Archive for April, 2013

Despite being a Big Ten guy that would personally love to have Jim Delany add Florida State, I’ve repeated the following statement many times on this blog: the ACC is much stronger than what people give it credit for. It’s not that I’m a fan of the ACC at all, but simply a reflection that it has never been as open for poaching as so many conference realignment observers thought or wanted it to be. Despite perceived TV contract problem, it’s a conference with strong brand names and good-to-great academics in arguably the most demographically desirable geographic footprint of any league in the country. So, it wasn’t a surprise to me that the ACC finally solidified its position to the outside world with its members unanimously agreeing to a grant of media rights to the conference through 2026-27. For the uninitiated, the “Grant of Rights” is a key tool in protecting a conference’s membership since each school individually grants its media rights to its league for a set period of time, which applies even if such school ends up defecting. For example, if an ACC school now attempted to leave for the Big Ten, SEC or Big 12, the ACC would still own that school’s media rights until 2026-27. That effectively makes ACC schools worthless from a raiding conference’s standpoint since they either can’t get access to those media rights or would have to pay a large buyout to the ACC to obtain them. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 schools have already agreed to a grant of rights to their respective conferences.

With 4 of the 5 power conferences having a vested legal interest in seeing grant of rights agreements being upheld in court (and the 5th power conference that doesn’t have a grant of rights, the SEC, being so strong financially off-the-field and competitively on-the-field), it’s likely that we have seen an end to power conference realignment for the next decade or so. There’s a chance that the Big 12 may be compelled to expand back up to 12 or more members from its current 10 or that the Pac-12 could eventually find a current Mountain West Conference member attractive, but the shifting between the power conferences themselves is probably over. From the Big Ten’s perspective, it’s probably all well and good. As much as I personally wanted the Big Ten to look at a school like Florida State, it likely only had eyes for the AAU likes of Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, all of whom would have been extremely difficult to poach (particularly UNC). The SEC also was set on looking at UNC and maybe rival Duke as a pair, which also would have been a monumental task to pull off. Much like the Big Ten was better off seeing Texas stay in a weakened Big 12 as opposed to heading off to a stronger Pac-16, if Jim Delany can’t nab his alma mater of UNC for himself, maintaining the status quo is much more preferable than seeing UNC head off to the SEC (as unlikely that would have been). From both the conference financial and fan perspectives, there isn’t any Big Ten expansion scenario that makes any sense without 2 or more schools from one of the ACC or Big 12. I’m sure that Mike Slive and SEC fans would feel the same way about SEC expansion.

The conference realignment game has been particularly cruel to American Athletic Conference* orphans UConn and Cincinnati. Their most realistic paths back to power conference status were all via further raids of the ACC opening up more slots. Neither school fits the profile of what the Big Ten and SEC would be looking for, the Pac-12 is out of geographic reach, and the ACC isn’t likely going up to 16 with either of them and would only be interested in them as backfill candidates in the event they ever do lose other members. The best hope for UConn and Cincinnati at this point (and it’s a bit better for the latter) is that the Big 12 ends up having an urgent need to expand again. Using 20/20 hindsight, the Big 12 might rue the day that they passed over taking Louisville and a 12th school (either BYU or Cincinnati) as the ACC surprised a lot of people in grabbing what has ended up being a fairly valuable football and basketball chip off of the table. A Louisville/BYU combo was likely financially viable to the Big 12 in a way that any BYU/Cincinnati/UConn combo probably can’t be, so the Big 12 seems stalled at 10. That might be perfectly fine for the conference’s university presidents and athletic directors at this time, but having a lack of viable expansion options is a much more acute long-term problem for a 10-school conference than ones at 12 or 14 members. I’ve never been a proponent of any conference expanding simply for the sake of expanding, yet it feels like the Big 12 didn’t take advantage of a momentary position of strength after they signed their new TV deal with ESPN and Fox last year. Now, to be sure, I never bought for one second that the Big 12 had any legitimate chance at Florida State and Clemson (the former was really only interested in shaking the money trees of the Big Ten and SEC). However, adding Louisville and BYU would have been a solid expansion both athletically and geographically for the Big 12 and that’s an opportunity that has slipped away. The ACC’s choice of Louisville over UConn and Cincinnati effectively blocked Big 12 expansion, whether John Swofford intended for that to happen or not (and I tend to agree with Andy Staples that Swofford is a ninja that has been underestimated by a lot of college sports fans).

(* My vote for the new AAC logo is here.)

