Tony Barnhart, a fairly well-connected college football writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, dropped some titillating tidbits about the Big Ten’s expansion plans today. He often writes from the SEC perspective (as to be expected being based in Hot-lanta), yet he has a solid reputation of not reporting much bunk. Here’s the money quote:
The other big topic here has a chance to completely change college football as we know it. I’ve spoken to a number of athletics directors and commissioners who are convinced that the Big Ten is positioning itself to seriously consider becoming college football first super conference by expanding to as many as 16 teams.
The Big Ten is looking at three plans: Stand pat with 11 teams, add one team (hopefully Notre Dame) or make a blockbuster move and go to 16.
“If they go to 16 and one of them is Notre Dame then we’ve got an entirely new ball game,” a conference commissioner told me confidentially.
Whoa! I was just wrapping my head around the thought of the Big Ten moving up to 14 schools, yet Barnhart is suggesting that isn’t even an option on the table. He seems to be saying that the Big Ten wants to either go big up to 16 or go home. Now, I don’t personally feel the love for a 16-school behemoth in the same manner that a lot of the readers of this blog do (and I attempted to throw a lot of water on the notion of superconferences early on). I’ve long felt that 12 schools is really the perfect number for a conference and it would take a massive financial windfall in order to make a multi-school expansion work for the Big Ten. Still, it’s worth examining which 5-school expansion combinations could work for the Big Ten if it’s really on the table. I’m going to use the following assumptions that will be required for any 16-school Big Ten:
(1) Notre Dame MUST be involved – The amount of chatter coming from the Domers (both in support of a move to the Big Ten and, more loudly, in support of completely removing the football program altogether) indicates that Notre Dame’s leadership (if not its alumni base) is reading the tea leaves of conference realignment and is positioned to move. I have long felt that Big Ten expansion would not occur without either Notre Dame or Texas and this is exponentially true with any multi-school expansion. Over the past few weeks, there have been quotes from Notre Dame’s Executive Vice President, Athletic Director, football coach and basketball coach all either being extremely squishy on the school’s future as an independent or, in the case of Mike Brey, straight-up believing that Notre Dame will be in the Big Ten sooner rather than later. Thus, let’s ignore all proposals of Big Ten expansion combinations that don’t include Notre Dame from this point forward. The Big Ten isn’t going to add 5 schools without one of them being Notre Dame.
(2) The Big Ten won’t kill any conferences… only mortally wound them – The Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith went on the record a couple of days ago saying that he preferred that the Big Ten expand by multiple schools. He also noted that he had faith that whichever conference or conferences were affected would be able to find replacement schools and live on. I buy that line of thinking – the Big Ten isn’t in the business of killing off conferences if only for the fact that it’s pointless to be a dominant force if there aren’t any other conferences to dominate. At the same time, I’m fairly certain that the Big Ten understands that if the Big East schools were really that valuable, that Big East’s current per school TV payouts wouldn’t be less than the annual interest that Northwestern receives on its Big Ten TV paychecks. So, I highly doubt that we’ll be seeing the Big Ten add 4 Big East schools on top of Notre Dame. More likely, we’ll see the Big East and Big XII affected along with a small possibility of the ACC being hit. Instead of completely murdering the Big East, the Big Ten would likely leave several conferences with flesh wounds like the Black Knight from ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’
(Speaking of murder, CBS just destroyed two decades worth of goodwill in a 3-minute span with its horrific NCAA Tournament montage last night. That wasn’t “One Shining Moment” – instead, that was Sonny Corleone visiting a toll booth. It was bad enough that the network decided to replace the version sung by the late Luther Vandross with a new shrill piece from Jennifer Hudson. Yet, CBS compounded its mistake further by splicing in several shots of Hudson throughout the montage which could have been used for actual game footage that was sorely lacking. It’s ridiculous that a “One Shining Moment” montage would have absolutely no recognition of national player of the year Evan Turner, the upset by #14 Ohio over #3 Georgetown, the existence of #1 seed Syracuse and, worst of all, ZERO footage of the double-overtime game between Kansas State and Xavier. Advice to CBS executives: don’t tailor “One Shining Moment” based on feedback from focus groups that watch “The View”. This way, you can avoid pissing people off that watch the NCAA Tournament because they actually like basketball instead of seeing Jennifer Hudson’s mug when “the ball is tipped.” At least CBS News has noticed that the public isn’t very happy. This has made me so angry that I encourage all of you to participate in faux activism via Facebook.)
