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The Big 12 will be live streaming a news conference today at 5:30 pm Central Time regarding expansion. Will the Big 12 expand by none as has been intimated over the past few weeks (with ESPN and Fox kicking in some money to kill expansion)? Maybe the Big 12 presidents will expand by 2, 4 or kick the can down the road?

This is just my gut feeling, but I believe the Big 12 presidents will vote to expand by 2 despite so much tampering down of expansion expectations over the last month. Whenever the Big 12 presidents have actually met together, they seem to believe that expansion is a positive. It’s only when they separate and are left to their own devices that more negative perceptions about expansion come around. Strictly on a psychological basis, the group dynamics can change a lot of things since the presidents have to confront what is best for the Big 12 conference overall as opposed to solely thinking about their own individual school’s interests.

We’ll see what happens. If the Big 12 decides to expand, it seems that this will come down to a game of musical chairs between BYU (arguably the most valuable school but also the most controversial politically), Houston (helped by a heavy dose of Texas politics) and Cincinnati (the non-controversial and very good across the board candidate but doesn’t have the passionate supporters that BYU and Houston seem to have). If any of the other candidates get into the Big 12 (which I examined Bachelor-style last month), then it would almost certainly entail the Big 12 expanding by 4. (As I noted on Twitter earlier today, my “crazy but plausible” scenario is the Big 12 adding BYU, Houston, Cincinnati… and Colorado State. This would address the disproportionately high number of Big 12 alums that live in the Denver market. I don’t think that scenario is very likely, but who knows what will happen when these Big 12 presidents get into a room.)

Regardless, feel free to use this post as an open thread to discuss Big 12 expansion and the presidential press conference. It’s pretty rare to have such anticipation for a conference realignment event where the outcome is truly up in the air, so enjoy the speculation while you can!

UPDATE (2:24 PM CT): Chip Brown reporting that there were no schools added by the Big 12:

We’ll see whether that means that Big 12 expansion is dead or if the presidents will continue to discuss this further ad nauseum.

UPDATE (2:34 PM CT): Pete Thamel also with a report that there won’t be Big 12 expansion:

UPDATE (2:52 PM CT): Jake Trotter from ESPN with another confirming report that there won’t be Big 12 expansion.:

Soooooo, it looks like this is going to be a pretty boring press conference.

(Image from Associated Press)

When Brett McMurphy reported a few weeks ago that the Big 12 had at least twenty expansion candidates, the most common comment that I saw in my Twitter feed was that this was just like “The Bachelor”. As an admitted former viewer of the show* and considering the latest report that the Big 12 is down to circa 12 candidates, it’s a perfect comparison. Out of the reported survivors, we have:

  • The “First Impression Rose” candidate that seems like a natural fit (Cincinnati);
  • A contender that is absolutely perfect on paper and The Bachelor has lots of chemistry with… yet also has some serious baggage that puts it at risk of getting the final rose (BYU);
  • Someone that the producers (AKA politicians) clearly want to keep on the show regardless of how The Bachelor personally feels and, even with lukewarm chemistry, may end up in the final rose ceremony through attrition by keeping everything on the down-low and not acting bats**t crazy (Houston);
  • A contestant that seems to have all of the right attributes yet lives on the other side of the country from The Bachelor with a lot glaring cultural differences (UConn);
  • Twins that The Bachelor sees a lot of potential in but no one has any idea if there’s a long-term relationship there (UCF and USF);
  • A candidate that questions whether a relationship here will work and where The Bachelor might actually be more interested in the contender than the contender is interested in The Bachelor (Air Force);
  • A bachelorette that attracts the adventurous side of The Bachelor in outdoor activity dates like rock climbing, but no one is sure whether they will be any good in the one sport (football) that The Bachelor really cares about (Colorado State);
  • The smart ones with multiple advanced degrees that are easy to talk to… and 99.9% certain to end up in the friend zone (Tulane and Rice); and
  • A couple of others that used to be in the power ranks back in the day and may at least get a date card (Temple and SMU).

(* In my opinion, the flagships of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have been getting a bit long in the tooth for several years. However, I’m ALL IN on “Bachelor in Paradise”. It’s like watching The Lord of the Flies in reality-TV form. I love everything about it.)

It’s unclear whether Memphis has survived (my gut feeling is that they’re still alive), but if they move on to the next round, it’s because they’re a contender with loaded parents that are willing to buy their way to the final rose ceremony.

As for all of the other candidates, it appears that they have been eliminated in the very first rose ceremony without even an obligatory make-out session with The Bachelor (although no one can discount a surprise return from one or more of them in later episodes). The Big 12 seems content with dragging this expansion process out until a conference leadership meeting on October 17th, so we’ll likely be talking about the remaining contenders ad nauseum for the next few weeks. Therefore, in the spirit of Chris Harrison, let’s take a moment and say our goodbyes to those that did not receive a rose:

  • East Carolina – In Bachelor terms, ECU is the candidate that all of the other contestants seem to like but The Bachelor has no interest in at all. Under my conference realignment maxim (“Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan”), ECU is a classic sports fan thinker’s choice. Fans see that ECU has excellent football attendance with a core group of passionate backers and a typically competitive on-the-field football team. University presidents, though, see a school that doesn’t fit the applicable academic profile and is located in a small market in what is already the most over-saturated state in the country for power conference sports (North Carolina). The Pirates had to give it the old college try to apply for Big 12 expansion in order to provide their fans some hope, but I doubt anyone at the school realistically believed that the Big 12 was actually going to call them up.
  • Boise State – If ECU is a candidate that other contestants seemed to like, then Boise State is the audience favorite that was eliminated early and would be in line to be named “The Bachelorette”. There might be no better example of a “Fan’s Choice” that conflicts with the “University President’s Choice” in conference realignment than Boise State. The on-the-field performance of the Broncos for the past decade speaks for itself for fans, but the university presidents still see a lack of an institutional and academic fit in a small TV market. The primary reason why Boise State was considered at all is that they arguably have the most valuable national TV brand out of any non-power conference school. However, the off-the-field academic reputation is still a killer (both with the Big 12 here and the Pac-12 in the future).
  • San Diego State – The Aztecs could look good on paper for the Big 12, but if UConn already lives pretty far from The Bachelor, then San Diego State is effectively on another planet. In my Big 12 Expansion Index post, I gave SDSU some high marks since it was an evaluation that largely discounted geographic proximity as a factor. However, reality might be setting in here that there needs to be some semblance of geographic proximity in conference realignment. For all of the complaints about the power conferences expanding the geographic boundaries to large distances, the reality is that every power conference move made since 2010 was with a school in a state that was geographically contiguous to the then-existing league footprint, as applicable… with the exception of West Virginia going to the Big 12. It was just difficult to see the Big 12 turning an already bad geographic situation into a comically horrific geographic situation.
  • UNLV – Similar issues here as San Diego State. Now, I’ll say that both the San Diego and Las Vegas markets are still quite ripe for the picking for college sports since they are among the largest TV markets that don’t have legitimate power conference representation. If the Raiders end up moving to Las Vegas (and as much as I don’t want to condone owners holding cities hostage for publicly financed stadiums, anyone without Oakland-tinged glasses can see that Las Vegas and the Raiders are perfect for each other), that could create a state-of-the-art stadium that might be shared with UNLV. At the end of the day, though, the issue for both SDSU and UNLV is that they are not institutionally or academically-aligned with the Pac-12 and their geography with the Big 12 is a problem, so they’re stuck at this time.  Improving off-the-field academic items will be much more of a factor for the future conference realignment prospects of San Diego State and UNLV compared to on-the-field football ability.
  • New Mexico – There’s nothing wrong with New Mexico: it’s a solid flagship university in a growing state with a very good basketball fan base that’s contiguous to the existing Big 12 footprint. The issue is that there never seemed to be a spark between UNM and the Big 12 as other candidates seemed to cover the Lobos’ positives just a little bit better. If the Big 12 really wants a basketball-oriented flagship, then UConn has elite programs for both men’s and women’s hoops and is there for the taking. If the Big 12 wants geographic proximity, then there are schools like Houston, Rice, SMU, Tulane and Memphis available. If the Big 12 wants a solid overall school in a new market, then Cincinnati covers even more bases in a larger TV market and recruiting territory. So, New Mexico isn’t the worst option, but it also one of the best options, either.
  • Northern Illinois – There is no more damning charge in The Bachelor when someone is accused of “not being there for the right reasons”. When a contestant is clearly angling for a spot on “The Bachelorette” or “Bachelor in Paradise” or looking for free advertising for a home business, then “The Right Reasons” Police come out. I know that my brain is turning to mush due to an excess of conference realignment Tweets when (a) someone participating on a contrived reality TV dating show believes that they have the moral authority to accuse another of “not being there for the right reasons” and (b) I always totally agree with the accuser. “The Right Reasons” Police are always right. Now, I’m certainly not saying NIU was doing anything nefarious here (and I’ll be upfront and state that NIU is personally my favorite Group of Five school), but let’s face it: the Huskies knew that they weren’t getting a Big 12 invite. Instead, this presentation to the Big 12 was really aimed toward convincing the AAC and/or Mountain West Conference to consider NIU if/when those leagues lose any schools. NIU senses an opportunity to move up the pecking order even if it might be just one rung up from the MAC as opposed to a rocket to the top.
  • Arkansas State – Similar issues here as NIU, where Arkansas State knew that their Big 12 chances were zero but wanted to go through an audition for other conferences (such as the AAC or Conference USA). There could very well be a large shakeup in the Group of Five non-power conferences even if the Big 12 only adds 2 new members and the current Arkansas State home of the Sun Belt Conference is the most vulnerable. Positioning for a potential new home outside of the Sun Belt would be prudent for any member of that league.