As for the ACC itself, there’s little point in entertaining expansion for the foreseeable future. Contrary to the belief of a surprisingly large number of sports fans, the fact that the ACC has an odd number of basketball teams as a result of Notre Dame’s non-football membership has absolutely zero bearing on conference realignment. The only time that an odd number of schools matters is for a football alignment, which wouldn’t apply in the case of the ACC. Therefore, the conference certainly wouldn’t add a single all-sports member to create an odd number of football schools, and it’s doubtful that going up to 16 is appealing with the ongoing hope (however misguided that it might be) that Notre Dame might join the league as a football member within the next 40 years.

Speaking of Notre Dame, the Irish have managed to solidify their independence for the foreseeable future with an extension of their contract with NBC through 2025. If one thing has been made clear through conference realignment over the past 3 years (to the extent that it wasn’t already clear), it’s that Notre Dame’s ironclad principle is to maintain independence above making the most TV money (which, to be sure, is still quite good for them), scheduling concerns or any other factor besides being structurally foreclosed from winning a national championship (which will be far from the case in the new 4-team playoff format). The ACC is honestly a perfect setup for Notre Dame – the Irish get access to a power conference for non-football sports and a full slate of bowls with a partial conference scheduling commitment that consists largely of schools that they would generally be willing to play, anyway. They’re not going anywhere for a loooong time.

Now, conference realignment for the world outside of the five power football conferences is far from over. The formation of the “new” Big East is spurring a large scale realignment of non-FBS Division I conferences (starting with the Atlantic 10 adding George Mason and Davidson and the Missouri Valley Conference taking Loyola). Many FCS football programs are finding themselves in financial purgatory where they are looking to move up to FBS homes. There might even be a full scale realignment of the college sports world with a possible breakaway of the top football leagues from the NCAA. Still, it feels like the big conference realignment moves (outside of that possible NCAA break-up) have been completed… except, of course, for Johns Hopkins going to the Big Ten.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

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I’m finally back from a spring break vacation in Arizona (80 degrees for the White Sox spring training game that I attended last Wednesday compared to 30 degrees for Opening Day in Chicago yesterday), so let’s get a few updates since I haven’t posted in awhile:

(1) Big Ten Divisions – It appears that the Big Ten office is heeding the calls for the “Keep It Simple Stupid” approach of dividing the soon-to-be 14-team conference into East and West divisions, with Michigan State heading East with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland, the West having Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota and the only debate being where Indiana and Purdue will be placed.  IU-PU will then be the only protected cross-division rivalry.  Assuming that this comes true, my message to the Big Ten office is the following: THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!  While I initially advocated Michigan State being placed in the West with both Indiana-based schools in the East, the newly rumored setup was the next best alignment from my perspective.  The Pac-12 was smart in not trying to force any protect cross-division games outside of the California-based schools playing each other annually, so it’s great that the Big Ten reportedly will only keep the Old Oaken Bucket as protected while the West can continue to rotate through Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State more often in this KISS alignment.  (Note that it’s a heck of a lot less heartburn for the West schools to see Indiana or Purdue falling off the schedule more often compared to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, which was likely a large driver for Sparty getting placed in the East.) It still makes a lot more sense in my mind for Indiana to head to the East since it’s (1) actually further East than Purdue, (2) a school with a disproportionately large East Coast student population and (3) better for competitive balance purposes.  The only reason that I can think of for IU pushing back on an Eastern placement is that it knows that it will never break its Rose Bowl drought competing in a division with resurgent Michigan and Ohio State programs.  Regardless, the Big Ten seems to finally be making the right choices on its divisional alignment.  Let’s just hope those right choices also extend to burying the Legends and Leaders division names next to Jimmy Hoffa*.

(* The Meadowlands aren’t that far from Rutgers, so it would still be in the Big Ten footprint.)

(2) Sweet Missouri Valley Conference Expansion – The “new” Big East consisting of the old Catholic 7 schools poached Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10 and Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference right before the start of the NCAA Tournament, which is likely going to trigger a massive realignment of the midmajor non-FBS conferences.  While the MVC is celebrating Wichita State’s Final Four run, it is also the league most openly pursuing expansion/replacement options as of now (Missouri State’s president actually Tweeted that he’s out visiting interested expansion candidates)*.  Various reports so far indicate that the MVC has had some conversations with Oral Roberts, UMKC, Loyola (Chicago), UIC** and Valparaiso.  The latter three Chicago area schools don’t surprise me at all: I Tweeted a few weeks ago that my gut feeling was that those programs plus Belmont would be at the top of the MVC list if Denver wasn’t going to be considered.  (Reading between the lines in this interview by MileHighMids of Denver’s athletic director, it appears that the MVC would have been interested in Denver if the school were to add more sports, but the AD isn’t willing to commit to that right now.)

