Posts Tagged ‘Nebraska to the Big Ten’

There was quite a bit of conference realignment news over the last couple of weeks, so let’s assess the current landscape:

1.  Big Ten Making Out Like a Fox – To the surprise of no one except a handful that believes the Big Ten really wants a superconference, the conference announced that expansion has reached its “natural conclusion”.  Despite my many writings on the Big Ten expansion topic (and the reason why most of you found this blog), I’m very happy about this personally.  Call me old-fashioned, but I actually like it when schools in a conference, you know, actually get to play each other regularly instead of being in some type of massive 16/18/20-team scheduling arrangement.  One of the comments from regular Slant reader allthatyoucantleavebehind from several months ago always stuck with me: It’s a whole lot of fun to talk about superconferences and expanding to different markets, but will you actually have fun watching your team play all of these schools?  Well, Nebraska is one of those schools that everyone has fun playing with a tradition-rich football program and arguably the best fan base in college sports.  Plus, if Bo Pelini thought he hated Big 12 officials, we’re going to witness him murder a Big Ten ref in cold blood in Ann Arbor next season.  The Big Ten is making the right move for its alums and fans by stopping at 12.

Financially, it’s the right move, too.  Fox outbid ABC/ESPN for the rights to the Big Ten Championship Game and the rights fees apparently are astronomical: $140 million for 6 years, which is an average of around $23 million per year.  For comparison’s sake, the SEC title game brings in approximately $14 million per year and the Big East football TV contract with ESPN is worth about $13 million per year for all of that conference’s games.  This single game haul for the Big Ten has paid for the addition of Nebraska by itself and we haven’t even gotten to the additional Big Ten Network rights fees and forthcoming increases in the national TV contracts.

The fact that Fox won the Big Ten title game contract is interesting.  While Fox is the conference’s partner for the Big Ten Network, I personally had a hard time believing that the ESPN juggernaut would let this game get away.  As I’ve pointed out before, as much as we talk about how the Big Ten Network has really changed the TV revenue dynamic in college sports, the Big Ten still gets paid about twice as much more from ABC/ESPN than the BTN.  When the Big Ten’s national TV contract comes up for bidding for the 2016 season, expect the conference to really push for a bifurcated rights deal similar to the SEC: coast-to-coast clearance on a national over-the-air network for the top game of the week and 3 or so games on the next tier on the ESPN networks (with probably a guaranteed weekly prime time game).  The balance of the games would then be on BTN.  If Fox drops or cuts back on Major League Baseball coverage (and as much as I love baseball, any reasonable TV industry observer would recommend that Fox does just that because it’s receiving a horrible ROI for the amount that the network is paying for these regular season ratings), there’s a strong possibility that the network will take over the top Big Ten Game of the Week from ABC.  However, I highly doubt that the Big Ten would let the games that are currently on the ESPN networks move to the patchwork quilt of Fox Sports Net stations.  Much like the NFL, the Big Ten is going to balance providing a critical mass of games to its own network and maximizing revenue with being extremely exposure conscious with its top matchups.  Note that the NFL’s top game of the week package (Sunday Night Football on NBC that has a flex scheduling option to ensure higher-rated matchups later in the season) is actually the league’s least expensive TV contract.  The Big Ten could very well end up with a similar setup starting in 2016.

With the new Fox money and anticipated rights fee increases, if the Big Ten were to expand further at this point, each additional school would essentially have to add $30 million to the conference make it into a compelling case for the university presidents – and that’s without the benefit of a bump of a new conference championship game.  There’s basically two schools that could even come close to bringing that much: Texas and Notre Dame.  For various reasons, the chances of either ever joining the Big Ten in the near future is effectively zero (and we’ll explore them more in-depth later on).  Without either of those two schools involved, there’s no way that the Big Ten can add any other schools without the current members taking a pay cut from the new 12-team setup (and I can guarantee you that no one is voting to ever take a pay cut).

2.  Big East Football Member Number 9… Number 9… Number 9… Number 9 – The expansion action has shifted to the Big East, which smartly added Rose Bowl-bound TCU for all of the right reasons.  At least I got one prediction of a Texas-based school heading to a conference to the east correct.  With the Big East having previously stated that its members had approved expansion up to 10 football members, the outstanding issues are (1) whether Villanova takes up the Big East’s offer to move up from Division I-AA (for the love of all things that are good in this world, such as the removal of Brett Favre from the national consciousness, please go back to logical division names, NCAA) and (2) if Villanova refuses, is it really worth for the Big East to go up to 10 with the realistic expansion candidates.

Big East commissioner John Marinatto has indicated that the conference was “not going to wait for Villanova”.  However, I believe that his quote (which has gotten a lot of Big East blogs and message board over-excited) was under the guise that if a school such as Notre Dame called up and wanted to join the league for football, then of course there would be an immediate expansion.  In practicality with the realistic expansion candidates, the Big East isn’t going to do anything else until it knows for sure about Villanova’s final stance.  I’ve generally heard two extremes regarding Villanova with very little in between.  There’s a segment of the Big East that completely believes that they’re moving up and the main item to accomplish is finalizing a deal to play at PPL Park in Chester (an 18,500-seat Major League Soccer stadium).  The other segment of the Big East absolutely believes that there’s no chance that Villanova will move up because the university’s leadership has a tepid view of it and the financial commitment required is far beyond the school’s reasonable means.

I know what I would do if I were running Villanova: I’d take that invite, ride it like Zorro back to Providence with a big “YES” and figure out the details later.  Why they haven’t already done so is fairly maddening.  It’s incredulous to me that a school could be taking this much time to decide on whether to accept a golden ticket that sixty-plus other university presidents would sacrifice their math departments for.  My impression is that Villanova fancies itself to be more of a Boston College-type than a Holy Cross-type with respect to sports and if Nova wants to protect its basketball team and athletic department overall from future conference realignment earthquakes, the best way to do so is having a BCS football program.

Now, I don’t really believe that adding Villanova for football will do much to help the Big East, although the conference gets a bit more rope to work with after having added TCU.  If extending an invite to Villanova was the political grease to get the Catholic members of the Big East (or at least enough of them) to address the football expansion issue overall, then it was a necessary move.  Villanova is one of the old-line members of the Big East and if it wants to move up for football, everyone has to expect that the school will get to join that pigskin league first even if other programs are supposedly more “deserving”.  I’m just a bit wary that Villanova seems to have been dragged into this kicking and screaming, which I doubt will draw much sympathy from the Boise States of the world.

UCF appears to be the school-in-waiting if Villanova rejects the Big East football invite.  I really didn’t like the thought of UCF getting invited to the Big East over TCU if the conference was choosing only one of them, but the Knights make more sense as part of an expansion on top of the Horned Frogs.  With the sheer size of the school’s student base coupled with the prime recruiting location, the Big East is looking at UCF as a high upside school.  Now, I’ve probably spent more time in Central Florida than any place other than Chicago and Champaign and believe that the area is always going to be Gator country by a wide margin, but the rapid growth of UCF cannot be denied.  A school such as East Carolina has a better pure fan base in terms of actually showing up to games  and Houston offers a larger market, yet UCF seems offer enough of each of those factors that it appears to be the best choice of the rest for the Big East overall.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Big East has to go up to 10 football schools immediately (and thereby possibly 18 schools for other sports).  As I noted in the Big East Expansion FAQ post, the Big East still makes more TV money from basketball than football and a school such as UCF likely wouldn’t move the ESPN rights fee meter very much (if at all).  None of the C-USA schools are going anywhere, so the Big East can choose to see if a school such as UMass, which will likely be moving up the Division I-A level, develops into a viable Northeastern-based program that would fit extremely well into the conference.  Now that the Big East has 9 members with the TCU addition and the Big Ten has put its expansion on hold, there’s not the same sense of urgency to add school #10.

