Archive for the ‘Big East’ Category

After Iowa State lost within the opening hours of the first round (sic) of the NCAA Tournament, I didn’t even bother checking my bracket (IlliNIT Blues) until yesterday since I had figured my horrible Final Four prognostication skills (having had first weekend losers Iowa State and Villanova in addition to Kentucky and Wisconsin) would leave me in smoldering ashes. So, I was quite surprised to see that I’m second place in my work pool and nearly in the top 5% of the ESPN brackets nationwide. Granted, my entry is guaranteed to have a Harrison Ford-piloted crash like the 1969 Cubs (or 1984 Cubs or 2003 Cubs or 2008 Cubs) since my points possible remaining are extremely low (as in Illinois basketball scoring in crunch time low), but it goes to show you how there’s still life even when half of your Final Four is gone within a 72 hour period.

As noted in last week’s post, the conference realignment front is fairly quiet these days for the power leagues with the exception of the prospect of Arizona State joining Big Ten hockey. However, there are some rumblings in the non-FBS Division I conferences that are basketball-focused, so let’s get the lay of the land:

(1) Big East Expansion (or lack thereof) – The Big East has the ability to poach any non-FBS Division I school that it wants (which is something that not even the Big Ten or SEC can say at the FBS level). Every school from the Atlantic 10, West Coast Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and any other non-FBS league would take a Big East invite immediately. From there, any Big East expansion would have a massive trickle-down effect on the conferences below them. However, the Big East is sort of in the same position as the Big 12: it really does want to expand (regardless of what their respective commissioners and other PR people might say publicly), but the issue is that there aren’t 2 glaringly obvious candidates. As I’ve stated previously, St. Louis University seems to be the main lock for a future Big East invite regardless of how they might be performing on-the-court at any given time. SLU has the TV market, academic institutional fit as a private Catholic university, geographic location as a bridge between Creighton and the rest of the league, and facilities that the Big East is looking for as a total package. So, the primary issue is finding a partner for SLU, which isn’t as clear. Dayton has played very well on-the-court with a great fan base along with being a private Catholic school, but its TV market isn’t as attractive, Xavier is close in proximity, and there’s going to be consternation within the league about adding two Midwestern schools (as opposed to finding at least one Eastern expansion candidate). VCU has also been great on-the-court and has a desirable location, but it’s a large public school that isn’t an institutional fit with the rest of the Big East. Wichita State (which we’ll examine even further in just a moment) has the same institutional fit problems as VCU with a much less desirable location and TV market. Richmond is a great academic school with a solid basketball program, but it competes in the same market as VCU with fewer fans and a lower national profile. Davidson is similar to Richmond and has the advantage of the Charlotte market, but has a very small enrollment and alumni base (albeit wealthy and academically elite).

If I were a betting person, SLU and Dayton are still the odds-on favorites to eventually get into the Big East once it decides to expand. I feel that the fact that VCU is a public school ultimately tanks their candidacy even though they are attractive on virtually all other factors that the Big East desires in terms of location, TV market, fan base and location. Wichita State has never been a realistic Big East candidate since their issues are much broader beyond being just a public university (as you’ll see below). Richmond might be able to wedge into the mix if they can get some more high profile NCAA Tournament runs – as of now, their on-the-court attributes are going to matter more than their off-the-court attributes (which already fit well with the Big East).

For now, the biggest emerging challenger to Dayton for spot #12 in the Big East is Davidson. The small number of students at Davidson isn’t optimal, but the Big East has always been more of a TV league dependent upon casual large market fans as opposed to an alumni-based league (unlike the Big Ten and SEC). Davidson is within the Charlotte TV market, has legitimately elite level academics, performs well on-the-court, and would address the wariness of Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s of adding two Midwestern schools. So, keep an eye out on Davidson on the Big East expansion front.

(2) Wichita State: Nowhere to Run – The non-FBS school that I get asked about the most lately regarding switching conferences is Wichita State (and that has accelerated this past week with their current Sweet Sixteen run). I certainly understand the fan love – as you can see from my bracket, I have the Shockers going to the Elite Eight (and as far off as I was on Iowa State, I was equally convinced that Wichita State would come out blazing against Kansas). However, as much as Wichita State was wrongly underrated by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee this year, the school is overrated by most sports fans as a conference realignment candidate. When I started writing about conference realignment with the Big Ten expansion index, my credo was always: “Think like a university president, not like a sports fan.” Wichita State is a perfect example of the disconnect between the thought processes of sports fans and university presidents. Sports fans see Wichita State as a school with great fans and astounding on-the-court success with a recent Final Four appearance and a memorable takedown of Kansas to get to the Sweet Sixteen this year. However, university presidents see Wichita State as a non-flagship public school that’s ranked in the 200s in the U.S. News rankings that’s located in a small TV market with little recruiting value (whether for athletes or “regular” college students). Remember that university presidents care just as much about what a school brings to the table when it’s awful on-the-field/court compared to how well it’s performing at its peak. Wichita State is a classic case of looking great for fans when they’re playing well, but it’s extremely tough for university presidents to see their value when they’re not playing well (as they’re not bringing academic prestige, an institutional fit, a major TV market, etc.).

Just look at the conferences that would be a step up from the MVC for Wichita State. The Big East, as noted above, is one of the most institutionally-aligned conferences outside of the Big Ten and Ivy League, where all members are private urban schools with a basketball focus. As a result, Wichita State simply isn’t a viable Big East candidate. The Atlantic-10 has some public universities, but it’s still more similar to the Big East as being private school-centric and the league may very well retrench from the Midwest if/when the Big East takes SLU. The American Athletic Conference (AAC) and Mountain West Conference (MWC) don’t seem interested at all in adding non-football members, so Wichita State won’t be considered. Even the West Coast Conference (which is a geographic stretch for Wichita State) has the same type of private school lineup as the Big East.