(* For a great analysis of potential MVC candidates using Google Maps, check out this anonymous posting.)

(** For disclosure purposes, my parents met at and graduated from UIC, with my father then spending over 3 decades working at that campus. I don’t have any real rooting interest in the UIC Flames sports teams, but I’ll admit to having an affinity for the institution overall with my family connection.)

Perusing some MVC message boards and blogs, I’ve generally seen fans vomit over these choices with calls that they could either (1) do better or (2) stand pat at 9 schools.  It reminds me of the recent UCLA basketball coaching search*, where much of the fan base seemed to be incredulous that they couldn’t lure the likes of Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart and had to settle for the protector of a rapist… er… Steve Alford.**  The MVC fans seemed to have hopes for the likes of SLU and/or Dayton (the former of which is definitely going to be in the Big East, where it’s just a matter of when, while the latter likely will be there but has to sweat it out a bit with Richmond as a competitor for spot #12) and are now facing the reality that the realistic candidates aren’t nearly as desirable.

(* For what it’s worth, I believe that UCLA is an elite program with only Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and those rat bastards from Duke being in the same class. However, the Bruins’ lack of a sexy hire was the result of an elitist approach to job security by the school and fan base. That is, they just fired a guy in Ben Howland who went to three Final Fours, pulled in a top-ranked recruiting class last year and won the Pac-12 regular season championship this year.  At most schools, that record warrants a lifetime contract – Shaka Smart is going to be able to parlay a single Final Four run into perpetuity at VCU.  I fully understand how many UCLA fans believed the trajectory of the program was going in the wrong direction with Howland and a change might have been needed simply for the sake of a change, but they might have failed to understand how top level coaches in stable positions aren’t exactly enthralled with the prospect of taking a job where a 3-time Final Four coach got canned right after winning a conference championship. Hence, the pool of interested parties was much more shallow than anticipated.)

(** I highly recommend Black Heart Gold Pants blogger Patrick Vint’s message to UCLA fans about Alford on Bruins Nation.)

From my perspective, the MVC isn’t going to be able to add any real home run additions on-the-court. Belmont has the best performance over the past few seasons of the potential candidates, but geographic fit seems to be an issue in that case and their attendance figures have been subpar.  As a result, the MVC likely needs to concentrate on attacking its worst weaknesses as opposed to attempting to replace the irreplaceable Creighton in terms of basketball performance.  To me, that worst weakness is that fact that Wichita is the MVC’s largest TV market at #69 overall in the US.  Those of you that read me regularly know that I’m not in favor of expansion only for the sake of additional markets, but in the case of the MVC, having Wichita as your largest market is Charles Barkley turrible. Even if some of the candidates in large markets aren’t necessarily great TV draws, the MVC is eventually going to need them for recruiting purposes for long-term survival.  (This is why even if SLU and Dayton end up leaving the Atlantic 10 on top of Butler and Xavier, that league is still in much better position going forward with its footprint.) That means that a school like Murray State, which has had solid attendance and on-the-court performance, might appear to be desirable for MVC fans but not so much for the conference’s university presidents.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I have a particular interest in how the MVC is going to proceed since I firmly believe that it should have a better presence in the Chicago market than it does today. Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Bradley all predominantly draw students from and send alumni to the Chicagoland area (with Northern Iowa and Drake also sending large contingents to the region, too).  However, the MVC doesn’t draw the coverage that it ought to considering the in-place fan base since it lacks a direct Chicago presence (which is critical unless you’re the University of Illinois or Notre Dame).  Therefore, it’s not a shocker that two city schools (UIC and Loyola) and a university on the periphery of the metro region in Northwest Indiana (Valpo) are being visited by the MVC powers that be. The MVC leadership likely recognizes what I see in that Chicago is a large market that can be legitimately leveraged by the conference.  It’s not so much that the MVC thinks that UIC or Loyola can “deliver” Chicago in a way that Illinois, Northwestern, DePaul or Notre Dame are able to, but rather that the critical mass of MVC students from and alums living in the area can give the league a solid presence akin to what the A-10 has in Philadelphia or Washington, DC. The MVC doesn’t have any type of major market anchor right now and that’s increasingly going to be a negative risk factor if it’s not rectified.

I haven’t forgotten that ORU’s crosstown neighbor of Tulsa just got invited to the “Old” Big East (or Conference TBD) today. I’ll have more thoughts on that the status of that league in a separate post. Until then, enjoy the Final Four!

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

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