Posts Tagged ‘Jim Delany’

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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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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)

In what is the biggest leak to come out of the smoke-filled BCS conference rooms yet, USA Today obtained a document provided to the conference commissioners that outlines the four college football postseason options that they are focusing upon.  (The complete document can be found here.)  So, here are what the powers that be are looking at right now:

1. Current BCS System with Adjustments – Basically keep everything as is now except for actually stacking the deck even more in favor of the power conferences by (a) eliminating automatic qualifier (AQ) status EXCEPT for contracts between conferences and bowls (AKA only the Big East would lose AQ status in reality) and (b) eliminating the cap on the number of participating schools from each conference.  Even as someone that fully believes Brett McMurphy’s statement from last week that although there are technically twelve voices in the room regarding a college football playoff, the only six that matter are the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, Big 12 and Notre Dame, this “we’re keeping the status quo and screwing the little guys even more” option seems to be thrown out there as posturing and won’t be taken seriously.

2. Original “Plus One” – It’s what I’ve called the “unseeded plus-one” up to this point, where all of the bowl games are played as normal and then select the national championship option thereafter.  I’ve written about unseeded plus-one and semi-seeded plus-one options previously.

3. Four Team “Event” (heaven forbid anyone calls this a “playoff”) – The “seeded plus-one” or four team tournament that most fans think of when discussing college football playoff scenarios.  There are some various sub-proposals here using neutral site, bowl and campus site options.  My “BCS Final Four” proposal from over a year ago, which is personally the college football postseason format that I’d use if I were the Grand Pooh-bah of Sports, essentially looks like option 3(B) on the BCS document.

4. Four Team Plus – The Rose Bowl would always take the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions, even if they are in the top 4.  Then, the 4 highest ranked teams outside of the Rose Bowl participants would play in 2 other games.  The national championship matchup would then be determined after those games are played.

Wait a second… that “Four Team Plus” option sounds really familiar.  Here we go:

The Halfway There Compromise: A BCS Plus-One Proposal that the Big Ten and Rose Bowl Could Live With

Every once in awhile, the blind squirrel that writes this blog finds the nut.  I wrote that Bon Jovi-fueled masterpiece back in December when the thought of a college football “event” still seemed like a distant dream.  I’ll re-emphasize here what I stated in that older post: the point of that proposal is a compromise, NOT a perfect solution.  As I’ve stated above, if it were up to me, I’d go with the BCS Final Four option.

(As a reminder, I proposed that the 2 highest ranked teams that won their bowl games would advance to the national championship as opposed to having a brand new ranking after the bowls were completed.  This would eliminate concerns that teams would leapfrog each other depending upon how strong or weak their bowl opponents were or that teams that lost their games could still advance to the title game.  Once again, it’s not perfect, but we wouldn’t have a perfect system even if we had a 4-team playoff, as we’ve seen with the debates on whether it should be limited to conference champs or not.)

Most of the college football commentators out there seem to be positioning the Halfway There Compromise option as strictly out there to placate the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Rose Bowl.  However, if that’s truly the case, why did Big Ten athletic directors and Jim Delany openly talk about a seeded 4-team playoff using campus sites and then a neutral site championship game open for bidding, which is the antithesis of protecting the Rose Bowl and would cause the most change to the status quo (at least as far as 4-team formats go) out of any proposal?  I think a lot of college football fans are quick to point fingers at Jim Delany and the Big Ten for “selfishly” protecting the Rose Bowl, yet they need to know that their own conferences have some direct incentives to see this happen, too.

Take a step back and think about why preserving the traditional Rose Bowl in the Halfway There Compromise can help everyone else.  (Hint: 6 is more than 4.)

Guess what happens when you take the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions out of the semifinal/quasi-semifinal pool?  The Halfway There Compromise effectively opens up 2 more spots in games with national championship implications for a total of 6 without having to add another round to the postseason.  Using a trusty abacus, you can calculate that it’s a whole lot easier to accommodate 5 power conferences when there’s 6 spots available in the Halfway There Compromise than when there’s only 4 spots available in a 4-team “event”.  Even beyond the power conferences, it’s also a whole lot easier for the non-power conferences to get a spot when you take the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs out of the equation.  As a result, fans may see this proposal as a way to placate the Big Ten/Pac-12/Rose Bowl trifecta, but it’s also a way to open up more access to the top tier games for both all of the power conferences and the non-power conferences below them compared to a strict 4-team “event” while keeping the postseason length to only two rounds.

Think about it: don’t you think the ACC would rather be in a system where they aren’t competing with the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs for a “quasi-semifinal” spot in the Halfway There Compromise compared to 4-team semifinals that would include those Big Ten and Pac-12 champs?  How about Notre Dame?  The Big East?  Even the Mountain West, Conference USA and all of the other current non-AQ conferences?  Granted, I don’t see the SEC and Big 12 being that enthusiastic about this plan, but who knows?  Eliminating downside risk with guaranteed money every year means a whole lot more than windfalls in great seasons where conferences shoot the moon.  Contrary to popular belief, the SEC isn’t guaranteed a spot in the national championship race and they don’t want to be left out in terms of access or money for a year if their champ ends up being ranked #5 or lower at some point.  (It has happened before and it will happen again.)

Now, plenty of people way more connected than me (such as Andy Staples of SI.com) are steadfast in their belief that it’s going to be a 4-team “event” in the manner that, well, the Big Ten ADs seemed to favor with campus stadiums as semifinal sites.  I agree that’s the most likely scenario.  However, there’s much more to the Halfway There Compromise than the knee-jerk reaction that this is all about the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Rose Bowl getting their way.  It may end up being just as beneficial to everyone else simply because there would be 2 more spots at the table without having to create an even larger “event”.