Unfortunately for Wichita State, it doesn’t matter how well the Shockers might perform on-the-court. Much like the power conference invite prospects for UConn (who has been an elite men’s and women’s basketball power), the off-the-court issues prevail in conference realignment and, as the old adage goes, “It takes two to tango.” Wichita State can want to leave the MVC all that it wants, but the conferences hold the power here. It’s not Wichita State’s choice to make to leave, so its only realistic option is to strengthen the MVC.

 (3) MVC Expansion and UAB (and the Chain Reaction for the Horizon League and Others) – Fortunately for Wichita State, the debacle of UAB getting its football program stripped by the University of Alabama power brokers in Tuscaloosa (with new allegations that it was a predetermined decision that was railroaded through the UAB leadership) might end up having a solid UAB basketball program that just scored a huge upset of my Final Four pick Iowa State fall right into the laps of the MVC. Conference USA appears to want to have all members to have football, so the league may kick out UAB for having had the misfortune of being governed by self-interested political appointees from a more powerful campus. As a result, UAB’s future conference membership for basketball and other sports is in flux, with Al.com reporting that there is mutual interest between UAB and the MVC. As horrible as the UAB football situation has been, the MVC would be about as good of a landing spot for the UAB basketball program as it could reasonably expect and, in turn, UAB is about as good of an expansion candidate that the MVC could realistically invite.

If the MVC adds UAB, the league would be unlikely to stay at just 11 members. This means that it will have to find a 12th school somewhere, which could then cause a chain reaction throughout many of the non-FBS conferences below them. When the MVC was exploring expansion a couple of years ago and ultimately decided upon inviting Loyola, the league had explored UIC and Valparaiso of the Horizon League heavily. This makes sense from a university president perspective – all 3 of Loyola, UIC and Valpo are located in the Chicago market, which is where a disproportionate number of MVC students and alums live. (A notable exception to this is Wichita State, which doesn’t have much of an alumni presence in the Chicago area.) The basketball fans within the MVC would probably prefer a pure on-the-court-focused addition like Murray State (although Valpo does have some on-the-court bona fides), but I’d expect MVC school #12 to be another Chicago market school. The demographics of the MVC generally look like the old Big 8, which isn’t sustainable for a league for the long-term. The irony is that Wichita State, the most important school in the MVC, would likely be unhappy about another Chicago area school, yet the rest of the MVC membership knows that Wichita State can’t go anywhere else for the reasons set forth above (which means that the most valuable school in the conference might have the least say in expansion matters).

This prospect of MVC expansion might be why the Horizon League commissioner has already said that it’s in the “active phase” of expansion and the league would likely expand in the near future. The Horizon League has already been interested in schools like Northern Kentucky (currently in the Atlantic Sun) and Belmont (an Ohio Valley Conference member) and the conference may need to also backfill in the event that it gets raided by the MVC (which could put Summit League schools such as Nebraska-Omaha into play).

As you can see, even one move by a smaller conference like the MVC could end up triggering large repercussions throughout Division I conferences. If the Big East were to expand, it could cause mass-scale change for non-FBS conferences on the level that we saw in 2010-2013. Of course, if the Big 12 were to expand, then all bets are truly off throughout college sports.

(Image from Fox Sports)

Let me upfront: I’m an unabashed free market capitalist. I’ve never been bothered by TV contracts, conference realignment, ticket prices, rising salaries for coaches and players, sponsorships and the multitude of other financial issues in pro and college sports that fans generally complain about at face value (but then turn around and feed that money monster by continuing to watch games). At the same time, I have long given up the delusional notion that college athletes (at least in football and basketball) are somehow still pure amateurs. We crossed the proverbial bridge of top college conferences being semipro leagues a loooooong time ago. Finally, I’ve generally supported how Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has led the conference in exploiting new revenue opportunities and expansion (as long as we can forget that whole “Legends” and “Leaders” debacle).

So, I have no issue at all with money flowing through college sports and institutions profiting from high profile teams. Let’s stop pretending that it’s (a) not already happening at a rate on par with the pro leagues and (b) inherently a bad thing. What I have a massive problem with, though, is that this money isn’t flowing at all to the people that are generating all of this revenue. I’m a firm believer that people should be compensated in accordance with their free market value*, and in today’s world, college football and basketball players at the top level aren’t getting paid that way.

(* Note that I don’t look at over-compensation or under-compensation in absolute dollars in the way that much of the populist public likes to do. LeBron James, for instance, is a clear example of someone that is underpaid. If there weren’t the artificial restraints of the NBA salary cap and collective bargaining agreement, he would be making much more than his current $19.07 million salary. That doesn’t even take into account the fact that he’s the rare athlete that can single-handedly increase the value of a franchise by hundreds of millions of dollars and sellout all arenas that he plays in. Even though LeBron’s salary for a single game (much less an entire season) is more than what 99% of American households earn, he is still underpaid in comparison to what his true value is in the marketplace. In contrast, there are minimum wage earners that are making more than what the free market would dictate if that artificial floor weren’t in place, so they would arguably be overpaid.)

With the “pay for play” issue not going away in college athletics, Jim Delany stated that he would like to see football and basketball players be able to sign with leagues directly out of high school in the same way that baseball players do. From ESPN.com:

“Maybe in football and basketball, it would work better if more kids had a chance to go directly into the professional ranks,” Delany said. “If they’re not comfortable and want to monetize, let the minor leagues flourish. Train at IMG, get agents to invest in your body, get agents to invest in your likeness and establish it on your own. But don’t come here and say, ‘We want to be paid $25,000 or $50,000.’ Go to the D-League and get it, go to the NBA and get it, go to the NFL and get it. Don’t ask us what we’ve been doing.”

What Delany states isn’t necessarily wrong conceptually, but there are tons of issues from a practical standpoint and he’s ultimately being disingenuous and further exposing much of the hypocrisy of college sports:

(1) The Interests of the NFL and NBA Ultimately Rule – The power brokers in college sports can complain all that they want, but the NFL and NBA need to be convinced that it’s better for them to pay for and build minor league systems on the scale of Major League Baseball. I’ve seen plenty of arguments that the NFL and NBA could expand create such systems, yet it’s hard to see why it’s better than the current college model from their perspective. Unlike baseball, the NFL and especially NBA have long had a greater need for their athletes to come into the league as ready-made stars and that’s only exacerbated in this social media-driven world. Such star power simply isn’t incubated well in minor league settings at all (as seen in baseball and hockey). College football and basketball provide vehicles where sports fans are introduced to top players on a first name basis and can step in immediately at the next level.

