Dissolution is Not a Solution to Break a Grant of Rights Agreement

It has been a whirlwind for the past three weeks since the Big Ten announced that it was expanding with USC and UCLA. I have a lot of thoughts on what the Big Ten will (or more likely, won’t) do in terms of further expansion, the fight for the upper hand between the Pac-12 and Big 12, and how conference realignment may impact the playoff.

At the top of my mind, though, is the ACC Grant of Rights agreement (the “GOR”) and how that document is holding the league together. As a reminder, the GOR entails each school of a conference granting control of its media rights to that conference for the term of the agreement. The real potential mass hysteria from conference realignment is the prospect of partial ACC member Notre Dame and/or full members such as Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina bolting for the Big Ten and/or SEC.

Several years ago, I examined the Big 12 GOR agreement and concluded the following:

[T]he GOR’s strength isn’t that it’s an ironclad complex agreement that doesn’t include any loopholes. Instead, it’s an arrangement that is a triple-dog-dare to schools that want to attempt to challenge it since there isn’t any reliable precedent about how to calculate damages. This is proverbial Russian roulette in a practical legal context – the damages could be more than you could imagine… or they could be less than what a normal exit fee would have been. That makes it a great moot court exercise for people like me and other writers in the peanut gallery, but a dangerous contract to challenge in real life. Lawsuits that are brought on principles other than money, such as constitutional challenges filed by the liberal ACLU or conservative American Center for Law and Justice, can afford to tackle these types of ambiguous arrangements. However, conference realignment is almost entirely about money, which means that the great risk of trying to challenge the GOR (even if there are viable legal arguments against it in theory) is likely going to be enough to dissuade any school from leaving a conference that has that type of contract in place.

Essentially, the only realistic way out of a GOR is for a departing school to offer a conference a crap ton of money far beyond a standard exit fee and hope that the conference accepts that offer. Note that a conference doesn’t even have to accept such offer and can simply continue to own that school’s media rights until the end of the GOR term. This means that the notion of “breaking” a GOR is a misnomer because it implies that the departing school has any control over getting out of the agreement (even if it’s willing to pay a massive amount of money). Instead, it is the conference that has the power to waive or not waive the GOR obligations in its absolute discretion (whether reasonable or unreasonable).

After the story broke about USC and UCLA moving to the Big Ten, Andy Staples of The Athletic interviewed an attorney that obtained and reviewed copies of the Big 12, ACC and Pac-12 GOR agreements and essentially came to same conclusion that I did: the GOR terms are almost shockingly short and simple, which actually makes them tougher to challenge in practicality.

That article did bring up one possible nuclear option to terminate a GOR: dissolve the conference entirely. The basic premise is that if the conference dissolves and ceases to exist, then any GOR inherently can’t exist and the rights would revert back to the member schools. Over the years, the dissolution of a conference is an Internet message board favorite theoretical mechanism for a league and/or its schools to get out of all types of unfavorable contracts or other obligations: bad TV contracts, exit fee penalties and, as discussed here, any GOR terms.

Of course, it would stand to reason any conference would want to make it really difficult to be dissolved and, furthermore, would want to prevent any schools with a clear conflict of interest against the league from making any type of dissolution vote. The conference bylaws would dictate what would be necessary to approve and complete a dissolution.

While I haven’t been able to obtain a copy of the ACC bylaws, the Big 12 has their bylaws freely available at its public website. The Big 12 is a great instructive example because the league has a GOR agreement and, by the fact that their bylaws are publicly available, the ACC or any other league would be able to copy them or draft similar bylaws. In a review of the bylaws, it’s clear that the lawyers drafting them fully anticipated all of those future Internet message board arguments of schools trying to avoid penalties, exit fees and specifically the GOR by dissolving the league and actively wrote their bylaws to prevent that from happening.

For some context, these bylaws were approved by the current 10-team Big 12, so this was after the threat of the formation of the Pac-16 (where Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado would have joined the then-Pac-10) and the actual defections of Nebraska to the Big Ten, Colorado to the Pac-12, and Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC. Not surprisingly, the conference members likely wanted to ensure that there couldn’t be any shenanigans from anyone (cough Texas cough) to leave the others high and dry via a dissolution or other votes where they would have significant conflicts of interest.

Let’s dive into what it would take to dissolve the Big 12. Note that each member has a seat on the Big 12 Board of Directors for voting matters. The Director appointed from each school is its Chief Executive Officer (e.g. president, chancellor, etc.). From Section 1.52(b) of the Big 12 bylaws:

The following actions may be taken only if approved by the affirmative vote of a Supermajority of Disinterested Directors (as defined below):
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(2) The dissolution, liquidation, winding-up, merger, sale, or transfer of all or substantially all of the assets of the Conference…

Note that those that can vote on a dissolution aren’t all members of the Big 12, but rather a Supermajority of “Disinterested Directors” of the league. What does that mean? Here are the relevant definitions under Section 1.5.2.2:

(a) The term “Disinterested Director(s)” with respect to any issue shall mean each person who: (i) is then duly qualified and serving as a member of the Board of Directors pursuant to Sections 1.5.3 and 1.5.4 below; (ii) is the Director representative of a Member that has not Withdrawn and has not been precluded from voting on the matter in question as a Sanctioned Member; and (iii) is not an Interested Director (as defined below) with respect to such issue.
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(c ) The term “Interested Director(s)” with respect to any issue means any Director who has personally, or as to which the Member that such Director represents has institutionally, a direct or indirect material interest in the subject matter of the issue (or series of related issues) being considered by the Board of Directors, that, in the judgment of a majority of the other Directors who are not Interested Directors with respect to such issue or series related issues, could reasonably be expected to impact adversely the objectivity of such Director in voting on such issue or issues. The interests that all Members have in common as the beneficial members of the Conference (even if such interests have disparate effects among Members) will not, in and of itself, cause the Director representing such Member to be an Interested Director with respect to an issue or issues impacting all Members as the beneficial members of the Conference. Any Director who has been determined to be an “Interested Director” in accordance with the foregoing may appeal such determination only in accordance with the following: (i) such Director shall submit a written appeal to the Commissioner and the highest ranking officer of the Board of Directors who has not been determined to be an Interested Director with respect to such issue, if any; (ii) the Commissioner and such highest ranking officer (if any) shall mutually determine and promptly notify such Interested Director with respect to their (or if there is no such officer, the Commissioner’s) determination on the matter, which determination shall set forth whether such Director is deemed to be an “Interested Director” on the matter in question; and (iii) the determination made by the Commissioner and any such highest ranking officer of the Board of Directors shall be final and binding on the Director(s) appealing the initial determination by the other Directors.
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(f) The term “Supermajority of Disinterested Directors” with respect to any issue shall mean seventy five percent (75%) or more of all persons who are Disinterested Directors with respect to such issue, whether or not each is Present at a meeting considering such issue or signs a written consent with respect to such issue.

Essentially, (a) a Disinterested Director is someone that isn’t an Interested Director and (b) an Interested Director is someone that has been determined by the rest of the league to have a conflict of interest in the applicable matter.

Another key term is that a Disinterested Director must be from a school that has not “Withdrawn” from the conference… and this is where I give kudos to the lawyers that drafted these bylaws.

Here is how a member Withdraws or, more importantly for the purposes of this discussion, is deemed to have Withdrawn from the conference under Section 3.2 of the bylaws (emphasis added in the bolded text):

Withdrawing Member. A Member (a “Withdrawing Member”) may Withdraw, or shall be deemed to have Withdrawn, as a Member of the Conference: (i) if it gives notice of the intent to Withdraw to the Conference; or (ii) if a Supermajority of Disinterested Directors by affirmative vote determines that such Member: (A) makes statements or takes actions that are determined by a Supermajority of Disinterested Directors to evidence the intent of such Member to withdraw from the Conference either currently or in the future; (B) breaches or evidences its intent to breach or not honor and fully comply with its obligations to the Conference under these Bylaws or the Grant of Rights Agreement for the entirety of the respective terms thereof; (C) if a third party offers to, or attempts to induce a Member to, leave the Conference and/or breach or not to fully perform its future obligations under the Grant of Rights Agreement and the Member does not both (1) inform the Conference of such action as promptly as possible (but in any event not later than twelve (12) hours after such action) and (2) immediately and unconditionally reject that offer in a form and manner reasonably acceptable to the Commissioner; or (D) if a Member otherwise takes or fails to take actions that are determined by a Supermajority of Disinterested Directors to be contrary to the best interests of the Conference taken as a whole.

Subsection (i) is the clear situation where a school gives notice to the conference that it wants to Withdraw. That’s easy.

It’s subsection (ii) that really serves to protect schools from any clandestine attempts by other members to get around the GOR or take other drastic measures, such as dissolution. That clause effectively gives Disinterested Directors the ability to deem a school to have Withdrawn from the league (and thereby losing their voting rights) if (a) there are statements or actions that make it appear that school is attempting to leave the league, (b) a school breaches or intends to breach the bylaws or specifically the GOR or (c ) a school fails to provide the conference with notice within 12 hours of a third party offer or inducement for that school to leave the league or breach its GOR obligations.

Thus, it doesn’t matter if a school that is trying to leave the conference provides notice of withdrawal or not. As soon as the other members suspect that a school is taking to actions to get out of the GOR specifically (much less leave the league entirely), those other members can deem such school to have Withdrawn from the league and lose its voting rights in the process.

Now, in theory, some schools could conceivably get together a call for a dissolution vote before the other members can deem them to be Withdrawn. However, in practicality, if a school suddenly says, “We’re calling a vote for a dissolution of the conference today” out of nowhere, every other member is going to instantly know that the only reason that’s happening is that school wants to leave the conference and/or break the GOR. Those other members would then invoke the clause that allows them to deem that school to have Withdrawn from the league.

Plus, even if several schools are able to get a dissolution vote passed initially, the left behind members would instantly file a lawsuit and it would invariably come out in discovery that the departing schools were acting in contravention of the bylaws prior to that vote. That would mean that the left behind members would have a strong claim that the departing schools should have either been deemed to have Withdrawn from the conference or defined as Interested Parties that should never have been allowed to vote for dissolution. In turn, that dissolution vote would be deemed invalid and the left behind schools could continue the operations of the conference and enforce any obligations, including but not limited to GOR terms and exit penalties.

To be sure, I don’t know whether the ACC has similar language in its own bylaws. If someone out there has a copy, I would love to review it. However, if the ACC bylaws have terms that are anywhere close to the Big 12 bylaws, even attempting to dissolve the conference entirely wouldn’t get rid of the GOR because the dissolution of the league for the purpose of getting rid of the GOR would be prevented in the first place.