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

(Image from Gridiron Grit)

As we adjust to a world where Eli Manning has twice as many Super Bowl rings and MVP trophies as his brother Peyton, conference expansion and realignment talk has picked up again along with a major update from the Big Ten on the college football playoff front.  (Note: I love that Peyton Manning is taking a public stance that he supposedly would be open to an incentive-based contract.  You know that his agent is just baiting Daniel Snyder to offer up a $35 million guaranteed signing bonus behind the scenes.  I have a hunch that the NFL’s 2012 season opener is going to be a Manning Bowl between the Giants and Redskins.)  Let’s take a look at these developments in order:

1. Big 12 Expansion Rumors I: The Unrealistic ACC Raid Scenario – The hot rumor going around conference realignment circles right now is that the Big 12 is supposedly targeting Florida State and Clemson from the ACC, with the source being “The Dude” from West Virginia blog Eerinsider*.  Is this really possible?  I guess there’s a smidgen of a chance of this occurring when taking into account the possible TV rights at stake in a new Big 12 deal.  The fact that Clemson has just formed an Athletic Advisory Committee that is going to review a whole range of issues has added some fuel to the fire.  It certainly wouldn’t surprise me at all that the Big 12 has attempted to lure FSU and Clemson over the past few months.

[* If your life depended upon it, which of the following cartoonish caricatures would you trust the most with expansion news?

(a) The Dude
(b) Frank the Tank
(c) The Wolf
(d) Teen Wolf
(e) Craig James

For me, it’s The Wolf all the way.]

However, I’ll repeat what I’ve stated many times before on this blog: the ACC is much much much stronger than football-focused fans give them credit for.  Believe me – it pains me to say that as someone that would love nothing more than to see Duke get sent to the Southern Conference.  The problem with all of the rumors that we’ve seen over the years about the ACC being vulnerable is that they fall into the trap of thinking like a fan or even an athletic director or coach (who might actually care about losing BCS bowls all of the time) instead of a university president (where the ACC slaps the SEC and Big 12 around in terms of academic prestige even worse than how the SEC and Big 12 beat up on the ACC on the football field).  As much as people are obsessed with football TV dollars, the difference between what the ACC receives compared to the average Big Ten or SEC school really isn’t that massive of a gap, especially in relation to the overall institutional revenue that schools like North Carolina, Duke and Virginia bring in.  The ACC schools are firmly in the “haves” category.  If you don’t believe me, take from Oklahoma and Big 12 partisan Barry Tramel from The Oklahoman, who had the following response to a question about the rumor at the 11:00 mark in this online chat:

No. I haven’t heard it. And I’m sure the Big 12 has talked to a lot of people. I’m sure the Big 12 called Clemson and said, “Hey, we’ve got a great idea. How about you, Florida State and” “No thanks.” “But wait,” the Big 12 responded, “you didn’t let us finish. We’re talking about you, and” “Not interested.” The ACC is solid. Academically and financially and athletically. Let me promise you, while fans get all worked about how Orange Bowls in a row the ACC has lost, the presidents do not.

Let’s put it another way: once you get past Texas and Oklahoma, is there any other current Big 12 school that is more valuable than Virginia Tech,Virginia, Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina, Miami, Maryland, Georgia Tech or N.C. State?  Heck, is there any other non-UT/OU Big 12 school that would be picked by the Big Ten or SEC (who have more poaching power than anyone) over any ACC school besides maybe Wake Forest?  Kansas is probably the only other Big 12 school in that discussion as a marquee basketball program with solid academics, but even the Jayhawks are one-upped in hoops TV value and ivory tower appeal by UNC and those rat bastards at Duke.  The ACC is significantly deeper than the Big 12 when it comes to the academic, name brand and market values of the institutions from top-to-bottom.  Football fans are focused on the lack of BCS bowl wins by the ACC, while university presidents are focused on the great markets and high academic standards of the conference.  It’s the latter group that makes conference realignment decisions.  So, while the ACC continues to receive potshots from the fan-based blog and message board crowd, I’ll bet heavily that they’re coming out of this unscathed on the heels of their newly renegotiated ESPN deal.

2. Big 12 Expansion Rumors II: The More Realistic Louisville/BYU (or TBD) Scenario – I don’t claim Dude-like sources, but for what it’s worth, I’ve heard from two separate places that validate what The Chronicle of Higher Education reported a couple of weeks ago: the Big 12 wants Louisville as school number 11 with BYU as the preferred choice for school number 12.  Louisville is the easy part of the equation – both parties want each other and if the addition of the Cardinals alone wouldn’t result in an odd number of schools, they would have been in the Big 12 a long time ago.  The issue, of course, is that BYU has been far from easy to work with for any conference.  We actually have to twist the mantra here of “Think like a university president and not like fan” and apply the standard of “Think like a church leader and not like a university president” for the purposes of BYU.  From standpoint of the vast majority of universities, it would have made perfect sense for BYU to have joined either the Big 12 or Big East months ago.  However, the decisions at BYU are being ultimately driven by LDS leadership and it appears that they are enamored of their independent ESPN exposure along with the opportunity to build up a greater audience for BYUtv.  Essentially, they’ve caught Notre Dame-itis.

The problem for the Big 12 is that there isn’t any realistic alternative for school number 12 besides BYU (assuming that, like me, you don’t buy the rumor that the Big 12 will raid the ACC).  Floaters about the Big 12 adding other Big East schools, such as Rutgers or Cincinnati, appear to be red herrings and not serious.  (Note that I personally thought that the Big 12 could try a Northeastern expansion with Rutgers and UConn to integrate West Virginia further.  This should be used as a “The More You Know” public service announcement warning of the evils of drinking while blogging.)  So, the Big 12 seems like they would be willing to pull the trigger on adding Louisville at any moment, but the open question is whether that the league would be fine with adding them as #11 without knowing that there’s a satisfactory #12.  That’s where the two people that I’ve talked to diverge: one says yes while the other says no.  My inclination is that the answer is “no”.  The Big Ten was willing to live with 11 schools for almost two decades, but that’s because (1) school #11 was Penn State that was a clear national football power with a huge market (arguably the entire East Coast) and massive fan base and (2) the league legitimately believed that it would add Notre Dame as school #12 in relatively short order.  As a result, the Big Ten was willing to wait for another football power to shake loose from the realignment tree (which ended up being Nebraska) instead of going immediately up to 12.