Plus, lest we forget, the NBA tried the “direct from high school” route not too long ago and the results were pretty abysmal. Too many high school players were jumping into the draft that weren’t ready, which meant that (a) lottery slots that used to go to well-known college stars were being taken up by unknown (at least to the general public) speculative draft picks based on raw athleticism with little regard to skills and (b) on the flip side, other high school players that would have been aided by some college experience got drafted lower than expected or not at all and ruined their NCAA eligibility. The NBA wants nothing to do with going back to that model and, in fact, the owners would have pushed for a 2 years out of high school age minimum requirement (instead of the current 1-year standard) in the last collective bargaining agreement negotiations if there weren’t so many other fundamental salary and revenue-sharing issues to deal with. This gets to the next point…

(2) Players Need to be Protected From Themselves – On the one hand, it would be easy for a free marketer like me to try to apply real world concepts to the realm of sports to state that players and team general managers take risks with respect to the draft and then they need to live with the consequences. However, on the other other hand, that real world free market application fails because a draft is specifically not the free market. In fact, it is probably the most directly anticompetitive behavior that professional sports league participate in that they’re only able to get away with due to antitrust exemptions. American high school graduates aren’t free to negotiate directly with any team that they want to play for. Instead, a draft provides a finite number of spots in a predetermined order, which is the antithesis of a free market.

This means a “college or pro” choice isn’t exactly that simple. What Delany is suggesting is that a top high school prospect should be put into an “all or nothing” decision when he’s 17 or 18-years old: either he strikes it big in the pros or he completely loses out on a college scholarship, with very little in between. There are very few professions where this is the case. A software programming prodigy can try going to a startup firm out of high school, but if that startup fails, he or she can still go get a computer science degree or work at another company. That’s not how it works in football and basketball where you have one shot if you’re lucky. How many of you here would have had the emotional and fiscal maturity to make that type of decision at that age? Furthermore, how many of you would be able to make a mature decision if you were born into an impoverished environment with no access to a college education otherwise (like a disproportionate number of top football and basketball players)? What if you had family members that were leaning on you for financial support? What if you hired an agent that invariably overinflates your draft value (which played into your decision to enter to the draft)? When I see comments from fans to the effect, “These are decisions that these guys need to live with and they can do something other than sports if they don’t get drafted,” I believe they’re failing to see the context in which such decisions are made along with, in most cases, making that judgment from comparatively more comfortable catbird seats (whether it’s being older or living in a middle or upper class environment where the fallout from making a mistake in life is relatively mild by comparison).

The upshot (and once again, we saw this with the period of high school players going directly to the NBA) is that there are a whole lot more people that submit themselves to the draft prematurely (with devastating consequences) than there are guys that are truly ready. It would be one thing if only the Lebron-type talents would enter into the draft (in which case, allowing high school players into the draft would work), but we’ve seen firsthand that this simply doesn’t happen in the real world*. There are too many high school prospects that get bad information about their draft stock or are pressured into making money immediately to their detriment. That leads to the next issue…

(* Similarly, if NBA and NFL general managers would only draft LeBron-type talents, then having high school players going directly to the pros would work efficiently. As noted earlier, though, the problem is that those GMs then have to rely their draft analysis almost solely on raw athleticism, which leads to a much higher bust rate and a poorer quality product to watch on the field or court for fans.)

(3) The NCAA Needs to Provide a Safety Net for Players – If the NCAA sincerely believes that high school players need to be able to go directly to the draft, then the organization can’t turn around and punish such players (AKA taking away their college eligibility) for utilizing all of the tools and resources at their disposal to make a fully informed decision that will impact them for the rest of their lives. Jim Delany mentions players hiring agents and training firms like IMG, which is all well and good, but then the NCAA will take away their eligibility once they receive any agent benefits. A solid and reputable agent (not a guy off the street or, even worse, an emotionally invested family member) can probably give a player the most realistic analysis of anyone about draft position and long-term earning potential, yet the NCAA (via its rules regarding agents) is forcing athletes to make an all-or-nothing decision on eligibility before he can even receive that analysis. That’s not exactly equitable, particularly when the athletes are the ones in a much more vulnerable position compared to the NCAA and its members.

As a result, colleges ought to reevaluate its eligibility rules completely if it’s being sincere. Players ought to be able to hire agents freely, submit to drafts and play again in college if they fail to get drafted (or even choose to go to college if they get drafted in a lower position than what they wanted). Colleges turning their backs on these players would be wrong even if there weren’t billions of dollars at stake, which ties to the next point…

(4) Delany’s Money Flow is Backwards – Let’s look at the budgets of two sports teams:

BUDGET A: $124,419,412

BUDGET B: $500,000

If you were to plop down those figures in front of anyone that has the basic skill of knowing which number is higher, one would logically assume that the team with Budget A has a lot more money to pay players than the Budget B team. Well, Budget A represents the expenses of the Ohio State athletic department in 2012. Meanwhile, Budget B represents what used to be the annual operating cost of each individual team in the defunct NFL Europe, which was the minor league system that the NFL had run until 2007. A major difference on top of this disparity is that Ohio State brought in $142,043,057 in revenue (a profit of over $17.6 million). Meanwhile, NFL Europe was shut down since it was still losing money at the bare bones cost of $500,000 per team (which translated into a grand total of $3 million in costs for the entire 6-team league in 2007). To put this into context, the NFL minimum salary under the current collective bargaining agreement is $405,000. The last 8 bench players on the Bears’ depth chart make more than what was spent on the entire NFL Europe operation… and the NFL still lost money on it!