This goes back to a basic statement to anyone that believes that a school can “break the GOR” to leave for another league: There is NO magic legal silver bullet to break the GOR. The fact that Texas and Oklahoma still haven’t figured out how to extricate themselves from the Big 12 GOR just 2 years early (much less 14 years early in the case of any ACC school wanting to leave that league since that GOR runs until 2036) shows in real life how difficult it is to end any GOR obligations prior to their contractual termination date.

People need to stop looking at the GOR as a legal issue and start examining it as a financial issue. If a school wants to get out of its GOR obligations, then it’s going to be a purely financial decision of whether paying out a massive amount of damages to its current conference is worth it in relation to any increased rights revenue from a new conference. It could very well be the case that whatever GOR damages that a school leaving the ACC would need to pay would be more than compensated by the higher levels of rights fees in the Big Ten or SEC. However, no one should pretend that a school leaving a conference is going to “break the GOR” and get out with minimal or no damages. (Image from TV Guide)

Hollywood Nights: USC and UCLA Joining the Big Ten

Jon Wilner reported today that the Big Ten is adding USC and UCLA as early as 2024 and multiple other reporters have confirmed. There could be an announcement as early as tonight. I’ll be honest: I have been quite skeptical of predictions of any major moves by the Big Ten in the wake of Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the SEC and thought that we were in the end game for power conference realignment. Clearly, that was way off base.

While the SEC adding UT and OU involved the movement of two massive brand names, it was still in some ways a small “c” conservative expansion with schools in states that either overlapped or were contiguous with the SEC geographic footprint. At the same time, it was a rare expansion that actually reinstituted rivalries (particularly Texas-Texas A&M and Texas-Arkansas) more than breaking them up.

There’s nothing small “c” conservative with this Big Ten expansion. This is now a legitimate coast-to-coast conference spanning from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. If USC and UCLA are the only Pac-12 schools coming to the Big Ten, they’ll be leaving their regional peers and rivals entirely.

Of course, the immediate question for me is whether USC and UCLA are really going to be the only Pac-12 schools going to the Big Ten. I’ve long thought that for USC and UCLA to viably be a part of the Big Ten, it would take an expansion of several more Pac-12 schools to the point where it would almost be a full merger. The Pac-12 has several other AAU members in key markets, namely Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. Arizona State is located directly in the Phoenix market that’s one of the largest hubs for Big Ten alums outside of the conference footprint itself.

Yet, that’s counterbalanced by the fact that USC and UCLA are the clear financial lynchpins to the Pac-12: they are the blue blood brand names in football and basketball, respectively, located in the league’s largest and most important market of Los Angeles. If USC and UCLA have already been convinced to come to the Big Ten alone, it’s an open question about how much value any other additional Pac-12 schools would bring to the table at least financially. The Big Ten would instead be considering non-financial factors at that point such as institutional fit and long-term demographic goals (which could point to the league wanting to be in places like the San Francisco Bay Area regardless of the immediate financial impact).

People throughout all of college sports and media industry were perplexed by why the Big Ten TV rights negotiations, which were initially projected to be completed by Memorial Day, have been delayed. We now know the answer. This goes way beyond TV rights, though. Even with though the Big Ten expansion with Rutgers and Maryland went into new territories for the league, that was still more of an extension of what the league had already started when it added Penn State in the 1990s. There was still a firm profile of what a “Big Ten school” looked like just as we generally have a good sense of the profile of an “Ivy League school” or “SEC school” or… up until now, a “Pac-12 school.” In contrast, a Big Ten that’s now on the West Coast is going to completely alter how we look at the league.

Up until two hours ago, I thought the Armageddon scenarios for power conference realignment were off the table for the next decade or so and the SEC expansion with UT/OU effectively caused complete paralysis among everyone else (which is why the initial response of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC was to form a generally toothless Alliance). I certainly didn’t believe that it would be the Pac-12 that would be vulnerable to a poaching by its Rose Bowl partner of the Big Ten. If anything, the main long-term expansion prospects that I saw for the Big Ten were in the ACC. It just goes to show that all of the turmoil in the college sports business in general are upending the assumptions of even people like me that quirkily follow conference realignment. Some of those wild conference realignment scenarios that I was posting over a decade ago suddenly don’t look so wild anymore.

(Image from UCLA Alumni Association)

Where in the World is Carmen San Diego State? Mapping Out Big 12 Expansion Strategies

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Last week, the Pac-12 announced that it was not seeking any expansion at this time in the wake of its announced Big Paclantic Alliance with the Big Ten and ACC. While some fans of schools remaining in the Big 12 that are hoping for another power conference home may cling to the “at this time” qualifier from the Pac-12, the practical reality is “at this time” really means, “We’re not expanding unless Notre Dame and schools such as, well, Texas and Oklahoma are coming through that door.”

Therefore, reality is setting in for the Big 12 that it will ultimately need to expand and, to that end, the league has formed an expansion subcommittee. At a minimum, the Big 12 will need to have at least 10 conference members after Texas and Oklahoma officially leave for the SEC in order for the league to maintain its current TV contracts with ESPN and Fox. Note that everyone from the Big 12, SEC, Texas and Oklahoma will all publicly state that no one is moving until 2025 in order to comply with their existing agreements. No one can even hint anonymously that there’s a possibility that UT and OU will leave the Big 12 prior to that time. However, in practicality, everyone knows that there will eventually be a settlement so that those schools aren’t spending the next 4 years in lame duck status that isn’t good for anyone. This means that the Big 12 has to be ready to act once it knows the UT/OU exit timeline and staying at 8 members simply isn’t an option.

Over the past decade (decade?!) in writing about conference realignment, I’ve had multiple posts about examining Big 12 expansion candidates complete with dated pop culture references ranging from Avicii to The Bachelor. In reviewing Big 12 expansion this time around, though, I felt that a straight ranking of the candidates really wouldn’t add much to the analysis. The interesting opportunity that the Big 12 has is that, as a result of its current roster of members with a potpourri of institutional types and geographic placement in the center of the country (except for West Virginia), the league can legitimately expand in any direction both philosophically and geographically. With only a small handful of exceptions, the realistic expansion candidates for the Big 12 essentially all have, in baseball terms, the same Wins Above Replacement Value where there aren’t glaring differences. As a result, expansion should be looked at holistically in terms of the overall strategies that the Big 12 could use. Putting on my consulting hat, here are 11 different Big 12 expansion strategies:

1. Lazy AF Bare Minimum Backfilling Strategy – Cincinnati and BYU

If it’s true that no realistic combination of expansion options for the Big 12 can bring in additional revenue and would only dilute per school shares, then it stands to reason that doing just the bare minimum to backfill to 10 members simply to keep the current conference TV contracts intact is high on the list of potential strategies. Cincinnati and BYU were generally looked at as the top targets for Big 12 expansion 5 years ago and that’s likely going to be the same today. (Heck, Cincinnati and BYU were even the two top schools in my Big 12 Expansion Index from 2013.) It’s not the most explosive or Armageddon-like path for the conference realignmentologists out there, but it might be the most realistic.

Out of all of the available schools, Cincinnati is the school that I believe is most likely to get a Big 12 invite. The Bearcats have a solid TV market, an excellent football recruiting area (which would be the best in the Big 12 outside of Texas), as good of an overall athletic history in both football and basketball as any other candidate, a great football program today, and (maybe most importantly) absolutely no baggage of potential issues with religious stances or in-state conflicts with current members. These are all reasons why Cincinnati is the only school that is listed in every single one of the strategies in this post.

Now, from a pure financial value standpoint, BYU is typically viewed to be the most valuable potential addition to the Big 12 due to its TV viewership history and fanbase size. The challenge with BYU is the “baggage” in past objections from other Big 12 members regarding BYU’s Honor Code and its treatment of members of the LGBTQ+ community and the real or perceived difficulty of negotiating with the school in its past conference realignment discussions with both the old Big East football conference and Big 12. That being said, The Athletic quoted a Big 12 source stating that the ones that opposed adding BYU 5 years ago are the ones “leaving the conference”, so the barriers to BYU getting an invite to the league might have come down.

Of course, the flip side is that BYU, with its independent TV contract with ESPN and BYUtv, might be the only school outside of the Power Five that could conceivably turn down a Big 12 invite. Personally, I find that prospect to be doubtful if/when we have an expanded 12-team playoff system with guaranteed spots to the top 6 conference champs, but no one should discount the fact that BYU has different institutional goals compared to any other place in the country. If BYU won’t come or can’t get into the Big 12 for any reason, look for one of either Houston or UCF (both of which will be discussed in the next strategy) to take their place.

2. You Come at the King, You Best Not Miss Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Houston, and UCF

One of the cardinal rules that we have learned over many years of expansion analysis: S**t ALWAYS rolls downhill in conference realignment. That is, any time that a league lower on the pecking order thinks that it could poach a conference that’s higher on the pecking order, that’s exactly when the lower league gets completely demolished. (See the old Big East football conference, Mountain West Conference and WAC in the early 2010s.) When Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby publicly accused ESPN of engaging in a conspiracy to get the AAC to raid the Big 12, I wrote that this might have changed the Big 12’s attitude from taking as few AAC schools as possible (see the Lazy AF Bare Minimum Backfilling Strategy above) to trying to take as many AAC schools of value as possible. This ensures that there’s no chance that a reverse raid occurs in the future or that the CFP committee in a 12-team playoff world is trying to debate whether the Big 12 or AAC champion faced a tougher conference schedule in fighting for a playoff spot.

Houston is a school that should be in the Big 12 with its institutional and geographic fit combined with being directly located in one of the most important markets for the conference and an excellent athletic program for both football and basketball (including a New Year’s Six Bowl win in 2015 and a Final Four appearance this past year). If Houston (the school) was located anywhere outside of the state of Texas, it would essentially be a lock for Big 12 expansion. The one major wrinkle is that Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU may very well not want to elevate an in-state competitor, which is a theme that we have seen throughout conference realignment history. The Athletic mentioned that some in the Big 12 had issues with in dealing with UH board chair Tilman Fertitta in 2016, although my intuition is that’s cover for the more likely reason of in-state conflicts of interests. If I were running the Big 12, I would absolutely add Houston and this particular strategy would be the one that I’d favor the most.

When the Big 12 was looking at expansion in 2016, the league essentially looked at UCF and USF as effectively tied in a coin flip. That’s not the case any longer with UCF’s on-the-field success and building of its brand over the past several years. Today, UCF arguably brings the most pure football value of any option in the AAC along with new entry into the Orlando TV market and recruiting grounds.