In contrast, there’s little reason for the Big 12 to go up to 11 without going all the way to 12.  Louisville is a fairly strong revenue generator (especially on the basketball side), but not at a Penn State/Notre Dame-level where it’s enough to justify passing up on conference championship game revenue with a 12th school.  Now, I could see Louisville being added alone as school #11 if the Big 12 gets to a point where it reasonably believes that BYU (or some other school deemed revenue accretive enough) will join as school #12 within a short period of time (no more than one season).  As I noted in my last post, the opening of the negotiations between ABC/ESPN and the Big 12 regarding an extension of their current contract will be a key date.  Once that starts, the chances of the Big 12 expanding in the near-term drop precipitously since the league needs to have (if it knows what it’s doing) a 12-team setup for a conference championship game to offer by that time if that’s truly their end goal.  That means that further Big 12 expansion, if it’s going to occur, will need to happen fairly quickly (e.g. prior to this summer).

3.  Big East Walking in Memphis: More Than a Rumor – In more concrete news, Brett McMurphy of CBSSports.com has reported that the Big East is in the late stages of negotiations with Memphis to add the school for the 2013 season, with other reports noting that an announcement will be made tomorrow (Wednesday).  This follows up an initial Kevin McNamara Tweet from last week stating the same.  The irony is that the probable elimination of the concept of automatic-qualifier status from the BCS system was the best thing that could have happened to Memphis even though attaining such AQ status was such an important goal for the school for a long time.  Memphis, on paper, is an excellent fit for the Big East as an institution: large urban school with a good-sized market and a great basketball program.  The problem was that adding Memphis, which has been football-inept for several years now, would have destroyed the Big East’s AQ criteria figures.  Without those figures to worry about anymore, the Big East could add Memphis in good conscience, which it otherwise liked overall.

Now, this brings up the question as to whether the Big East believes that it will have to backfill for a potential departure of Louisville to the Big 12 (as described above), so it moved on Memphis before that occurred.  I’m a little surprised that the Big East hasn’t ended up adding another western football-only school to fill out that far flung division (while keeping the all-sports membership at 16), although that could very well be the next move on the table, especially if there are further defections.  For now, though, it looks like Memphis is finally going to get its long-time wish of a Big East invite.

4.  B1G Playoff Plan – Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune had a story that was extremely significant on the ongoing discussion of changes to the postseason: several Big Ten athletic directors have proactively and openly set forth a plan for a seeded 4-team playoff on campus sites with the higher seeds as hosts.  The national championship game would then be bid out separately to neutral sites, similar to the Super Bowl.  Just as Jim Delany stating that he was open to at least a discussion about a plus-one system last month was a large indicator of a future paradigm shift, the fact that a number of Big Ten ADs are willing to go on-record with supporting a seeded playoff is pretty massive.  Not so long ago (AKA December 2011), a Big Ten AD caught supporting any type of playoff would have been immediately summoned to the Big Ten headquarters in Park Ridge and then his lifeless body would be found floating down the Des Plaines River the next day.

To be sure, the caveat to all of this is that, as with conference realignment, any decision regarding the college football postseason will be made by the university presidents as opposed to the commissioners and athletic directors.  However, when the Big Ten as an entity has, for as long as anyone can remember, been so staunchly and uniformly against any hint of a playoff and placed a muzzle on any dissenters, there’s more than just idle chatter here when you see the commissioner and ADs suddenly start openly talk about it.

As Greenstein noted in a discussion on WSCR-AM today, the Big Ten is now effectively saying, “We have now presented a plan for a 4-team playoff.  It’s not our fault if one isn’t passed.”  Thus, it appears that a large impetus for the Big Ten setting forth this proposal is to put some of the onus on the other conferences.  For quite awhile, whether rightly or wrongly, the other conferences could largely deflect criticism over the BCS system onto Jim Delany and the Big Ten (and to a lesser extent, the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl) even if their own university presidents weren’t necessarily on board.  Indeed, the Big 12 and Big East were the ones that ultimately killed a 4-team plus-one proposal from the SEC and ACC in 2008.

One tweak that I’d like to see to this plan (and previously suggested by Andy Staples and Slant commenter Eric, among others) is to have the losers of the semifinal games be placed back into the BCS bowl selection pool.  So, if the Big Ten champ or Pac-12 champ loses in a semifinal game, they would still end up going to the Rose Bowl.  Even though there’s a real concern that the fan base of a semifinal game loser might not be as willing to travel, I don’t see it as being much different than conference championship game losers being selected for top bowls (which happens quite frequently).  Plus, the bowls themselves would still ultimately rather have access to more higher-ranked teams instead of diluting the BCS pool even further.  This seems like a reasonable compromise to preserve the value of the top bowls such as the Rose Bowl while still providing for a seeded 4-team playoff.

To be honest, I never thought that the Big Ten would get behind a seeded plus-one/4-team playoff scenario, much less lead a proposal to do just that.  It’s good to be surprised every once in awhile.

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

(Image from Food Network)

Out of all of the quotes that came out of the Bowl Championship Series meetings held yesterday, none drew more attention than those from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. A month ago, Delany seemed to be taking a defiant stand against any type of expansion of the college football postseason, including a plus-one. At the BCS meetings, though, he indicated a much more open mind toward discussing changes to the current system:

“It was far more open,” the Big Ten’s commissioner, Jim Delany, said. “Four years ago there were five guys who didn’t want to have the discussion. Everyone here fully participated in it.”

Delany had been one of the commissioners who did not even want to discuss a playoff then, but he described himself as “interested, curious and fully participating” Tuesday. He said he would meet in January with the presidents and athletic directors of the universities in his conference to discuss the possibilities for college football’s postseason.