I’m personally about 50/50 on this.  Part of me believes that 10 football/18 basketball members in the Big East would be more desirable for the “perception of stability” factor that the league needs more than anyone else while getting a program such as UCF up to speed at the BCS AQ level.  (I’ve also got a way to split up an 18-team Big East basketball league into divisions that I believe will make pretty much all of the schools happy with home-and-home annual games with their top rivals and still playing everyone else frequently enough to maintain some conference unity.  However, I’ll save that for another post.)  On the other hand, there’s no real need to rush and the Big East may be well-served to just concentrate on integrating TCU for the next couple of years.

3.  Knife the WAC and Head for the Mountains – Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson has been coming after the WAC like Freddy Krueger ever since this past summer when there was a brief moment where the WAC looked like it was going to be the raider instead of the raidee.  Hawaii is all but confirmed as the latest defector from the WAC to the MWC as a football-only member.  I’ll give Thompson a whole lot of credit on this front: the MWC is going to be significantly weaker on an absolute basis with the losses of Utah, BYU and TCU, but it’s stronger on a relative basis compared to the other non-AQ conferences by mortally wounding its top competitor of the WAC.  The national perception of the MWC is that it’s still a desirable league at the non-AQ level, which is a fairly impressive feat considering that any conference losing its three most valuable members would typically be reeling.  Thompson obviously took some notes of what to do (and what not to do) from how the Big East reacted to the ACC raid of 2003 and had a prepared disaster recovery plan on how to react to any defections.  There’s absolutely no chance that the MWC is going to rise up to AQ status in this next bowl cycle (or probably ever), but it’s in a great position to be first in line for any non-AQ BCS bowl bid annually.

4.  The Texas 12 – There are still days where I can’t believe that the Big 12 survived, yet now that it has, it must be emphasized once again that the conference is a whole lot more stable than many pundits give it credit for.  To be sure, the Big 12 isn’t bound together because its members actually want to be with each other.  However, Texas wants this league to survive more than ever with the newly anticipated ESPN-owned Longhorn Network and that’s about 99% of the battle.*  I know that it’s VERY fashionable for college sports fans to believe that Texas eventually wants to become independent and then all hell will break loose in the Big 12, but that’s ignoring the constantly volatile emotions of Texas-based politicians.  The single biggest mistake I made in my early posts regarding Big Ten expansion and UT was completely underestimating the extent to which Texas politicos would get involved in conference realignment.  Even if UT really wants to go independent and/or Texas A&M really wants to go to the SEC, they’re bound together by the threat of mutually assured destruction if one of them makes a first move similar to the US and USSR during the Cold War.  Neither UT nor A&M can be perceived to be the one that killed the Big 12 and then drawing the wrath of Texas Tech and Baylor sympathizers in the legislature.  For all of the school’s financial power on paper, recall how much Texas needed to show that Missouri and Nebraska had wandering eyes first before it could attempt to create the Pac-16.  Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott himself said that the exclusion of Baylor from the Pac-16 proposal gave rise to a “tsunami effect” in Texas politics that killed the deal as opposed to anything with UT’s TV plans.

(* In what will surely be an interesting case study in testing how strong the Chinese walls are between the business and journalistic sides of ESPN, the Worldwide Leader filed a lawsuit last week against the University of Texas System under the Texas Public Information Act (h/t to duffman) to obtain documents from this past summer’s conference realignment discussions even though the network is right in the middle of negotiations with UT on the formation of the Longhorn cable channel.)

As a result, those 4 Texas-based schools are politically bound together as a group.  Add in the similarly bound Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (with OU being on the record that it is always going to want to be in the same conference as UT) and you have 6 total schools that have to be together no matter what, which severely limits them being anywhere other than in the Big 12.  With 2 of those schools being national marquee brands, any conference that has that group is going to survive just fine and make enough TV money for all of its members even in an unequal revenue distribution system.  The “Little 4” of Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Iowa State might be wise to continue to have good relations with the Big East as a fallback option (which KU coach and Illini defector Bill Self said almost happened this past summer), but they’re not going to affirmatively split off from a league where they can still play UT and OU annually in a new round-robin Big 12 schedule unless an inebriated Big Ten suddenly throws invites their way after a Saturday night binge on Rush Street.

While the Big 12 isn’t safe in a warm and fuzzy family way, it looks like it’s safe in a maximum security prison way.  No one’s getting out of there even if they want to very badly.

5.  Notre Dame Network? – Let’s me repeat another item that I didn’t quite fully understand until the last few months:  NOTRE DAME WANTS TO BE INDEPENDENT FOR THE SAKE OF BEING INDEPENDENT.  It isn’t about making the most TV money, or else they’d join the Big Ten.  It isn’t about having the easiest road to BCS bowls, or else they’d join the Big East.  Instead, Notre Dame’s independence is a PRINCIPLE and about SCHOOL IDENTITY.  As a result, ignore the recurring columns suggesting that Notre Dame joining the Big East would somehow provide a nice geographic distribution of opponents while providing easier BCS access.  (Remember that Notre Dame has failed to even play 3 Big East opponents per year that it agreed to back in 2003, much less a full conference slate.  Why the heck would they all of the sudden want to play 5 or more Big East conference games as even a “partial member” when they just signed scheduling deals with Texas, Miami and BYU after the summer’s conference shuffling?  None of that makes any sense.  At the same time, the Irish see a “national” schedule as playing schools such as USC, Michigan, Miami and Texas, not just any random schools that happen to be located in certain states.)  You can also ignore anything from Big 12 country suggesting that UT’s ability to create a TV network within a conference would spur Notre Dame to join, too.  Maybe those strangely delusional Big 12 fans that suddenly believe that they can pick off Notre Dame along with members of the SEC (i.e. Arkansas and LSU) or Pac-10 (i.e. Arizona and Arizona State)* have forgotten that as an independent, the Irish can create a network anytime it freaking wants to.

(* Just because no one can get out of the Big 12 maximum security prison doesn’t mean anyone else actually wants to get in.)

In fact, that’s exactly the latest item on the rumor mill.  You should take the following with a heavy grain of salt, but I’ve heard and seen in a few places is that Comcast/NBC is working on putting together a Notre Dame Network that would be an Irish Catholic-focused cross between the Longhorn Network for sports and the BYU network for religious programming.  The Universal Sports network that’s currently being shown on a number of cable systems and NBC-owned digital subchannels across the country and broadcasts Olympic sports could possibly be converted into this Notre Dame Network.  The main thing that makes this plausible to me is that this sounds like something that Notre Dame would want to do.  The school has been consistent in insisting upon its own branding and independent identity (which kills the prospect of any joint network with the Big East that a lot of that conference’s fans are hoping for other than working with them to procure rights for Notre Dame’s non-football sports).  It doesn’t want a network that’s under the umbrella of the Big East, Big 12, Big Ten or any other conference.  Instead, this is about complete and 100% autonomy for Notre Dame in all respects.

Believe me, I sympathize with all of the fans of conferences that continue to dream about Notre Dame.  Many of us college football fans complain about Notre Dame 364 days per year about their “special treatment”, but when that one day comes with a semi-possible rumor that the Irish are looking to join your conference, you immediately get starry-eyed with thoughts of world domination.  It happened to me based on the logic that the Big Ten actually was (and still is) the one conference with the concrete financial wherewithal to make the Irish richer.  Let me be clear: there is no such thing as logic regarding independence with the Notre Dame alumni base that runs that school.  As a result, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Notre Dame Network comes to your TV within the next year or two and the Irish will be more independent than ever.

