Posts Tagged ‘ACC’

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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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image from ImageEvent)

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The echo chamber of conference realignment rumors continues on Twitter, blogs and message boards everywhere continues with thoughts of the destruction of the ACC by the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and MEAC and superconferences going up to 20 teams or more (16 is for chumps).  Let’s try to separate the wheat from the chaff by addressing some frequently asked questions regarding Big Ten expansion:

(1) Is the Big Ten done expanding? – From the standpoint of the Big Ten initiating another expansion, yes, I believe that they’re done for the time being.  In my opinion, it would take another move from the SEC and/or Big 12 for the Big Ten to act again since the most likely targets for Jim Delany won’t want to move unless they are absolutely forced to do so.  (We’ll get to those schools in just a moment.)  Ultimately, the Big Ten’s expansion with Maryland and Rutgers needs to be looked at in conjunction with the decision to add Nebraska in 2010.  When Delany first announced that the Big Ten was looking to expand three years ago (and kick-started a conference realignment process that continues to this day), addressing long-term demographic concerns was right alongside improving athletics (AKA improving football) as the top goal.  The Big Ten’s home population base of the Midwest has been slowing in growth for many years (although too many people on the coasts tend to overstate this since their image of Rust Belt tends to focus upon Detroit, whereas places such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Columbus have been growing at a perfectly fine clip), which meant that it was imperative for the conference to address that issue while it was still in a position of strength. For all of the talk about how conference realignment has largely been about TV dollars, the Big Ten’s addition of Nebraska was probably the purest football move that any conference made in this round of realignment with the Cornhuskers bringing along one of the most tradition-rich football programs and a rabid fan base.  Nebraska, though, didn’t do anything to address the need to expand the conference’s footprint, hence the latest moves with Rutgers and Maryland.  Getting into the New York City/New Jersey and Washington, DC/Baltimore regions addressed the overall demographic concerns for the Big Ten, so there isn’t any urgency to do more.  Outside of adding Texas, the conference can’t really add more households with two schools than the #1 (New York) and #4 (DC/Baltimore) combined statistical areas on top of the #3 (Chicago) CSA that it already has.  As a result, I don’t see the Big Ten on the proactive prowl unless moves by other conferences (or threatened moves by other conferences) shake some of the schools that I’m about to mention loose.

(2) If you’re wrong, Frank, who would the Big Ten go after? – Let’s assume that the SEC and Pac-12 aren’t going to be poached and the Big 12, with each school having assigned its TV rights for the next 13 years to the league (called a “grant of rights”), probably won’t lose anyone else, either*.  The amount of a buyout of a grant of rights would likely need to be equal to the present value of the applicable school’s home TV rights for football and basketball games for the rest of the grant of rights period.  For example, any conference that wants Texas needs to pay the Big 12 the equivalent of the rights to all Longhorn home games for the next 13 years, which could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars considering what ESPN is willing to pay for not-very-desirable third tier games.  This is what makes a grant of rights (which the Big Ten and Pac-12 have in addition to the Big 12) such a powerful deterrent to schools leaving.  As a result, that basically means that the “realistic” (and I use that term very loosely) targets for the Big Ten would come from the ACC or, much less likely, Big East.

(* Besides the obvious value of adding Texas, if the Big 12 were poachable, Kansas would be the most attractive target for the Big Ten out of the Big 12.  One thing to remember is that basketball actually matters quite a bit for the purposes of the Big Ten Network, where the sheer volume of hoops content drives the need for cable companies to carry that channel.  As a result, the normal “football means everything” mantra that normally applies to conference realignment and TV rights doesn’t necessarily hold for the BTN.  Kansas actually made the most revenue off of third tier TV rights in the Big 12 prior to the formation of the Longhorn Network due to the strength of Jayhawks basketball.  On a related note, that also means that the value of Maryland basketball is as important to the Big Ten as Maryland football in terms of being able to monetize that school.)