“The environment has changed in the sense that we had five people who didn’t want to talk about it, of the seven founders,” Delany said. “And I think the seven founders were the conferences plus Notre Dame, and four years ago five of us didn’t want to have the conversation. Now people want to have the conversation. I don’t know where our institutions will be on any of this, but I think that in good faith we have to engage and be curious and be open and see where we go.”

This is massive news. Even though this is at only a discussion stage and it’s been indicated that no two conferences are “in the same place” regarding what they want in a new system, the fact that Delany did not immediately shoot down the concept of a plus-one (unlike what had occurred when a seeded plus-one was proposed by the SEC and ACC in 2008) is a significant step toward change. That likely means that Delany received some direction from the Big Ten presidents (who, just like in conference realignment, are the only people that matter as opposed to athletic directors and coaches) to at least listen to what the market is offering as opposed to taking an ironclad stand. Considering that the Big Ten is the largest single power player that needs to be moved on the plus-one format just as a general concept (much less the details), there’s a much greater chance that the BCS system (to the extent that there is even the term “BCS” anymore) will look significantly different when it’s presented to ESPN later this year for a possible TV contract extension that will start in the 2013 season.

As a reminder, there are a couple of things to remember as you read articles about possible changes to the BCS system over the coming months:

  • The term “plus-one” is NOT interchangeable with “4-team playoff” – Some mainstream media types (such as Pete Thamel of the New York Times) have been better at making this clear than others. Most pundits seem to automatically assume that a “plus-one” is the same thing as a 4-team playoff, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. As I’ve described before, a 4-team playoff is only one variant of a plus-one system. There is also an unseeded plus-one option along with different strains in between that could be called “semi-seeded”. The old adage that the “devil is in the details” couldn’t ring any truer than in this situation. There are going to a lot of different plus-one scenarios discussed and I’d wager that what we ultimately end up with won’t be the simple 4-team playoff that many are assuming is end game.
  • Removal of AQ status is NOT interchangeable with the removal of conference contractual tie-ins – The potential removal of the concept of automatic qualifying status is another issue that much of the mainstream media makes a large deal about but often doesn’t explain clearly. As I’ve explained previously, this is largely a matter of semantics for every current AQ conference except for the Big East. The concept of AQ status might go away, but rest assured that the Rose Bowl will still have contractual tie-ins with the Big Ten and Pac-12 no matter what happens and that will likely be the case with the Sugar Bowl and SEC, Orange Bowl and ACC, and Fiesta Bowl and Big 12. The Cotton Bowl might swoop in to get the top Big 12 tie-in, but the overarching point is that those five power conferences are going to continue to have de facto AQ status through their contractual tie-ins even if the actual term “AQ status” goes away. No one should be fooled into thinking that the BCS bowls are just going to take the top 8 or 10 teams in the BCS rankings if AQ status is removed. The entire reason why the Big Ten and SEC actually agree on the removal of AQ status is that the power conferences will actually end up with more top bowl bids based on brand names as opposed to strict merit.

So, what exactly are the key issues to overcome in order to actually make changes to the BCS system? Here are some further items to think about:

1. The Seven Founders – It’s telling that in Jim Delany’s quotes about the openness to discussing a plus-one, he specifically referenced the “Seven Founders” of the BCS system: the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12, ACC, Big East and that massive coast-to-coast conference known as the University of Notre Dame. What it means is that any opposition to a particular proposal by the Big Ten (and potentially the Pac-12 and Notre Dame) shouldn’t be framed as being against the wishes of the 9 other FBS conferences. Instead, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Notre Dame represent 3 of the Seven Founders, which means that the SEC and ACC can’t just ram their old seeded plus-one proposal through. It also shows that the opinions of the non-AQ conferences literally don’t matter here. They might technically have a vote and can provide some input, but nothing is going to be changed unless it makes the Seven Founders happy.

2. Big East as a Swing Vote? – The fact that the Big East, at least for now, is still considered to be one of the Seven Founders (despite the fact that the only current Big East football member that was part of the league when the BCS system began in 1998 is Rutgers) could become a key point. It seems clear that the SEC and ACC support a seeded plus-one, with the Big 12 probably jumping aboard. On the other side, the Big Ten, Pac-12* and Notre Dame appear to be fairly aligned. With a potential 3-3 deadlock, where the Big East ends up could become the deciding factor to the system that ultimately gets put into place. From a pure Big East standpoint, this is a great thing since it can leverage that swing vote position (the Justice Kennedy of the BCS) to possibly preserve access to the top bowls that it might not otherwise receive if the all of the bowl selections went to an open market. For example, the new system might require each BCS bowl to have a contractual tie-in with one of the Seven Founders, which means that if a fifth BCS bowl is added (such as the Cotton Bowl), one of them will need to have a tie-in with the Big East. That Big East tie-in could be made much more palatable if it includes access to Notre Dame (i.e. a bowl can select the higher ranked of either Notre Dame or the Big East champ in any given year). Speaking of which, Notre Dame certainly has a self-interest in preserving the Big East, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Big East ends up in a voting bloc with the Irish, Big Ten and Pac-12 since the Domers are going to be more willing to offer the fledgling league protection than, say the ACC and Big 12 that just raided them. To be sure, the Big East isn’t anywhere near out of the woods yet (as the prospect of the Big 12 raiding it again for Louisville and Rutgers is the one conference realignment move that I see is plausible over the next year), but at least it’s not completely all doom and gloom.

(* Many in the media believe that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is willing to break with tradition with his aggressive nature, but he hasn’t really said anything different compared to Jim Delany up to this point regarding the plus-one. If anything, preserving the value of the Rose Bowl is even more important to the Pac-12 than the Big Ten. All of the major bowls across the country would love to have contractual tie-ins with the Big Ten, as evidenced by the fact that the conference has received more at-large BCS bowl bids than any other conference, including the vaunted SEC. For the Pac-12, though, the specific Rose Bowl tie-in is really the only leg up that it has over the ACC in its overall bowl lineup. The Big Ten can draw bowl interest from literally every region of the country in a manner that the Pac-12 will never be able to do.)