With the conference realignment situation settling down, we’ll turn to another favorite topic in my next piece: the annual “How can we make the college football postseason better?” post.  I know every two-bit columnist and blogger in the country covers that topic to the core, but let’s face it: it’s fun to talk about, so that’s all that matters.  Until then, let’s bask in the glow of the Illini football team going to the Texas Bowl even after having predictably Zooked themselves against Fresno State (the biggest positive development of Big Ten expansion is that it takes football scheduling after Thanksgiving completely out of the hands of Ron Guenther), the Illini basketball team gathering steam with big back-to-back wins against North Carolina (I don’t care if they’re down this year) and Gonzaga, both the Bears and Bulls leading their respective divisions (Derrick Rose continues to be my favorite active athlete on Earth right now with Julius Peppers vaulting up to #2), the Blackhawks looking a bit better again (although let’s hope Patrick Kane comes back as soon as possible) and the White Sox actually shelling out money for free agents (adding Adam Dunn AND probably keeping Paul Konerko – I love it as long as Dunn doesn’t spend a single moment in the outfield).  Not a bad holiday sports season in the Frank the Tank household so far.  Not bad at all.

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

(Image from Husker Locker)

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Yes, I’m alive and so is this blog.  With the slowdown in conference expansion news, it was a good time to take a summer break after going non-stop for the first 6 months of the year.  However, the start of the football season is only a couple of weeks away, so the activity will be picking up once again (less on expansion and more on actual football).  I’ll be voting in the BlogPoll (which will likely continue to be found on CBS Sports.com) this year, so there will be a weekly post during the season with my selections at the very least, which all of you can rip apart with impunity.  If you want to lobby me on behalf of your favorite team, please feel free to do so, as well.  To keep you occupied until that starts up for the year, here’s my look at where the BCS conferences stand regarding realignment issues using the Department of Homeland Security Advisory System:

OSCAR THE GROUCH THREAT LEVEL

BIG TEN

The Big Ten continues to be in control of any future conference expansion nationwide.  With the addition of Nebraska, the conference now has a championship game and can expect to receive a large uptick in its national TV revenue in the next few years with the popularity of the Huskers.  The East Coast bastion of the Wall Street Journal, which one might have expected to push the Big Ten to grab Rutgers or Syracuse, showered a ton of praise on the conference’s marriage with Nebraska last week and pointed out that this was a significant shift in college football that has flown under the radar with all of the Texas/Big IIX drama.  I believe that I speak for the majority of Big Ten fans in being incredibly excited to see Nebraska start Big Ten play in 2011.

I just hope that the Big Ten doesn’t f**k things up with a wacky divisional alignment.  I’ll repeat what I noted in my post from a few weeks ago: Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS).  Most proponents of a gerrymandered divisional alignment like to point out the dominance of the Big 12 South over the Big 12 North over the past several years as an example of the danger of a pure geographic alignment, yet forget that the Big 12 North was the dominant division for the first few years of that conference’s existence.  I’m exponentially more fearful of the aimless ACC divisional alignment which has no logic and broke off natural rivalries.  Karma has been a bitch for the ACC since it has never ended up its intended result of a Florida State-Miami championship game.  I don’t want to see the Big Ten make the same mistake.

I’m not surprised by the choice of Indianapolis as the site of the first Big Ten Championship Game, although my preference would’ve been Chicago, which is the conference’s marquee market and has a cross-section of alums from all of the Big Ten schools.  Personally, I don’t think cold outdoor weather really should be an issue for Big Ten football from a competitive standpoint, but it does matter to TV interests.  The Big Ten and ABC likely want to place the Big Ten Championship Game in a prime time slot, and while the cold weather is bearable when at least the first half is played in the daylight, it is a rough experience at Soldier Field or Lambeau Field for a typical December night game.  I blame all of this on the choice of the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois to drop a UFO in the middle of the Soldier Field columns instead of building a brand-new domed/retractable-roof stadium for the same cost (or even less) that could’ve been in the rotation for Final Fours and Super Bowls.  (Cost to renovate Soldier Field from 2001-2003, which reduced seating capacity by over 5,000: $625 million.  Cost to build University of Phoenix Stadium from scratch from 2003-2006 with a retractable roof and North America’s first roll-out grass field: $455 million.  Which taxpayer base got its money’s worth?)   It is ridiculous that Indianapolis is consistently beating out Chicago for top-tier sports events – this is the equivalent of Hartford getting marquee properties over New York City.

As for future expansion, the Big Ten would likely be able to grab any school other than Notre Dame and Texas.  The issue, of course, is that it’s doubtful that the Big Ten really wants any school other than Notre Dame and Texas right now.  If Rutgers or Syracuse can go on a run of BCS bowl appearances to generate New York/New Jersey interest in college football again, then that could change things, but all indications right now are that integrating Nebraska is the top priority unless the Irish or Longhorns change their minds.

Notre Dame still remains a Big Ten expansion possibility in the long-term for one major reason: academics.  The leadership at the school has continued to be open to joining the Big Ten because it believes that could aid Notre Dame into gaining membership with the American Association of Universities.  This top-line academic priority for the university directly clashes with the Irish alumni base’s unwavering need to retain independence at all costs.  Notre Dame’s leadership is in a bind since the school arguably grants more power to its alumni base over university affairs than any other BCS school, which means that crossing them results in putting their own heads on the chopping block regardless of whether they believe moving to the Big Ten makes sense academically and financially.  I don’t envy the people in charge of Notre Dame at all – independence is an integral part of the school’s identity, which is why the alumni base fights so hard for it, but it may hold the school back from achieving its ultimate academic goals and, as the Big Ten and SEC continue to expand their revenue advantages over everyone else, will negatively impact the athletic program’s success, as well.  Eventually, there will be a group of leaders at Notre Dame that will be willing to risk career suicide by having the school join the Big Ten, but those people will likely be from the current undergraduate population’s generation that cares more about ND being an academically elite school than its football status.  That group likely won’t come into power for another two decades.

Texas, on the other hand, is going to ride its proposed Bevo TV like Zorro for the foreseeable future.  I’ll get to more about this later on, but suffice to say, there won’t be any marriage between the Big Ten and Texas with the school’s approach to using and abusing conferences.

So, a 12-school Big Ten is going to be the new status quo for awhile.  There will still some long-term demographic challenges as the US population continues to move to the Sun Belt and the coasts, but as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the addition of Nebraska is one of those rare moves that will make both the financial bean counters in Park Ridge and the fans in the stands and living rooms happy.

SEC

The SEC stands alongside the Big Ten as the most stable and powerful conferences in the country.  Whether the SEC can realistically grow is an open question.  Unlike the Big Ten, which was at an unstable 11 members without a championship game and positioned in the middle of the country where it could conceivably expand anywhere except for the West Coast, the SEC hasn’t had an urgent need to get bigger.  It doesn’t really want to expand unless there’s: (1) a large market added and (2) an upgrade to the conference’s academic profile.  The lingering perception that the SEC wants to tear apart the ACC (or can actually do it) is a ridiculous notion.  The two schools that would add the most to the SEC from the ACC, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, are two of the least likely schools to ever consider an SEC invitation (as I’ll discuss in a bit).  West Virginia has the Big East’s best traveling fan base but its worst TV market, so that doesn’t make very much sense, either.