Call me crazy, but when Jim Delany states that the players should be going to minor leagues to get paid, he seems to have the money flow backwards. When the NFL itself isn’t willing to spend to fund an entire minor league system that costs less than the salaries of 8 bench players making the league minimum, you can see pretty clearly that the money isn’t there. The NBA D-League is run on a similarly shoestring budget. In contrast, the colleges are the ones seeing a massive revenue flow off of these young players, so it’s disingenuous of university leaders and conference commissioners to attempt to make the claim that the minors are where they ought to receive salaries. Texas A&M itself stated that it garnered $37 million worth of media exposure in connection with Johnny Manziel’s Heisman campaign last year, so one can imagine the financial impact of a national championship (or even better, the Heisman Trophy/National Championship combo that Cam Newton delivered to Auburn in 2010 – see Charles Barkley’s comments about how $200,000 that may or may not have been paid to Cam by boosters was a bargain) for a school.

So, sure, if colleges are willing to take reduced or no revenue for football and basketball in the same way that they are for baseball (where even the most elite programs make a fraction of their football and basketball counterparts), then I could see this argument from Delany sticking. However, let’s not be naive to think that there is a vastly different playing field for football and basketball in reality.

Now, I realize that there are Title IX, employment and other issues that come into play in the event that colleges start paying athletes. It’s not as easy to institute as most supporters of the concept would like it to be. However, that doesn’t mean that we should allow colleges (even if we love them as our alma maters) to get away with such blatant hypocrisy toward money. It’s time to ditch the faux amateurism and either go all in on college sports being a massive money-making enterprise or take a Division III approach.  If that means paying every athlete (from members of the football team down to the women’s water polo team) in order to comply with Title IX, then that’s a heck of a lot better than not paying anyone. Once again, I have no issue with the money flowing through college sports at all. The only thing that I want to see is that it flows down to the people that we’re actually cheering for as fans.

(Image from USA Today)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the upcoming games, everyone!

(Image from HitFix)

A message from a reader:

Well, I deserve that. I know it’s been a long hiatus here with the new college football and NFL seasons starting, over half of the Breaking Bad final season passing by and lots of twerking since my last post, so let’s get to answering some questions in part 1 of an overflowing mailbag Q&A:

There were a ton of “Division 4” questions, so here’s a sample:

My overarching thought on the impact of the proposed Division 4* is (going along with the Breaking Bad theme) that there won’t be any “half-measures”. On the conservative end, this could be a straight-forward exercise for the football schools to get more leverage in rule-making (which is what Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has intimated). Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of FBS schools (from the SEC down to the Sun Belt) have been in favor of instituting full cost of attendance payments to athletes, whereas the main opposition has come from non-FBS Division I schools. If the impetus behind creating a Division 4 is to simply get more control over the NCAA governance process, then that suggests that all FBS conferences will end up in that top division. Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com has reported that that this is what NCAA faculty representatives are essentially recommending.

(* Is it just me, or does everyone associated with the NCAA have the naming ineptitude of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West? They changed the perfectly logical Division I-A and Division I-AA to FBS and FCS. They messed with the even more logical NCAA Tournament regional names of East, South, Midwest and West for several years before reverting back. Now, we’re talking about a “Division 4” that’s supposed to be referring to the top level of college sports even though one would think that this would be below Divisions II and III. Nothing about the name “Division 4” makes sense, which means that the NCAA will probably end up choosing it in the end.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Division 4 could truly be the formal separation of the 5 power conferences plus Notre Dame (no matter what you think of the Irish, you have to always include Notre Dame) so that there could be more radical changes down the road. Maybe there could be payments to players beyond the full cost of attendance. Maybe athletes will be allowed to auction off their autographs on ebay. Probably most intriguing (and what I think is the long-range goal) is that this is all about setting up an 8-team playoff with the 5 power conference champs with auto-bids and 3 at-large bids without having to deal with the “riff raff” of the Group of Five leagues (and protecting the power leagues from any legal challenges to that playoff system on top of that). Imagine a playoff with a traditional Rose Bowl (Big Ten champ vs. Pac-12 champ) plus the Sugar Bowl (SEC champ vs. at-large), Orange Bowl (ACC champ vs. at-large) and Cotton or Fiesta Bowl (Big 12 champ vs. at-large) as quarterfinals. The ratings and money would be through the roof along with supercharging the interest in the regular seasons of all of those power conferences (meaning even more ratings and money) and they get to control all of it without having to share with the revenue takers. That can be done with a totally separate Division 4 in a way that probably can’t occur in the current NCAA structure.

What I don’t see is something in between, where a Division 4 is formed with the 5 power conferences plus, say, the American Athletic Conference and Mountain West Conference. There is very little point in the power conferences going through the exercise of creating a Division 4 when the end result is only relegating the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt. The power players aren’t going to deal with a litany of acrimonious lawsuits unless the end game is complete and 100% control with only the conferences that they deem worthy (and judging by the fact that the 5 power conference commissioners keep speaking with each other as a group without the involvement of anyone else, it should be pretty clear who they want to deal with). Either it’s going to be a massive change to the system (separation of the 5 power conferences plus Notre Dame into a new division) or little change outside of NCAA procedural matters (giving all FBS schools more latitude in setting their own rules). The “half-measure” of the AAC and MWC coming along for the ride with the power conferences doesn’t seem very likely to me, which is why individual Group of Five schools need to hope for more conference realignment for guaranteed protection. Speaking of which…

I don’t believe that further conference realignment is necessary for a Division 4 split. As we’ve gone over before on this blog, for all of the moves in conference realignment over the past few years, where we stand today really isn’t that much different than where we stood in 1998 when the BCS system first started (only we’ve consolidated from 6 power conferences into 5). Every school that was in one of the 6 BCS conferences in 1998 is still in one of the 5 current power conferences today with the exception of Temple (who was a football-only member of the Big East that was relegated for reasons completely outside of conference realignment), while a grand total of 3 schools (TCU, Utah and Louisville) have been elevated. This indicates that the power conferences are pretty firm in who they want to associate with and changing perceptions is a glacial process. Now, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope for some schools…