3. The Divergent Interests of University Presidents, Bowls and ESPN – Many college football playoff proposals often start with, “This is so simple. WHY CAN’T THEY DO THIS?” The issue, of course, is that it’s not simple at all with all of the entrenched interests involve that are often at odds with each other.

For example, ESPN has said that it’s on board with having the title game closer to New Year’s Day. That certainly makes sense in order to counter “bowl fatigue” being experience by TV viewers, but it also means that would make it virtually impossible to have the bowls host semifinals in a seeded plus-one or to create a #1 vs. #2 matchup after the bowls are played in an unseeded plus-one. Having schools host games on their home fields in December could alleviate that, but that also means shutting the bowls out of that first round process and whether you like it or not, that’s NOT happening. Even Dan Wetzel, who has made a career out of demonizing the bowl system with his book “Death to the BCS”, acknowledges that a plus-one system will need to incorporate the bowls in some manner because of their power. People can keep wishing that weren’t the case, but it is what it is.

The notion that the top bowls could be played in mid-December or even around Christmas is also something that won’t work practically. As anyone in the travel industry will tell you, the 2 weeks in December leading up to Christmas is the slowest travel period of the year, which is logical since few people want to take days off right before the holidays. That’s why the top bowls avoid dates in prior to and bracketing Christmas like the plague. The lower level bowls only agree to those earlier dates because that’s the only way that they can receive TV coverage.

At the same time, TV executives have access to larger potential audiences after January 1st (which is why TV networks air mostly reruns throughout the entire month of December) and on weeknights, while the bowls are best served by dates between Christmas and New Years Day when more people have time off. Neither the TV networks nor the bowls want to compete with NFL playoff games that are on the weekends at the beginning of the year, either, so those midweek January games (even if the TV networks and bowls are sincere in wanting to get rid of them) are tough to move.

University presidents will throw out some arguments such as having too long of a season or that they want to prevent football from becoming a two-semester sport. Even if they are sincere about that (and it’s hard for me to take them seriously when the other revenue sport of basketball has practices that start in October and the NCAA Tournament ends in April), it directly conflicts with their own desire to work with the bowls and TV networks that effectively push the most desirable games into January.

Lest we forget, there are also fans! (Who the heck thinks about them?) It’s asking a lot of even hardcore football fans to travel to one bowl game, particularly in this economy. Asking them to travel to two neutral site games is stretching it very thin, while having them travel to even more neutral site games in an 8-team playoff scenario (which won’t be happening in practicality, but it will still get proposed) is virtually impossible. This could be solved by having earlier games played at teams’ home fields, yet we run into the problem that the bowls must be included.

When push comes to shove, I believe a plus-one national championship game will be played in mid-January, with possibly Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a regular date for the game since that’s a holiday weekend for a fair number of people on a Monday that falls about 2 weeks after the bowls are completed. The timing generally works as a week turnaround from the last bowl game to the national championship game is practically too short for the players and fans, so as much as people want to compress the length of the bowl season, it needs to be closer to a two-week gap. The concept of “bowl fatigue” is likely more of a function that none of the bowl games besides the national championship game and maybe the Rose Bowl have much meaning, which would change if a plus-one is instituted. (I’ve never heard of anyone getting “basketball fatigue” during the course of the 3-week NCAA Tournament. If people believe that the games matter, they will happily watch.)

Also, ticket sales to the national championship game are much less sensitive to dates and the ability for fans to travel compared to the bowls if only because there are so many more tickets allocated to corporate partners for that game (similar to the Super Bowl). No matter what date the national championship game is held, it’s going to sell out easily. In contrast, moving a bowl game from near New Year’s Day to prior to Christmas can be a killer from a ticket sale perspective. That’s a further argument that the plus-one championship game will end up later in January as opposed to close to New Year’s Day.

Finally, university presidents are in much less of a position to turn down revenue in a time of shrinking endowments and state budget cuts to public colleges compared to the last time a plus-one system was proposed in 2008. Some estimates out there show that the BCS TV contract could double from its current $125 million per year level to around $250 million per year if there’s a plus-one game. Note that this figure doesn’t even include the separate Rose Bowl TV contract. So, are university presidents going to be taking a principled stand against a further extension of the college football season when all that is happening is the addition of one game featuring two teams (out of 120 FBS schools) being played in mid-January and will add about $1 million to $2 million per year to each of their schools’ coffers without any effort whatsoever? The extra revenue from a plus-one game is so large with such little practical change to the current system (literally the addition of a single game) that it’s low hanging fruit which the university presidents likely can’t resist.

To be clear, the possible (if not probable) changes to the BCS system are NOT arising from the all-SEC national championship game this year. This is about the powers that be witnessing postseason bowl ticket sales and TV ratings trending down in the long-term, which translates into lost revenue. That wasn’t the case in 2008 when there were recent national championship games featuring all-“king” matchups, such as Texas-USC in 2005 and Ohio State-Florida in 2006, that saw boffo ratings numbers. (Meanwhile, regular season college football ticket sales and TV ratings are as strong as ever.) A plus-one game is a relatively non-disruptive way on paper to alleviate a lot of those concerns about the state of the college football postseason with pretty much an instant jolt in revenue, which is why it’s now getting a whole lot of traction today. The details of what that plus-one system will actually look like, though, will take much of this year to resolve.