As a result, the state of Texas is the only potential goldmine left for the SEC, but as we’ve seen with the stunning non-breakup of the Big IIX, pulling off anyone from that conference would entail adding a bloc of schools en masse (and the Pac-10 found out that not even that could work).  The SEC really only cares about Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma – virtually everyone else in the Big IIX is worthless filler from a financial perspective.  The conference wants nothing to do with Texas Tech, Baylor and/or Oklahoma State, which may all be political requirements for those that want any of the Big III from the Big IIX.  Missouri is in the same position with the SEC as it is the Big Ten – decent market with a decent sports program, but not revenue accretive enough to justify expanding for.  ESPN’s analysts will continue to slob the knob of the SEC on the field, yet there really isn’t that much that it can (or should) do off the field.  Mike Slive might engage in some saber-rattling about the conference maintaining its power if other conferences expand beyond 12 teams, but realistically, he knows that the SEC has a great set-up today and is never going to expand just for the sake of keeping up in terms of sheer numbers of members.

COOKIE MONSTER THREAT LEVEL

PAC-10/12

The Pac-10 went for the proverbial jugular with its offer to invite half of the Big 12, but ultimately ended up with only Colorado and Utah.  These are decent additions for the Pac-10 as geographic and cultural fits, but they don’t really raise the national profile of the conference in the Eastern and Central Time Zones.  The Pac-10 is obviously performing its due diligence on forming a new TV network with former Big 12 Commissioner and Big Ten Network president Kevin Weiberg in the fold.  However, there is valid skepticism out there that it could ever come close to being as financially successful as the BTN (fan intensity is lower, , which means that the conference might not add that much more TV revenue taking games in-house compared to signing a larger comprehensive deal with ESPN or other established cable networks.

Still, the Pac-10’s main disadvantage from a TV perspective is a great advantage from a conference alignment viewpoint: its West Coast location.  The Big Ten and SEC won’t even think of touching any of the Pac-10 schools, which means that the Western conference is safe from any possible poachers.  The Pac-10 is safe and stable for the foreseeable future, which means that it’s worth any exit fee that Colorado may have to pay to the clusterf**k of the Big IIX.  As with the Big Ten and SEC, the state of Texas is really the main market that actually can move the meter for the Pac-10, and considering the manner in which talks broke down between the Pac-10 and the University of Texas harem, it may forever be an unattainable goal.

BERT THREAT LEVEL

ACC

I’ll repeat what I’ve stated several times on this blog: the ACC is MUCH safer than the general public gives it credit for.  Even though the SEC and Big Ten could theoretically offer more money to any of the ACC members, it may not be enough of a difference to overcome the charter member status of schools such as Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina (who have been mentioned at various times in connection with the Big Ten and/or SEC) or the academic prestige gap between the ACC and SEC.  Note that the ACC is the only conference other than the Big Ten that has an academic consortium and, for lack of a better term, it has “snobby” members and leaders that aren’t very willing to jump to the SEC compared to football-focused fans.  Virginia Tech on paper would seem to be the main school that might have some interest in the SEC, but with the way that the University of Virginia was hamstrung by Virginia politicians to force the Hokies into the ACC back in 2003, VT leaving the ACC and the commonwealth’s flagship university that expended a ton of political capital several years ago for more money in the SEC is not going to work with the Virginia legislature.

The new TV deal that the ACC has in place with ESPN cements the ACC’s stability even further.  Really, the only reason why the ACC is at “Bert Level” is that Maryland could very well fit into the Big Ten and there might be at least a tiny bit of mutual interest, but the Big Ten’s desire in going toward the East Coast appears to be predicated on Notre Dame coming along, too.  There is definitely nothing that the Big East could offer to draw Boston College back – Eastern fans might constantly bemoan the geography, but that school is clearing so much bank compared to what it had before that its leaders don’t care.  Thus, the ACC is in good shape overall.

ERNIE THREAT LEVEL

BIG EAST

Here’s where the conference realignment discussion gets interesting again.  From one perspective, the Big East could be considered extremely vulnerable due to its geographic proximity to the Big Ten and ACC, fairly good academic institutions, large markets on paper and disjointed sports membership.  On the other hand, if none of the individual schools are actually revenue positive to the Big Ten or ACC, then they aren’t going to be expansion targets and the conference is de facto safe as no one has anywhere else to turn.  As I mentioned in connection with Maryland above, the Big Ten’s East Coast strategy is tied in with Notre Dame, so as long as the Irish stay independent, the Big Ten is not likely to expand again in the near future.

As a result, the Big East is somewhat safe, but it’s also stuck.  There isn’t an obvious football expansion candidate east of the Mississippi River (Memphis, UCF, ECU and Temple are usual “meh” suspects) and even if there was, the hybrid football/non-football membership complicates anything getting done.  Villanova moving up from FCS to FBS has been thrown around as an option, yet even if the school decided to upgrade tomorrow, it would take several years to make that transition.  Futhermore, if Villanova somehow completed the upgrade, it’s hard to see why the school could really draw more or perform better at the FBS level than its Philly neighbor of Temple, which got kicked out of the Big East as a football-only member even when the conference was looking for warm bodies in the wake of the 2003 ACC raid.

I’d still recommend that the Big East go after TCU plus one other school to go up to 18 overall members and 10 football members since I believe that TCU is the main school in the country besides BYU that is a true BCS-level program that’s stuck in a non-BCS conference and it’s never going to get an invite from its regionally-friendly Big IIX (as it has no need for yet another Texas-based school).  The other usual suspects for Big East expansion typically use the “If we were in a BCS conference, we’d be SOOOOO much better” argument, which is akin to saying that you’re a no-talent ass clown that can churn out hit records with the aid of a vocoder.  (I’m looking at you, Kei$ha.)  The Big East doesn’t need project programs – it needs greater respect immediately and a material improvement to its national TV contract.  TCU at least provides a chance for the Big East on those fronts.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the Big East leadership is forward thinking in that way at all.

A split between the football members and the Catholic schools has long been blog and message board fodder, yet the fact remains that the Big East basketball contract (which is larger than the football contract) depends upon the large markets that those Catholic universities provide.  Therefore, a split won’t happen unless there’s a big-time incentive to do so (i.e. the Big IIX splits apart and a bunch of BCS programs need a new home).

As for the prospects of a Big East TV network, call me EXTREMELY skeptical that it could work.  If the Pac-10 is going to have a tough time making a network pay off financially, and that’s a conference with significantly better market penetration on the West Coast than the Big East on the East Coast, then I don’t know how a Big East network could ever get off the ground.  The Big Ten Network had a perfect storm of a top-level cable partner (Fox) that provided national carriage immediately (Fox had control of DirecTV at BTN’s launch) plus large schools with large alumni bases that REALLY care about college sports located in large markets that don’t have a lot of regional cable network competition.  It’s a different proposition to attempt to get a network onto basic cable in the New York City area, which already pays for YES, SNY and MSG, when the Big East isn’t even the clear dominant conference in that region.  (The most popular conference in the Mid-Atlantic according to a 2007 NCAA study: the Big Ten.)  Without NYC, the Big East network simply won’t come to fruition (and conference helper Paul Tagliabue apparently agreed when he bashed the notion of people on Long Island watching Rutgers after their tennis matches).

So, the Big East is in a stalled car.  Individual members that want to get into the Big Ten (Rutgers, Syracuse, Pitt) might actually wish that things were more fluid again, but until Notre Dame wants something other than independence, the Big East will talk publicly about “exploring” plans for a TV network and expansion and implement absolutely none of them.