Rumors over the weekend indicated that the Big Ten was poised to invite Virginia and Georgia Tech (which have since been dismissed by Georgia Tech’s president).  Certainly, those two schools would fit the Big Ten in terms of institutions, but the question is more about whether they would add enough athletic revenue and can integrate into the league culturally.  For all of the consternation about the Big Ten supposedly leaving its Midwestern roots by adding Rutgers and Maryland, those were fairly mild changes geographically and culturally in the context of conference realignment over the past three years (both for the Big Ten and the new schools themselves).  Those two institutions are in states that are geographically contiguous with the existing Big Ten footprint and there is much more of cultural difference between the the North and South (like oil and water) compared to the East and Midwest (distinct but complementary with each other).  I’m fairly certain that Virginia would be in the long-term plans for the Big Ten as an elite academic institution that’s the flagship in what will now be another contiguous state with the addition of Maryland.  However, UVA still very much considers itself to be a Southern school (whereas Maryland has really turned into a Northern school for all practical purposes over the past couple of decades) and that’s going to be a cultural barrier for it to joining the Big Ten no matter how much Jim Delany can offer Thomas Jefferson’s creation.  While the influx of transplants to Northern Virginia just south of Washington, DC have been “Northernizing” the Commonwealth, that process isn’t anywhere complete yet.

Georgia Tech is an interesting case to me.  There has been quite a bit of smoke about the Yellow Jackets contemplating Big Ten membership, but this is one move that I have a hard time seeing happening.  On paper, Georgia Tech seems to fit what the Big Ten is looking for as a top academic institution in the middle of a fast-growing Atlanta market that also happens to be rich with football recruits.  The problem, though, is that even if the Big Ten were to add UVA at the same time, Georgia Tech makes little sense as a lone outpost in the Peach State.  Atlanta is SEC territory to the core and the Big Ten attempting to challenge Mike Slive there with only Georgia Tech alone would be a complete lost cause.  It would be akin to the SEC taking Northwestern and then trying to claim the Chicago market – it simply wouldn’t work.  Rutgers and Maryland can combine with the presence of Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan alums in the NYC and DC regions to create positive network effects that are greater than the fan bases of those two schools.  While a large number of Big Ten grads are moving to Atlanta, there are so many more SEC grads and fans (along with fans of other Southern ACC schools such as Clemson and Florida State) that it’s one of the few markets that I believe Jim Delany has no chance of ever breaking through in.  To be clear, I really like Georgia Tech as a school, but in terms of Big Ten expansion, I actually believe that its location is going to work against it.

Some thoughts on other ACC schools:

