The past week has featured more conference realignment moves and rumors in quite some time. Seven schools switched conferences last Friday, all of whom are really pawns in the college sports game of double chess. Stewart Mandel has pointed out that ever since the Big Ten announced that it was going to expand back in 2009, 25% of all FBS schools (31 in all) have changed leagues. Inspired by the use of a classic presciently-titled Beatles song* (along with an appearance by Mr. Belding from “Saved by the Bell”) in “Mad Men” this past week, let’s look into the future** by answering some questions that I’ve been seeing from a lot of readers lately:
(* The cost for “Mad Men” to use an actual Beatles master recording as opposed to a cover version: $250,000. It was well worth every penny.)
(** As the friendly posters at TexAgs seem to enjoy reminding me about once a month, I had this doozy of a wrong prediction last year. I’m certainly not a soothsayer. However, what I hope that readers will appreciate that I try to dig a little deeper than the surface level view to get them to think about the issues of the day in a different way.)
1. Does the removal of AQ status and resignation/ousting of Big East commissioner John Marinatto mean anything for Boise State and San Diego State? – Not really. BCS auto-qualifier status in and of itself would have been nice for Boise State and San Diego State, but they were well aware months ago that such designation was on its way out the door. What’s more critical for those two schools is the amount of the next TV contract for the Big East, which should be substantially more than what they would have received in the Mountain West Conference even in the worst case scenario. The main issue for Boise State will be whether the WAC will continue to live on as a non-football league for the Broncos to place its basketball and Olympic programs. As long as there’s some home for Boise State’s non-football sports, they’ll be in the Big East (meaning that San Diego State will be there, too).
2. Does the removal of AQ status and resignation/ousting of Big East commissioner John Marinatto mean that the Big East will split? – No. If anything, it’s a sign that the conference is going to be sticking together for the foreseeable future. This was a move that appears to have been driven by the Catholic members of the conference and the football members ended up agreeing. As I’ve stated in prior posts, the Big East isn’t going to be getting a bonus from a TV network for its football league just because it’s an all-sports league as opposed to a hybrid league. The value of the Big East football side is what it is regardless of the conference’s structure. In contrast, it’s really the value of the basketball side of the conference that’s the variable and it’s clear that keeping Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, et. al will garner a better per school package than a split league. As USA Today reported today in an otherwise somber assessment of the future of the Big East:
The conference could begin television negotiations as early as September. College football officials inside the league and out, and others well versed in TV negotiations all said the league would be best served if it stayed together, even in its unwieldy current configuration.
Even if no one in their right minds would create the Big East as currently constituted from scratch today, the Catholic and football members of the conference are still more valuable together than they are apart.
3. Is the Big 12 raiding the ACC? – I don’t believe so (and you can refer back to my post from February on some of the reasons that I think still stand today). Sometimes, I feel like I’m a crotchety guy constantly throwing a wet blanket on rumors that the Big 12 is going after the likes of Florida State and Clemson, but everything that I’ve heard on this topic has either originated from not-quite-reliable locales and rooted in what sound like football fan-focused concerns as opposed to university president-focused. For instance, I see a lot of comments that a school like Clemson would want to join the Big 12 because of the “football culture” compared to the Tobacco Road dominated ACC, yet that belies the facts that (1) Nebraska and Texas A&M, two of the most football-focused schools in the country, couldn’t run from the Big 12 fast enough and (2) the ACC didn’t exactly decide to add Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College back in the day due to hoops prowess. That’s what I mean by a “football-fan focused concern”.
Now, TV revenue disparity is certainly a university president-type concern that could make the Big 12 attractive compared to the ACC on paper. The Big 12 reportedly has a verbal agreement with ESPN to kick up its total annual TV rights revenue to approximately $20 million per year per school. (That figure would be the combination of ESPN first tier and Fox second tier TV rights but doesn’t include third tier TV rights controlled by individual schools, such as the Texas deal with ESPN’s Longhorn Network.) However, it’s still unclear what ACC will end up after its renegotiation with ESPN. There was a SportsBusiness Journal report in February that each ACC school was looking at around $15 million per year, yet that hasn’t been finalized.