I can now answer this question nicely since we had a successful “Hate Cincinnati” weekend in the Frank the Tank household (Illini over Bearcats on Saturday, which frankly shocked the hell out of me, and Bears over Bengals on Sunday). Cincinnati and its AAC/old Big East zombie counterpart UConn are definitely power conference material on paper. The issue is more about whether any of the power conferences will see a need to expand proactively while everyone other than the SEC is at the start of long-term grant of rights agreements that make it difficult (if not impossible) for power schools to move amongst themselves. Overall, the Big 12 is more likely to want to expand at some point because of their small size, poor demographics outside of the state of Texas and the fact that IF a grant of rights agreement were to be broken (a massively large IF), it would be in the context of the Big Ten raiding the Big 12 again (more on that in a moment), which would bode well for Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a solid football program in a good TV market with access to a great recruiting area for athletes of all types (whether football or basketball) while also providing a geographic bridge to West Virginia for the Big 12. As a result, Cincinnati is likely next in line for the Big 12 (alongside BYU) if that league wants to expand. The problem for Cincy fans, of course, is no one knows if or when that expansion would happen in the near future.

The ACC would probably favor UConn over Cincinnati if it had to choose, although that conference did deviate from its traditional criteria in choosing Louisville last year. The main issue for any school with hopes of joining the ACC is that it doesn’t seem plausible that it would expand outside of either (a) backfilling in the event of a raid by the Big Ten and/or SEC or (b) pairing a school with Notre Dame joining as a full member, neither of which seems to be on the horizon in the short-term. There’s at least some argument that the Big 12 would proactively expand regardless of what the other conferences do, so that at least gives Cincinnati some hope.

Some Big Ten conference realignment questions:

Let’s start with my previous post, where I point out how difficult and unlikely it is to break a grant of rights arrangement over the next decade or so. As a result, the likelihood of Big Ten expansion in the near future is extremely low, as I don’t believe that the conference is interested in anyone that isn’t already in one of the 5 power conferences (meaning no one in the AAC or any other Group of 5 conference is compelling enough).

Now, whenever the Big Ten expansion does kick up again, Kansas is certainly high up there on the list. The Jayhawks are to future Big Ten expansion in the way that Pharrell Williams ended up singing on the two largest Billboard hits of the summer (“Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky”) despite not headlining either of them: it’s hard to see KU not involved as a contiguous AAU school with an elite basketball program, but they also can’t be the biggest athletic name in that expansion, either. One thing that I’ve loved about writing this blog is that I hope that I’ve helped to elevate the discussion of conference realignment to take into account factors that many fans didn’t consider previously (i.e. academics, TV markets, branding, etc.), yet we sometimes do need to take a step back and realize that the product on the field (or court) is still what makes all of the off-the-field money possible, so expansion has to serve those needs. Thus, a hypothetical Kansas/Virginia or Kansas/Missouri (not that I think the Big Ten is ever going to poach the SEC and vice versa) expansion combo for the Big Ten might serve some TV market and AAU status purposes, but that doesn’t have the requisite athletic (and more specifically, football) impact that is required for what could conceivably be the last two spots in the Big Ten. (For all of those that would counter, “Rutgers and Maryland weren’t added for sports!”, I would say that (a) there was a football goal achieved since New Jersey and Maryland were the two top non-Sun Belt states for football recruits that weren’t already in the Big Ten footprint and (b) pure TV market additions were acceptable when looking that them in conjunction with the elite football addition of Nebraska.)

Putting aside the obvious no-brainer additions like Texas, I’m firmly in camp of supporting the addition Oklahoma to the Big Ten and I don’t believe that it’s a purely fan-focused football move. The main detraction for Oklahoma that I often see is that it isn’t an AAU member, but its academic metrics aren’t really far off at all from now-non-AAU member Nebraska and its neighboring old Big 8 AAU schools (Missouri, Kansas and Iowa State). There isn’t the wide academic gap between OU and Nebraska that there was in the case of Louisville compared to the rest of the ACC. Some Big Ten observers believe that the non-AAU status of Oklahoma is a non-starter, but I doubt that the conference would have engaged performing due diligence on the Sooners unless there was some legit interest involved. More importantly, the lack of AAU status for other expansion candidates was simply another reason on top of a number of other factors that made the target school undesirable (i.e. geography, lack of a fan base, lack of a football brand name, not a new TV market, etc.). It’s easy for the Big Ten to ignore a merely “good” football program based on academics (i.e. West Virginia or Louisville), but Oklahoma is a top level king school that would bring a ton of national TV dollars. Even Oklahoma’s smaller home state population on paper is mitigated by the fact that its fan base crosses over into North Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area (and Kansas, by the same token, can’t just be looked at by its home state population alone since it’s the top college team in the Kansas City market that takes a large chunk of Missouri).

The upshot is that if the Big Ten goes to 16 schools, then the last 2 additions actually need to make markets irrelevant. What are the 2 additions that can truly transform the BTN from a regional network to a legit national network? Sure, if the Big Ten has the choice, they’d want Texas and Notre Dame (or some other unattainable major market prize like North Carolina or Florida). However, if we’re talking about the top brand names that are willing to reciprocate the Big Ten’s overtures, Oklahoma and Kansas are sitting right there to supercharge the conferences’ football and basketball lineups, respectively. Penetrating a diverse market like New York City has as much to do with the national interest in various teams as it does with local interest, which aids the cases of OU and KU.

Frankly, the biggest factor working the Big Ten going after either OU and KU (much more than academic concerns) is the political pressure of those schools’ respective in-state brothers (Oklahoma State and Kansas State). I believe the Big Ten would expand with an OU/KU combo, but the conference won’t be willing to take either Oklahoma State and Kansas State in the process. Those “little brother” schools might be non-negotiable from a political perspective even if Jayhawk and Sooner fans don’t want to believe that to be the case, so that could stop Big Ten expansion regardless of any Big 12 grant of rights concerns. So, that brings me back to my initial point that Big Ten expansion isn’t likely, albeit it’s still fun to talk about after all of this time.