In witnessing the Big 12 expansion process unfold, there seem to be a few overarching takeaways (none of which are surprises except for the last point):

(1) Politics Matter – Politics, both the procedural kind (politicians trading favors) and the societal issue kind, are no stranger to the history of conference realignment. Just look at how heavily politicians got involved in the original formation of the Big 12 in the 1990s and the ACC expansion of the early-2000s (with a key role played by current Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine in leveraging the vote of UVA to get Virginia Tech into the league). As a result, anyone that discounts the open and unambiguous statements from the Governor and Lt. Governor of Texas in support of Houston to the Big 12 ignores them at their own peril. One of the most common comments that I get on Twitter is that the non-Texas-based Big 12 schools don’t want to add another Texas member. My general reply is, “So what?!” There are few complaints that I’ve heard over the years more than the belief that the Big 12 is beholden to UT, yet there is now this argument that the other Big 12 schools will suddenly ignore UT on expansion. That makes zero sense to me. From a pure vote counting perspective, the Big 12 needs 8 schools to approve any expansion and the university presidents at Texas and Texas Tech are already on-the-record of wanting (or needing) to vote for Houston. It’s not exactly a stretch that politicians that have stuck their necks out for Baylor and/or TCU in conference realignment matters previously are going to call in some chits to secure their support for Houston, too. All it takes it one of either Baylor or TCU to bow to political pressure and there is now a Texas-based group that has veto power over all expansion in the Big 12 (similar to how UVA effectively had veto power in the early-2000s ACC expansion process since UNC and Duke had come out as firm votes against any type of expansion). Saying that the Big 12 will expand without the support of Texas is like saying that Donald Trump can win the White House without winning Florida: the electoral math doesn’t work.

At the same time, as I explained in my last post, BYU is dealing with rapid changes in society with respect to LGBT rights and pushback against the language in the school’s Honor Code regarding homosexuality. What might have been a socially “acceptable” position in 2010 regarding the treatment of the LGBT community is not necessarily going to be a socially acceptable position in 2016, just as there was a sea change in the public’s viewpoints regarding racial segregation and civil rights from 1960 to 1966. As result, the “religious liberty” argument isn’t going to work for BYU in this context. Instead, the school is going to need to assuage the legitimate practical concerns of the Big 12 presidents regarding any prospect of discrimination against the LGBT community and possibly amend its Honor Code so that it does not specifically reference homosexuality (similar to what Baylor did last year). I have some faith that this would actually occur (and not just because of Big 12 expansion, but simply in response to societal changes in general). The Honor Code is not a set-in-stone document that is mandated by the Bible or Book of Mormon and can certainly be changed to reflect the times while continuing to be consistent with the school’s underlying religious beliefs (similar to adjustments made by a Baptist school like Baylor or many Catholic universities across the country over the years). I’ve said this many times before: on traditional conference realignment metrics, BYU is the most valuable option for the Big 12. However, the political issues matter greatly here and they’re significantly more important today compared to only a few years ago.

Of course, the ultimate irony is that the Texas politicians that have openly pushed against gay marriage while trying to defend the ability to discriminate on “religious liberty” grounds are now the same ones that are advocating for Houston going to the Big 12… and the best way for Houston to get into the Big 12 is for BYU to be rejected by Big 12 presidents that don’t buy anti-LGBT discrimination as being justifiable based on “religious liberty” at all. Politics can make for strange bedfellows.

(2) Academics Matter – As I’ve noted with some of the fallen candidates above and time and time again, conference realignment decisions are ultimately made by university presidents as opposed to fans, coaches and athletic directors. Those university presidents simply have a different worldview. It’s not just overall academic snobbery. Instead, think of it from the personal incentive perspective of a university president. For a football coach or athletic director to go from, say, Kansas State to Rice, that is generally deemed to be a step down in money and prestige. However, a university president going from Kansas State to Rice (an academically prestigious AAU member) is considered to be a major promotion in the world of academia. Heck, it’s arguably an upgrade for any of the Big 12 university presidents (outside of the University of Texas) to take the same job at Rice or Tulane. Therefore, no one should be surprised that those academically elite schools are still in the process. The Big 12 university presidents are going to be quite nice and cordial in speaking with the respective administrators, board of trustee members and donors at schools like Rice and Tulane since those same presidents might be on the other side of the interview process with those schools looking for a job later on.

Meanwhile, the schools that aren’t in a strong position academically have a massive strike against them in the power conference realignment game. The lowest ranked school in the US News national university rankings out of all of the 5 power conferences is West Virginia at #175. Out of the 20 reported Big 12 candidates, 12 schools were ranked higher than WVU (Rice, Tulane, UConn, SMU, BYU, Temple, Colorado State, Cincinnati, San Diego State, USF, and UCF along with Air Force that had scores in the national liberal arts rankings that would put it in the elite category)… and 11 of those schools have moved on in the process (with San Diego State being the only exception). Out of the 8 schools that were ranked lower than WVU (New Mexico, Houston, East Carolina, Memphis, Northern Illinois, UNLV, Boise State and Arkansas State), only Houston is confirmed to have moved on (aided greatly by the political factor in point #1) and the status of Memphis is unclear. That doesn’t mean that the Big 12 is going to expand with Rice and Tulane, but lack of an academic reputation has shown to be a direct elimination factor for all of the power conferences.   Great academics might not get a school into a power conference, but poor academics can keep a school out of one.

3. Geography Sort of Matters – As I noted in my comments about San Diego State and UNLV, conferences will only ignore geographic issues up to a point. The Big 12 has already expanded eastward to West Virginia, so extending the league footprint further east with UConn and/or Temple as options is at least on the table. Likewise, the Big 12 was once in the Rocky Mountain region when Colorado was in the conference and they would like to be in it again (hence the interest in BYU, Colorado State and Air Force). However, the thought of expanding the lague all the way to the West Coast with a school like San Diego State really pushed the limits of practicality. There’s bad geography in conference realignment (e.g. Nebraska to Rutgers), and then there’s BAD GEOGRAPHY (e.g. West Virginia to San Diego State).

4. Confidentiality Does NOT Matter – In recent conference realignment history, there has been quite a bit of laughable subterfuge and public media denials of what was actually occurring behind the scenes up until actual expansion announcements were made. Recall Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany stating back in 2010 that he would give a conference that he wanted to poach from a lot of notice… and that “notice” consisted of calling the Big 12 a few hours before he was going to hold a press conference that the Big Ten was adding Nebraska. The subsequent additions of Maryland and Rutgers by the Big Ten came out of nowhere timing-wise. The SEC would continuously deny that they were even looking at expansion despite reports galore that Texas A&M and then Missouri were ready to join. The Pac-12’s attempt at creating a new Pac-16 conference with Texas, Oklahoma and other Big 12 schools ended up getting exposed to the public, but even to this day, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott won’t provide details of how close they were to sealing the deal. The ACC has a well-established track record of making conference expansion decisions with very few leaks.

By comparison, the current Big 12 expansion process is a veritable fire hose of open quotes and comments. Candidate schools haven’t even tried to hide the fact that they are applying to the Big 12 and, in many cases, are openly going on the record about the application process. At the same time, while conference realignment observers could reasonably guess who was being considered by the Big Ten, SEC and ACC in recent expansion discussions, there hasn’t been the direct and specific confirmation from conference offices about candidates in the way that we see with the Big 12 now. I can’t imagine the type of confirmed information that’s already out there about the Big 12’s expansion moves ever leaking out of the Big Ten or SEC. Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News notes how crass the Big 12 process has been up to this point.

Now, from the perspective of a conference realignment blogger, this openness is great and provides a ton of material that isn’t just pure speculation. However, there could be a whole lot of burned bridges among administrators of different schools and university leaders with their own alumni and fan bases when probably only 2 (and no more than 4) schools end up with Big 12 invites and over a dozen schools are left behind at the alter. (Lord help us if the Big 12 decides to not expand with anyone at all.)