3. TV Executives Will Tell Us What to Do Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, Boise State

In the above-referenced article from The Athletic on the Big 12 expansion process, the schools in this strategy were ones specifically named as possibly maximizing football and TV value for the league. Whether that was pure writer speculation or more of an informed opinion is unknown (although my gut feeling is that those names were just thrown against the wall within the context of that article). From a pure football perspective, Boise State might have the best brand value of any Group of 5 team (despite not performing as well on-the-field compared to several AAC options recently), so they are one of the few expansion options with a solid recent history of on-the-field success and corresponding TV viewership.

4. Life After Death Southwest Conference Strategy – Cincinnati, Houston, SMU, and Rice

My head says that this expansion strategy won’t be used by the Big 12, but my heart really wishes that it would. In most conference realignment situations, the reality is that the resulting matchups when games finally get played lack any history or general emotions at all. (Recall the Civil Conflict “rivalry” between UCF and UConn in the AAC where UCF didn’t even acknowledge the existence of the trophy that UConn created.) That won’t be the case here: nothing will be forced. The hate will be real with Houston, SMU and Rice (yes, Rice!) getting into the very league whose creation destroyed the Southwest Conference and demoted them to non-power status for the past 25 years. The rivalries between the those 3 schools and Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU are longstanding and, in some cases, date back over a century. While the main weakness of the Big 12 up to this point has been its overconcentration in the Texas market, that may now be its greatest asset going forward as it rebuilds. So, the strategy here would be to lean into that asset. It may be better to be the clear #2 conference in the State of Texas than to be the #3 conference in Florida or even the #2 conference anywhere else. Honestly, this is the most fun option for me as a sports fan.

5. Stealing Magnolias Strategy- Cincinnati, SMU, Rice, and Tulane

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, there were various discussions of the creation of a “Southern Ivy League” of top academic private schools that was colloquially known as the “Magnolia League” and involved SMU, Rice and Tulane. As I’ve noted previously as the most important rule in conference realignment: Think like a university president and not like a sports fan. This strategy would fit into the university president’s typical desire to raise the academic pedigree of a league. While this may not be the best path to improve football quality, the argument here would be that getting AAU members like Rice (yes, Rice again!) and Tulane would have a greater institutional impact in being academic peers to a critical mass of members of the other power conferences. Even with the defections of Texas and Oklahoma, the actual on-the-field football product for the Big 12 will likely still be very good, but the challenge is about how the league’s members are perceived as overall institutions compared to the rest of the Power 5. Tulane provides a bonus of being directly located in a solid TV market (and world class road trip destination) of New Orleans and opens up another fertile recruiting area. 

6. All My Exes Live in Texas Blackballing Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, and 1 of either Memphis or USF

Going in the other direction from the Life After Death Southwest Conference strategy, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech form a voting bloc that would blackball any other Texas-based additions to the Big 12 altogether. As noted in the initial discussion on Houston, whether it’s fair or not, protecting the home territory of existing conference members has long been a major factor in realignment decisions. Essentially, this is the You Come at the King, You Best Not Miss Strategy with Houston removed and the last spot being a choice between Memphis and USF. Memphis is in an excellent college sports market that brings a fair amount of historical pedigree for both football and basketball. Meanwhile, USF creates synergy as a pair with UCF in solidifying a presence in the Central Florida region where any school that isn’t Florida or Florida State can’t carry on its won. My feeling is that Memphis would win out due to it being stronger as an overall athletic program, although there might be an overarching desire of the Big 12 to create a more impactful presence in Florida.

7. The Mountains Win Again Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Colorado State, and Boise State

The options discussed up to this point have focused on the Big 12 adding schools to the East outside of BYU. However, there’s a fair argument that going West would be better long-term in order to get the conference into a less competitive region of the country that is also fast-growing. The Big 12 (and old Big 8, for that matter) used to have Colorado as a key member before they defected to the Pac-12. This strategy works best with building around BYU and Boise State. Colorado State has long been at the top of the list of schools that would improve its conference realignment prospects drastically if it could be merely consistently competent in football since it has so many off-the-field factors in favor of it in terms of academic profile and a location in a state that is exploding with growth. .

8. Return of the WAC Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Colorado State, Boise State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, and Air Force (alternate: anyone else from the Mountain West Conference)

Taking The Mountains Win Again Strategy one step further, once upon a time, the WAC was a 16-team superconference with games going on at all hours of the evening. The Big 12 could resurrect that model by going big with many of the same teams that were involved in that WAC format. Essentially, this is a full-on raid of the Mountain West Conference. San Diego and Las Vegas markets are two of the largest TV markets that don’t have a direct or de facto connection to a power conference team, so the Big 12 could serve a need in those areas with San Diego State and UNLV, respectively. (Recall that Boise State and San Diego State were willing to join the old Big East football conference for a few moments before conference realignment further took its toll and they decided to re-up with the Mountain West.) Air Force further solidifies the Rocky Mountain region with some national brand value as a military academy. The Falcons have also been willing to play a higher level of competition for basketball and other non-football sports compared to their other military academy brothers of Army and Navy (who will be discussed later on in this post), although the school expressed concern about competing in a power conference in the past. In the event that Air Force doesn’t want to move, the Big 12 would effectively being throwing at a dartboard at a map of the MWC for which school gets the last spot. (Fresno State? San Jose State? Nevada? Wyoming? Utah State? Heck, Hawaii? It’s totally unclear who would win that battle.) 

9. Big Country Conference Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV, and Houston (alternate: either Memphis or USF)

Further to my last point, the old Big East attempted to put together a coast-to-coast football conference in 2012 in the wake of the ACC raiding that league of Syracuse and Pitt and the Big 12 grabbing West Virginia. However, the plan was killed when the league was raided again by the Big Ten (Rutgers) and ACC part 2 (Louisville) shortly thereafter. That’s too bad since they were employing a variation of one of my favorite blue sky ideas from the crazy conference realignment days of 2010: a coast-to-coast football-only Big Country Conference of the Big East plus the best of the then-non-AQ conference schools. For football purposes, today’s proposed Big Country Conference would be a super-fun league that can deliver 14-plus hours of games for TV networks every Saturday (plus plenty of willingness to fill weeknight time slots). The challenge would be that this may not be realistic as an all-sports league for the West members since there isn’t a critical mass of schools in that part of the country (unlike the Return of the WAC option). If those schools As a result, football-only memberships for those schools would require some coordination with a league like the Big West or West Coast Conference to take those Western schools as members for basketball and other sports.

10. I Wish I Was a Little Bit Taller, I Wish I Was a Baller Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Houston, Memphis, Temple, and UConn

It is a common refrain that “football is all that matters for conference realignment.” However, I would push back on the universality of that statement. While it’s true that the top power conferences such as the Big Ten and SEC are making so much revenue that football is really the only sport that can make a material difference, that isn’t necessarily true at the lower levels. Case in point is the new Big East that has been able to thrive both on-the-court and off-the-court financially based on basketball and no longer needing to deal with football members.

Also note the situation in the Big 12 where the most valuable school left for conference realignment purposes happens to be Kansas… and that is due entirely to its status as a blue blood basketball program. As a result, Kansas may very well have the most influence in Big 12 expansion discussions, which means that basketball prowess could become more of a factor in the decision-making. In this case, 3 AAC schools that we have discussed at length already (Cincinnati, Houston and Memphis) are included along with UConn, Temple and BYU. Granted, it’s hard to see UConn switching conferences again after leaving the AAC and going “home” to the Big East for basketball last year while turning independent for football. However, if the Big 12 is looking to really focus on its basketball brand (which will still be excellent with blue blood Kansas, reigning national champion Baylor, alma mater of the latest #1 pick of the NBA Draft in Cade Cunningham in Oklahoma State, and the national runner-up from 2 years ago in Texas Tech), then UConn has the best available brand on the table. Temple also has an excellent basketball history and would bring in the Philadelphia area that, while being perceived as a weak college football fan market, is actually a strong college basketball region with great rivalries in the Big 5.

11. Shock and Awe Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Air Force, Navy (football-only), Army (football-only), and 1 of either Houston or UCF

Andy Staples of The Athletic recently wrote about the importance of the 4 Million Club, where TV value is driven by games that draw more than 4 million viewers. The SEC and Big Ten have excelled on this measure since 2015, so it’s not a surprise that they draw in the most TV revenue of any conferences by far. The weakness of the Pac-12 and Big 12 (not counting Texas and Oklahoma games) by comparison was also stark. In looking through the source ratings data at Sports Media Watch, one interesting tidbit is that out of 193 college football telecasts that drew more than 4 million viewers since 2015, only 6 didn’t involve at least one Power Five team (including Notre Dame)… and 5 of those 6 games were Army-Navy games. If the Big 12 could actually make the Army-Navy game into a contest that falls under the conference contract, that may be worth more from a TV value standpoint than any other possible addition. Add in Air Force on top of that and the Big 12 would have all three service academies under its wing. Cincinnati, BYU and Houston or UCF can also be added for depth across all sports.

Now, the Army-Navy game currently has a separate TV contract with CBS, which was a requirement of Navy upon joining the AAC as a football-only member and means that league doesn’t receive any revenue from that matchup. Whether that can be adjusted would make a significant difference as to whether going for an expansion strategy focused on adding the service academies would be financially viable. In any event, Navy, Army and Air Force all do bring national brands that are hard to come by outside of the power conferences.

If I’m handicapping the field, I’d rank the following strategies in terms of likelihood: (1) You Come at the King, You Best Not Miss Strategy, (2) Lazy AF Bare Minimum Backfilling Strategy, (3) TV Executives Will Tell Us What to Do Strategy, and (4) the rest of the field. (EDIT: Thinking about this further, the All My Exes Live in Texas Blackballing Strategy ought to be included on this list. I would move that up to the #3 choice.) It’s not an accident that the same schools such as Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, Houston and Boise State are the ones that are being discussed the most along with a small handful of others. The Big 12 already went through an expansion evaluation in 2016, which would seem to make the process this time around much more efficient in theory. The real question is where the Big 12 wants to go, both literally and figuratively, as their strategies are all across the map.

(Image from IMDb)

The Big Paclantic: Thoughts on the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC Alliance

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The Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC officially announced the formation of their Alliance today, or as we will now affectionately call it, “The Big Paclantic”. (Props to Frank the Tank commenter Mike on that awesome name. The best commenters in college sports are here on this blog.) As expected, a press conference with the commissioners of the three leagues was very high-level without many details. Here are my quick thoughts on the major topics of interest:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF EXPANSION

The message seemed to be that all of the Alliance commissioners are in favor of college football playoff expansion. They also gave the impression that they are fine with the proposed 12-team playoff structure overall, but there are issues at the “margins” (to use the words of Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff) that need to be evaluated. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren made a passing reference to media packages, which was essentially code for figuring out how to extract as much money as possible from TV rights, whether it’s an extension with ESPN (which in practicality is going to be required if there’s going to be CFP expansion prior 2026 since ESPN’s consent is required) or waiting until 2026 so that those rights can go to the open market with possibly multiple TV partners (a la the NFL postseason).

