native Brits are unbelievably resistant to the overtures of U.S. sports leagues much more compared to other European countries. The most successful franchises in terms of attendance in the old NFL Europe developmental league were actually located in Germany, while Spain, France and many Eastern European countries are solid followers of the NBA. London simply isn’t a good growth spot for the NFL at all.)

Enjoy the upcoming games, everyone!

(Image from HitFix)