(3) Rutgers and Syracuse are virtual locks – Whether you like them or not, it would be hard enough for a 14-school Big Ten to be financially viable without the New York City market sans Texas. If a 16-school conference comes to fruition, then it removes all doubt whatsoever that adding on the NYC DMA is an absolute requirement for the Big Ten. To me, this mandates adding both of Rutgers and Syracuse. (I’ll again duly note a number of knowledgeable commenters that don’t think Syracuse would fit in the Big Ten, but the fact remains that it’s an AAU member in the top 60 of the US News rankings with the only BCS football program in the entire state of New York with 20 million people along with a marquee basketball program with a lot of NYC fans. There’s a reason why the ACC really wanted Syracuse as opposed to Virginia Tech when it raided the Big East back in 2003.)
Under those guiding parameters, here are the main 16-school scenarios that I believe could work for the Big Ten:
- JoePa’s Wet Dream Conference (Notre Dame, Rutgers, Syracuse, Boston College and Maryland) – This is simple enough: let’s take the original “JoePa’s Dream Conference” that I had proposed with Notre Dame, Rutgers and Syracuse as additions and then tack on Boston College and Maryland on top of them. This effectively allows the Big Ten to capture the entire Northeast while, at least on paper, adding the New York, Boston and Washington markets. With Notre Dame and Penn State as anchors, the Big Ten Network could get into basic cable households that aren’t even necessarily in Big Ten states (i.e. the other New England states, Northern Virginia near DC, etc.). These are all academically impressive schools (even if some people might quibble with the graduate research capabilities of BC and Syracuse) that could deliver 3 massive and very affluent markets on the East Coast. The problem that I foresee is that I still believe that any ACC school is higher hanging fruit in terms of the Big Ten trying to lure one of them, whereas there are Big East and Big XII schools that could provide similar value as lower hanging fruit.
- Imperial Star Destroyer Conference (Notre Dame, Rutgers, Syracuse, Nebraska and Kansas) – The more I look at this hypothetical conference, the more I like it. Rutgers and Syracuse provide a concrete base of households to the East, but Nebraska and Kansas provide the national brand names to the West. This type of expansion is less about pure market grabs and more about making the Big Ten Network into a true national property. A football conference with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame and Nebraska going at each other in the fall? A basketball conference with Kansas, Michigan State, Syracuse, Indiana (assuming that the Hoosiers will be resurrected at some point) and Illinois going at each other in the winter? That’s extremely enticing from a national perspective. I’ve been hammering away regarding the importance of TV markets to the Big Ten Network, but let’s not suspend all common sense here by trying to argue that a mere presence in a large market is always going to be more valuable than a powerful national presence that’s located in a smaller market. Adding a football program like Nebraska and, to a lesser extent, a blue blood basketball program like Kansas could compensate for their smaller home population bases by drawing enough demand for games to raise rates within the current Big Ten footprint and inducing more basic cable operators to sign up outside of that footprint. Plus, schools such as Nebraska and Kansas would actually be fairly happy to join the Big Ten (at least at the administrative level) and wouldn’t have to deal with torch-wielding alums like Notre Dame or crazy politicians like Texas.
I’m sure a few of you out there are wondering: why not Missouri instead of Kansas? Part of it is that Missouri’s potential value to the Big Ten is very overrated by outsiders. The Big Ten Network is already on basic cable in the St. Louis market due to the presence of Illinois alums and fans, which means the main market that the conference would add with Mizzou is Kansas City. However, Kansas is arguably much more popular in that market AND has a marquee basketball name nationally. At the end of the day, the St. Louis and Kansas City markets really don’t provide much impact to the Big Ten, which already has Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and the entire state of Ohio in the fold. So, the better play if the Big Ten wants to poach any schools from the Big XII is to go for the more nationally prominent programs. I’ve emphasized that basketball isn’t a top consideration in expansion matters compared to football, but Kansas is a special case that’s up there with Duke, UNC and Kentucky in terms of national drawing power.
- Death Star Conference (Notre Dame, Rutgers, Syracuse, Texas and Texas A&M) – No real explanation needed as to how adding the two main Texas schools on top of Notre Dame and the New York market would completely alter the college sports landscape. I think even the Domers would come around to being in this type of conference. The chatter has certainly died down about the Texas schools moving over to the Big Ten, yet it’s still an intriguing possibility.
I’m still extremely skeptical of the current Big Ten members ever voting to expand the conference by nearly 50% when it has only added two new members in the past 90 years. That being said, the Big Ten Network has changed everything in terms of how we look at expansion and Notre Dame effectively said that it has no choice but to join a superconference if it were ever to come to fruition. If the Big Ten can’t get the Texas schools, I’m warming up to the thought of the Imperial Star Destroyer Conference. I’ll emphasize again that I don’t personally support having such a massive change (when you get past 12 schools, you risk of no longer being a tight conference and becoming a loose confederation). However, it may not matter since the wild predictions of a “Big Tent” conference aren’t as crazy as I thought a few months ago.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from Almost Not There)