ELMO THREAT LEVEL

BIG IIX

Oh, the Big IIX.  The more that I think about how this conference is still alive, the more that I understand how guys like Bernie Madoff can steal millions from otherwise smart people.  Dan Ponzi Beebe sold a handshake deal to academic leaders holding degrees galore with millions of dollars of unwritten promises based on (1) supposed future TV income that won’t be negotiated until a few years from now and (2) exit fees from Nebraska and Colorado that will be tied up in litigation for years and will likely be significantly discounted from the current sticker price.  Not only that, but some Big IIX people have actually deluded themselves into thinking that Arkansas would leave the SEC and Notre Dame would give up its entire identity as an independent to join this “conference” based on future revenue that doesn’t yet exist and isn’t in writing ANYWHERE.  WTF?!

How schools like Texas A&M bought this bullshit (and that’s what it is – complete bullshit) is beyond me.  The Aggies have good reason to get quite restless without ANY paper trail regarding these promises.  Of course, who knows why the heck the school would’ve agreed to all of this without something in writing in the first place, which makes it harder to defend a new “F**k you, pay me” stance.

Outside of A&M, I firmly believe that the University of Texas will rue the day that it spurned the Pac-10’s offer to add half of the current Big 12 (even if Texas A&M went separately to the SEC) – it will NEVER get a better opportunity to be in an upgraded academic conference with larger markets AND bring along a bunch of its regional rivals.  Instead, UT has banked its entire future on its own TV network and has even started making non-conference scheduling decisions based upon it by killing off a series with Minnesota over a video rights dispute.  Texas better be damn sure that this TV network is going to work because I’m still flabbergasted that this is the route that it chose to take when it had virtually every single option (Pac-16, Big Ten, SEC, independence, even the ACC) on the table.  In a few years, when everyone figures out that the TV revenue that Ponzi Beebe promised won’t ever materialize, Texas may not have any choice other than the Big IIX because no other conference is going to turn over the requisite TV rights that would make Bevo TV viable.

Plus, the Texas legislature made sure that everyone respected its authoritah.  For all of the power that UT is supposed to have in the college football world, it was made clear in this realignment process that it will be forever shackled to at least Texas Tech, which is much more problematic than being only paired up with the fairly attractive Texas A&M.  As a lone free agent, Texas is arguably the most valuable program that any conference can get (even above Notre Dame), but when it has to bring along 4 or 5 others, then it’s a completely different value proposition and the school isn’t nearly as enticing.  The Pac-16 deal was the main chance that Texas could break away from at least Baylor and let Texas A&M go its own way, yet now it has foreclosed a whole bunch of long-term options unless things happen outside of its control (i.e. A&M bolts to the SEC by itself).  The Big Ten and SEC aren’t going to offer to add schools en masse like the Pac-10 did and if the Texas legislature freaked out about UT separating from its other in-state brethren to go to another conference, I don’t see how it could ever try to go independent (which is probably the situation the school is best suited for in a perfect world).

Essentially, the Big IIX is held together by Bevo TV, some Texas politicians and a bunch of unwritten promises from Ponzi Beebe.  No wonder why Nebraska and Colorado ran out as quickly as possible and Missouri has been begging for a Big Ten invite for months.  I guarantee you that NU and CU are going to settle for a whole lot less than what the Big IIX is demanding in exit fees since UT will have zero desire to allow what they’ve done behind the scenes over the past several months to be aired out publicly in court.  Big IIX could possibly add some schools from the Mountain West or C-USA if it wanted to, but with the reprieve from ABC/ESPN where it will pay the current level of TV rights fees even with two fewer members and no conference championship game, the financial incentive isn’t there.  With the Longhorns’ first-priority needs to have league leadership control and its TV network above all else, I believe that the only conference other than the Big IIX that they might end up in over the next few years is a brand new one that they create from scratch as opposed to an existing BCS conference.  Therefore, Texas isn’t going to be the first mover in any future conference realignment scenarios (just as it was the case this past summer).  It will be up to a school such as Texas A&M to have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the legislative powers that be and act in its own interests as a university if it wants to leave the Big IIX.

As of today, all is quiet on the conference realignment front.  That’s not a bad thing as we can watch some actual football again.

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

(Image from flicker)

The Big Ten expansion rumor mill continues to churn, with the conference reportedly inviting (or at least welcoming to fill out the online Common Application to join the conference) Notre Dame, Missouri, Nebraska and Rutgers.  Supposedly, if Notre Dame were to accept the Big Ten’s invite this time around, then the conference would add one more school for a 16-school conference.  If the Domers reject the overtures of the “Big Integer” once again, then the conference would decide between staying at 14 schools or finding 2 other schools to invite.  (Note that as I’m writing this, SportsCenter has teased talk about Notre Dame possibly joining the Big Ten about 8 times in the last 20 minutes with nary a mention of anyone else.)

This particular rumor has been denied by various parties, including the Big Ten’s office and Nebraska’s chancellor (who has probably been the most open university president of any of the schools involved over the past few weeks).  Still, I’m suffering from confirmation bias with respect to this specific story because it’s the main scenario that the collective brain power of this blog’s readers has settled upon over the last few posts: Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers as virtual locks in a minimum 3-school expansion, with the Big Ten only going to 16 if it gets Notre Dame and/or Texas.  I noted this in my interview with Penn State blog Nittany Whiteout a couple of weeks ago (here are parts 1 and 2):

NITTANY WHITEOUT: I’ll have to ask you a three part question.  First: without thinking about money, or logistics, and if saying “no” wasn’t an option, what would be the ideal move for the Big Ten?  Second: getting back to the real world, what’s the best possible decision for the conference?  And lastly, just a shot in the dark, what ends up happening? Does Joe Paterno get that “Eastern Rival” he’s been pining for?

FRANK THE TANK:

1. The Big Ten adds Texas as team #12 and stops there.  There is no single school that can provide more impact for the conference (even Notre Dame).

2.  For all of the focus on TV markets, this expansion is going to require a massive football name in order for it work, which means at least one of Nebraska, Notre Dame or Texas.  Any 14-team scenario with 1 of them would work very well and I think that you need 2 of them for a 16-school conference.  If I were making a recommendation to the Big Ten and it’s not an option to just add Texas or Notre Dame as team #12, I’d go for a 14-school conference with one of those big names as an anchor.  The other 2 schools would provide a base of households (Missouri to the west and Rutgers and/or Syracuse to the east), with the caveat being that if the Big Ten can get Texas but also needs to take Texas A&M, too, then the conference should do it in a heartbeat.

3.  If I were to bet today (and be advised that this changes on almost a daily basis), I believe that the Big Ten will add Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers to create a 14-school conference.  Nebraska provides the national name, Missouri safely delivers a state of 6 million people for the Big Ten Network, and Rutgers is a reasonable bet to at least get a toehold in the state of New Jersey.  They are all large flagship schools that are members of the AAU, so they meet the academic requirements of the conferences while “fitting” the Big Ten mold.  These are also all schools that will say yes to a Big Ten invite almost immediately.  Finally and most importantly for your readership, JoePa gets one Eastern rival to pummel annually.