  • North Carolina – UNC is essentially in the same boat as UVA: likely a very top long-term target for the Big Ten, but probably a generation away from becoming “Northernized” enough for the school to consider a move.  Plus, UNC effectively has the same status in the ACC as Texas has in the Big 12: the ACC is their conference.  As we’ve seen with Texas, having control can often be more of an allure than having money.  Therefore, as much as both the Big Ten and SEC would love to add UNC, the Tar Heels aren’t going anywhere until the ACC is completely on its deathbed.  UNC certainly wouldn’t start the exodus.
  • Miami – The Hurricanes have long been a sleeper pick for me if the Big Ten were serious about raiding the ACC further.  While Miami isn’t an AAU member, it has research levels that would justify its inclusion in the group and would the 4th highest ranked Big Ten school in the US News undergraduate university rankings (behind only Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin).  The school continues to be a top national TV draw even in its down years and is located in arguably the best pound-for-pound football recruiting territory in the country.  Most importantly for me, it’s the only real power conference school that’s located in the Sun Belt but is really a Northern school culturally.  Last week, the Chicago Tribune actually posted data of the most popular out-of-state colleges that Illinois residents attend.  While bordering flagship schools such as Iowa, Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin draw tons of students of Illinois, there were only a handful of power conference schools outside of the Midwest and Kentucky (which borders southern Illinois) that were able to draw more than 100 freshmen from Illinois this past year: Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, Vanderbilt and… Miami.  In fact, Miami draws about 5% of its students from Illinois, which is a higher percentage than any out-of-state Big Ten school other than Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan.  The thing is that Miami draws even more students from the New York/New Jersey corridor that the Big Ten is now trying to lock down.  This is only one piece of data, but it’s indicative of the fact that if there’s one school in the South that won’t give a crap about being in a Northern conference, it’s Miami.  People can note that they’re about to be sanctioned (my retort is to look at UNC) or they have a fairweather fan base with poor attendance (my response is that we just added Maryland), but they actually have a legit football history and the home recruiting base to maintain it regardless of possible NCAA actions down the road.  Much like USC, the location of Miami itself means that they will always be in position to win with the right coach.  In my opinion, Miami is a potential candidate that works regarding academics, demographics, TV market, football recruiting and football history.  The fact that it’s a private school shouldn’t eliminate them from consideration.
  • Virginia Tech – Another sleeper pick for me for the Big Ten.  The assumption of many followers of conference realignment is that the SEC would want Virginia Tech, which is exactly why the Big Ten shouldn’t let Mike Slive walk away with them.  With the addition of Maryland, the Big Ten is now committed to owning the DC market.  Jim Delany should be able to withstand preexisting ACC ties there, but letting the SEC in with arguably the most popular football school in that area would be particularly damaging.  Remember that Virginia Tech doesn’t pose the same academic issues that, say, Texas Tech did when the Big Ten was looking at Texas a couple of years ago.  Much like Miami, VT is a school that has AAU-worthy metrics despite not being currently a member and, in the US News undergrad rankings, is tied with Iowa and Michigan State and ahead of Indiana and Nebraska.  Similar to Miami, it’s a school that addresses several needs regarding demographics, TV market (locking up DC) and the strength of the actual football program.  If the Big Ten wants UVA and they’re say that they’re required to bring VT along with them, it’s a pretty easy decision to say yes if I were running the conference.
  • Duke – Full disclaimer here: I hate Duke.  I REALLLLLLY HATE DUKE.  Even as a massive Bears fan, Duke ranks ahead of the Packers as the team that I hate the most (whether college or pro) on the basis that a Green Bay win could conceivably help the Bears in a playoff race depending upon the records, whereas there is absolutely nothing positive that could come out of Duke winning a game.  The thing is that there are many people that feel the same way even though (like me) they aren’t even a rival of my alma mater (Illinois), which is why they can’t be discounted as a potential Big Ten candidate or thought of as powerless in the football-focused game of conference realignment.  The academics at Duke are obviously impeccable and the basketball program draws attention and ire like no one else in college sports outside of Notre Dame football.  In 99.9% of the cases, basketball is truly irrelevant in conference realignment, but Duke is that 0.1%.  Even though few conference realignment stories would give me greater personal joy than seeing Duke getting relegated to the Southern Conference, it won’t be happening.  Much like Virginia Tech with UVA, it’s a pretty easy “yes” decision for the Big Ten if the league has a chance with UNC with Duke being part of the package.
  • Syracuse, Boston College – It’s not inconceivable that the Big Ten could go after either or both of these schools as part of a Northeastern-centric expansion, but Jim Delany seemed to emphasize expansion into the “Mid-Atlantic” (which would intimate more of focus on Virginia and North Carolina in the future) much more than the Northeast and New England per se.  That makes sense since the Mid-Atlantic region is where the long-term demographic shifts are very favorable (not to mention much stronger football recruiting territories, whereas Upstate New York and New England are growing as slowly as the Midwest.  I was someone that always like Syracuse as a Big Ten candidate since its basketball program could actually help get BTN subscribers in the NYC market as much as any other school and it might even make more sense to pair them up with Rutgers, but the feedback that I’ve always received from Big Ten circles was that the conference has been lukewarm on the Orange.  Boston College has the presence in a major market, yet it might be even tougher for the Big Ten to crack that area than even NYC.  New England doesn’t have the same critical mass of Big Ten alums that the New York/Jersey area has.  That being said, I think the value of BC is often underrated by fans as to how much it is overrated by conference commissioners and university presidents (if that makes sense), so I wouldn’t ever discount them.
  • Florida State, Clemson, NC State, Louisville – Pure athletics focused expansion candidates with good-to-great recruiting territories and markets, but the academics likely wouldn’t be good enough for the Big Ten.  Personally, I’d take a hard look at Florida State because they are so extremely valuable in a key state (especially if the Big Ten is seriously considering Georgia Tech and don’t want them to be a lone outpost), yet the tea leaves are saying otherwise.
  • Pitt – As I’ve stated in previous posts, it’s a great academic school with a solid athletic department, but it is one of the few schools out there that wouldn’t add any BTN revenue at all since Penn State already delivers that market.  This is too bad since the Panthers fit into the Big Ten extremely well on almost all other levels.
  • Wake Forest – I personally like Wake Forest at some levels, but it’s a small private school without the research capabilities of Duke or the market of BC.