I still maintain that it would be really difficult for the powers that be to delay playoff expansion until 2026. While I understand the rationale of wanting to take the contract to the open market, 5 years is an eternity when it comes to the media landscape. If I were running the show, my goal would be to get ESPN to agree to a relatively short extension at the end of the current contract (maybe 2 to 3 years), which would allow them to have 5 to 6 years of broadcasting the newly expanded playoff. The playoff TV rights could then go to a fully open market after that time. This way, all of college football can get a short-term cash infusion of a 12-team playoff quicker, ESPN gets enough of an extension to make it realistic to come to the table to reopen the existing CFP contract, and the entire CFP media deal can still fully go to the open market prior to the end of this decade.

SCHEDULING ALLIANCE

The Alliance commissioners were non-committal on specifics in terms of non-conference scheduling, although Kliavkoff intimated that the Pac-12 could convince its TV partners that it could go to 8 conference games if there were enough valuable non-conference matchups to compensate. This is where I believe the Big Ten needs to be careful since it’s not clear that it makes sense to reduce its conference schedule from 9 games to 8 games in order to accommodate additional non-conference scheduling. While the Pac-12 and ACC could certainly benefit from playing more Big Ten schools, the reality is that a 9th conference game between two Big Ten teams could very well be more valuable when looking at it from the Big Ten point of view. Sure – everyone wants to see Ohio State and Michigan play USC and Clemson, but once you get past that top tier, the plebeians of the league (like my Illinois Fighting Illini) would honestly rather see, well, Ohio State and Michigan come to town more than a second tier Pac-12 or ACC opponent. Note that this is occurring in a landscape where the SEC is now looking at going to a 9-game conference schedule and might even go up to 10 – the whole point of conference realignment is to increase the inventory of compelling intra-conference matchups. It’s hard for me to understand why the Big Ten powers that be (meaning the university presidents and athletic directors) would contemplate cutting back to an 8-game conference schedule. (One important point here: never, ever listen to head coaches on this issue since they all just want an 8-game conference schedule in order to trade off a conference game for a cupcake to pad their records.)

Now, if the Big Ten schools believe that getting more high-profile non-conference games with the Pac-12 and ACC can be done without reducing the number of conference games, then I’m all for it. The question shouldn’t be whether a Pac-12/ACC non-conference game is going to replace a Big Ten conference game, but rather whether a Pac-12/ACC non-conference game is going to replace a non-compelling cupcake non-conference game. I know that many Big Ten athletic departments have come to the conclusion that having 7 home football games per year is some type of sacrosanct right, but those terrible non-conference payday home games are really the ones that ought to be on the chopping block. That is what would improve the value of the TV package immensely: keeping 9 Big Ten conference games and swapping out a currently worthless non-conference game for a Pac-12/ACC Alliance non-conference game.

CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT

ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said the following about the Big 12 during the Alliance: “Let me put it directly. We want and need the Big 12 to do well. The Big 12 matters in college athletics. The Big 12 matters in Power Five athletics, and our FBS group.”

Of course, the immediate question/comment that I saw from a lot of observers in response: if the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC wanted the Big 12 to do well, then why didn’t they get invited to the Alliance?

All three of the commissioners then went on to note that prior conference raids created a domino effect of multiple conference raids, so one of the purposes of the Alliance was to create a sense of stability in the ever-changing world of college athletics.

I actually believe that the Alliance members are being sincere in wanting the Big 12 to survive and having a stable conference realignment environment in the Power Five (Four?) ranks. Granted, this isn’t being altruistic, but rather the Alliance members don’t see any expansion targets in the Big 12 that are attractive enough at this point. Following today’s Alliance press conference, Kliavkoff told The Athletic that the Pac-12 would have an announcement on whether it plans to expand by the end of this week. Pretty much every quote from him (along with virtually every report coming out of the West Coast over the past month) indicates that the Pac-12 will stand pat. The revenue bar for any new addition to the Big Ten is so high that it’s difficult to see anyone outside of Notre Dame providing enough on that front and even the bar for the lower-paying ACC is significant hurdle for any potential expansion option.

The paradox of conference realignment is that the Alliance not wanting to expand is bad for individual Big 12 members (who all want to find a different power conference home), but it’s a good sign for the Big 12 as a conference. The upcoming Pac-12 announcement will likely provide the clarity to Big 12 schools and their fans that they’re likely not going anywhere, so it’s time to figure out their own expansion options. To that point, stability on the power conference front does not mean stability for the rest of college sports. The repercussions throughout the Group of 5 conferences and other leagues below could be quite severe.

It was made clear during the press conference that the Alliance members did not sign a contract with each other, so everything being proposed is really going to be based upon the relationship of the three commissioners. We shall see if The Big Paclantic really turns into a substantive Alliance or it never gets past this high-level framework.

(Image from Chicago Sun-Times)

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Many Bothans Died to Bring Us This Information: Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC Alliance, Rose Bowl Requests and Conference Realignment Impact on the Playoffs

Quite a bit of interesting off-the-field college football news dropped at the end of last week. First, Andy Wittry obtained a Rose Bowl memo to the Big Ten and Pac-12 from earlier this year that outlined what the Granddaddy of Them All is seeking from a new playoff system. That was then followed up by a story with potentially even greater impact, where The Athletic reported that the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC were exploring an alliance that could range from governance issues to scheduling.

As I stated in a prior post, the power of the SEC expansion move to add Texas and Oklahoma is that it really leaves the other power conferences with no realistic options for a response on their own (to the extent a response is even necessary). Virtually every semi-realistic superconference idea since 2010 has involved Texas and/or Oklahoma moving (including the very real and legitimate Pac-16 proposal)… and the SEC was able to grab them both without having to add anyone else. As much as the SEC move is about making as much money as possible, the real beauty of the move is that it still makes sense without the money. Texas actually gets to restart two historical rivalries with Texas A&M and Arkansas, the Red River Rivalry between UT and OU continues and the moves were geographically contiguous. This isn’t like some of the suggestions that I’ve seen trying to add USC and a handful of other Pac-12 schools to the Big Ten where all of the additions are just left on a Western island. That type of move might make money in the short-term, but that isn’t the hallmark of a long-term relationship. In contrast, the SEC expansion simply makes sense. This is not a shotgun marriage. I am an Illini and Big Ten guy to the core and can fully acknowledge that the SEC simply made the most baller conference realignment move ever.

Therefore, it makes sense to me that the other power conferences (to the extent that they’re not trying to raid each other) are trying to see how they can work together. Hence, the potential for an alliance between the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC. We have all of the attributes of the Rebel Alliance fighting against the Galactic Empire that just built the Super Death Star Conference that I speculated about for the Big Ten over a decade ago. (Yes, I will shoehorn Star Wars references into my posts whenever possible.)

Granted, this feels like a response to fans calling their leagues to “Do something!!!” as opposed to anything comprehensive. From the Big Ten alum perspective, that’s a bit of my fear since I firmly believe that the Big Ten doesn’t need to “do something” simply as a response to the SEC move. As a reminder, the Big Ten still distributes more money per member than any other conference (including the SEC) and that figure will likely increase even more dramatically when the conference signs new first tier television contracts to start in 2023. In fact, the Big Ten may very well be making more money per member than the SEC even after they add Texas and Oklahoma. The way that the Big Ten receives profits and revenue directly as a part-owner of the Big Ten Network is simply much more significant than what the SEC receives from the SEC Network (which is wholly-owned by Disney/ESPN) and that has largely accounted for the revenue difference between the two leagues for the past decade despite the SEC performing better on-the-field.

In contrast, the Pac-12 has a conference network that has largely been failure in terms of generating revenue, while the ACC is locked into an underwhelming contract with ESPN until 2036. It’s pretty stunning that the Big Ten could end up 3 or 4 new TV deals with raises each time before the ACC gets a chance at a new one. This wouldn’t be an alliance of equals – the Big Ten would be carrying the water here financially and they also have the most depth of attractive brands to offer for non-conference scheduling arrangements.

So, what’s in it for the Big Ten? There are two primary things that the league could be looking for here (outside of governance issues that are interesting to me as a lawyer but would bore the tears out of all of you):

  1. Long-Term Access to Growing Demographics – The Big Ten is more than fine in terms of financially competing with the SEC for the next decade or so. It’s not really about the near-term money. However, the Big Ten’s main long-term risk (identified by Jim Delany in the conference realignment round starting in 2010) is that the population trends in its footprint are quite poor compared to the other power conferences. It’s evident in the 2020 Census data that was released in the past week where the Midwestern states are generally in slow-to-no-growth mode (with my home state of Illinois being one of only 3 states that straight up lost population since 2010). Meanwhile, the Pac-12 and ACC feature pretty much every high growth state outside of Texas: Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, etc. An alliance with those leagues could allow for the Big Ten to get more consistent exposure in those regions without having to go through (or having the option of) expansion.
  2. Playoff Issues and Rose Bowl Protection – Outside of what other conference realignment moves might happen, the biggest question on everyone’s mind is how the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma impacts the proposed 12-team playoff. Some people believe that it might be altered in format or derailed altogether. Others, such as Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, are concerned about a new playoff system being handed to ESPN instead of going to the open market.

For what it’s worth, I firmly believe that once all of the emotions die down with the SEC expansion, the 12-team playoff will get passed in largely the format that has been presented. For all of the concern about the SEC locking down multiple at-large bids per year in that system, what will be even worse for the other power conferences is continuing on with the current 4-team playoff and seeing more years like 2018 where the SEC is getting multiple bids where it shuts out those competing leagues entirely. The Pac-12 has been the most open power conference in support of an expanded playoff for many years – they’re not backtracking here.

At the same time, just as a lot of layman fans mistakenly believe that the SEC makes more money than the Big Ten (which isn’t true), the Big Ten would have actually had more at-large bids if the 12-team playoff had been in place during the CFP era than the SEC. I have seen a lot of fans suggest that leagues outside of the SEC would want to cap the number of teams from each conference that could make the playoffs, but they’re forgetting is that the Big Ten absolutely doesn’t want that at all, either. This is one issue where the Big Ten and SEC are aligned.