I’ll be back with Part II of the mailbag going over issues such as EA Sports NCAA ’14, Big East expansion and pro sports realignment shortly. Talk to you again soon!

(Image from Zap2It)

The main question that I’ve been getting over the past few weeks is the following: “Is conference realignment really done? Seriously? Isn’t everyone still lying?” Well, from my perspective, power conference realignment is finished for the foreseeable future with one possible exception (which I’ll get to in a moment). The fact that the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and now ACC all have grant of rights arrangements in place really puts a damper on any further movement. Even if grant of rights agreements could be challenged and struck down, the issue is that none of the 4 conferences that have them in place have any incentive to test that (or else they’d be challenging the strength of their own protections). It’s simply slim pickings in terms of expansion candidates that are outside of the 5 power conferences for the healthiest leagues. Let’s take a look at where everyone stands:

(1) Big Ten – The Big Ten certainly has no need to expand at this point without a school from the ACC or Big 12. A school such as UConn might provide a nice market in theory with elite basketball, but that was already a massive stretch candidate with its lack of AAU status and FBS football history. Plus, even if the Big Ten wanted UConn, who the heck else would the conference add with them? Let’s disregard any notion that an odd number of football schools can be workable from this point forward – what was acceptable with the 11-team Big Ten without divisions and a conference championship game is simply not acceptable in the new larger Big Ten. There has to be a Noah’s Ark expansion approach for any conference that has more than 12 members. As much as I’m a Big Ten fan, I’m also not delusional enough to trick myself into thinking that they could raid the SEC since that’s the only power league doesn’t have a grant of rights arrangement as of yet. Note that the Big Ten passed on Missouri (the most oft-referenced school that would plausibly defect) multiple times when the school was a Big 12 member, so it makes little sense that Jim Delany and the university presidents would even target them now, while a school like Vanderbilt might make the ivory tower-types happy but does little for the financial football goals of the conference (and believe me, as much as I enjoy talking about the CIC and academic status of the Big Ten, the “football” part of the equation still needs to be met). After adding Penn State, the Big Ten was more than willing to wait for two decades to find the correct non-Notre Dame expansion candidates, so I find it to be entirely consistent that they’d be fine with waiting another decade to see if schools like Texas, UNC, UVA, Georgia Tech, Kansas and/or Oklahoma are willing to test the free agent market at that point.

(2) SEC – Meanwhile, the SEC is essentially in the same boat as the Big Ten: all of the candidates that it would realistically want are sitting in the ACC or Big 12. The new SEC Network being formed with ESPN isn’t going to gain anything without a UNC-level addition, which means that expansion is pointless for Mike Slive’s group for the next decade. I don’t subscribe to the Clay Travis bloviations that the SEC Network will blow everyone else out of the water (there are some basic concrete reasons why the Big Ten will very likely continue its current TV revenue dominance for quite awhile, not the least of which is that Jim Delany will get to send the Big Ten’s first tier rights out for open market bidding in a couple of years and that would result in a massive windfall even if Maryland and Rutgers don’t add another dime of revenue to the BTN), but the league will certainly make enough to make it rain in the clubs.

(Note that the key market to watch for SEC Network carriage is the state of Texas. To be clear, I believe that Texas A&M has significantly more pull in its home state than, say, Rutgers has in New Jersey. However, the state of Texas is already home to two of the most high profile ongoing sports network carriage disputes in the country with the ESPN-owned sister channel Longhorn Network not being able to strike a deal with any major cable or satellite carrier other than AT&T U-Verse and Comcast SportsNet Houston, which carries Astros and Rockets games and is co-owned by those teams, still not having anything in place with DirecTV and DISH Network (which is particularly problematic in the Texas market that has higher satellite penetration compared to Northeastern markets such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC that have larger percentages of traditional wired cable customers). Now, the SEC Network is going to provide significantly better content than the Longhorn Network, but the fact that such a large portion of the Houston market hasn’t had access to the Rockets led by James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik (I still can’t believe that my battered but still fighting Bulls let that guy get away for nothing in return) for an entire season and currently the Astros (as horrible as they might be on-the-field these days) is an indicator that the SEC Network isn’t just going to get Texas cable and satellite operators to roll over. I fully acknowledge that no cable operator will be able to last a day within the state of Alabama if they’re not carrying Crimson Tide football, so I’m just pointing out the Texas market specifically here as a place to focus upon.)

(3) ACC (plus Notre Dame) – At the same time, the ACC is likely going to spend the next decade in the same mode that the Big Ten was during the 1990s: reserving a spot for Notre Dame. Now, that doesn’t mean that Notre Dame has any intention of joining the ACC as a full football member. Quite to the contrary, I believe that Notre Dame’s ability to stay independent is stronger today than it was 10 years ago when the ACC began its multiple raids of the Big East. Notre Dame has secured an long-term extension of its NBC deal, isn’t subject to any conference championship requirement to have access to the new College Football Playoff, will have access to the Orange Bowl and all secondary ACC bowl tie-ins, and will be in a great power league for basketball and non-revenue sports. There’s less logic in Notre Dame giving up independence today than when it appeared that the Big East was going to collapse without a home for non-football Irish sports in 2003. However, never underestimate how much university administrators delude themselves into thinking that they’re going to be the ones that change the hearts and minds in South Bend. Jim Delany, Deloss Dodds and John Swofford, who I consider to be smart men (whether or not you agree with their actions), have all been fooled on this front. With a grant of rights in place, the ACC doesn’t need to proactively grow at this point and can use the “We’ll wait for Notre Dame to come around” retort to further expansion for awhile (even though anyone that has any clue about how single-mindedly focused the Notre Dame alumni base will fight any hint of giving up football independence knows that they’ll never come around). There’s really no need for the ACC to act unless (until?) it gets poached again by another power conference.