As for the Big East, the only school that would even have a chance at the Big Ten is UConn, and I’d put the odds of that merger occurring as extremely low.  Connecticut is in a similar position as Syracuse and Boston College – Upstate New York and New England have large populations as of today just like the Midwest, but the demographic shifts favor the Big Ten waiting to get into Virginia and North Carolina.  Also, I had previously stated how an ACC invite was UConn’s to lose and I stand by that with Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich saying, “UConn wasn’t penciled in [for the ACC].  It was penned in.”  However, I underestimated how much the relative youth of UConn playing football at the FBS level could really affect perceptions of the school negatively.  For better or for worse, the Big Ten wants to be able to show grainy footage of schools from the 1960s and 1970s on BTN and claim them as conference successes.  (Those 5 Nebraska championship teams were among the greatest Big Ten squads of all-time!)  I’m only half-joking there.  The fact that Rutgers has a really long history of playing college football as the first school to participate in a game seems to trump the fact that such history hasn’t exactly been illustrious.  The Big Ten is ultimately an old school league, and while UConn was at the Division I-AA level for many years prior to moving up to the top level in 2003, that history (whether fair or not) doesn’t seem to count with the power conferences.

So, this is a really long post with a ton of interesting hypotheticals, but I don’t believe that the Big Ten itself will pull the trigger on any of them unless UVA and/or UNC is ready to bolt.  My feeling is that those schools aren’t anywhere close to being ready to leave the ACC, so my money would be on the Big Ten waiting for awhile as other leagues decide about whether to react.  I’ll be taking a look at the realistic options of those other conferences over the coming days.

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

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The ACC washed away any rumors of expanding up to 16 by sending out a single invitation to Louisville this morning while also indicating a sea change in the thought process of the conference’s leadership. For years, the ACC refused to consider schools such as West Virginia on the basis of academics, which meant that Connecticut would have been a virtual lock over the likes of Louisville and Cincinnati to have received an invite from the conference if this situation had occurred even one year ago. However, the brand value of the ACC’s football side has diminished so greatly over the past several years that conference commissioner John Swofford and company took a different tact this time around. Even the chancellor of the University of North Carolina (which is to the ACC what Texas is to the Big 12) admitted flatly that the addition of Louisville was completely about athletics as opposed to academics.

Kudos to Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich for getting his school into this position. He has proven himself to be one of the top athletic directors in the country in turning a basketball school that was in Conference USA not too long ago into a comprehensive top-to-bottom sports program that made sure it wouldn’t get left behind in a new football-driven world. Louisville already would have the largest athletic budget in the ACC outside of UNC, which is quite amazing considering that the Big East’s conference distributions are completely paltry compared to what the ACC has been doling out to its members. Out of all of the schools that have moved in conference realignment over the past couple of years, no one has gone out and made their own luck like Tom Jurich and Louisville. This is a big-time athletic department that should have been in an AQ conference long before it was invited to the Big East in 2003 and certainly shouldn’t have been sweating it out in the current round of realignment.

Unfortunately, the ACC’s decision left behind another school that deserves better than a watered-down Big East: UConn. I rarely blame the leadership of schools for failing to get spots in different conferences since so much is out of the control of those individual institutions. However, the ACC invite should have been UConn’s to lose. UConn had the academic profile and better geographic fit for the ACC along with a larger immediate TV market (#30 Hartford vs. #48 Louisville) and entry points to two massive metro areas (New York City and Boston). Yet, UConn somehow got characterized as a weaker football addition and athletic department overall compared to Louisville in the past week despite going to a BCS bowl and winning a national championship in men’s basketball in the same season only two years ago. That’s an accomplishment that not even Texas and Ohio State have been able to achieve. I told several UConn fans late last week that their school was doing an extremely poor job in addressing the negative public perception issues and Louisville had taken ownership of being a “football move” for the ACC (never mind that Louisville is the highest basketball revenue generator in the country and it’s not even close). What really wasn’t that large of an athletic achievement gap between UConn and Louisville became perceived as a massive gulf in the eyes of the media and fans and, faced with the increasing scrutiny of whether the ACC ought to maintain its power conference status in football, this might have been the one time that the university presidents were won over by public sentiment in an expansion decision. This is an instance where the UConn leadership can’t take an “it is what it is” look at what has occurred. My impression is that they believed (as I admittedly did) that the ACC was going to vote in UConn over Louisville and Cincinnati on academics just like it did in all of its other raids of the Big East previously. They didn’t bank on the ACC’s mindset changing, failed to address what the ACC was concerned the most about in the college conference landscape and, as a result, got burned. It’s a shame since Connecticut ought to be in a better home than the new Big East, but they whiffed on their best (and possibly only) opportunity to move on up.