As always, we’ll keep an eye out for the latest conference realignment news. Until then, enjoy the start of the football season!

(Image from Yahoo!)

Virginia v BYU

To be upfront: I’m a 100% unequivocal supporter of LGBT rights, including but not limited to marriage equality and transgender equality along with all measures to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ll leave it at that.

I know that I have many readers and Twitter followers that agree with me and many others that don’t agree with me at all. Ultimately, though, the personal viewpoints of me or you on LGBT rights don’t really matter when it comes to conference realignment… unless you’re the president of a Big 12 university. Remember my mantra from nearly 7 years ago when it comes to conference expansion: “Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.” As the Big 12 has received a letter from Athlete Ally and a coalition of LGBT groups objecting to BYU’s candidacy for the conference, LGBT issues have come to the forefront of conference realignment discussions. Whether people personally believe that these issues should be irrelevant to Big 12 expansion is, well, irrelevant. They are inherently relevant because they are the types of issues that matter to university presidents. There are few institutions in America where LGBT rights are deemed to be as critical as they are in academia. Fans can state all that they want that LGBT issues shouldn’t matter in conference realignment just as they have complained in the past that academic rankings, TV markets and cable households shouldn’t matter, either, but the reality is simply different.

For instance, I know that the Pac-12 would never invite BYU based on LGBT issues in large part. There are significant scars from the LDS financial support of Proposition 8 in California several years ago that the West Coast schools won’t get over at any point soon (if ever). Whenever I have been asked about the prospect of BYU ever being invited by the Pac-12 (and I’ve been asked many times over many years at this point), my instant reaction is “NFW” and it’s largely tied to this issue specifically (more than just a general aversion to religious schools). It doesn’t matter how much money BYU could make for the Pac-12: all of the Pac-12 schools (not just the California-based ones) are in unison here.

As you can see from my own comments from the past couple of weeks, I had been skeptical that the Big 12 would think the same way because of how they had allowed for Baylor to have its own discriminatory practices against the LGBT community up until last year. I just didn’t think the Big 12 schools would necessarily make this into a bright line issue. The more that I think about it, though, I seriously underestimated it (and like I’ve said, I’m as big of a LGBT rights advocate as you’ll find). If people believe that the University of Texas runs (or at least has disproportionate power within) the Big 12, then why wouldn’t UT (a progressive university that is probably more culturally and academically in tune with the Pac-12 than its own fellow Big 12 members) have a very large issue with allowing BYU into the league considering the school’s stances on homosexuality? This was a blind spot for me up to this point because of the presence of Baylor already being in the Big 12.

For your reference, here is the BYU Honor Code. Note that there are many religious schools, such as Baylor, that have a general prohibition on premarital sex regardless of sexual orientation. If BYU only had this type of rule that applied to all students, then the Big 12 probably wouldn’t see this as an issue. However, where BYU differs is that it has a broader exclusion of homosexual behavior that includes “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” So, my interpretation is that all students at BYU must practice chastity. The problem, though, is that heterosexual students can still have public displays of affection, such as holding hands or kissing, but homosexual students and staff are prohibited and could violate the Honor Code (which could result in expulsion). This is where the discrimination charge comes in as the school is holding LGBT students and staff to a different standard than everyone else.

On a pure financial basis, BYU has long been the best choice for the Big 12. It is the most power conference-like school that isn’t already in a Power Five conference and I’ve said this for years. However, I’ve also said in the past that there’s clearly something “personal” between BYU and the Big 12 – maybe it was about their negotiation tactics, maybe it was about Sunday play, maybe it was about how they wanted more for BYUtv, maybe it was about religion itself or maybe some combination of all of the above. Unlike most realignment decisions, there have been issues between BYU and the Big 12 that were clearly not about money or else BYU probably would have been invited already. The real or perceived discrimination against the LGBT community on top of all of that could certainly be a deal-breaker for the schools that already had hesitations about adding BYU. In fact, the Dallas Morning News is reporting today that the LGBT debate could nix BYU’s candidacy for the Big 12 even in an expansion to 14 schools.

To be clear: BYU should be free to practice religion and set its code of conduct however it sees fit in accordance with Mormon principles. That is (and should always be) protected by the First Amendment. At the same time, I know many LDS members and BYU alums and find them to be a loving and caring group with a commitment to community service as a whole.

However, that doesn’t mean the Big 12 has to accept BYU simply because the school is exercising its First Amendment rights, either. The Big 12 is every bit as much as a private association as BYU or the LDS church itself, so the conference can apply whatever criteria it wants in choosing its members. As I wrote in my very first post about conference realignment, there are tons of off-the-field factors that can impact expansion decisions, such as academics, TV markets and brand value. Increased emphasis on the protection of LGBT rights can certainly be a game changer, especially when public support for LGBT causes has gone from a small minority 10 years ago to a clear majority in rapid fashion and is increasing everyday (with near-unanimity among those under the age of 40). It clearly has been a deal-breaker for the Pac-12 with respect to BYU, so none of us should be surprised if it ends up being the case for the Big 12.

(Image from The Comeback)

For the past several years, the Big 12’s public position on potential expansion was constantly wait-and-see with lots of studies being commissioned and a general lean towards staying at 10 members. The league’s presidents and other stewards (despite public proclamations from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby to take action on expansion one way or the other) seemed to indicate that they were simply not motivated to expand, effectively stating that the options weren’t good enough (sort of like how much of America despises both major presidential candidates at record levels). The focus from the Big 12 was more about short-term maximization of their ability to make it into the College Football Playoff (whose leaders finally figured out today that New Year’s Eve blows for watching playoff games).

In meantime, though, the Big Ten put into place the structure of a new record-breaking TV deal with Fox and ESPN (on top of existing rising revenue from BTN) and the ACC announced the formation of the ACC Network with ESPN that will provide a financial windfall for that conference. Not coincidentally, the Big 12 presidents put down their Pokémon Go* games for a few moments and changed their tune on expansion within 24 hours of the finalization of the ACC Network deal. Now, the Big 12 is looking to add at least 2 and maybe even 4 additional members.

(* The Charmander as Houston Cougar image above come from a SBNation post about all of the FBS football teams’ corresponding Pokémon characters that was written well before the Pokémon Go craze came about. Enjoy!)

What happened? Well, it appears that the Big 12 might have finally gotten off of its delusion that it could ever attract members of the ACC or any other power conference. Coaches like Bill Snyder and partisan Big 12 fans might try to suggest schools that left the Big 12 wish that they could come back, but trust me on this one: every single person that actually matters at the schools that left the Big 12 are happy to be far, far, far away from that dysfunctional mess. The Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC are all academically, financially and demographically superior to the Big 12… and it’s not even a contest. The ACC Network deal seems has to cemented the notion that the Big 12 can’t hold out for the misguided hope to pick off other power conference schools (albeit Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated reported some residual delusion within the Big 12 that they could poach some Pac-12 schools in the next decade, which ought to be asinine to anyone that has followed conference realignment over the years). Every reasonable Big 12 expansion target is going to come from one of the non-power Group of 5 (“G5”) conferences outside of independent BYU.

At the same time, this self-realization by the Big 12 members is coupled with the very real fear that Texas, Oklahoma and/or Kansas could be out the door when the current conference Grant of Rights agreement expires in 2025 or even upon expiration of the new Big Ten TV deal in 2023 (which gets into the time range where breaking the GOR agreement might be financially feasible). The other members of the Big 12 have already seen Texas attempt to create the Pac-16 and Oklahoma’s leadership openly talk about the school having options in the realignment sphere. Maximizing short-term money by keeping membership numbers low is only sustainable if the Big 12’s three top flight risks stay put. As a result, the Big 12 has to engage in some “CYA expansion” whether they believe that UT, OU and KU will stay or not. When the conference’s largest TV markets, top athletic recruiting territory, fastest growing area, best academic institution and most valuable national brand name are all wrapped up in the single school the University of Texas, the rest of the Big 12 needs to expand and diversify its membership for survival in the event that the Longhorns ever decide for a “Texit”.

Now, that being said, the worst house (the Big 12) in Beverly Hills (the power conferences) is still significantly more valuable than the nicest house in Compton (G5 conferences). As Thamel noted, each member of the Big 12 makes more annual TV revenue than the entire AAC (which is the highest-paid G5 conference). Indeed, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said this week that he has been “talking to the (athletic directors) and the president of the schools that might leave, and it looks like some of them will.” The chasm between the power and non-power ranks is so stark that none of the G5 schools to pass on any opportunity to join any of the 5 power conferences (the “P5”) regardless of geography or a hope that another better “fit” within the P5 might be coming down the road in the future (e.g. an Eastern school like UConn isn’t going to pass on a Big 12 invite in the hopes of an ACC or Big Ten invite later). Every G5 school has to take any Big 12 offer that it receives immediately because this expansion process might constitute the last new additions to the power conference ranks for the next generation. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the handful of G5 schools that are in position to make the jump.