Here’s my overarching belief about the impact of conference realignment (or lack thereof) on playoff issues: Just because the 12-team playoff would be good (or even great) for the SEC doesn’t mean that it isn’t good (or even great) for everyone else. The Big Ten wants just as many multiple bids as the SEC and they’ll get that here. The Pac-12 wants more consistency of getting their conference champ into the playoff and they’ll get it here, too (particularly with the downgrading in status of the Big 12). The SEC and Notre Dame were very clear that they aren’t agreeing to an 8-team playoff system unless it’s only taking the top 8 teams without any protection for conference champs, which would be pointless for the other leagues to agree to in a playoff expansion. It’s hard to know where the ACC stands, but if Notre Dame is clear that they’re voting one way, they’re probably not to push a system that their Irish partners would outright reject. The playoff proposal is more than the Group of Five conferences could have ever realistically hope for in terms of access – there’s NFW that they’d turn it down. Finally, the Big 12 (who had a lead role in creating the 12-team playoff proposal with the SEC) needs this to pass more than ever. Their league is effectively going to be completely shut out of the national championship race if the 4-team playoff system continues after Texas and Oklahoma leave.

Ultimately, fans generally love this 12-team playoff proposal. (It’s interesting that the only pushback that I ever see about the proposal are places like the comment section of my blog and hardcore college football-centric forums. We get into the weeds of the process and are hyper-focused on who gets an advantage. However, there hasn’t been a single “normal” sports fan out there that I’ve spoken to that doesn’t *LOVE* this proposal… and it’s the “normal” sports fans that are required for the massive audiences that justify ESPN paying for this playoff in the first place.) Believe me when I tell that even what the general public considers to be “wealthy” schools got financially hammered with the pandemic in the past year (and it isn’t over yet). So, as much as a school like Ohio State might be fine with waiting to take a new playoff system to the open market for TV negotiations, the reality is that the vast majority of other college can’t wait for 5 more years for a new playoff system when they legitimately need the money NOW (as in the Death Star reactor core is about to explode NOW). Remember that over 90% of FBS teams won’t be participating in a 12-team playoff every year… and those schools would be getting substantially more money for doing nothing. This is the easiest money grab in history and the fans will be happier than ever.

The proverbial genie was out of the bottle as soon as the 12-team playoff proposal was announced publicly. Can you imagine if we had to wait 5 years for a 12-team playoff and all we’d hear every week is, “If the 12-team playoff were in place today, then these teams would be in, but we still have to wait a bunch of more years.” No conference can look their fans in their eyes and in good faith reject the playoff at this point. There might be touchpoints around the edges to figure out, but when there’s a rare instance where fan desire and financial interests actually align, it’s going to happen.

Of course, one of those touchpoints for the Big Ten and Pac-12 is the Rose Bowl. In the memo referenced earlier in this post, the Rose Bowl Management Committee stated that they had the following objectives in a new playoff system (note that the memo was written in April prior to the 12-team playoff consensus, so they were covering either an 8-team or 12-team playoff):

1) Development of an independent media contract with the Rose Bowl Game, its partner conferences, and a telecast entity for an annual quarterfinal game;

2) Preferred access for the Rose Bowl Game on an equal rotating basis to a Pac 12 or Big Ten team available for that round of competition;

3) A Most Favored Nation position among bowls and other venues for hosting CFP Semi-Final and Championship games; and

4) The proposed quarter final Rose Bowl game shall occur on January 1 annually in its historic telecast window (approximately 5 p.m. Eastern time) following the Rose Parade.

Request #1 is actually consistent with today’s CFP system. The current ESPN CFP deal is a series of contracts: a CFP contract that covers the National Championship Game and the New Year’s Six Access Bowls (including any semifinal games played in those particular bowls) and then separate contracts with each of the Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls (the “Contract Bowls”). When a CFP semifinal is played in a Contract Bowl, that comes under that particular Contract Bowl deal with ESPN as opposed to the overarching CFP contract. Whether this could realistically continue in the new system is an open question, but the Rose Bowl is essentially asking for the status quo on that front here.

Request #2 is quite logical if the Rose Bowl is a permanent quarterfinal game, particularly where the top 4 conference champs would be provided byes in the proposed system. With the effective demotion of the Big 12, it’s going to be more likely than ever that both the Big Ten and Pac-12 will among the top 4 conference champs on an annual basis, so the Rose would have access to them. Frankly, I would expect the same with respect to the SEC with the Sugar Bowl and ACC with the Orange Bowl when those bowls are quarterfinals. Otherwise, there’s little point in using the bowls as quarterfinal sites in the first place. What’s most interesting here is that the Rose Bowl is conceding that the new playoff system is going to prevent a Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup – they’re acknowledging that they’ll get either conference in a given year, but not both. That makes it a whole lot more realistic for the Rose Bowl to get integrated into the playoff system.

Request #3 seems to be a bit strange and conflicts with the notion of a permanent Rose Bowl quarterfinal game on New Year’s Day. This might be taken to mean that Pasadena would have a Most Favored Nation position to host these games in addition to the Rose Bowl Game itself. That’s a little tougher to see.

Request #4 is insanely important to the Rose Bowl. Remember that the Rose Parade and Game are intertwined specifically on New Year’s Day. I know that it can be perceived as hokey and is often frustrating to fans outside of the Big Ten and Pac-12 that this is such a key point, but if you’ve ever been to the Rose Parade followed up by the Rose Bowl Game, it all makes sense.

In my mind, Requests #2 and #4 could be fairly easily granted. The trade-off to me is that the Rose Bowl can be a permanent quarterfinal, but that means that it can’t host semifinal games (eliminating Request #3). I’ve got to believe that the Rose Bowl would fine with that scenario. Request #1 is really up in the air – I doubt that we’d have a situation where the Rose Bowl is the only bowl that gets this treatment if it’s allowed. Ultimately, I believe that Requests #1 and #2 would also need to apply to whichever bowls are connected to the SEC and ACC (currently the Sugar and Orange, respectively).

Linking this back to the Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC alliance, everyone should remember that the ACC just hired a new commissioner that started only 6 months ago in February 2021: Jim Phillips. What’s key here is his background – his job right before being ACC commissioner was the athletic director at Northwestern and served multiple stints on the Rose Bowl Management Committee. Phillips also attended undergrad at my alma mater of Illinois. The point here is that the ACC commissioner intimately understands the Big Ten and its relationship with the Rose Bowl. It wouldn’t surprise me if Phillips knows the Big Ten presidents and athletic directors better than Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren simply because of the length of time Phillips spent at Northwestern.

So, to the extent that the Big Ten and Pac-12 need help securing their preferences for the Rose Bowl in the new playoff system, Jim Phillips could very well be a friend on that front. The ACC supporting the Big Ten/Pac-12/Rose Bowl relationship would change the dynamics greatly – it would turn it into 3 power conferences supporting it as opposed to it just being the self-interested Big Ten and Pac-12 fighting for it. Of course, if Phillips is smart (and I definitely think that he is), he’ll get a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” quid pro quo with getting support from the Big Ten and Pac-12 for a similar setup for the ACC with its contract bowl, whether it continues to be the Orange Bowl or maybe a rotation between the SEC and ACC in the Sugar Bowl. Just change all Rose Bowl requests to refer to the Sugar Bowl, SEC and ACC with a guaranteed 9 pm ET quarterfinal on New Year’s Day and that might ultimately be the compromise between the “Power 4” in the new playoff system.

Speaking of the Power 4, it’s instructive that the Big 12 was left out of the Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC alliance discussions entirely. The Big 12 is looking at a position similar to the old Big East football conference following the ACC’s raid of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College as a league that’s above the non-power conferences, but clearly behind the other power conferences. The silver lining is that the alliance discussions also indicate that the Big 12 isn’t likely to be poached further, which means that it can move forward with unity as a league (even if its individual members may long for an invite elsewhere). The backfilling/expansion options for the Big 12 will be the topic of another post soon. Until then, May the Force Be With You.

(Image from Pixels.com)

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The Art of Deception: Big 12 vs. ESPN

For most conference realignment moves, the timing may often be surprising, but the logic behind them makes sense. The SEC taking Texas and Oklahoma is a perfect example: the move came out of nowhere last week and shocked the college football world to its core, but it’s a move that makes perfect sense for the parties involved with increased money and power.

Every once in awhile, though, conference realignment causes a story that goes beyond the realm of reasonable possibility, such as a Power 5 conference commissioner publicly going postal on ESPN. Yesterday, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent a cease and desist letter to ESPN where he accuses the network of attempting to induce league members to join another conference. Then, he didn’t just let that letter speak for itself: he basically went to every media outlet out there (sans ESPN) and left no doubt about how he really feels. Conspiracy! Deception! Manipulation! Tortious interference! Backstabbing partner! All that we need is a missing body and this would be an episode of Dateline!

The only thing crazier than all of this is ESPN’s alleged plan: dissolve the Big 12 by having 3 to 5 members join the AAC. Not the ACC, but the AAC. Now, from a pure ESPN perspective, the dissolution of the Big 12 makes financial sense: that allows Texas and Oklahoma to move to the SEC without paying any exit obligations (likely in the neighborhood of $70 million to $80 million for each of those schools), move the most attractive remaining Big 12 brands to a less expensive AAC contract that’s 100% under the control of ESPN, and eliminate around $1 billion in rights fees that are remaining on the current Big 12 contract with ESPN. I have no doubt that ESPN would love everything to play out this way.

However, if these allegations are true, this is an insanely brazen and obtuse proposal regardless of incentives for ESPN. If we assume that no other P5 league is going to take any of the remaining Big 12 members, how on Earth did ESPN think this was going to work? Think of it from the perspective of the remaining Big 12 schools of the ESPN “offering”:

(1) This would have involved asking Oklahoma State to ask Tulsa for an invite to a league. It would have involved Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU to ask SMU and Houston to the same. Putting aside football, this would have required Kansas State and freaking Kansas (whose basketball program was founded by basketball inventor James Naismith) asking Wichita State to join the Shockers’ league!

(2) The Big 12 would just willingly disband and give up $140 million to $160 million of exit fees from Texas and Oklahoma.

(3) The Big 12 would further willingly dissolve and give up around $1 billion for the rest of the existing TV deal with ESPN.

Once we take a step back from the initial shock of how openly public this dispute is between the Big 12 and ESPN, the alleged proposal from ESPN is frankly comical. It’s no wonder that Bob Bowlsby claims that he has receipts that ESPN has been attempting this here: any Big 12 school that received a proposal from ESPN for them to join the AAC (not the ACC) so that they can dissolve the league and make less money in the process would have forwarded those texts and emails to the Commissioner’s Office with the subject line: “Dude?! WTF?!”

To be sure, nothing is going to change ESPN’s power position in college sports (or simply the sports world in general). However, I believe that this is going to backfire on the AAC quite badly. The AAC might get a few days of positive news cycles where they appear to be the aggressor as opposed to being the hunted in the conference realignment game. However, when anyone takes a step back and goes line-by-line comparing the Big 12 and AAC members, the fact of the matter is that the AAC would take every Big 12 member while there are several schools that the Big 12 wouldn’t touch from the AAC. That inherently means that the remaining Big 12 schools as a core are simply more valuable than the AAC and it makes more financial sense for the Big 12 to take the best schools from the AAC as opposed to the other way around.