What’s interesting is that if the Big Ten were to actually send out 4 invites in the manner that it was reported today, it indicates that the conference is employing something similar to the Super Death Star Conference multi-phase expansion strategy that this blog threw against the wall in a homage to John Nash.  The Big Ten is pot committed to expanding one way or another and clearly isn’t bluffing (as many casual fans across the country continue to believe).  This puts Notre Dame in a precarious position because it will end up holding the key to whether the Big East will live on with just losing Rutgers from the football side.  One line of thinking (which is the one that UCONN football coach Randy Edsall and many Big East fans believe) is that if Notre Dame were given an ultimatum to join the Big East football or give up membership in that conference’s other sports leagues, then the Irish would be “forced” into the Big Ten and the Big East could minimize its losses since Jim Delany wouldn’t pursue the East Coast any further.  (I threw a lot of cold water on this popular suggestion in my post about potential Big East expansion scenarios back in February.  Please see assumption #2.)  On the other hand, the line of thinking in my head (and what I believe is the Big Ten’s modus operandi) is that Notre Dame joining the Big Ten actually would embolden the conference to go for the jugular in the Northeast with a 5-school expansion that includes multiple Big East teams.  Jack Swarbrick has consistently tried to toe the proverbial party line that Notre Dame is fully supporting the Big East.  The Irish will have to decide whether joining the Big Ten or staying independent will end up hurting the Big East more (and if it actually matters to the school).

Now, this blog’s commenters went wild in the last post over this Northwestern Rivals message board rumor about a drunk Big Ten employee supposedly stating that the Big Ten’s true targets are Notre Dame, Nebraska… and Texas.  (What’s up with Northwestern and Big Ten expansion rumors? The university president telling a bunch of sorority girls about how the conference voted at the AAU meetings?  Plastered Big Ten insiders getting toasted with the Wildcat faithful?  Is this why Evanston was a center of the temperance movement?)  The scheduling proposal is whack and would seem to be a non-starter for the Big Ten, but as for the mix of teams itself, no one can really discount this as the ultimate goal for the conference (as much as it might be a shoot the moon attempt).  There have been multiple threads on Orangebloods (the premium Texas Rivals message board) that actually corroborated that if the Big Ten could grab Notre Dame and Nebraska, then that would be the scenario that would get Texas to join the Big Ten (whether or not Texas A&M is included).  So, call me just a little bit titillated that the Big Ten might be sending out 4 invitations to apply to receive invitations with 1 outstanding spot that seems to play right into what that wasted Big Ten guy apparently told his Northwestern alum buddy.  I’m simultaneously laughing off the thought that someone with this type of knowledge would spill it to a message board poster while seeing enough detail in the rumor to think, “Why the fuck not?”  This is what passes for “solid” expansion news when no one with actual authority is willing to go on the record.  A variant of the Super Death Star Conference might be coming along just yet.

Or it could “just” be a 3-team expansion with Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers.  It continues to amaze me that a few months ago I thought that it was ridiculous to even think that the Big Ten would add multiple teams, yet now believe that 3-team expansion with one of the top 10 college football programs of all-time (Nebraska) that locks up the state of Missouri and possibly enters into the New York City market is a “conservative” move.  That’s how much our expectations of Big Ten expansion have changed in an extremely short period of time.  Hopkins Horn, a frequent commenter and Texas alum, asked the blog’s readers whether they’d be happy with that ultimate outcome.  Personally, I think that it would be a great outcome for the Big Ten.  While I’d love to add on Texas and/or Notre Dame on top of that group for a 16-school conference, a 14-school conference with Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers as new additions provides a great mix of star power, guaranteed households and East Coast market potential while still maintaining some semblance of an actual tight-knit conference feel (as opposed to being a massive confederation).  As an Illinois alum, I like the natural East/West division split with annual games against long-time Braggin’ Rights rival Missouri.  Expanding further to 16 without Texas or Notre Dame isn’t worth it, in my opinion (as much as I have a huge soft spot for Syracuse).

So, that’s where we are in the expansion rumor cycle at this point.  Hopefully, some real news will come sooner rather than later.

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

(Image from College Hoops Journal)

Ah, I love the smell of napalm and crushed Big Ten expansion dreams in the morning.  Judging by the over 1000 comments to last week’s post (a record number for the blog), we’re all exasperated that Jim Delany and the Big Ten have at least publicly stated that they will stick to original timetable of 12-18 months to examine expansion candidates.  This is certainly a fascinating topic, but Lord help me if I’m still speculating12 months from now about who the Big Ten will be adding.  At that point, I’d rather be speculating about… Big East expansion!  Let’s get to my thoughts on last week’s events:

(1) You lie!!! – In all seriousness, I’m not one of those people that subscribe to conspiracy theories and break every conference official comment down like the Zapruder film.  However, if there’s one thing that needs to be beaten into people’s heads after this past week, it’s this: TRUST NO ONE.  The various of lists of 5 and 15 candidates that the Big Ten leaked and every public comment that has been uttered mean nothing to me at this point.  The one reporter that seemed to actually have a decent clue as to what was going on in the Big Ten expansion story, Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune, appeared to get solid information that the conference was fast-tracking adding new schools and then had to make a complete retraction a couple days later.  If Greenstein is getting played by the Big Ten, then every other reporter is getting played, as well.  I’ve received info from credible people that Texas and Notre Dame are definitely still in legitimate play for the Big Ten and other info that the conference has moved on regarding both of them.  Commenters have posted information suggesting that Maryland preemptively nixed any consideration for Big Ten membership and that Northwestern’s president revealed to a sorority that the conference had actually made a decision as to who it was inviting.  Tom Shatel, one of the Nebraska beat writers at the Omaha World-Herald, shared his frustration that people he trusted last week that stated that the Cornhuskers weren’t part of the Big Ten expansion talks are now saying that the school is definitely in the mix.  It’s impossible to parse through what’s true or false in all of this.

At this point, there is no combination of Notre Dame and/or any Big East and/or Big 12 schools that are AAU members that would surprise me.  If the Big Ten announces in June 2011 that it’s adding Pitt, Syracuse and Rutgers, I wouldn’t flinch.  If the Big Ten announces in 2 weeks that it’s adding Texas, Texas A&M and Notre Dame, it wouldn’t faze me at all.  It’s all fair game at this point.  The leaks so far have been so contradictory that we’re all better off assuming that they’re red herrings.  There’s a plan out there that might be way more aggressive than even the Super Death Star Conference that I’ve brought up or it could very well be a conservative addition of a geographically contiguous school or 3 purely for households.  No one except for Jim Delany and the Big Ten university presidents knows WTF is going on.

Of course, we’ll still have fun pouncing on every leak and rumor in the meantime.

(2) Backdoor meetings are where it’s at – Some commenters astutely noted that Jim Delany isn’t going to call a press conference one day and say, “I’ve just informed the Big East and Big XII that they need to bend over and assume the position.”  If and when Delany talks to his fellow commissioners, it’s going to be private and it’s likely such commissioners would want to keep it that way so they can start planning for their own raids of leagues like the Mountain West and Conference USA.  Delany would certainly not want anything to do with speaking about anything substantive with the feeding frenzy of the media horde gathered at the BCS meetings last week.  This seems like such a simple and logical concept, yet in a world where we’re craving information on this subject, we’re dying for any type of official statement of a go-ahead.

(3) Time is on the Big Ten’s side – I really doubt the Big Ten is going to take the full 12-18 months to examine this expansion issue.  That’s just my gut feeling as the university presidents likely wouldn’t be able to stomach having this story hanging over their heads in the press for such a long period of time.  It could very well be the case that the Big Ten’s university presidents know how they want to proceed and that they simply didn’t want Delany to inform the Big 12 and/or Big East commissioners of the Big Ten’s targets at the media-filled BCS meetings.  Honestly, I don’t know what could be taking so long unless the Big Ten is vetting every single possibility with the two schools that matter the most: Notre Dame and Texas.  Those are certainly two schools worth waiting for if the Big Ten believes that either of them would be willing to join.  Every single other school in the Big East and Big XII would leap toward Big Ten membership, so if the Big Ten was solely targeting non-Notre Dame/Texas schools, this could’ve been wrapped up weeks ago.