When I started writing frequently about conference realignment with the formation of the Big Ten Expansion Index nearly seven(!) years ago, I’ve made some correct predictions and quite a few wrong ones. However, I will always believe in my first rule of conference realignment: “Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.” Too many sports fans look at recent on-the-field records (what I call the “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” Syndrome) and not the long-term off-the-field factors that drive conference realignment, such as TV revenue, markets, demographics, stability and academic prestige. No one should analyze an expansion candidate based on the best case scenario where a school goes 12-o in a football season. Instead, the proper analysis for adding a school is whether it still provides value (whether in the form of a major TV market, top recruiting territory or academic excellence) even if it has a 0-12 record. This is something that I have stressed for many years and I’ll continue to emphasize it here. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the schools that are generating the most discussion for Big 12 expansion:

POLE POSITION

CINCINNATI

I created the Big 12 Expansion Index nearly three(!) years ago that admittedly had some interesting results (such as a high ranking for San Diego State) due to my desire to create an index based on as many objective factors as possible without inserting any subjective “smell test” bias. Still, my overall conclusion at the time was that Cincinnati was the very clear #1 best fit for Big 12 expansion and I still firmly believe that to be the case today. Whether the Big 12 expands by 2 or 4 schools, it’s extremely difficult to see how Cincinnati wouldn’t be involved in any combination. At worst, the Bearcats seem to be the #2 option out of the realistic expansion candidates regardless of who might be the personal #1 favorite of any Big 12 school. They provide a solid new TV market, excellent historical performance in both football and basketball, revamped facilities, an entry point into the state of Ohio (which would become the best football recruiting territory in the Big 12 outside of the state of Texas), good academics (particularly at the graduate level) and a way to eliminate the issue of West Virginia being a geographic and cultural island within the league. Cincinnati might not be the very best option in any of those individual categories, but it is the only one that is good-to-great across-the-board for the Big 12.

PRIME CONTENDERS

HOUSTON

When some Tweets from well-connected Dave Sittler surfaced over one year ago(!) that Houston would be a prime expansion target for the Big 12, I noted the following:

Putting aside the Big 12’s obvious delusions of grandeur of reverse raiding the Big Ten for Nebraska or adding Notre Dame and/or Florida State, this actually appears to be some legitimate information from someone with contacts with people that control the situation. Follow Sittler’s Twitter timeline for some further comments. Bottom line: Houston has seriously vaulted itself into Big 12 expansion talks. Now, this makes little sense for the Big 12 when looking at the typical goals of power conference realignment, such as expanding into new TV markets and recruiting territories. However, we would be remiss to forget that Texas politics (whether we’re talking about the state itself or the university) effectively control the Big 12 (as Sittler alluded to in his Tweets). The Big 12 was initially formed with heavy demands from then-Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and other Texas politicians in order to get Texas Tech and Baylor to tag along with UT and Texas A&M. It’s a bit of surprise to see such relatively strong statements about Houston’s Big 12 candidacy here, but not completely shocking when looking at the political history of the conference. Back in the midst of conference realignment mania in 2010, I recall then-UT President Bill Powers stating that it was a goal for Houston to become a “Tier 1” university, so there was an acknowledgment even back then of some broader goals to elevate the stature of that school.

Sure enough, look at the explicit Tweets from the past week from the Governor of Texas, Lt. Governor of Texas and the President of the University of Texas:

The president of Texas Tech then also issued a statement in support of adding Houston to the Big 12. It’s pretty clear that no matter what people will try to argue, there’s a whole separate political game that’s being played here where the normal metrics of conference realignment (such as obtaining a new TV market) do not apply.

Keep in mind that the Big 12 requires 75% of its members to approve a new school, which means any expansion candidate needs 8 votes. As a result, Texas and Texas Tech cannot block Big 12 expansion by themselves, but don’t be surprised if TCU and Baylor fall in line behind their state counterparts. TCU and Baylor might be private schools, but they certainly aren’t beneath the state political game, particularly with how Baylor got into the original Big 12 due to powerful alums in the Texas state government in the early-1990s and leveraged lawmakers that played a part in derailing the proposed Pac-16 deal of 2010. Meanwhile, TCU essentially owes its Big 12 membership to the efforts of UT, so it’s not a stretch to see the Longhorns call in a chit on that front.

The upshot is that it won’t take much for the Texas-based schools to effectively have veto power over any Big 12 expansion decision: if UT and Texas Tech are politically-aligned and just attract one of either Baylor or TCU, then they have as much leverage as the University of Virginia did in making its vote for ACC expansion in 2003 contingent upon inviting Virginia Tech (which also happened to be forced upon UVA by state lawmakers, including prominent moves by then-Lt. Gov. and current US. Senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine*). There are other reasons that Houston could be a solid expansion pick for the Big 12, such as its institutional support and solidifying a Houston TV market that is being encroached upon by the SEC via Texas A&M and LSU fans, but the Texas state political developments may trump everything else. That’s why no one other than Cincinnati should feel very safe in a 2-team expansion by the Big 12 and a great candidate could be left without a chair when the music stops even in a 4-team expansion.

(* Judging by the Democratic National Convention last night, I’m fairly certain that Tim Kaine loves balloons more than my 7-year old twins… and every other kid that I’ve ever met in my entire lifetime.)

BYU

If Houston could get into the Big 12 because of outside personal political relationships even if it doesn’t fit traditional conference realignment goals, BYU might end up outside of the Big 12 because its relationships (for better or worse) within the conference haven’t been as strong despite being arguably the strongest single expansion option. When looking at what “matters” to university presidents in expansion, BYU seems to fit the bill: great fan base, excellent academics, new and growing TV market, national appeal due to its direct link to the LDS church (essentially being to Mormons what Notre Dame is to Catholics) and a fantastic top-to-bottom athletic department*. If the Big 12 were to pick a school based on a blind resume of the metrics that are critical to conference realignment decisions, I’d be certain that BYU would be picked every time.

(* I’ve seen some suggestions that BYU might end up being a football-only candidate for the Big 12 in order to avoid Sunday play issues, but that doesn’t seem like the right move for the conference considering how strong BYU is in basketball and non-revenue sports. BYU’s entire athletic department can provide a ton of value, whereas there are some other schools that we’ll discuss later that would make more sense as football-only membership considerations.)

Yet, for whatever reason, the expansion prospects for BYU seem to run hot and cold. There are certainly plenty of observers out there that believe that BYU is near the top of the list, but then there are very well-respected reporters that have been correct more often than not on realignment news (such as Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com) that have been much more skeptical of BYU’s chances. One argument that is out there is that the Big 12 is focused on expanding to the east. The prohibition of athletic teams playing on Sunday is another possible negative factor, although it wouldn’t be applicable to football. A more pernicious suggestion brought up by Chadd Scott is that there could be an anti-Mormon sentiment among university administrators.

Despite the cold bucket of ice water above for BYU fans, I’ve been on the record many times that if I were running the Big 12, the top two picks for expansion based on what the conference claims to be looking for ought to be Cincinnati and BYU. If the Big 12 is looking to maximize revenue (which is goal #1 in conference realignment), then it’s difficult to see them passing on BYU regardless of any other perceived problems.

UCONN

UConn is right next to BYU in terms of being an extremely valuable school by G5 standards that would fare well in a blind resume test. It is the only school mentioned here that’s a true unambiguous state flagship university, which P5 members inherently like since most of them are flagships themselves. At the same time, Connecticut has great academics, a location that gives them access to the massive New York City and Boston TV markets on top of its affluent home state and elite of the elite programs in basketball (both men and women). Indeed, UConn’s stock has been justifiably rising in Big 12 expansion reports compared to very few mentions over the past couple of years. UConn just feels like it should be a P5 school and it has the athletic department revenue to back it up. The two main concerns for UConn’s Big 12 candidacy are (a) geographic fit and (b) football fit (which rules conference realignment). The geographic fit issue is based on the fact that it extends the already far-flung Big 12 all the way to the Northeastern corner of the United States. Personally, I think that issue can be overcome by UConn since it could argue that it wouldn’t be any more of a geographic outlier than BYU (who doesn’t seem to get docked points as much on geography) and its access to the NYC and Boston markets would justify the move.

Now, the football fit isn’t as easily explained away. It’s not so much the on-the-field performance of UConn, but rather that the other football-based metrics, such as the lack of a recruiting territory (where New England and the neighboring State of New York constitute arguably the worst per capita FBS recruiting region in the country). UConn also simply has a young FBS football program – it only moved up to then-Division I-A in 2002 in a world where P5 conferences (whether right or wrong) put a premium on having generations of tradition.