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

(Image from Birmingham News)

As we approach this year’s national championship game along with record low TV ratings for the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, the conversation around college football regarding massive changes to the current BCS system continues to heat up.  SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who had presented a top 4 seeded plus-one proposal in 2008, has explicitly stated that he “does not think those changes are going to be tweaks.” Plugged-in Andy Staples from Sports Illustrated predicts that the conferences will agree upon a plus-one system and the elimination of automatic qualifying status for conferences this year.  We have recently discussed various plus-one proposals here and here, while Inside the Shoe attempts to project what bowl tie-ins would look like if and when AQ status is eliminated.  Some takeaways and predictions:

1. The Plus-One is Seriously Coming – Everything that I’ve seen and heard is that some type of plus-one system to determine the national champion is coming.  However, as I’ve stated previously, it can’t be assumed that it will come in the form of a top 4 playoff.  An unseeded plus-one where the BCS rankings are recalculated after the bowls to determine the national title game matchup or some type of semi-seeded format (such as the Halfway There Compromise) is certainly possible.  Maybe we’ll still end up with the top 4 playoff that is what most people think of when talking about a plus-one (in which case, I recommend the BCS Final Four format), but my feeling is that an unseeded format is what will be put into place as a compromise for the Big Ten and Rose Bowl.  Could the SEC and other conferences technically outvote the Big Ten on this issue?  Absolutely.  Will they choose to do so?  I have my reservations on that front.  We’re not talking about an objection from the WAC or MAC here that can be easily ignored.  The people in charge really want all of the current AQ conferences unanimously on board.  In my heart of hearts, I think Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is actually fine with a plus-one privately, but selling it to the Big Ten presidents is not an easy task, which is why he has the public position of opposing it entirely.  Getting a true Big Ten champ vs. Pac-12 champ Rose Bowl back (plus lots of TV money for that plus-one championship game) could be the hook to obtaining presidential consent.

2. Eliminating AQ Status is About Three BCS Bowl Bids for Each of the SEC and Big Ten – Whatever differences Slive and Delany might have regarding a plus-one, they are completely on the same page about eliminating AQ status.  Of course, it’s completely self-serving, as the SEC and Big Ten are the conferences seeking three BCS bowl bids each (or even guaranteed in a system where all of those bowls will have contractual tie-ins).  If you look at the bowl payouts in the marketplace, you already see that SEC #3 and Big Ten #3 carry more value than the #2 teams from the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 (and even those are skewed since those bowls are really selecting SEC #4 and Big Ten #4 as those two leagues are already all but assured of receiving two BCS bowl bids annually in the current system).  You can also see it in the selections of the BCS bowls themselves, as they continuously pick SEC and Big Ten schools for at-large bids even if there are higher ranked teams available from other power conferences.  So, this isn’t just about the SEC and Big Ten guaranteeing themselves 2 BCS bowl bids since they already have that in today’s format.  Slive and Delany are looking for changes because they know that their leagues can get even more in either a market-oriented bowl system or removing the 2 BCS bowl bids per conference limit in a modified at-large selection process.

This is what the bowls want, too.  The Sugar Bowl and TV executives aren’t looking at the 12,000 empty seats and low ratings for the Michigan-Virginia Tech matchup and thinking, “Boy, we should have really invited Boise State instead.”  To the contrary, they’re thinking, “We need to change the system so that we could have taken #6 Arkansas as a third SEC team.  Arkansas vs. Michigan would have been gangbusters!”

3. More Bowl Tie-ins or Floaters… or a Horse of a Different Color? – It’s still an open question as to how those top bowls fill in what are currently at-large BCS spots.  The Inside the Shoe post linked above suggests different contractual tie-ins for those spots.  Some commenters here have suggested the concept of “floater” spots (i.e. a bowl can take a team from a pool of several leagues), although that begs the question of how much different that would be from the current at-large selection system.  From the bowl perspective, there seems to be a tension between avoiding the “undesirable” non-AQ and Big East teams that they have been forced to take under the current BCS system (which would suggest more contractual tie-ins with leagues like the SEC and Big Ten) and the desire to have some flexibility to take the best available teams (i.e. the second selection from the Big 12 isn’t that attractive if it’s Kansas State, but a bowl definitely wants a second selection from the Big 12 if it can take Texas or Oklahoma).

There also has to be an eye toward avoiding antitrust issues.  I have long believed that an antitrust case against the current BCS system would ultimately be a loser partially because it allows for non-AQ conference access that would never have come to fruition otherwise.  Therefore, even if there was collusion between the BCS bowls and AQ conferences, the non-AQ conferences wouldn’t be able to show any damages since eliminating the BCS system would actually take away revenue and access from them.  Think of it as a college football version of the famous USFL antitrust lawsuit against the NFL: the USFL technically won the lawsuit by showing that the NFL was an illegal monopoly, but was only awarded $1 in damages (which is trebled for a Sherman Act violation, so it actually received $3).  Eliminating the BCS system overall but then having the top bowls fill in at-large sports with “floater” teams that practically shut off access to non-AQ schools, though, is much more problematic from an antitrust perspective.  The concept of floaters would almost certainly require some level of collusion between the bowls which, in this case, would truly be to the detriment of those non-AQ schools.

One way to circumvent antitrust issues while providing the BCS bowls with more at-large selection flexibility is to expand the merit-based quotient slightly.  For instance, there could be 5 BCS bowls (assuming that the Cotton Bowl is added as the fifth game) for a total of 10 bids just as today.  5 of those bids would go to the 5 power conferences with contractual tie-ins.  There could then be a provision that all schools in the top 5 of the BCS rankings would be guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl (a slight uptick from the top 4 protection now).  Maybe there would be 5 bids granted to current non-AQ conferences in one year and maybe there would be zero bids in the next year, but in either case, that type of merit-based allowance is likely what would allow that system to pass antitrust muster.  This ensures that if there’s an “undesirable” team that must be included, it’s at least going to be a top 5 school that would have a legit shot at the national title in an unseeded plus-one system and then the bowls can pick whoever else that they want otherwise.  A seeded plus-one, which would inherently grant auto-bids to the top 4 ranked schools, would also make things much easier for the BCS from a legal standpoint.