Here’s one thing that’s clear to me, though: ESPN has zero incentive to see the ACC get raided. None. Nada. Unlike its contracts with every other power conference, ESPN has complete top-to-bottom control of all ACC TV rights. This means that ESPN has more of a vested interest in the survival of the ACC specifically over every other conference – it’s the one league that the people in Bristol aren’t sharing with Fox, CBS or the Big Ten Network. In fact, think of it in these terms:
The ACC is the single largest content provider to all of the ESPN networks, whether college or pro.
Let that sink in for a moment. The ACC provides more live content to ESPN than the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. So, do you really think ESPN wants the ACC to lose anyone, much less actually enable another league (the Big 12) to poach Jim Swofford’s gang? Is ESPN going to want to trade an entire slate of Florida State games that’s guaranteed annually in order to receive only a handful of tier 1 Seminole games that’s variable from year-to-year? Well, for all of the talk about how sexy of a matchup Florida State vs. Texas would be, check out the number of times that FSU vs. Miami appears on the list of highest rated games in the history of ESPN. Since many sports fans tend to forget the existence of anything that happened beyond one year ago, they have forgotten how strong the ACC has been as a TV property over the long haul.
No one knows how much ESPN can single-handedly shape conference realignment more than the Big 12. There’s one reason why Texas and Oklahoma aren’t in the Pac-16 today: the Longhorn Network. ESPN was willing to pay Texas $15 million per year alone for bottom-of-the-barrel TV rights just so that its limited tier 1 Big 12 package would be kept alive. So, my educated guess is that ESPN is going to be more than willing to throw at least an extra $30 million per year toward its single largest content provider of the ACC to make it at least revenue neutral on the TV front (where it’s close enough to the value of the Big 12’s TV deal that any difference would be offset by higher travel expenses) or even more to remove any doubt that the ACC is on equal standing with the other power conferences.
As I’ve stated in prior blog posts, I’m not saying this out of any love for the ACC. Personally, there’s nothing that I’d love more than to witness those douchebags from Duke get relegated to the Southern Conference. However, I try my best to separate what I want to see happen from what I believe will actually happen. In this case, I believe that ESPN is going to end up paying the ACC enough to remove TV revenue as a reason for any school to leave that league for the Big 12.
4. Is the Big 12 going to expand with non-ACC schools such as Louisville? – I find this scenario to be much more likely than any type of Big 12 raid on the ACC, but the issue that the options for the Big 12 besides Louisville are limited. BYU has been brought up on several occasions as a possibility, but the Cougars have such stringent requests regarding its own TV packages that even Texas says, “Damn! You’re giving us nothing!” Cincinnati is a geographic bridge between Louisville and West Virginia, yet their fan base size and football stadium situations aren’t making the heads of anyone in the Big 12 turn. Rutgers and/or UConn are intriguing options for the Big 12 in my personal opinion, but that hasn’t been validated by anyone that’s actually associated with the conference.
Unfortunately for Louisville, they need a twelfth school to join them, as the Big 12 isn’t going to add them alone as number 11, and there isn’t anything close to a consensus on who that twelfth school should be.
5. How are the non-power conferences going to end up? – The non-power conferences are in a worse position than they were 4 years ago. While they will have more access to the new college football playoff on paper, they have few (if any) programs that have the resources to legitimately challenge for one of those 4 playoff sports on a consistent basis. At the same time, those depleted leagues will likely be giving up any access to the other lucrative BCS bowls, which are going to be even more geared toward contractual tie-ins and a free market system of choosing the most popular schools that draw TV ratings and sell tickets. To the extent that the Big East might get raided again by the Big 12, the Big East can then turn around and poach from the Mountain West and Conference USA even further (so fans from those conferences should not get any joy in any manner from all of the Big East doomsday stories).
If there’s one rule in conference realignment, it’s this: Shit ALWAYS rolls downhill. When you’re at the bottom of that hill, you’re the WAC.