So, the institutional profile, TV markets and overall athletic department strength point to UConn being a very strong candidate for the Big 12 even if there’s only a 2-team expansion, yet the geographic and football fit issues make it vulnerable enough that its fans are unfortunately going to sweat whether it’s a 2 or 4-team expansion. To be clear, if I were running the Big 12, I’d certainly add UConn in a 4-team expansion since I believe that it’s clearly a P5-level institution, but it’s a school whose prospects are hard to read in the real world. UConn is essentially in the same “hot or cold” boat as BYU where there are respected people that believe that they’re near the top of the Big 12 expansion list while others that are in the know aren’t as optimistic.

MEMPHIS

If Houston has political backers in Big 12 expansion, Memphis is engaging in some Chicago/FIFA/IOC-style “patronage” with FedEx chairman Fred Smith essentially offering to pay for the Tigers to get into the league. Memphis also brought out its biggest PR gun to date this week:

The next time that someone tells you that you’re the dorky college football equivalent of a baseball sabermetrician for being obsessed with conference realignment, you can retort that Justin Timberlake (who is in contention for The Song of the Summer yet again*) is ALL-IN on the action.

(* My personal definition of “The Song of the Summer” is (a) it needs to be played within the first 15 minutes after the dance floor opens at any wedding that summer and (b) Grandma needs to be dancing to that song without irony or needing to participate in a gimmicky line dance. On those metrics, Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is probably taking the cake since it’s a bit peppier than the entries from Drake and Panda while also being completely inoffensive. I think Sia is coming on strong here as we get towards the end of the summer, though. Unfortunately, my favorite performance from JT isn’t getting much airplay at weddings.)

In all seriousness, Memphis has a number of attractive attributes for the Big 12: improving football program, solid TV market, excellent basketball fan base (which may or may not translate to football), location in a top notch football recruiting territory and geographically sensible for the conference overall. The negatives are based on academic reputation and its direct competition from the SEC from multiple directions. If Cincinnati is a likely pick and Houston has the political leverage to get into the Big 12, it feels like this is going to be a competition between BYU, UConn and Memphis for the last two spots in a 4-team expansion. In particular, outside of the fact that both UConn and Memphis are known more as being basketball schools, UConn seems have strengths where Memphis is weaker and vice versa. It will be interesting to see what the Big 12 prioritizes here.

ALL OR NOTHING

UCF AND USF

I put Central Florida and South Florida together in the analysis since my feeling is that the Big 12 is either going to add both of the schools or neither of them at all. The main arguments in favor of UCF and USF are location, location and location. The Big 12 obviously has a great hold on the state of Texas but suffers from very poor demographics outside of it, so the thought of adding the state of Florida to that mix for TV market and recruiting purposes can seem intoxicating. At the same time, both UCF and USF have massive enrollments (particularly UCF), which helps when the perception is that bigger is better.

However, the flip side of being in the state of Florida is that UCF and USF face the strongest in-state competition by far of any the Big 12 expansion candidates with the exception of Houston (which has political factors in its favor within the Big 12), so the on-paper market size may not translate into legitimate market share. I’ve spent more time in the I-4 Corridor between Orlando and Tampa than any other place besides my hometown of Chicago. The fact of the matter is that Florida and Florida State have as strong of a hold as any pair of schools has on their home state in the entire country (including the Texas and Texas A&M combo in the state of Texas). Plus, the Miami Hurricanes will still get significant mindshare in the Southern half of Florida whenever they end up being competitive. (Don’t let the current relative down period for the Canes lull you into thinking otherwise.) Other Big 12 expansion candidates might be in markets that are within the territories of P5 conferences, such as Cincinnati being within the Big Ten footprint (covered by Ohio State) or Memphis being within the SEC footprint (with Tennessee as an in-state competitor and Ole Miss being nearby across state lines), but the P5 fan penetration in those markets are on the weaker end. In contrast, the Orlando and Tampa markets are among the strongest ones out there for both the SEC and ACC. There are a lot of college football fans on paper in those markets, but they’re also largely accounted for by the Gators, Noles and (to a lesser extent) Canes. It would be like an upstart baseball league deciding that it was going to take the Yankees and Mets head-on in the New York market based on the theory that there are a lot of baseball fans living there (which would be financial suicide).

Therefore, a conference can’t expect to extract any value out of the Florida market with only one school unless they’re UF, FSU or maybe Miami. If the Big 12 really believes that getting into the Florida market is truly what is best for their long-term interests, then it ought to add both of UCF and USF. Otherwise, adding only one of those schools is simply going to provide a Florida outpost on paper without really gaining any legitimate market share. The league simply can’t compete in the state of Florida in a half-assed manner with such dominant pre-existing competition from the SEC and ACC. Once again, market share means much more than market size in this particular analysis. This is an all-or-nothing proposition for the Big 12.

ON THE UPSWING

COLORADO STATE

The fact that Colorado State has been wedging itself into the Big 12 expansion discussion shouldn’t be a surprise if you have been applying my first rule of conference realignment of thinking like a university president instead of a sports fan. CSU has solid academics in a fast-growing market that has only one direct P5 competitor (former Big 12 member Colorado). The state of Colorado is sort of the opposite of the description of the Florida market above: there isn’t very much competition considering the size of the population base, but a lot of people aren’t committed to being fans of CU or college sports overall. The risk of adding Colorado State is that the Big 12 would be adding a school where its home market sports fans aren’t known for having a propensity to support college sports. On the other hand, the Denver market in particular is growing so fast with such fantastic demographics in terms of income and education levels that it’s an area where the Big 12 presidents would love to get back into ASAP. The addition of Colorado State to the Big 12 would seem to make the most sense if they’re paired up with BYU as part of a 4-team expansion (with the other 2 schools from the east).

THE PRESIDENTS’ SOFT SPOT

TULANE

Pushing further on the first rule of conference realignment of thinking like a university president, I’ve said for several years that Big 12 expansion observers ought to keep an eye on Tulane. This is the only school in the Big 12 mix that is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU) that is a marker of being a part of the educational elite. (Rice is also an AAU member, but they don’t seem to be garnering any real consideration.) At the same time, Tulane is in the New Orleans market with access to top notch recruiting in the state of Louisiana and only one in-state competitor (albeit a monster in the form of LSU). I’m not saying that Tulane is likely to be added to be the Big 12, but they’re going to get a lot more consideration than the average fan would expect because they’re the type of school that university presidents love. Indeed, Jake Trotter of ESPN.com brought up the prospect of Tulane being a Big 12 expansion candidate earlier this week.

THE FANS’ SOFT SPOT

BOISE STATE

Bob Bowlsby mentioned the possibility of adding football-only members to the Big 12, which for many observers brought to mind two schools: BYU and Boise State. As I noted earlier, it doesn’t make much sense to me to add BYU as a football-only member because it has such a strong top-to-bottom athletic program than the Big 12 ought to want as an all-sports member. In contrast, Boise State seems to fit as a potential football-only option since its non-football sports aren’t bringing as much value and they’re even more geographically isolated from the rest of the Big 12 than BYU or UConn (which isn’t a big deal for football but can cause logistical challenges for all other sports). The problem is that Boise State is the classic “Thinking Like a Sports Fan” choice, where fans love watching Boise State on-the-field (at least compared to virtually all other G5 options), but they don’t fit any of the academic, TV market or demographic metrics that university presidents are looking for in expansion decisions. The on-the-field performance of Boise State over the past decade has been stunning, yet the problem for the Broncos (whether right or wrong) is that conference realignment is more about off-the-field attributes. The main off-the-field factor that Boise State can hang its hat on is that it has become the most valuable national TV property in the G5 to the point that the current Mountain West Conference media contract has a provision that was effectively written to provide the Broncos with a financial bonus for national appearances, so that would be the attribute that the school is going to emphasize in any Big 12 discussions.

THE SERVICE ACADEMIES

AIR FORCE, ARMY AND NAVY

At least for me, the schools that immediately came to mind when the Big 12 said it was contemplating football-only members were the service academies. Indeed, Air Force, Army and Navy are strong national brands with stellar academics and the Department of Defense recently opened the door for their athletes to have their 24-month service commitment waived if they go directly to the pros after graduation (which could help with recruiting). Do I think any of these schools are likely to end up in the Big 12? Not really. However, that would likely be more because Air Force, Army and Navy would take themselves out of consideration themselves as opposed to the Big 12 not wanting them. Air Force was reportedly approached several years ago by the Big 12, but preemptively nixed the discussions because the Cadets were concerned about competitiveness. This stance might change if the academies start getting more top-level athletes due to the more open policy of allowing grads to go straight to the pros. Regardless, the service academies have unique value that isn’t replicated anywhere else at the G5 level, so they ought to considered if football-only options are on the table for the Big 12.