Just 24 hours ago, I would have believed that the Big 12 was aiming to have as little backfilling as possible (maybe just taking 1 AAC school like Cincinnati plus independent BYU) or even simply stand pat at 8 schools. Frankly, the Big 12 has been spending the past several years convincing itself of reasons to not take AAC schools such as Cincinnati, Houston, UCF and Memphis. I believe those days are gone. With this accusation of the AAC coordinating with ESPN for the equivalent of a hostile takeover, my sense is that the Big 12 is going to find every reason to strip mine anything of value from the AAC to neutralize any real or perceived threat here. This may turn out well for the AAC schools that I just mentioned, but any current schadenfreude at the Big 12 predicament from the bottom half of the AAC is wildly misplaced.

In the past week, I feel that a lot of fan chatter has overrated the chances of the Big 12 schools to get an invite to any of the other Power 5 conferences since they were ignoring institutional fits and simply how much more money a school needs to bring to the Big Ten, Pac-12 or ACC just for expansion to break-even for them (much less actually be more profitable). However, it seems as if though the tide has turned where the Big 12 is now underrated in comparison to the AAC and rest of the Group of 5 leagues. The truth is somewhere in the middle – the rest of the Big 12 may not be finding homes in other P5 leagues, but they still have absolute poaching power over the G5 leagues if only because of a combination of autonomy status with the NCAA, incoming exit fees from Texas and Oklahoma and existing NCAA Tournament credits. To say that I’m watching all of this from the sidelines while eating popcorn is an understatement: this is all worthy of downing an entire souvenir Chicago skyline tin of Garrett’s Popcorn.

(Image from the Big 12 Conference)

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Texas and Oklahoma Leave the Big 12: Why Newton’s Third Law Doesn’t Apply to Conference Realignment and the Big Ten

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Ever since news broke last week that Texas and Oklahoma were looking to leave the Big 12 (which was made official today) and join the SEC, one of the most common questions has been how the Big Ten and the other Power Five conferences would react. As sports fans, many of us have a preternatural desire for clean and organized structures, such as seeing 4 superconferences with 16 schools each in college football as a logical endpoint. However, conference realignment doesn’t work that way: it is a messy uncoordinated process with a lot of different individual entities acting separately trying to advance their own respective self-interests. While the Big 12 would clearly seek to backfill with replacement members at a minimum as a matter of survival, there is absolutely nothing that requires the Big Ten, Pac-12 or ACC to react at all if it doesn’t make financial and cultural sense. There isn’t any master plan or rationale that says that other leagues need to go to 16 members simply because the SEC has done so. In essence, Newton’s Third Law of Motion simply doesn’t apply to conference realignment.

The fact of the matter is that the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma is the most baller power move in conference realignment history because it doesn’t leave the Big Ten, Pac-12 or ACC with any logical moves to react at all. This is quite different than the 2010-13 round of conference realignment when there were many theoretically valuable expansion options actively looking to move on the table for the power conferences, fewer restrictive covenants locking schools into their home leagues (such as Grant of Rights agreements), more cable households being added every year for conference networks and lower revenue thresholds for new members to clear to ensure that expansion would actually make money for leagues.

With all of the hysteria with the admittedly outstanding power play by the SEC, let’s take a step back and remember where the Big Ten is today. An undercurrent in the media stories and fan perception back in the realignment wars of 2010 was that the SEC had to be the revenue leader and top power broker because of its prowess on-the-field, but that was never correct: it was always the Big Ten in front… and that’s still the case now.

In the fiscal year ending in 2019 (the last full season prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), the Big Ten distributed approximately $55 million to each school (outside of Rutgers and Maryland who had still been receiving reduced shares), while the SEC provided an average of $45.3 million per school (excluding Mississippi because of a postseason football ban that year). The fiscal year 2020 figures show a similar gap outside of the SEC advancing each member $23 million against future earnings for relief plus the general pandemic-related revenue reductions of the past 18 months (which should hopefully be aberrations).

To be sure, the SEC did sign a new deal with Disney/ESPN in December for its Game of the Week that will be worth $300 million per year on average starting in 2024. CBS had been previously paying $55 million per year for that package (the absolute TV rights steal of the century), so that in and of itself will increase per school revenue in the SEC by $17.5 million per year for 14 schools. Note that this is on top of the existing ESPN contract for the rest of the SEC’s TV rights and the SEC Network. Whether any of the amounts being paid by ESPN will be adjusted by the addition of Texas and Oklahoma is an open question. (The reports that UT and OU started talking to the SEC in December, which would have coincided with the new ESPN contract, might mean that such new contract is effectively funding the conference expansion, but that’s purely my speculative guess.)

On the other hand, the Big Ten’s current TV contracts with Fox and ESPN expire fairly soon in 2023. This gives the Big Ten another opportunity to reload in a still ever-increasing sports TV rights environment (once which saw leagues like the NHL, much less the NFL, get explosive new TV contracts in the past few months), so the Big Ten will very likely continue to be effectively even with the SEC (if not still ahead) in terms of revenue. The additions of Texas and Oklahoma simply keep the SEC on par with the Big Ten for revenue, not zoom ahead.

Now, the SEC expansion with UT and OU certainly exposes the long-term demographic issues of the Big Ten footprint that Jim Delany was trying to address over a decade ago with expansion. The Big Ten will still be in the same tier with the SEC revenue-wise for the next decade, but the SEC will now have the flagship of Florida on one end, the top two schools in Texas on the other end, and a complete stranglehold on the college football universe in all points in between with elite national brands like Alabama and the best pound-for-pound recruiting area.

The problem is none of that can be addressed by the Big Ten adding any of the Big 12 schools available. While schools like Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor are located in the State of Texas, they aren’t academic or institutional fits with the Big Ten and are far behind Texas and Texas A&M in terms of in-state power. Kansas may have some value as a blue blood basketball program and has membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) that’s a key academic credential for the Big Ten, but it’s certainly not a demographic play. Iowa State has AAU membership, too, but it would be doubling up on a small population state that the Big Ten already has covered. None of the schools in the Big 12 meet the Big Ten academic standards.

Frankly, the only real options to address the Big Ten’s longstanding demographic issues that would also make enough revenue are in the ACC and Pac-12, but those are significantly tougher nuts to crack compared to all of the Big 12 schools essentially being free agents now. The Big Ten would clearly love to go after several ACC schools such as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, but that league has a Grant of Rights agreement that won’t end until 2036. It will be difficult enough to see how Texas and Oklahoma deal with a Big 12 Grant of Rights agreement that won’t expire until 2025 (or more likely, the stiff financial penalties involved to get out of it early), so trying to convince ACC schools to put their TV revenue for the next 15 years on the line is realistically way too tall of an order right now.

The current Pac-12 TV contracts end in 2024, so the Grant of Rights issue isn’t as much of an urgent concern there, but the challenge with the Pac-12 is that they legitimately fit with each other institutionally and culturally similar to how the Big Ten schools fit with each other. Colorado would be a good fit for the Big Ten on paper and a logical westward expansion with great demographics, but that school is also already a perfect fit for the Pac-12. Meanwhile, the Big Ten would certainly take heavyweights like USC and UCLA from the Pac-12, but that’s the West Coast equivalent of trying to say the B1G should add UNC and UVA: that’s way easier said than done.

The bottom line: a new Big Ten school would need to deliver at least $70 million per year just for the league to not lose money on expansion. Notre Dame could do that along with UT and OU (who are now off the table) and some of the aforementioned options in the ACC and Pac-12, but it’s otherwise hard to see anyone else. (Plus, any “expansion plan” that is predicated on Notre Dame joining isn’t an expansion plan at all since they are committed to independence as an institutional identity. The ACC needs to be reminded of this just like the old Big East football conference.) The only Big 12 school that even has a chance at the Big Ten is Kansas (and that’s assuming that its basketball program is so uniquely and singularly valuable a la Duke/UNC/Kentucky that it overwhelms its football issues). As I discussed many years ago with the original Big Ten Expansion Index, a new school needs to be an academic and cultural fit, bring in a new market and/or national brand and, above all else, make a lot more money for the conference. At the end of the day, the Big Ten isn’t going to expand just for the sake of expanding.

(Image from Wired)

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

Red River Realignment: Texas and Oklahoma Talk to the SEC

(Image from Omaha World-Herald)

When I first started writing about conference realignment over a decade ago, it was always clear to me which school was the biggest prize for every conference: the University of Texas. Whatever metric is used for conference realignment value, Texas has a perfect score in all of them – national historic football brand, rabid fan base, massive home state delivering multiple key TV markets, elite academics and a top recruiting area for football and virtually every other sport. Adding Texas was the original dream for Big Ten expansion and the Longhorns were the centerpiece of the Pac-16 proposal. The Texas power was so overwhelming that they effectively ran the Big 12 as their own conference.

While it has long been assumed that Oklahoma would take an invite from the SEC under the right circumstances, the conference where it just means more has been a relative underdog when it comes to courting Texas. Sure, the pure football fan base out of Austin would love a schedule full of SEC opponents, but the academic and administrative sides at UT have always viewed the SEC was a wary eye. Add on top of the fact that Texas A&M moved to the SEC on its own back in 2011 and there was an undercurrent that the Longhorns couldn’t ever be perceived to be following the Aggies on principle.

At the same time, much of the value of the Big 12 to both Texas and Oklahoma was political peace. Fellow in-state institutions such as Texas Tech and Oklahoma State could continue be protected as a part of a Power 5 conference with the bargain being that UT and OU would be calling the shots for the league. In fact, it had been becoming difficult to see how Texas and/or Oklahoma could proactively leave the Big 12 without any of their “little brothers” with such a huge divide between the Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences, especially when they turned down the Pac-16 proposal that would have largely incorporated them all.

As a result, the Houston Chronicle breaking the story today that Texas and Oklahoma have reached out to the SEC is an earthquake followed up by a tsunami for conference realignment purposes. To quote Dr. Strange, “We’re in the endgame now.” The past two decades of conference realignment (starting with the ACC’s original raid of the old Big East football conference by expanding with Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College) have been leading up to this moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic also crystallized something very clearly for schools both large and small across the country: no one can afford to leave material amounts of money on the table any longer. That can’t be emphasized enough. It’s not an accident that a 12-team college football playoff is coming down the pike sooner rather than later and now, several months after the SEC has signed a Game of the Week deal with ESPN worth around $300 million per year (and note that this is on top of their existing ESPN deal and the SEC Network), it appears that all of the overarching concerns and obstacles that UT and OU may have had (whether internal or external) might be melting away.