(4) Big East being “proactive” by “hiring” Paul Tagliabue and expanding to Jacksonville – As Brian Cook of Sporting News and mgoblog (not the former Illini quasi-great) stated, “Soviet Big East Raids You!”  (I’m not going to lie – I could keep myself entertained making up Yakov Smirnoff-isms for hours at a time.)  On paper, it sounds like a massive coup that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been tapped as a strategist for the Big East.  He’s actually providing his services pro bono because he has a very direct interest in how all of this plays out as Chairman of the Board of the Directors at Georgetown.  What does this mean?  Well, if Tagliabue has anything to do with it, the hybrid format of the conference will continue on into perpetuity.  Georgetown would be severely damaged if the Big East split up and one of his tasks will be to ensure that doesn’t happen.  If the Big East were to lose multiple schools, he has the gravitas to tell schools that might be ready to split (i.e. Louisville) that the hybrid is still the revenue maximization model for the conference.  The Big East football schools might not trust anything that the Big East office says anymore, but if the former commissioner of the NFL says that ESPN will still pay a lot more money for a hybrid league than a split league, then that’s going to carry a lot of weight.  As a DePaul law grad, though, I really hope that Tagliabue doesn’t decide that the Big East would be better off skipping the Los Angeles market in favor of the next municipality that whores itself with a taxpayer-financed stadium.

Honestly, there is absolutely nothing “proactive” that the Big East can do at this point to prevent a member from leaving for the Big Ten.  Even if the Big East could somehow create a new TV network that could generate large amounts of cash, there’s no way that could be up and running even if the Big Ten takes the maximum amount of time to complete its expansion process.

Of course, Tagliabue unintentionally torpedoed the prospect of the Big East ever creating its own network by dumping on the thought that the Big Ten adding schools in the New York area would deliver homes for the Big Ten Network by saying the following:

“One of the real challenges for the networks is to provide value, but you only provide value in markets where you provide traction,” he said. “Is Minnesota and Rutgers going to get a big rating on Long Island? Give me a break. Every game isn’t Michigan and Michigan State.” He added, “Am I going to rush home from a tennis game on Saturday to watch Minnesota and Rutgers if I live on Long Island?”

Now, I’m not exactly a favorite person with the Rutgers message board crowd, but I’ve got to defend the school here.  WTF was Tagliabue doing completely ripping apart a current member of the Big East when his job is to presumably keep the conference intact?  Maybe he was suggesting that Midwestern schools like Minnesota wouldn’t exactly attract the Long Island tennis club crowd, which is likely true, yet that’s quite a disingenuous statement coming from someone representing a league that includes Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati (who don’t conjure up images of summer parties in the Hamptons).  In fact, the highly-rated 2006 Rutgers game where the Empire State Building was lit up in scarlet red was against Louisville as opposed to an Eastern school, which goes to show you that New Yorkers simply want to watch good teams play other good teams regardless of geographic location.  If I were a Rutgers fan, I don’t know how I could deal with someone in a leadership position in the Big East saying that about my school.  At worst, it was a complete cheap shot and at best, it came off extremely wrong with logic that didn’t follow considering that the Big East isn’t a purely Northeastern football league anymore.

(5) ESS – EEE – SEE SPEEEED! – SEC Commissioner Mike Slive articulated the real reason for expansion: it’s a high stakes pissing contest to see who can lay claim to the “Bad Motherfucker” wallet.  More than anyone, there’s kind of this lingering assumption that if the Big Ten expands to 16 schools, then the SEC MUST respond because it simply can’t handle not being the biggest (and therefore, the best).

Frankly, this line of thinking doesn’t make sense to me at all.  I know a lot of fairly knowledgeable people are convinced that we’re going to end up with 4 16-team superconferences after everything shakes out, yet too many people seem to forget that every single conference other than the Big Ten doesn’t have a financial vehicle like the Big Ten Network that would make it financially viable to perform such a large-scale expansion.  The Big Ten isn’t expanding just to expand – it’s looking to maximize the per-school payout for each of its members.  All of the other conferences are going to do the same and I fail to see how any of them would be able to make it a profitable venture to expand beyond 12 without its own conference network.  Heck, even the Big Ten isn’t guaranteed a windfall by going beyond 12 schools (even though it at least has an argument with the Big Ten Network).

In the case of the SEC, there are very few schools that make sense for it in terms of expansion at all.  I see names thrown around like Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson, but all of them would be duplicate teams in markets that the SEC already owns.  There’s very little point in the SEC adding more schools within its current footprint.  In fact, there are only two markets that would add value to the SEC:  Texas and North Carolina.  The problem is that in order to obtain those markets, it would need to try to add the University of Texas and UNC, both of whom would likely completely shun the SEC due to academic reasons.  Throughout this process, I’ve corresponded with many Texas alums (NOT the T-shirt fans that just care about football) and they’re pretty much unanimous in stating that the UT administration will NEVER entertain any thought of joining the SEC.  It cannot be underestimated how much the academically-minded administrators at Texas loathe the thought of the SEC.  I think about this every time I see a columnist wrongly assume that “Texas = South” and therefore “Texas = SEC”, when in reality UT likens itself to be more like Berkeley or Michigan as opposed to any of the SEC schools.  UNC is even more snobby with respect to academics and the Tar Heels have emotional ties to the ACC that go far beyond what Texas has with the Big XII.  So, the chances of the SEC adding either of those schools is between slim and none.  Without them, there aren’t any other worthy markets in the South that the SEC hasn’t already covered.

(6) Why is this topic addictive? – A number of commenters have been wondering about why this expansion topic is so fascinating.  As someone that had been writing this blog for 5 years about a variety of subjects and didn’t focus on conference realignment until the last few months, I’ve also been thinking about how I got hooked on it.  At least for me, I’ve always enjoyed writing about big-picture movements in the sports world and you really can’t get much more big-picture than power schools switching conferences.  Could you imagine if the Yankees and Red Sox approached the Cubs and Dodgers to join the AL East in order to form a super-division of all of baseball’s most popular teams?  (Please note that as a die-hard White Sox fan, it pains me to admit how popular the Cubs are and will likely always be.  I take solace in the fact that they’re paying $19 million to an 8th-inning setup guy.)  Well, the equivalent isn’t just possible in college sports, but it’s happened numerous times.  Within the past 20 years, Penn State joined the Big Ten, Miami joined the Big East and then later switched to the ACC and Texas helped form the Big XII and could be on the move again.

Let’s face it, though: this is like crack-cocaine to the sports blogging world.  As regular commenter allthatyoucanleavebehind noted, it’s a lot more fun to talk about expanding with schools like Syracuse and Rutgers (or really anyone other than the massive players like Texas, Notre Dame and Nebraska) than to actually have to play them when expansion finally occurs.  Once the Big Ten actually makes an announcement regarding expansion, we won’t have a quick fix of speculative blogging material anymore… at least until we start talking about Big XII expansion.

At that point, all I’ll want to do is to rush home from my tennis match to catch the Illinois vs. Rutgers game.