(4) Pac-12 – The Pac-12 is an interesting case since it could conceivably benefit from further expansion with schools that are outside of the 5 power conferences (particularly the Mountain West) from a pure financial standpoint, but none of the realistic candidates for that league fit the requirements for markets and/or academics. BYU has a great brand name with a national following and solid academics, but the political viewpoints of the LDS make that school into a non-starter at places like Berkeley. UNLV provides a great market with potentially a gleaming new football palace in Las Vegas, yet the school is far off from what the Pac-12 wants for academics and even worse on the actual on-the-field football front. New Mexico has a similar decent market/horrific football combo. Hawaii could possibly pass muster in terms of academics and football, but this is one case where geography is likely untenable. (It’s still a quicker flight from Los Angeles to Miami than it is from LA to Honolulu.) Boise State’s football prowess and national TV appeal can’t overcome its academic standards that the Pac-12 won’t accept. So, the Pac-12 seems to be boxed in even if it wanted to expand.

(5) Big 12 – As a result, any realistic chance for further power conference expansion in the near future rests with the Big 12. When Jim Delany, Mike Slive, John Swofford and Larry Scott tell reporters that their respective conferences are happy with their current membership levels, I believe them. All 4 of those conferences are at natural stopping points. In contrast, the Bob Bowlsby and the Big 12 seem to have unfinished business – being at 10 members in this environment of larger conferences is much more tenuous than it was 3 years ago, so there’s going to be a lingering feeling of instability with the Big 12 until it gets back up to at least 12 schools in the same way that no one could rest easy when the Big Ten sat at 11 members. While the Big 12 doesn’t have any truly obvious expansion options, they have a bit more leeway compared to the Pac-12 geographically, academically and culturally. For instance, what bothers the Pac-12 about BYU isn’t going to fluster a conference that has a member that didn’t allow any dancing on campus until the Tupac/Biggie feud was at its zenith. The Big 12 could also conceivably expand in virtually any direction within the continental United States, so it’s not implausible that the conference could consider any of UConn, Cincinnati, Colorado State,New Mexico and/or UNLV.

The problem, though, is that the Big 12 is boxed in financially. Unlike the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC (and maybe eventually the ACC), the Big 12 doesn’t have a conference network that can leverage additional households in expansion and is entirely dependent on its national ESPN/Fox deal for conference TV revenue. Now, schools such as Texas and Oklahoma enjoy lucrative third tier rights deals within the Big 12, yet that doesn’t do anything to support overall conference expansion. Plus, the expansion candidates are still largely flawed, as the best football schools like Boise State don’t bring any solid TV markets or recruiting grounds while the schools with the best demographics (e.g. UNLV, New Mexico, Colorado State) have some of the worst FBS football programs anywhere. BYU plus Cincinnati or UConn would seem to be the best shot for the Big 12 to maximize financial value in expansion out of what’s realistically available, yet that combo may not be enough. Unfortunately for the Big 12, the conference’s leaders (or maybe just Texas AD Deloss Dodds specifically) got sidetracked for awhile by chasing the expansion lottery dreams of Notre Dame and Florida State while passing on what could have been lucrative and stability-producing additions with Louisville (which would have given a nearish geographic partner for isolated West Virginia) and BYU. The ACC grabbed Louisville to backfill for Maryland, though, and that ended taking a lot of solid expansion combos for the Big 12 off the table (as any desirable expansion for the Big 12 that didn’t include the pipe dreams of Notre Dame and/or Florida State involved Louisville on some level).

To be sure, the Big 12 (a) probably will always be a pretty good conference in terms of football on-the-field by virtue of being the most prominent conference in the recruiting rich state of Texas and (b) will unequivocally be a power conference with high national TV revenue numbers and bowl appeal as long as Texas and Oklahoma are members. However, that’s also a blessing and a curse, as the conference’s over-reliance on the state of Texas and a couple of marquee brand names exposes some of the same weaknesses in the Big 12 that eventually caused the old Southwest Conference to collapse. The demographic growth prospects of the state of Texas specifically are fantastic, but that masks the fact that the Big 12’s demographics outside of Texas are the worst out of all of the 5 power conferences by a wide margin. (This is a large reason why I never bought what was seemingly a widespread belief that ACC schools would defect to the Big 12 no matter what financial arguments some observers attempted to make.) Long-term, the Big 12 is at risk because there isn’t a ready reservoir of brand names that it can expand or merge with in the way that the old Big 8 took Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor from the SWC. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Big 12 is at risk of completely breaking up like it did back in 2010-11 since I firmly believe that Texas desires the ability to control (or have perceived control over) a conference more than even making the most TV money, but it’s still the power conference that is bound almost entirely by the strength of its current TV contract (which will eventually expire) as opposed to the strength of its bonds beyond that (unlike the academic bonds of the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 or the geographic institutional football focus of the SEC). So, the Big 12 is still be the power conference that will be most susceptible to raids in the future, just as it was 3 1/2 years ago when Jim Delany first announced that the Big Ten was looking to expand. We may just have to wait another 10 years before power conference chaos happens once again. Until then, we’ll need to pay attention to the non-power conferences and basketball leagues (Oakland moving to the Horizon League was announced today and Davidson appears to be heading to the Atlantic 10 as rumored) for our conference realignment fixes.

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

(Image from Sports Illustrated)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image from mgoblog)

Back in 2010 and 2011 when the Big 12 was under siege by the then-Pac-10, Big Ten and SEC and appeared to be on the verge of collapse, basketball blue blood Kansas was looking like it could left out of the power conference structure. Circumstances were so dire at that point that Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and other Big 12 schools without any realistic prospects of moving to another power league actually approached the Big East to join if the worst case scenario came to fruition. It was a scary thought to a lot of fans: if Kansas could be left behind, then football is truly all that matters and basketball must have virtually no value in conference realignment. The 10 points (out of a total of 100) that I assigned to “Basketball Brand Value” in the original Big Ten Expansion Index was looking like a massive overweighting of hoops back then.

