Archive for October, 2013

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)

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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)