Another important point is that SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has become the unambiguous alpha dog of college sports. While the SEC was always well-managed and clearly had the best product on the field for many years, it was really former Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany that was the main visionary of college sports during his tenure and who changed how leagues look at media rights (particularly the invention of the conference network) and conference realignment (where growth outside of the existing footprint became the focus). Ever since Delany retired at the end of 2019, Sankey has really positioned the SEC to be as bold off-the-field as it has been on-the-field. Within the past month, he has spearheaded the development of the new college football playoff system, completely called out the NCAA and put out a thinly veiled threat that the Power 5 could leave on their own… and now appears to be on the precipice of a once-in-a-generation SEC expansion.

It’s hard to say where this leaves competitor leagues such as the Big Ten. I can’t imagine that Texas and Oklahoma searching for a new home alone without their little brothers would have just been ceded to the SEC under Jim Delany’s watch. This isn’t a critique of current Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, but rather that Sankey’s dominance compared to the other P5 leaders right now is unchecked. If UT and OU end up in the SEC, I could see the Big Ten having a lot of interest in Kansas. Note that KU has had the largest third tier rights TV deal in the Big 12 outside of UT’s Longhorn Network (even higher than OU), which shows the particularly unique value of the Jayhawk basketball program. There are few basketball programs that move the P5 conference realignment needle today, but KU is one of them as a true blue blood. Basketball content is quite relevant to the Big Ten Network in particular. Still, it’s difficult to find another great fit for the B1G outside of a much more difficult raid of the ACC (e.g. Georgia Tech, Virginia) or (gasp!) Pac-12 (e.g. Colorado).

Now, there have already been rumblings that Texas A&M will work try to block this SEC expansion. While I could see the leadership of Texas A&M voting against adding Texas and Oklahoma in order to superficially placate their alums, it’s completely insane for me to think that any other SEC member would oppose those additions regardless of any past history (such as Missouri’s experience with Texas in the Big 12). Any conference that has the ability to add two of the biggest brands in college sports in one fell swoop will hammer this through, particularly with a leader like Sankey.

The bottom line is that Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC would be the greatest heist in conference realignment history. We’re in the endgame now.

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

A Dirty Dozen Teams: College Football Playoff Expansion on the Table

It has been a long time since my last post and we have a lot to catch up on (to say the least). There will be more to come, but let’s focus on a timely topic: the very real possibility of college football playoff expansion.

Last week, the College Football Playoff management committee issued a press release about its latest meetings where it stated that it had a working group exploring expanding the playoff with “some 63 possibilities for change. These included 6-, 8-, 10-, 12- and 16-team options, each with a variety of different scenarios.” While CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock had all of the standard disclaimers that there is still a 4-team playoff and the discussions are all exploratory, the fact that the CFP directly acknowledged all of this on its own indicated that the powers that be might have been further along in its talks than anyone could have imagined up to this point. Remember that conference commissioners were all publicly firm that the old BCS system wouldn’t change only weeks before the current CFP format was put into place and the party line until now has been a steadfast, “We have a 4-team playoff under a 12-year agreement and that’s not changing.” The powers that be in college football HATE talking about college football expansion, so unilaterally offering it up to the public that they’re discussing the issue isn’t just throwing out there for speculation.

Needless to say, this got me quite excited! I have been writing about college football playoff scenarios for as long as this blog has existed (and way before conference realignment really became such a huge focus here). My oldest post on this subject was a proposal in July 2006 to have an 8-team playoff with power conference auto-bids using traditional bowl matchups (such as always having the Big Ten and then-Pac-10 champs play in the Rose Bowl). All of these years later, that would personally still be my optimal playoff format. That 2006 post would need a few tweaks and updates to account for events that have occurred since that time, but all of the principles I wrote back then pretty much apply today.

Following up on that press release, The Athletic reported on Wednesday that college football playoff expansion discussions are indeed progressing along quickly. That in and of itself didn’t surprise. However, what did surprise me was what was revealed in the opening of the article:

Concerned that their four-team product has been harmed by the dominance of a select few teams from the same region, FBS commissioners are seriously considering expanding the College Football Playoff. And while it’s long been assumed that any change to the format would be modest, several influential decision-makers are suddenly open to a playoff system that skips past eight teams and into the double digits.

“I sense 12 teams is building support,” one Power 5 athletic director said.

12 teams?!

My initial reaction was, “WTF?!” I had it in my head that an 8-team playoff was the inevitable next step for so long that the thought of the system moving to 12 teams made my head feel like I just did a keg stand on a Slurpee machine. How could the powers that be that have inched along with playoff expansion for the last century suddenly zoom up to a 12-team playoff?

Taking a step back and thinking about it further, though, maybe the powers that be are (weirdly) seeing a 12-team playoff as a system that is closer to the status quo than an 8-team playoff. Consider the following:

(1) Many college football fans (myself included) have been so focused on whether to expand the 4-team playoff itself that we have generally neglected the fact that the overall CFP system consists of 12 teams competing in the New Year’s Six Bowls. Those 12 teams consist of the Power Five conference champs, the top Group of Five champ, and 6 other teams (at-larges and conference contract bids). Essentially, the powers that be could be viewing this as simply taking that existing field of teams (with the exception that the 6 “other teams” would all be at-larges based on merit) and turning it into a playoff.

(2) A 12-team playoff would presumably provide first round byes to the top 4 teams. This preserves the top 4 horse race that exists in the current CFP system (and goosing the ratings of those weekly CFP rankings release shows on ESPN) while expanding enough to allow for auto-bids for the Power Five conferences and the top Group of Five champ. That wouldn’t be the same in an 8-team playoff. This also alleviates concerns that Power Five schools that have clinched conference championship game berths might rest players in late season games (similar to NFL teams that have clinched playoff spots) and just bank on winning their conference championships. Putting in the carrot of a first round bye means that teams would be competing just as hard for a top 4 spot throughout the entire regular season. (Personally, one of the reasons why I have advocated for an 8-team playoff was to minimize the power of the CFP selection committee. If we end up with a 12-team playoff, the powers that be clearly aren’t as bothered by that issue as the ability to grant byes arguably gives the CFP selection committee more power than ever.)

I don’t know if I personally like the prospect of a 12-team playoff more than an 8-team playoff, but I’ll have to say that it’s growing on me. If that’s the size of field that’s required to have auto-bids for all of the Power Five conference (which I believe is a minimum requirement for any playoff expansion), then it works for me. To be sure, there are many other issues to examine over the coming months (not the least of which is what happens to the bowl system).

In any event, with colleges large and small getting squeezed with a double whammy of higher expenses and lower tuition and room and board revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, university presidents are likely far past the point where they can afford to pass up any opportunities to generate revenue regardless of past reservations. Expanding the College Football Playoff is simply one of the easiest ways out there for universities to instantly raise revenue, so it’s not a surprise that it is coming to forefront now.

(Image from Scarlet and Game)

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Where Big Ten Graduates Live and Conference Realignment

Over the past several years analyzing conference realignment, observers have had access to some overarching data, such as TV ratings, athletic department revenue, population and demographic trends of states and metro areas, and the home states of current college students. However, up to this point, there has been only largely anecdotal and/or unreliable data on a critical piece of the conference realignment puzzle: the specific places where the graduates from each college actually live. As an Illinois graduate, I’ve long known anecdotally that my alma mater sends a critical mass of graduates to San Francisco and Seattle (generally for tech jobs due to the school’s strong engineering and computer science programs) while very few Illini move to Indianapolis despite it actually being geographically closer to campus than Chicago and St. Louis, but it has been difficult to find quantitative data to actually back that up.

This is where a new database from the Wall Street Journal fills the gap.* The Journal worked with a labor market research firm to identify the metro areas where the graduates of 445 colleges now live. It breaks down the most popular locations for the alumni for each school to move to in the United States. What’s also interesting is to see how certain locations are conspicuously devoid of particular schools’ alums, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

(* h/t to Aaron Renn for his original post on this Wall Street Journal database. If you’re interested in urban development and demographic issues, he is one of the best writers out there.)

For someone that’s interested in conference realignment and the college sports business in general, this database is a legitimate treasure trove. As soon as I was made aware of this Journal site, I went through each of the Big Ten schools to identify the top metro areas for each of their respective graduates. Here is the chart I put together with each of the Big Ten schools on top, applicable metropolitan areas listed on the side, and a tier number assigned whenever a market comes up as a top destination for a school’s graduates:

Big Ten Graduate Cities Image 20180517

Key:
Tier 1 = 10% or more of a school’s graduates live in that market
Tier 2 = 5% – 9.99% of a school’s graduates live in that market
Tier 3 = 1% – 4.99% of a school’s graduates live in that market
Dash = Not a measurable destination for a school’s graduates

After creating this chart in my full dorkdom, there are some key takeaways:

FOUR CITIES ARE TOP DESTINATIONS FOR ALL BIG TEN SCHOOLS… AND NONE OF THEM ARE IN THE MIDWEST

There are only four markets in the entire country that drew more than 1% of the graduates from every single Big Ten school: New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco. None of these metro areas are located in the Midwest. Not even Chicago, the heart of the Big Ten, covered every single conference school, albeit the two sub-1% exceptions are the latest East Coast additions of Maryland and Rutgers.

To be sure, the Wall Street Journal notes that those four particular markets draw from a much wider range of colleges across the country. The sheer sizes of the New York and Los Angeles markets swallow up a lot of college grads and all four of the cities have strengths in industries that attract a national talent pool: finance in New York, entertainment in Los Angeles**, tech in San Francisco, and government and politics in Washington.

(** My favorite Big Ten-to-Hollywood story at the moment: former Penn State basketball player Joonas Suotamo is taking over the role of Chewbacca. Also, while this isn’t reflected in the domestic data, the Big Ten will have a monopoly on Americans in the British royal family after this weekend when Hollywood actress and Northwestern alum Meghan Markle marries Prince Harry.)

Still, the Big Ten’s top-to-bottom presence in those four markets is noteworthy because the only other Division I conference that has every member in those same markets is the Ivy League… and all of the Ivy League schools are in relatively close proximity to New York and Washington. Interestingly enough, all of the Ivy League schools have at least a Tier 3 presence in Chicago, too.

BIG TEN GRADS LARGELY STAY IN THEIR HOME STATES, GO TO CHICAGO, OR LEAVE THE MIDWEST COMPLETELY

Putting aside Maryland and Rutgers, Chicago is still the market with the deepest ties to the Big Ten by a large margin. It is a Tier 1 market for 6 schools, Tier 2 market for 2 schools and Tier 3 market for 4 schools. No other metro area has more than 2 Tier 1 Big Ten school connections. This isn’t exactly surprising with the annual migratory pattern of new Big Ten grads taking over apartments in Lincoln Park and Lakeview every summer (while the older Big Ten grads like me move on to places like Naperville).