I know a lot of expansionistas out there are just waiting for the next defection from the ACC to cause a chaotic exodus beyond Maryland (with names like Florida State, Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and N.C. State moving around), but I’ll reiterate that I don’t see that happening. Conference realignment isn’t necessarily a zero sum game. The Big Ten will likely be able to gain more value out of Maryland than the ACC lost from that school defecting, just as the Big East is losing more value from Rutgers and Louisville leaving than the Big Ten and ACC will respectively gain from those schools. UNC and UVA, in particular, still see themselves as Southern schools culturally (hence a negative reaction toward the Big Ten at this time) along with top notch academic standards (which means that notwithstanding the ACC’s addition of Louisville, this is a large mark against the SEC), and as long as those two schools are there, the ACC is going to receive favored status from the college sports powers that be and that decreases the likelihood of others (such as Florida State) going anywhere else. As with all things in conference realignment, we always have to say “never say never”, but it will likely take years for UNC and UVA to get to the point where they’d seriously consider leaving the ACC.

In the meantime, get ready for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge to continue tomorrow night on ESPN, as Rutgers plays Louisville for the Big East football championship.

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

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Earlier this week, we had a flurry of concrete conference realignment news crammed into a 48-hour period, and then we went cold turkey (no pun intended) over the Thanksgiving holiday.  That has left Twitter rumors to fill the void and potentially affected fan bases on edge (culminating in Cincinnati fans chanting, “ACC!” when they saw the school’s president walk through the stands).  For what it’s worth, I take extra care to not pass along Tweets with every single realignment rumor that comes my way (and believe me, I pretty much get them all ).  (For those that aren’t following as of yet, my Twitter handle is @frankthetank111.) My personal filter is to make sure that the original Tweeter has some real reason or connection to know what he/she claims to know and/or apply my own view of plausibility.  As most of my regular readers know, I’m not a believer that a world of 4 16-team superconferences are inevitable (at least not in the short term) or that the ACC and/or Big East are one or two losses from complete destruction.  I certainly don’t see a rush by the Big Ten or SEC to get to 16 members in this round of conference realignment.  These are interesting Armageddon scenarios, but I tend to believe in a more logical downward pressure in the conference ranks, or as people say colloquially, “S**t rolls downhill.”  Maybe the ACC will lose some more schools, but that league will backfill from the Big East, who in turn will backfill from Conference USA and/or the Mountain West, and so on and so forth.

Without any concrete news, we’re basically left with trying to parse out what is legitimately plausible and whether the proverbial smoke around certain topics indicates either a real fire or just some dude in his basement toking.  From my vantage point, there are two themes coming together that have relevance:

(1) ACC Mindset Change and a Surge of Support for Louisville – In my last couple of posts, I stated that I would bet on Connecticut getting an invite to the ACC.  If the ACC follows its prior actions and academic and TV market criteria for expansion candidates, UConn would be near a 100% lock.  As a result, the mere fact that there is even a debate about Louisville going to the ACC at all (much less Louisville being ahead in the race, which a number of observers are claiming) indicates that there’s a major mindset change in the conference brewing (or at least some schools outside of the Duke/UNC old-line faction that are throwing their weight around, particularly Florida State).

Whether it’s right or wrong, the widespread perception is that Louisville would be the “football smart” move for the ACC and anything other than that could lead to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and/or others bolting to the warm arms of Texas and the Big 12.  As I’ve stated elsewhere, I don’t believe that Florida State would leave for the Big 12 all, but the ACC obviously can’t take any chances with its most important football member.