My gut feeling is that the modification to the current BCS system is ultimately more likely than a complete break-off between the national championship game and the bowls.  The top bowls themselves still want a BCS designation (as it distinguishes them from everyone else) and would likely value more flexibility in filling what are currently their at-large spots than having straight conference tie-ins.

4. Are Non-AQ Conferences Exchanging Bowl Access for More National Championship Game Revenue? – One interesting aspect of all of these proposed changes is that the non-AQ conferences seem to be willing to give up access to top bowl games that they would have never received in the pre-BCS days.  Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson is on the record that he would rather see AQ status eliminated across the board over even the MWC receiving AQ status for the next two seasons.  The main argument is that the AQ and non-AQ labels have artificially created a caste system between the two designations.  Now, that seems like a pretty weak position for giving up access to top tier bowl games.  Regardless of whether there are AQ or non-AQ statuses, everyone is going to recognize that there’s a clear delineation between the power conferences and the non-power conferences.  (We’ll get to where the Big East fits on that spectrum in a moment.)  As much as the power conferences control the college football postseason, it would still be unusual for the non-AQ leagues to give up access after fighting for it for so long unless they’re getting something in return.  What gives?

One plausible way that the non-AQs can get something out of a return to a more traditional bowl system is that they would give up major bowl access and revenue to the power conferences in exchange for equal shares of the revenue that is generated by the plus-one national championship game.  This actually makes some sense.  The bowls have always been designed to be extensions of their local tourism bureaus where selections are merit-influenced (as better teams generally have fans that are more likely to be motivated to travel and watch games) but not completely merit-based.  The top games want a combination of strong traveling fan bases, brand names and TV drawing power, which is why they gravitate to the power conferences.  Thus, if we define “fairness” as an adherence to free market principles (as opposed to redistribution of income or open access), it’s completely fair that the bowls pay more to the top leagues with the most popular teams.  In contrast, the national championship game explicitly does not have any conference tie-ins (although SEC fans surely argue that they ought to have one).  The national title game is something that should equitably be shared by all conferences because, at least on paper (if not in practice), every team has a chance to make that game based on pure merit.  Thus, it’s inequitable that a #1 SEC team ought to get paid more than a #2 Mountain West team for making that game (which is actually what would happen in today’s system).

At least in my mind, it would be consistent to allow for the power conferences to receive all of the revenue for the top bowls (which have a heavy popularity component), but all conferences ought to share the national championship game revenue equally.  Presumably, all parties involved would see hefty increases in revenue as a result of this allocation system and it property reflects their interests, where the non-AQ conferences can’t honestly claim equal status with the power conferences in terms of bowl desirability because that simply isn’t true, but ought to be able to claim equal status in terms of access to the national championship game that should be based purely on merit.  (Any arguments that a non-AQ school getting to national championship game is almost impossible are noted, but that’s a practical consideration as opposed to a structural/contractual/financial issue.  The “system” should eliminate the latter because that’s within its control.  However, there’s only so much that can be done once it’s put into practice.  This even applies to more “open access” systems such as the NCAA Tournament or FCS playoffs, where power conferences and programs have still emerged.)

5. Big East: The One That Wants the Status Quo – By most accounts, 10 of the 11 FBS conferences want to eliminate AQ status.  The one holdout, not surprisingly, is the Big East.  As I’ve stated in previous posts, “eliminating AQ status” is really a matter of semantics for the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12 and ACC because they all would still retain their contractual tie-ins with the BCS bowls.  Whether or not there’s a delineation between AQ and non-AQ leagues, nothing will really change for the champions of those 5 power conferences.  In contrast, AQ status means everything to the Big East since it doesn’t have any contractual tie-ins with the top bowls and likely couldn’t get them on its own.  To have a chance at a tie-in with one of those top bowls, the Big East would probably have to make a deal with the devil and offer liberal access to Notre Dame, such as allowing a bowl to take the Irish if they are ranked higher than the Big East champion in a given year.  Even then, that might not be enough.  Considering that the Big East created a new coast-to-coast league including Boise State and San Diego State with an explicit eye toward ensuring that the league would meet any BCS AQ numerical criteria, all of that effort may have been in vain.  Of course, the new Big East will still be better off for TV purposes than if it had solely added more geographically-friendly (but less sexy) schools east of the Mississippi River, so it was an expansion that the league had to do in the wake of Syracuse and Pitt defecting to the ACC and West Virginia leaving for the Big 12.  It’s just that an automatic tie-in to a top bowl (and the revenue that comes with it) is no longer assured for the Big East.  In a college football world where there’s largely a clear line between the upper class elite and the lower class, the Big East is the one middle class conference.

Changes in college football have come in very small increments.  It’s easy to forget that there has only been national championship game for the past 13 years, with the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Coalition being precursors and a sole reliance on polls prior to them.  This might be the year where a giant step is made.

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

(Image from Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced a scheduling partnership on Wednesday encompassing football and basketball with plans to apply it to other sports.  Starting in 2017, each Big Ten school will play a Pac-12 counterpart annually in football.  In a shocking development, this pretty awesome setup was the brainchild of former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther, who butchered Illini football schedules for close to two decades.  (Why would a Big Ten team ever schedule a neutral site game in Detroit against Western Michigan 4 weeks after they visited Ann Arbor?!  Why?!)

All orange-and-blue-tinged befuddlement aside, the Big Ten and Pac-12 entering into a scheduling arrangement is a natural extension of the link that they have because of the Rose Bowl and a way to add some high profile games to their respective football and basketball schedules without further expansion.  Some thoughts:

1. TV Advantages – Having all teams participate in one inter-conference football game per year is a way to build a critical mass of quality games during September that can be guaranteed to the conferences’ TV partners while still giving each individual school enough flexibility to maintain rivalries (particularly Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, USC and Stanford with Notre Dame) and schedule the requisite MAC-rifice games.  Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany indicated that the Big Ten/Pac-12 games would likely be played during 2nd, 3rd and 4th weeks of the season.  That would provide 4 “challenge” games during each of those weeks where one could be placed into every time slot.  This can provide some real value to the respective TV packages of the Big Ten and Pac-12, as at the very least ABC/ESPN would avoid getting stuck with a Michigan/Ohio State vs. Random MAC School game in the 2:30 pm Central Time national window during the third week in September.  The Big Ten Network and the nascent Pac-12 Network would also likely get multiple inter-conference games per year for both football and basketball, which could help each network get penetration into the other network’s home region.