Big Ten schools also send a lot of grads to the largest metro areas within their own home states. Every Big Ten school has a Tier 1 connection to at least one market located in its home state. Note that there are many metro areas where the principal city is located in one state but parts of its market are located in another state. New Jersey is a classic example where it’s largely split between the New York and Philadelphia metro areas. There are several other border areas in the Big Ten footprint such as the St. Louis metro area being partially in Illinois, the Louisville and Cincinnati metro areas crossing into Indiana, and the Omaha market including portions of Iowa. Ultimately, a state keeping a large number of grads from its flagship or other large schools isn’t exactly surprising, either. Going home will always be a strong draw.

What’s stunning to me, though, is the utter lack of Big Ten grads going anywhere else in the Midwest other than Chicago or a metro area that has a presence in their school’s state. Detroit is the 2nd largest metro area in the Midwest, relatively easy driving distance from most of the Big Ten schools, and larger than both the Seattle and Denver markets. Yet, the only 2 Big Ten schools outside of Michigan and Michigan State that have even a Tier 3 connection to Detroit are Northwestern and Purdue. Meanwhile, 10 Big Ten schools have a Tier 3 connection with Denver and 8 of the league’s colleges have a Tier 3 connection with Seattle.

In fact, the only instances where a Big Ten school has a Tier 3 connection (much less stronger ones) with a Midwestern market that isn’t either Chicago or wholly or partially located in its own state are (i) the aforementioned example of Northwestern and Purdue with Detroit, (ii) Iowa and Wisconsin with Minneapolis, (iii) Minnesota with Milwaukee and (iv) Nebraska and Iowa with Kansas City (which is a market that isn’t even in the current Big Ten footprint). That’s it… and it’s actually even worse when digging deeper because the trading of Badgers and Gophers between Milwaukee and Minneapolis comes with the caveat that there is tuition reciprocity for Wisconsin and Minnesota state residents for their respective flagship universities. In essence, a Milwaukee resident effectively treats Minnesota as an “in-state” school and it would be the same for Minneapolis residents with respect to Wisconsin. As a result, a lot of those Badgers and Gophers are just heading back to their home markets.

If Midwestern metros want to have any chance of changing their slow growth compared to the rest of the country, it’s clear that they need to do a better job of attracting the college grads that are just beyond their own home state universities. There really isn’t a great reason why Indianapolis isn’t drawing at least 1% of grads from neighboring state Big Ten schools like Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State… and Indy is one of the healthier Midwestern economies. Essentially, the Midwest metros with the exception of Chicago have completely ceded their “home field advantage” for Big Ten grads to the coasts and other high growth locations (e.g. Dallas, Atlanta and Denver).

WHAT’S BAD FOR THE MIDWEST MIGHT BE GOOD FOR THE BIG TEN

Paradoxically, the horrific inability of Midwestern markets other than Chicago to capitalize on the pipeline of Big Ten grads that are often within short driving distance is largely a good thing for the conference. The Wall Street Journal database shows that the Big Ten has the most nationalized alumni base of the Power Five conferences from top-to-bottom. As noted previously, the only other conference where every school has at least a Tier 3 connection with New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco is the Ivy League. More than half of the Big Ten has at least a Tier 3 connection with Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver and Seattle. There are 4 or more Big Ten schools with a Tier 3 connection with Houston, Miami and Phoenix, too.

This helps explain why the Big Ten has consistently received larger media revenue compared to its biggest football rival of the SEC. While the SEC might often receive superficially higher TV ratings compared to the Big Ten, the SEC has much more concentrated intense interest from alums that still live in its home footprint of the South. In contrast, the Big Ten might have a little bit less intense interest in its home footprint of the Midwest/Northeast (outside of places like Ohio), but that’s compensated by its very broad presence of alums in large and wealthy markets from coast-to-coast (AKA valuable viewers).

At the same time, to the extent that cable subscriber fees that have been largely based on home market interest are at risk for the Big Ten Network, the Big Ten is still in the best position of any Power Five league to take advantage of any new media rights paradigm due to its more national footprint. The New York Yankees have a combination of national and regional advantages that made them the wealthiest team in the radio era, over-the-air TV era, and cable TV era… and they’ll be the wealthiest team in the over-the-top streaming era or whatever else might come down the pike. I believe that the Big Ten will continue in that same type of position in the college sports space – they’re the conference that still has the strongest combination of home state passion with a national fan base.

DEMOGRAPHICS AND CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT

Let’s get back to the four cities that have a connection with every single Big Ten school: New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco. If anyone wants to wonder why the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers, just look at this data. The additions of those schools were not so much about Maryland and Rutgers actually delivering their respective home markets of DC and NYC, but rather bringing the Big Ten product directly to where the league’s alums now live. It’s no different than why pro sports leagues are so insistent on having franchises in places like Florida and Arizona: it’s not that they are delusional to believe that those markets will have great homegrown fan bases, but rather that they are places where transplants from New York, Chicago and Boston can directly watch their favorite teams.

The underpinnings of the bond between the Big Ten and Pac-12 beyond the Rose Bowl becomes clearer here, too. Not only are Los Angeles and San Francisco uniformly popular for Big Ten grads, but Denver, Phoenix and Seattle also have strong Big Ten connections. The proposed Big Ten-Pac-12 partnership from earlier this decade that ultimately fell apart would have fit right in line with the demographic data.

To be very clear, I don’t believe that the Big Ten is anywhere near expansion mode. We likely won’t see any real discussion of Power Five conference realignment until the current Big 12 grant of rights contract expires in 2025. That being said, the Wall Street Journal database provides a lot of fodder for which markets make the most for the Big Ten in the event that it wants to expand its footprint further along with some explanation for demonstrated interest in certain schools during recent rounds of conference realignment. The following is simply my blue-sky thinking as opposed to any evidence that there will be realignment moves in the near future.

Texas was mentioned prominently as a past Big Ten expansion target and that was a no-brainer at all levels: a top academic national brand name school with a blue blood football program that delivers a massive high growth population state is the top prize for every Power Five conference even above Notre Dame. The fact that Dallas has a Tier 3 connection with 9 existing Big Ten schools and Houston has connections with 4 conference members is just the proverbial icing on the cake. However, the value wasn’t as obvious when Georgia Tech was also identified as a Big Ten expansion target. The Big Ten graduate data partially points to why the league was interested in the Yellow Jackets: the Atlanta market is one of the most prominent destinations for conference grads with 9 Tier 3 connections.

There wasn’t much discussion about Colorado being a possible Big Ten school in the past, but Denver has Tier 3 connections with every Big Ten school except for the 4 that are closest to the East Coast. I’m not alarmist about the Pac-12’s status among the Power Five conferences (unlike some others) and I won’t subscribe to pie-in-the-sky scenarios (e.g. the Big Ten adding schools like USC and UCLA). However, I wouldn’t put it past the Big Ten to make a play for Colorado in the next decade if the Pac-12’s relatively lower revenue makes it vulnerable. Colorado is an AAU school in a major market with a critical mass of Big Ten alums and even in a state that’s contiguous with the current conference footprint (via Nebraska).***

(*** As a reminder, the Big Ten does not have a contiguous state requirement for expansion. The league will jump over states to get Texas, UNC or similar caliber schools if they ever wanted to join. That being said, geographic proximity is certainly an important factor, especially if it’s not a blue blood program.)

Kansas is also sitting there from the Big 12 as an AAU school with a blue blood basketball program and Kansas City is one of the few Midwest markets that been able to draw non-local Big Ten grads from multiple schools. I have long been on the record that the most valuable single plausible (e.g. no poaching Florida and USC) expansion scenario for the Big Ten that doesn’t involve Texas, Notre Dame and/or ACC schools is the league adding Kansas and Oklahoma. Their smaller markets on paper are countered by having national draws in basketball and football, respectively, along with deeper connections to a lot of major markets beyond their home states’ borders (such the OU presence in the Dallas market).

On the Eastern side of the Big Ten footprint, 10 of the 14 conference schools have connections with Boston. Adding a school to cover the Boston market would effectively make the Big Ten into the conference of the entire North. However, the challenge is finding an acceptable school that fits into the conference. Boston College is obviously located directly in that market, but it isn’t a great institutional fit as a private religious university (although that wouldn’t stop the Big Ten from adding Notre Dame if the Irish were willing to come). I’m not completely dismissive of a BC to the Big Ten scenario down the road since it still has great academics and a location directly in the Boston market, although it’s a stretch.

UConn is a more of an institutional fit as a flagship school, has strong connections to both New York and Boston and a top level basketball program historically. However, its largest roadblock can’t really be fixed by anything other than the passage of time: the Big Ten simply isn’t adding a school that has only been playing FBS football since 2002. In fact, that’s an underrated factor in why UConn isn’t in any Power Five conference today. All of the years that UConn played Division I-AA football might not as well exist. In the minds of the powers that be, UConn is more of newbie than a school like UCF (upgraded in 1996), and that’s a black mark in a universe where being able to say that a school has been playing at the highest level of football since the 1800s actually matters. It might sound arbitrary and unfair, but old school pedigree is simply an absolute requirement when getting to the Power Five level and dealing with very literally the snobbiest group of people on Earth AKA university presidents. Even a bad football history can be overcome if it’s at least a long football history (e.g. Rutgers).

Syracuse actually sends a similar percentage of its grads to the Boston market as UConn despite a farther distance from Upstate New York along having the largest percentage of grads of of any FBS school living in the New York City market with the exception of Rutgers. While Syracuse is a private school, it’s a very large one where it almost serves the role of a flagship-type institution for New Yorkers. As a result, it has Big Ten-like attributes in a region where Ivy League and other elite private universities have historically kept public universities in a subservient position.

To be sure, demographics are only part of what goes into the conference realignment equation. If schools are in markets that don’t necessarily have strong ties to existing Big Ten alums but are bringing in elite blue blood programs (such as Oklahoma football or Duke and/or North Carolina basketball), then those elite brand names are going to win out.

Still, it has been fascinating to go through the grad destination profiles of the Big Ten schools along with other colleges across the country. Once again, in matters more important than conference realignment, Midwestern cities in particular need to review this data and understand that they are giving up their home field advantage of nearby Big Ten grad talent to coastal cities that are providing such talent with more professional and economic opportunities. This is sobering data for every Midwest city outside of Chicago. They likely knew that this challenge was happening at some level, but the results are actually even worse than expected.

P.S. For long-time readers of this blog, I know that it has been a long hiatus. Thank you for your patience and continued support. I promise that I’ll get more posts up before the next Avengers movie comes out next summer that will inevitably undo what happened at the end of Infinity War.

(Image from Amazon)