CONCLUSION

The Big 12 has kicking the proverbial can down the road on expansion for years and years. Frankly, they should have expanded to at least 12 back when they lost Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC and the league was teetering on collapse. There’s still a decent chance that the Big 12 could come back and state that they won’t expand any further, but this time seems different. It was one thing for the Big 12 to be behind the Big Ten and SEC in terms of financial stability since that has been the normal state of college athletics for the past few decades, anyway. However, it’s an entirely different matter to find the Big 12 cemented on a lower pecking order than the ACC. I believe the Big 12 has finally realized that size does matter in terms of college sports power even if they never end up with their own conference network. In fact, Dennis Dodd is reporting that the Big 12 is looking to make an expansion decision prior to the beginning of this season, which means that the college sports world could have some finality on this issue within the next few weeks. For the G5 schools that are pushing for an invite to the Big 12, August 2016 will be the most important month in the histories of their respective athletic departments. Once the door closes on Big 12 expansion, the power conferences will be set in place for the next generation.

(Image from SBNation)

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It has been a couple of days since the news broke from Sports Business Daily that Fox is poised to enter into a deal with the Big Ten for 50% of the packages that are currently on ABC/ESPN (football and basketball) and CBS (basketball)… for up to $250 million per year for 6 years. Once again, this is just for half of the Big Ten rights that are up for grabs, which would provide for 25 football games and 50 basketball games on over-the-air broadcast Fox (“Big Fox”) and FS1. As observers such as Matt Sarzyniak have noted (who has a great post on the overall dynamics of the Big Ten deal), that amount is approximately the amount that the Pac-12 receives for its entire non-Pac-12 network package. In effect, we’re about to enter into a world where Rutgers and Northwestern are going to earn significantly more TV money than Florida State, Oklahoma, USC and even Alabama and Notre Dame. The Big Ten schools were already ahead before through its creation of the BTN (which everyone should remember how bold and risky that move was a decade ago compared to taking guaranteed money from ESPN), but the gap is going to be blown through the roof if the conference ends up with around $500 million per year for its TV rights without even taking into account the BTN portion. I have had plenty of critiques of Jim Delany and the Big Ten leadership over the years, but their management of TV and media properties has been pitch perfect for the past ten years and far beyond the capabilities (both quantitative and qualitative) of the other power conferences.

Some further thoughts:

  • I have seen a lot of scuttlebutt online that this indicates that the Big Ten might be leaving ESPN entirely, but personally don’t believe that for a second. For several years, I’ve been predicting that Fox and ESPN will ultimately split the Big Ten’s rights going forward and that is still the most likely outcome. ESPN reportedly “lowballed” the Big Ten in its initial offer, yet that is not necessarily outcome determinative since ESPN did the same thing ten years ago (which eventually spurred the creation of the Big Ten Network) and the parties still eventually got a deal done. It would have been difficult for ESPN to unilaterally come in with a massive offer several weeks ago with the continued cost-cutting throughout its organization and the possibility that this might be the time when the sports rights bubble (to the extent that there actually is a bubble) is going to pop. Essentially, ESPN bet that there wouldn’t be anyone willing to pay the Big Ten’s high asking price (just as it bet that the BTN wouldn’t be successful)… and it looks like they’re going to lose that bet badly.That being said, I’ve written many times before that ESPN’s supposed financial woes are being completely misinterpreted by many sports fans. The reason why so many Disney investors are spooked by any cord cutting and ESPN subscriber losses is because ESPN is, by far, the most profitable media and entertainment entity in the entire world. Note that I said “media and entertainment entity” – this is not just about sports networks. Let’s put it this way: ESPN currently delivers monthly subscriber revenue to Disney that is the equivalent to the domestic gross of Star Wars: The Force Awakens every single month guaranteed… and before they sell a single ad. Disney has relied upon ESPN to deliver monopoly drug dealer profits for years to prop up their entire business. Now, ESPN is “only” making oligopoly drug dealer profits.

    All of this is to say that ESPN still makes a ton of money that is far, far, far beyond what Fox, NBC, CBS, Turner or any other entity with sports interests could ever dream of. Even in cost-cutting mode, ESPN still needs to invest in core properties in the same way that the rest of the cost-cutting Disney organization will authorize massive budgets for Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and Disney Princess movies. ESPN leadership can now go back to their overlords at Disney and say, “Look – we tried to get the Big Ten on the cheap and that clearly isn’t going to happen. We have now already let Fox into the door to becoming a top tier sports network competitor and we can’t let someone else, especially NBC/Comcast, to get even more traction on top of them. We need to the funds to pay up here.” Anyone that thinks that ESPN can just plug in more SEC or ACC games into its lineup is fooling themselves. The Big Ten provides a massive lineup of football games in the best time slots on ABC and ESPN and have consistently garnered the best ratings of any of the conferences next to the SEC. The people at ESPN aren’t dumb – they know the difference between a short-term administrative cost cut and a long-term investment in their core product… and the Big Ten has been a huge part of their core product since almost the beginning of the network.

  • By the same token, let’s not pretend that the Big Ten wants to get away from ESPN. I have seen some Big Ten fans profess a desire to leave ESPN entirely, but that would be as short-sighted for the conference as it would be short-sighted for ESPN to let the Big Ten go completely. The fact of the matter is that if you were to show the exact same game on ESPN versus FS1, the viewership on ESPN would be magnitudes higher. We have already seen a track record of Major League Baseball, Big 12 and Pac-12 games where similar games on ESPN crush the ratings on FS1. There has to be great concern that the notion that “fans will just find the channel if they want to watch a particular game” isn’t necessarily completely true. ESPN is, and will be for the foreseeable future because the stranglehold that they have on sports rights overall, the “default channel” for sports fans. Just walk into any sports bar across the country and, outside of NFL Sundays, the vast majority of TVs are going to be tuned into the ESPN mothership. A game that is shown on ESPN literally gets a ratings bump, whereas that same game on FS1 gets a ratings discount.This greatly matters to the Big Ten, which is trying to position its TV deals in the same way that the NFL has over the past few years. Money certainly matters, but long-term money (the proverbial golden goose) is directly correlated with exposure… and no one can provide exposure like ESPN. Indeed, even with the increase in cord cutting and falling numbers of subscribers, every single other media company in the United States would kill to have ESPN. We have already established that they have the top-rated and most profitable TV network, but it goes beyond just that aspect. Who has the #1 sports news website? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports radio network? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports mobile app? ESPN. Who has the #1 streaming sports network? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports podcast network? ESPN.

    That is what a lot of Big Ten fans that care too much about supposed “SEC bias” on ESPN are missing: there is simply no replication for the multi-platform 27/7 exposure that ESPN provides.* Many other companies have tried to apply the ESPN playbook for years and years (see the CBS and Fox efforts to build their own sports websites and radio networks with only a fraction of the audience of ESPN) and have failed. When a Big Ten game is on ESPN, it gets promoted on (a) Mike and Mike on TV, radio, streaming audio and podcasts simultaneously, (b) SportsCenter on multiple networks several times per day, (c) ads on ESPN’s websites and mobile apps, (d) countless other TV, radio shows and podcasts for an entire week, including the all-important College GameDay for college football fans. Other than Inside the NBA on TNT (which is powered by the on-air brilliance of Charles Barkley, there is not a single cable TV platform in any sport that has anywhere close to the audience that ESPN has for even one of its minor shows, much less SportsCenter, GameDay or Mike and Mike.

    (* Note that it isn’t an accident that ESPN is a master of corporate synergy considering that it is owned by Disney, whose entire existence is based on leveraging its brand across countless platforms. I have never heard of someone that likes Universal Studios, the Jurassic Park movies and NBC call themselves a “Comcast Fan” or a fan of Fox shows and movies call themselves a “Fox Fan” (which is distinct from a Fox News Fan that is an entirely different breed), but you will find millions of Disney fans that travel to Disney parks, watch Disney movies and TV shows and buy Disney merchandise with the Disney branding being a the predominant factor. My sister is a prime example of a Disneyphile. Disney and ESPN simply are masters at synergy via corporate culture that can’t really be replicated even if you followed the exact same playbook elsewhere… and believe me when I say that every one of their competitors have tried.)

    At the end of the day, the Big Ten still needs the exposure that only ESPN can uniquely offer. It’s instructive that out of the 4 major pro sports leagues and 5 power college conferences, the only one that doesn’t have a presence on ESPN is the NHL (which has by far the most limited fan base of that group). Just because the Big Ten could theoretically live without ESPN doesn’t mean that it actually wants to do so at all. That’s why I believe that time will heal wounds due to mutual interests and a deal will get done between the Big Ten and ESPN for the other half of the TV rights that are currently in play. The Big Ten won’t take a lowball amount from ESPN, but I think they know well enough to provide a bit more leeway for ESPN’s bid in acknowledgment of their superior platforms for overall exposure compared to Fox. Both the Big Ten and ESPN need each other here.