To the extent that it was already clear, the maxim was set in stone: “Football is everything in conference realignment.” Discussions about basketball value went by the wayside over the past couple of years as conference realignment discussions focused intensely upon how to maximize football dollars. Now, to be sure, much of this made (and still makes) sense for the power conferences. First tier TV contracts for college football dwarf those for college basketball while the top conferences (via the bowl system) are able to funnel postseason football money directly to their own coffers instead of having to deal with the NCAA for basketball postseason dollars.

However, any hard and fast rule is bound to be broken. As the Big East started suffering from a disintegration over the past 18 months that was originally prescribed for the Big 12, the seven non-football playing Catholic members of that league decided to break off and form a basketball-focused conference. There was quite a bit of skepticism that this could be financially viable considering that the Atlantic 10 signed a new deal worth only $350,000 per school per year (compared to the $1.3 million per year that each of the Big East schools were receiving for basketball under the current ESPN contract that’s about to expire). The perception was that football was propping the “Catholic 7” up and they would be taking a substantial haircut by splitting off from the gridiron portion of the conference.

Then, the TV offers came in. The Catholic 7 received an offer from Fox worth $3 million to $4 million per school per year just for men’s basketball, while the remnants of the Big East will be getting about $2 million per school per year for both football and basketball. Think about it this way: Cincinnati, which has been to 2 BCS bowls and was seconds away from making it to the football national championship game in 2009, is going to end up making 50% to 100% less TV money for football and basketball than crosstown rival Xavier will be making from basketball alone (assuming all of the reports are correct that Xavier will be joining the Catholic 7)… and Xavier is going to end up being in the conference named “The Big East”, too.

If the Big East/Catholic 7 TV contract situation hasn’t changed how you view conference realignment overall, it should. This should be a glaring warning signal any conference that is not named the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 or ACC: football in and of itself isn’t going to get leagues paid and they better start paying attention to basketball if they want to maximize revenue. For instance, if I was running UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and/or Temple, I would start questioning what the point is of having massive capital expenditures and operating expenses for football when nearby schools are getting paid more than my athletic department based on perceived basketball prowess. Now, schools like UConn or Cincinnati are still be positioning themselves to get into the ACC or Big 12, so they obviously can’t downshift in football, but maybe they would be better off creating a public university version of the Catholic 7. For instance, take UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and Temple as a base and then add on UMass, Old Dominion and Charlotte as all-sports schools and Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) and Wichita State (and maybe a couple of other public schools like Rhode Island) as basketball members. Navy might actually prefer to be a football-only member in that type of league compared to the Big East as currently configured, as well. That’s just throwing a list of schools against the wall, but what’s clear to me is that very high basketball value of UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and Temple is getting severely diluted by the rest of the “new” Big East that won’t be called the Big East anymore. (For the purposes of this post, I’ll define the Big East football schools left behind as the “Big X”.) UConn getting a fraction of what Providence is receiving in terms of TV money ought to be unacceptable to the people in Storrs (even if the Huskies’ long-term plan is to get into the ACC at all costs), so it’s time to start rethinking the conventional wisdom of the role football plays in conference realignment.

What we have seen over the past 3 years is a lot of moves on paper, but the overall effect being more of the same. The power club when the BCS system was created in 1998 consisted of 6 conferences and 63 schools (including independent Notre Dame). 15 years later, the power club now has 5 conferences and 65 schools, with 3 schools moving up (Louisville, TCU and Utah) and 1 school moving down (Temple, who was kicked out of the power structure due to performance as opposed to anything related to realignment). That is a net change of 2 schools over the course of 15 years. Essentially, every single school that isn’t already in a power conference is praying for a winning lottery ticket with their respective football programs with those odds. As any financial adviser could tell you, though, pinning your dreams on winning the lottery isn’t a viable investment plan. When the Big East became too filled with “riff raff”, the entire league got kicked out of the power club instead of being integrated. It’s clear that the power club doesn’t want to get much larger (if at all), so everyone outside of that top tier needs to start looking at other ways to maximize revenue.

While basketball is much less of a concern to the power conferences at face value, consider which school is the top target for both the Big Ten and SEC (the 2 richest and most powerful conferences): North Carolina. It certainly isn’t due to UNC’s prowess at football or avoiding academic fraud. To the contrary, UNC is a basketball blue blood, and more importantly, Tar Heels basketball games are so critically important in the state of the North Carolina that a conference TV network carrying such games can effectively charge whatever carriage rate that it wants in that market. Think of the Big Ten’s addition of Maryland, as well. Fan enthusiasm for Terps football has been tepid lately, but part of what the conference is banking on is that there is a critical mass of interest in Maryland basketball where it can get the Big Ten Network basic carriage in the Washington, DC and Baltimore markets.

For conferences that don’t have their own TV networks, then the main way to monetize expansion is through first tier football TV contracts. In contrast, the “market” model of conference TV networks means that basketball needs to be taken into account more. (See the BTN garnering its highest-ever rated month in prime time in January based on the strength of the hoops league this year.) At the same time, the number of strong football brand names that are willing to move is pretty low right now. In 2010, everyone in the old Big 12 that had Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas A&M, everyone in the Big East that had Pitt, West Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville, and the ultimate hammer of Notre Dame was conceivably on the table. Now, the biggest football brand name that seems to be possibly available is Florida State, but there’s a feeling that they’re just rattling sabres about their supposed dissatisfaction with the ACC (where they’d be happy to move to the Big Ten or SEC, but don’t dislike the ACC enough to go to the Big 12). As a result, it simply might not be realistic (or possible) for conferences that are in acquisition mode to add much football prowess even if that’s their top priority. Thus, those leagues have to look to other factors such as monetizing basketball, which is very much possible (if not completely necessary) under the conference network model. Football might bring in the largest audiences for conference networks, but basketball is what keeps the lights on and provides enough content to justify basic carriage.

Make no mistake about it: all things being equal, of course conferences would want top football programs over top basketball programs. There’s nothing that generates more revenue than a power football school. However, what people need to start questioning is the misguided logic that any football program is more valuable than any basketball program. The Catholic 7 has shown that this isn’t the case at all. Athletic departments across the country need to take note in trying to figure out how they want to position themselves in the new college sports landscape.

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

(Image from AP)