One interesting example of Twitter having fans on edge was a Tweet from Brian Miller, a Tallahassee Democrat reporter that said that the ACC wouldn’t even make a choice between Louisville and UConn, but rather add both of them along with Cincinnati* to create a 16-team conference.  By the time that Tweet spread like wildfire, Miller had removed it from his timeline.  Time will tell whether that was removed because it couldn’t be backed up or the information was too sensitive for the reporter’s source to put it out there for public consumption immediately.  The ACC may very well have the most incentive to grow to 16 first to create a perception of strength in numbers (even if it might not look like the most financially lucrative move).

(* Much like the athletic departments at Louisville and UConn, I have a ton of respect for what Cincinnati has been able to do on-the-field during its time in the Big East.  The Bearcats have arguably been the most consistent football program in the circa 2005 version of the conference, so it would be sweet justice to see them land softly.  We’ll see if that soft landing actually happens, though.)

Regardless, Louisville and the school’s surrogates are getting the message out that they are the best football move for the ACC (despite being a basketball school by any other measure).  The wants and needs of fans rarely matter to commissioners and university presidents in conference realignment, but if enough Florida State fans are out for blood (similar to how Texas A&M fans pounded their administration to push for a move to the SEC), this might be one instance where the fans win out if Louisville ends up getting the ACC invite.

(2) Prospect of Big East Catholic Schools Splitting Off – For many, many, many years, one of the easiest reflex responses that I’ve had in conference realignment discussions was that the Big East football schools and non-football Catholic members wouldn’t split into a separate leagues.  Up to this point, it made zero financial sense for either side – the value of the Catholic schools were enhanced by the presence of Louisville, UConn and Notre Dame (even without Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia) while the football members needed the traditional brand names and major media markets of the non-football schools.  While the two sides might not have liked each other, they were worth more together than they were worth apart.

Notre Dame has left the Big East for the ACC as a non-football member, though, and at least one of Louisville or UConn is heading out the door possibly as soon as next week.  Heck, even Cincinnati might be heading out with them.  Going forward, it may no longer be truism that the Catholic schools would make more TV money staying with the football members, in which case Georgetown and company are likely wondering whether it’s worth it to deal with constant football-related defections in a hybrid league when they could have a league all to themselves and be considered power players in the non-football marketplace that they inhabit.

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated indicated that there have been informal discussions of a nationwide basketball conference (“think Georgetown to Gonzaga”).  At the same time, the Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal has brought up the possibility of the Catholic schools voting to dissolve the Big East entirely and go off on their own, which would be possible when Louisville and/or UConn leave since they’ll have the voting majority in place to do it (as the new members such as UCF and Houston don’t have voting rights yet and any defecting members won’t have votes, either).

I could spend hours dreaming up national basketball conference scenarios (all of which would include Pepperdine because visiting that school is like visiting a beach resort), but my semi-educated guess is that in the event of a Big East split, the Catholic schools would team up with the top handful of Atlantic 10 members to form a new league.  For discussion purposes only, it would look something along the lines of the following:

Georgetown
Villanova
St. John’s
Seton Hall
Providence
DePaul
Marquette
Xavier
Dayton
St. Louis
Duquense
Butler

It’s not unfathomable that ESPN could step in and pay that type of league the same amount that the Big East Catholics would have received in a new Big East hybrid TV contract or more if only to keep top college basketball brand names such as Georgetown and Villanova under the Worldwide Leader’s control.  From my vantage point, I see a lot more Big Monday-worthy matchups coming out of that league compared to a new Big East without Louisville and/or UConn.

Once again, I have never been a Big East split believer or proponent, but the latest conference realignment moves could be upending the conventional wisdom.

In any event, there’s a full slate of spectacular college football games to be played on-the-field on Saturday.  Even as a conference realignment aficionado, here’s to hoping that we all can concentrate on the games themselves for a day.

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

(Image from Restricted Data)

The University of Maryland Board of Regents has accepted an invitation to join the Big Ten.  Rutgers might be soon to follow.  I’ll have some further thoughts later today, but for now, here is an open thread to discuss the latest conference realignment news.

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

(Image from University of Maryland)