  • In looking at the imminent Fox deal with the Big Ten, this seems to be set up to put a weekly football game on both Big Fox and FS1. This will end up being quite a boon for Fox’s college football game inventory quality. From a personal standpoint, I just hope that it improves that actual college football game production quality, which I have found lacking compared to ABC/ESPN and CBS. (I think that NBC’s Notre Dame productions have quality visuals, but the commentary is the college football equivalent of listening to Hawk Harrelson’s calls of White Sox games.) Regardless, if this means that most or all of the games that would have ended up on ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPNEWS are on Big Fox and FS1, then that’s an upgrade in terms of viewership exposure as long as the Big Ten keeps its presence on ABC and the ESPN mothership.Further to what I’ve stated before, I don’t think Fox is as flush with funds as much as ESPN (because absolutely no one is as flush with funds as ESPN), but Fox certainly has a lot more incentive to make a bold move with it being in the upstart position. In particular, FS1 has had a rocky history in its short life. On paper, FS1 has the best sports rights outside of ESPN on paper with MLB, Big 12, Pac-12, Big East, NASCAR, Champions League, FIFA (World Cup), UFC and USGA (U.S. Open) properties, but it doesn’t seem to have a cohesive brand even compared to NBCSN (which seems to have become the yuppie/hipster sports network largely relying upon the NHL, English Premier League and Olympics), much less ESPN. At the very least, the Big Ten may push Fox over-the-top in terms of being a legit college sports destination that it hasn’t quite been up to this point.

    Realistically, Fox can never achieve the synergy that ESPN can provide, but there are strong potential cross-promotional opportunities between Fox’s over-the-air NFL package and the new Big Ten coverage along with the clear connection between BTN (which is 51% owned by Fox) and the rest of the Fox organization. The NFL broadcasts on Fox are by far the strongest on the network (which ought to be the case since they are also by far the largest ratings drivers for Fox), so let’s hope that the Big Ten can receive at least comparable quality in terms of treatment.

  • The reported 6-year timeframe of the Fox deal is unusual compared to the much longer-term deals that the other power conferences have signed. In fact, the Big Ten will end up back at the negotiating table before any of the other power conferences once again. On the one hand, this presents some risk to the Big Ten since they are not locking in today’s high rights fees into the late-2020s or even 2030s. On the other hand, every time that the Big Ten has bet on itself, it has ended up succeeding, whether it was with the formation of the BTN or taking its rights to the open market in a period of uncertainty for sports programming values with decreasing cable subscriptions. By the same token, Fox may be hedging on cable subscriber fee uncertainty itself, as Dennis Dodd had suggested.In any event, the short length of the TV deal means that conference realignment talk might cool down in the immediate term, but will pick up a huge amount of steam in the next 5 years. Whether it’s a coincidence or not (and I tend to think “not”), the end of the 6-year deal term in 2023 is shortly before the expiration of the Big 12’s grant of rights agreement in 2025, which makes any possible damages for a Big 12 defector to be much lower and/or negligible compared to a Big Ten windfall. The same usual suspects of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas as Big Ten candidates. It will also be interesting to see how schools in other conferences (particularly the ACC) are going to adjust to an environment where each Big Ten school could be receiving nearly $60 million per year in media revenue starting in 2017 (as estimated by Awful Announcing), which would lap the SEC’s revenue (much less any of the other power conferences). A few million dollars per year difference in TV revenue may not have been enough to sway the most valuable schools (e.g. Texas, North Carolina, etc.) to switch conferences, but when we’re looking at an eight figure annual gap, it could change the dynamic quite a bit.

The announcement by Jim Delany at the end of 2009 that the Big Ten was exploring expansion was leading to this moment of a new TV contract. Nebraska added a national name brand for football, while Rutgers and Maryland added two massive media markets based on the East Coast. This isn’t the end, though. I still believe that ESPN is going to end up with the other half of the rights. It will be interesting to see what happens with the CBS basketball package (which hasn’t been talked about as much) since that provided great exposure and time slots for the Big Ten (such as the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game leading into the NCAA Tournament Selection Show) even if the contract value itself pales in comparison with football. Digital rights are going to be a much more significant factor in this new contract compared to 10 years ago, while some second tier sports such as hockey, baseball and lacrosse could end up seeing more telecasts beyond the BTN with multiple other networks. The Big Ten’s new Fox deal is a great start and it’s a sign of great things once we get the final overall media rights picture for the conference.

(Image from Detroit Free Press)

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In a move that came out of nowhere, the Big Ten will be adding Notre Dame as a hockey member starting in 2017-18. A few quick thoughts on an otherwise sad day with all that has happened in Belgium:

  • This is by far the most surprising move that I’ve seen from the Big Ten (and possibly any conference) ever since I started following conference realignment. The timing of the Maryland/Rutgers expansion was stealthy, but anyone that has followed this blog since 2010 had been tracking those schools as high on the Big Ten candidacy list. Johns Hopkins coming to the Big Ten as an affiliate member was a natural fit academically and in terms of the need to get a 6th lacrosse member to obtain NCAA auto-qualifier status. In contrast, Notre Dame joining the ACC as a non-football member and then placing its hockey program in the extremely strong Hockey East, seemed to be give the Irish everything that it wanted in preserving football independence, membership in strong conferences for its other sports and kowtowing to the segment of its alumni base that wanted to cut off all possible relationships with the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Big Ten seemed to move on from any possibility of Notre Dame joining the league in any capacity. To see this new arrangement come up is quite remarkable even if it’s just for hockey. Ice hockey could be thawing Big Ten – Notre Dame relations in the way that baseball helped that U.S. – Cuba relations.
  • Notre Dame coming into the Big Ten creates a 7-team hockey league, which is unwieldy for scheduling purposes. The discussion naturally is going to turn to which school comes in as #8 and it continues to look like Arizona State. The Big Ten and Sun Devils have been contemplating possible membership for over a year and I discussed it in depth during last season’s NCAA Tournament. Pretty much everything that I stated a year ago still applies today (minus the part where I didn’t believe that Hockey East members like Notre Dame would join the league as associate members), where Arizona State hits a lot of metrics that the Big Ten is looking for at an individual school level with its key Phoenix market location and the league overall seems to open to adding more affiliate schools. Think about MIT joining the Big Ten for rowing or Rice bringing its top level baseball program to the conference. There are a lot more possibilities for academically-aligned schools in the non-revenue sports.
  • Hockey fans that might be pushing for a powerhouse hockey program like North Dakota to join the Big Ten are engaging in the classic behavior of thinking like a fan instead of a university president. The academic, market and demographic needs of the conference are completely different than on-the-ice considerations. I’m sure the Big Ten would be very open to the top hockey schools in New England, such as Boston University and/or Boston College, but that is more driven by the league’s interest in the Boston market than competitiveness.
  • Speaking of markets, an underrated aspect of this move for the Big Ten is that it finally has a hockey presence in its most important market and alumni home of Chicago. Unfortunately, I don’t have an extra $100 million laying around for me to start-up a new Division I hockey program at Illinois despite it having had one of the most competitive hockey club teams and strongest fan bases for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Northwestern has many other athletic funding priorities in building new facilities, so hockey doesn’t seem to be on the radar. The Big Ten would love to rotate its hockey tournament into the United Center in Chicago to go along with Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul, especially with the basketball tournament needing to be outside of Chicago more often with the league’s push into the New York and Washington, DC markets. Note that the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four will be played at the United Center and sponsored by Notre Dame.
  • I’m someone that takes Notre Dame at its word that the school will stay independent in football. There is no “forcing” the Irish to join any league and its independence is as much of an institutional identity issue for the school’s alumni as it is a football issue. I don’t see this hockey membership having any correlation with Notre Dame possibly joining the Big Ten as a full-time football member down the road.
  • That being said, the bigger picture issue is whether the Big Ten would consider offering Notre Dame a full non-football membership in the manner of the ACC (and the old Big East before them). Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC ends in 2025, so this is more long-range thinking for the conference. Would the Big Ten offer Notre Dame a deal where it would be a basketball and non-revenue sports member in exchange for, say, 6 football games against B1G opponents each season (compared to the Irish commitment to play 5 ACC opponents per year now)? Previously, I never thought that would even be an option on the table since the Big Ten is as much an “all for one and one for all” league as Notre Dame is an independent school, yet this hockey arrangement legitimately puts that into play. The Big Ten really didn’t care about Notre Dame’s relationship with the old Big East, but the ACC deal with the Irish might have been perceived by Jim Delany and others in Rosemont as much more of a potential threat down the road. This is a huge shift in the Big Ten’s thinking, where there is now a large crack in the league’s decades-long insistence for Notre Dame to be “all in” or “all out”.