2. More Big Ten/Pac-12 Bowls? – The Rose Bowl is obviously of critical importance to both the Big Ten and Pac-12, but the two leagues don’t play any other bowl games against each other unless it’s by accident.  (I’m certainly spending my New Year’s Eve afternoon watching the Kraft Fight Hunger and Interim Coaches Bowl between Illinois and UCLA.  Who’s with me?)  The issue from the Big Ten perspective is that the West Coast bowls involving the Pac-12 (besides the Rose) have low payouts compared to the Florida-based bowls with SEC tie-ins (and even the Texas-based bowls with Big 12 tie-ins).  The Pac-12 Rose Bowl tie-in largely masks the fact that the conference otherwise has the weakest bowl lineup of the AQ leagues (outside of the Big East) as its even its most desirable members, such as USC, don’t have good traveling reputations.  Personally, I’d love for the Big Ten to mix in another bowl or two against the Pac-12, but I can’t see those New Year’s Day games against the SEC in Florida going away.  For bowl purposes, nothing is more attractive than a Big Ten vs. SEC matchup (and they pay accordingly).  As a result, any new bowls arrangements between the Big Ten and Pac-12 would likely need to be lower in the bowl selection order and require some significant payout offers out there.  If the new 49ers and downtown Los Angeles NFL stadiums actually get built, they would have the potential to host new bowls that could pay enough to entice the Big Ten.

3. Improvements for Non-revenue Sports – On the whole, the Big Ten is probably bringing more revenue and brand name power to the table in this partnership compared to the Pac-12.  However, the Pac-12 overall has extremely strong top-to-bottom athletic departments in all sports, which can potentially aid the Big Ten significantly.  For instance, the Big Ten is a massive underachiever in baseball considering the conference’s resources and facilities.  If each Big Ten school starts playing a couple of series every year against Pac-12 opponents (who make up an extremely strong baseball league), that can bring up the RPI numbers for all Big Ten teams, which could then result in more NCAA Baseball Tournament at-large bids and higher seeds.  I’ve long thought that improving baseball ought to be a top non-football/basketball priority for the Big Ten and this Pac-12 partnership could be a way to kick-start it.

There could also be some phenomenal non-conference women’s volleyball matches.  The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already solidified themselves as the top two volleyball conferences in the country year-in and year-out.  In this year’s NCAA Volleyball Tournament, 8 of the Sweet Sixteen and 3 of the Final Four were members of either the Big Ten or Pac-12.

4. Notre Dame Rivalries and ACC/Big Ten Challenge Staying Alive – The indications from Jim Delany point to this partnership not having any effect on the Big Ten’s other relationships, such as the traditional Notre Dame football rivalries and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for basketball.  It’s telling that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said that he was actually kept apprised of the discussions between the Big Ten and Pac-12 and his relationship with Delany is characterized as “close”.  While a lot of fans like to jump to conclusions that conferences will act in a manner to “force” Notre Dame to do something (whether it’s conference realignment in general or a scheduling arrangement), commissioners such as Delany and Pac-12 boss Larry Scott are much more pragmatic.  As long as Notre Dame is independent, it’s ultimately extremely beneficial for both of their leagues to maintain high profile rivalries with the Irish if only because it helps out their TV packages quite a bit.  Think about it: the Big Ten guarantees 1 or 2 Notre Dame games to its TV partners every September, while the Pac-12 always has an Irish game to offer in prime time on Thanksgiving weekend (and these include marquee matchups such as Michigan-Notre Dame and USC-Notre Dame that TV networks pay a heavy premium for).  Delany and Scott don’t want to mess with that at all, which is why every time that a move that appears on its face might apply pressure on Notre Dame (such as the Pac-12 instituting a general rule last year that non-conference games should only be played prior to conference play) is explicitly caveated where it doesn’t end up affecting the Domers (where in the Pac-12 non-conference scheduling case, an exception was made for pre-existing contracts).

5. 8 Conference Games for Big Ten and 9 for the Pac-12 – Not surprisingly, the plans for a 9-game conference schedule for the Big Ten got nixed as a result of the new partnership.  Having every school be able to play at least 7 home games per year has become sacrosanct to the Big Ten, which would’ve made it impossible to have a 9-game conference schedule plus a Pac-12 game plus allowing other existing rivalries (such as the Notre Dame matchups described above) to continue.  The Pac-12 schools generally don’t have the same steadfast need to play 7 home games per year since they aren’t able to sellout their stadiums with Eastern Podunk State Polytechnic U coming into town the way a lot of the Big Ten schools can.  On the West Coast, higher quality opponents are required to draw attendance, which is why even USC has long scheduled 2 major non-conference opponent every year (Notre Dame and a power conference team) despite with the 9-game Pac-12 conference schedule.  As a result, it doesn’t surprise me that Larry Scott is indicating that the Pac-12 will maintain the 9-game conference slate for the long-term.

All-in-all, the Big Ten and Pac-12 partnering together is innovative in its simplicity.  They are adding on higher quality games without taking away existing rivalries while creating better inventory for their TV partners.  Both conferences have similar views toward academic excellence and maintaining strong top-to-bottom athletic departments.  With the two leagues already linked in the general public’s mind due to the Rose Bowl tie-ins, the partnership announcement makes sense at the end of a year where conference realignment didn’t make sense at all to a lot of people (unless you’re one of the commenters on this blog).

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

(Image from Los Angeles Times)