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

(Image from Retecool)

As I was going through the always insightful comments (since people seem to love talking about superconferences) and pondering life’s great questions, such as what Desmond’s plan is on LOST or why Justin Bieber has been a trending topic on Twitter for the past 15 years, it occurred to me that a multi-phase expansion for the Big Ten may actually be a strong strategy for the conference.  For a very long time, I thought that if the Big Ten was going to add multiple schools, it would do it all at once because it wouldn’t want to risk not ending up with its desired end combination by inviting 1 or 2 schools and then hoping that someone like Notre Dame would join down the road.  However, what if the Big Ten could invite 2 specific schools who would accept that would (a) apply maximum pressure on the big names to join in “Phase 2” and (b) even those big names don’t end up joining, those 2 schools plus another school that the conference apparently likes would still provide enough value where expansion would be considered to be a success?

A large part of the leverage that the Big Ten has right now is due to the fact that it stands at an odd number of 11 members, which provides the possibility of the conference adding 1, 3 or 5 schools (or even standing pat).  Basically, it’s the conference equivalent of the “triple threat” position in basketball, where the player with the ball has the ability to dribble, pass or shoot.  No one knows which direction the Big Ten is going to go right now.  The mere threat of Big Ten expansion has caused the Big East and Big XII to wonder if they’ll survive and at least making the ACC consider some contingency plans.  If the Big Ten just adds one member in an attempt to have a multi-phase expansion, then a lot of that threat goes away – the perception will be that the Big Ten is at a stable 12 members with a conference championship game and provides a strong possibility that it wouldn’t look any further.  However, if the Big Ten invites 2 strategically targeted schools that would almost certainly accept, then the conference creates even more fear and chaos in the college sports world.  Standing at 13, it’s clear that the Big Ten is pursuing a superconference strategy and there is an absolute guarantee that it needs to add 1 or 3 more members.  If there’s a frenzy about the Big Ten’s plans today, just imagine what it would be like if the conference expands with a guarantee that it will add at least one more.  The Big Ten would also show schools like Notre Dame and Texas that the conference isn’t bluffing when it says that it’s moving on.

Let’s look back at the Big Ten Expansion Index, which is likely how most of you found this blog in the first place.  After Texas and Notre Dame, I had ranked Syracuse and Nebraska as the next two best candidates for the Big Ten.  For separate reasons, Syracuse and Nebraska also happen to serve as the ideal “Phase 1” invitees to the conference.

Reading the tea leaves from Notre Dame, a split of the Big East current hybrid structure is the most likely way to “force” it to join a conference (regardless of what the school’s alums believe).  Well, if the Big Ten were to choose just one Big East school that would most likely cause the Big East to split, it would be Syracuse.  The Orange are the glue that holds the hybrid together because no other Big East football school has as much invested in rivalries with the conference’s Catholic schools for basketball.  Without Syracuse, the other football schools would almost have to split simply for self-preservation.  Those remaining Big East football schools wouldn’t know whether the Big Ten would really want any of them in Phase 2 of the expansion and with only 7 members, they absolutely have to add another member immediately just to have the minimum number for a conference to exist in the first place.  Practically speaking, they would likely want to split from the Catholic schools to have the leeway to add 2 new members to cover the situation where the Big Ten may end up taking another Big East school in Phase 2.

On the other side of the Big Ten footprint, we should note something very important with respect to the Big XII: it takes 4 schools to stop any changes to the current inequitable revenue sharing structure that favors Texas more than any other school.  Missouri’s chancellor has complained about this openly.  Right now, there’s a solid bloc of 4 schools preventing those changes:  Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma… and Nebraska.  Those 4 schools consistently receive the most national TV appearances of the current Big XII members, so they receive the largest share of conference revenue on a year-in and year-out basis.  (Note that as much as a lot of otherwise incredibly civil Husker fans complain about how much Texas supposedly controls the Big XII, Nebraska is one of the reasons why Texas has such a large financial advantage over the rest of the conference because the Cornhuskers are still a net beneficiary from that revenue distribution model.)  If the Big Ten takes Nebraska away, then the other Big XII schools will have a super-majority to enact the revenue sharing changes that they’ve long wanted and block the prospect of allowing member schools to create their own TV channels (such as the Longhorn Sports Network).  Who is going to be really pissed off in that situation because it now no longer has the supposed financial “control” of the Big XII?  Texas, who is already behind all of the schools in the Big Ten and SEC in TV money even with the Big XII’s deck completely stacked in the Longhorns’ favor.  If Missouri could be considered a “stalking horse” to try to get Texas, actually taking Nebraska can directly hit the pocketbook of Texas like no other Big XII school except for Oklahoma (who won’t ever get a sniff of a Big Ten invite due to academic concerns).  Texas A&M would be in a similar position.  Nebraska leaving the Big XII gives those two Texas schools a clear financial reason for them to move conferences (to the extent that it’s not there already) AND the political “moral authority” (as Barking Carnival has noted before) of telling the state’s politicians that they need to move pronto regardless of what happens to Texas Tech and Baylor because the Big XII is a dead man walking.

In summary, the Big Ten can announce that it’s inviting Syracuse and Nebraska, both of whom I believe the conference likes regardless of who else might be added.  The effect of this is even more panic in the college sports world since 2 BCS conferences will have lost key members and it’s clear that the Big Ten is going to want to add at least 1 more school (or maybe 3).  This causes the Big East to split up simply for self-preservation (which would drive Notre Dame to the Big Ten) and the Big XII’s power schools would no longer have veto power to avoid changes to its revenue distribution model (which would drive Texas and Texas A&M to the Big Ten).  We would then have a Super Death Star Conference (the one that the Empire attempted to build in Return of the Jedi):  Notre Dame, Texas, Texas A&M, Syracuse and Nebraska as new members of a 16-school Big Ten.

Now, what if the desired fallout doesn’t go as planned for the Big Ten, where Notre Dame and/or the Texas schools stay put?  (In the words of future Ole Miss mascot Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!!!”)  This is not really a problem because the Big Ten has already added a huge national football name (Nebraska) and a marquee basketball school that happens to be the only BCS school in the state of New York (Syracuse).  The Big Ten would then invite Rutgers as school #14, which gets the conference to stake its geographic claim to the New York/New Jersey area.  As a result, the Big Ten has increased its national cache for both football and basketball while adding on concrete households in the form of a major presence in the nation’s largest TV market.  (This is “JoePa’s Quasi-Dream Conference” that I wrote about here.)  Adding Syracuse and Nebraska as schools #12 and #13 allows the Big Ten to disrupt the current comfort zones of Notre Dame and Texas and applies serious pressure on them to join the Big Ten themselves, but also provides a hedge in the event that those major players aren’t persuaded at the end.

I’ve stated before that Nebraska would be the one school that could make me eat my words that the Big Ten wouldn’t expand without Notre Dame or Texas involved.  Frankly, JoePa’s Quasi-Dream Conference is a pretty good outcome for everyone associated with the Big Ten.   The sports fans get great national programs in football and basketball (plus major upgrades in other sports with Nebraska baseball and women’s volleyball and Syracuse lacrosse).  The academically-minded people maintain a conference entirely composed of members of the American Association of Universities.  The traditionalists get a geographically contiguous conference that “conservatively” adds on to both sides of the league footprint.  The TV executives get another marquee football name for national TV contracts and entry into the New York/New Jersey area for Big Ten Network households.  Maybe most importantly, these are all schools that seem to actually WANT to be in the Big Ten (as opposed to feeling forced to join).  This can maintain the close-knit atmosphere that I believe is the Big Ten’s greatest qualitative strength.

That would be my maniacal multi-phase expansion plan if the Big Ten is truly looking to move up to at least 14 schools – go for the proverbial royal flush in a way where the conference is still guaranteed to be the chip leader no matter what happens.

(NOTE:  In response to several requests, I’m putting together an updated post on the potential fallout on other conferences, so stay tuned.)

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

(Image from Eco Auto Ninja)