The upshot is that this is great for Notre Dame in terms of leverage against both the ACC and Big Ten in the future. The ACC might have gotten a bit cocky with how close it thought it was with Notre Dame over the past couple of years and (at least in some quarters) deluding themselves in thinking that they’ll eventually join as a football member. However, the Irish are now openly stating that they have plenty of options. If Notre Dame could get the Big Ten to budge on hockey membership, it’s no longer a stretch at all that the B1G could eventually make a play for Irish basketball and other non-football sports along with a more robust football scheduling arrangement.

(Image from The Daily Domer)

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The financial news stories coming out of ESPN over the past several months have been quite negative. The Disney-owned cable network has endured several rounds of layoffs and reported  last week that it has lost 7 million subscribers over the past two years. This is of particular interest to the Big Ten, which will be negotiating new television contracts over the next year and has been banking on massive increases in rights fees. All of the Big Ten’s off-the-field moves during this decade, from conference expansion to adding a conference championship, has been leading up to providing the league with maximum leverage in this negotiation. The Big Ten Network has certainly been a boon, but the first tier national TV contract is still the Big Ten’s top priority both financially and in terms of brand exposure by a wide margin.

Many of the Big Ten’s financial projections during the conference realignment process were based upon the assumption that ESPN would offer a massive rights fees increase (which in turn would garner similar bids from other media companies, particularly Fox). However, should the Big Ten be worried with the recent turbulence at ESPN? Do the cost-cutting measures at ESPN mean that the network will pull back on what it could offer to the Big Ten?

John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal recently examined the race for the Big Ten rights and noted that the market may not be as “frothy” as it was when the Pac-12 secured a huge rights fee increase in 2011. However, he still expected “ESPN and Fox Sports to at least double the conference’s annual average payout and share the rights” despite the overall market factors (and he would have as great of an insight of what’s likely for sports media rights as anyone in the business).

I completely agree with Ourand on the likelihood of ESPN and Fox splitting the Big Ten rights (as I also predicted in my last post). This would have the effect of ESPN and Fox not having to each completely break their individual banks yet provide the Big Ten with much larger overall rights fees compared to one single contract holder. At the same time, I believe that the Big Ten greatly values the exposure the ESPN provides via its multiple platforms that can’t be matched by any other media company (even with pressures on the basic cable model). I don’t buy the notion that the Big Ten would walk away from ESPN completely – Jim Delany has set up this league to be like the NFL with multiple high profile media partners viewing it as an essential product. (See this article from Ed Sherman from this past March pointing out the presence of ESPN, Fox-affiliated BTN and CBS all at the Big Ten Tournament.)

At the same time, Big Ten fans shouldn’t pay attention to the arm chair observers (i.e. partisans from other leagues that would love to see the Big Ten fail to meet its expectations) that simply assume that ESPN cutting costs in its operations will mean that it will cut its spending on rights fees (and thereby the Big Ten). Ultimately, content is king, and ESPN in particular needs live sports content whether we live in a basic cable world or cord-cutting a la carte/over-the-top streaming world. If anything, retaining premium live sports programming becomes even more critical to ESPN as more people drop basic cable. It’s not going to sell over-the-top subscriptions like HBO Now with more Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith shows. The only way ESPN is going to get people to shell out $20 (or $30 or $40 or $50 or more per month) if it has to move to that environment is to have the broadest suite of exclusive live sporting events that large audiences want to watch as possible. That includes the Big Ten.

The adjustments that ESPN’s corporate siblings at Disney in Hollywood have already made years ago provide a template for sports programming expenditures in the future. Movie studios have already had their revenue and profits eroded by the Internet much more quickly than the television industry. Box office revenue is only being buoyed by ticket price increases (masking a general decline in attendance) while increases in digital streaming and downloads have not been enough to offset the decline in sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs . It’s harder than ever to make money in the movie industry today.

However, that doesn’t mean that Disney has slashed all of its movie budgets. Quite to the contrary, Disney will greenlight massive production and marketing budgets for its tentpole franchises and brands, such as Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar, that dwarf the figures that have been used in the past even on an inflation-adjusted basis. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is estimated to have a production budget of $200 million and films of that size typically have marketing costs that come close to matching that number dollar-for-dollar on top of that. The Avengers: Age of Ultron had a combined production and marketing budget of over $340 million. When it comes to premium content, Disney isn’t skimping because those tentpole movies have downstream impact on the company’s business, such as merchandising and theme park tie-ins. (This classic Spaceballs clip is now literally the business strategy for all of Hollywood.)

Disney will also greenlight lower budget movies, such as documentaries out of its Disneynature unit. Other Hollywood studios have figured out that really cheap horror films provide the best returns on investment in the business, which is why consumers now get a steady diet of new horror movie releases throughout the entire year.

What Disney did completely cut, though, was its middle budget film division. Disney sold off Miramax in 2010 (less than a year after Disney purchased Marvel), which was the Oscar nominee producing machine of films such as Pulp Fiction. The prestige film business might provide nice publicity during awards season, but it doesn’t generate the top-to-bottom movie/merchandising bonanza of tentpole films like Star Wars or the pure ROI of low-budget movies. As a result, Disney has gotten out of the mid-budget film market entirely.

This “high/low” budget strategy while cutting out the middle is almost certainly what ESPN has in mind. Indeed, one the highest profile casualties of ESPN’s recent cost-cutting was the elimination of Grantland. In my opinion, Grantland had produced the best content on any ESPN platform over the past few years (particularly Zach Lowe on the NBA and Bill Barnwell on the NFL) with its mix of sports and pop culture analysis targeted to educated readers. The issue from ESPN’s perspective was that employing the talent to produce such high-level analysis was relatively expensive, yet its mothership website has been getting its most hits for fantasy football lineup recommendations. What is ESPN going to spend its resources on in the future: more top flight reporting on Outside the Lines that is getting marginal ratings, or more lowest common denominator hot take shows where the same broadcast can take up a couple of hours on ESPN2, get syndicated on ESPN radio affiliates across the country and be uploaded to the ESPN website as a podcast? It doesn’t take long to figure that one out.

Believe me – I don’t personally like these trends. Even though I’m a massive Star Wars fan and I’ve got my tickets with the exact seats reserved for opening weekend (along with buying the spectacular Chewbacca Illini T-shirt shown above that might as well have been custom-made for me), I’m also a large watcher of prestige films (and I have zero interest in cheap horror flicks). Grantland was one of my favorite websites and I can’t stand vapid talking head shows (whether news-based or sports-based). We need more resources dedicated to hard news and smart analysis. Unfortunately, the Internet’s business model doesn’t really reward that type of content compared to slideshow click-bait. As a result, prestige content producers may need to go toward an NPR-type funding model.

Putting my personal feelings aside, the high/low budget strategy still works very well for the Big Ten. As far as sports properties go, it’s definitely the equivalent of a tentpole movie franchise and, timing-wise, it’s the only tentpole of any kind available on the TV rights market until the next decade. That’s not hyperbole. Outside of the NFL (which is the undisputed king of TV sports), college football has consistently delivered the best week-in and week-out ratings out of any sport for U.S. viewers and the Big Ten has been at the top of those ratings next to the SEC for many years. This is not a property that ESPN can afford to lose (whether on the mothership cable channel or ABC, whose Saturday programming is heavily reliant on the Big Ten), and this is also not a property that Fox can afford to miss out on. Top tier sports brands like the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, SEC and Big Ten aren’t going to be the ones that are worried about cord cutting because they are all proven drivers of viewership on multiple platforms. Inexpensive sports rights with lower production costs and high ROI (think West Coast Conference basketball with Gonzaga games) will also be in high demand. The sports brands that should be worried are the ones that have relatively high production costs but lower viewership, such as Group of Five conference college football and non-major tennis and golf events.

At the end of the day, ESPN (and likely Fox with them) will end up paying top dollar for the Big Ten just as its Disney corporate siblings continue to pay top dollar for Star Wars films. Going forward, ESPN is in a position where it needs to keep its premium sports rights because that is the only way that it can maximize its value regardless of whether the world stays with basic cable (where such rights are needed to keep the basic cable subscriber fees high) or moves to an over-the-top environment (where such rights are needed to draw in direct paying subscribers). ESPN still paid a premium for more European soccer rights in the past month (as Ourand pointed out) and was still willing to sign up for massive deals with NBA and Major League Baseball when they were fully aware of the erosion of their basic cable subscriber numbers. The Big Ten has tentpole sports content and that will always be in demand.