There was quite a bit of conference realignment news over the last couple of weeks, so let’s assess the current landscape:
1. Big Ten Making Out Like a Fox – To the surprise of no one except a handful that believes the Big Ten really wants a superconference, the conference announced that expansion has reached its “natural conclusion”. Despite my many writings on the Big Ten expansion topic (and the reason why most of you found this blog), I’m very happy about this personally. Call me old-fashioned, but I actually like it when schools in a conference, you know, actually get to play each other regularly instead of being in some type of massive 16/18/20-team scheduling arrangement. One of the comments from regular Slant reader allthatyoucantleavebehind from several months ago always stuck with me: It’s a whole lot of fun to talk about superconferences and expanding to different markets, but will you actually have fun watching your team play all of these schools? Well, Nebraska is one of those schools that everyone has fun playing with a tradition-rich football program and arguably the best fan base in college sports. Plus, if Bo Pelini thought he hated Big 12 officials, we’re going to witness him murder a Big Ten ref in cold blood in Ann Arbor next season. The Big Ten is making the right move for its alums and fans by stopping at 12.
Financially, it’s the right move, too. Fox outbid ABC/ESPN for the rights to the Big Ten Championship Game and the rights fees apparently are astronomical: $140 million for 6 years, which is an average of around $23 million per year. For comparison’s sake, the SEC title game brings in approximately $14 million per year and the Big East football TV contract with ESPN is worth about $13 million per year for all of that conference’s games. This single game haul for the Big Ten has paid for the addition of Nebraska by itself and we haven’t even gotten to the additional Big Ten Network rights fees and forthcoming increases in the national TV contracts.
The fact that Fox won the Big Ten title game contract is interesting. While Fox is the conference’s partner for the Big Ten Network, I personally had a hard time believing that the ESPN juggernaut would let this game get away. As I’ve pointed out before, as much as we talk about how the Big Ten Network has really changed the TV revenue dynamic in college sports, the Big Ten still gets paid about twice as much more from ABC/ESPN than the BTN. When the Big Ten’s national TV contract comes up for bidding for the 2016 season, expect the conference to really push for a bifurcated rights deal similar to the SEC: coast-to-coast clearance on a national over-the-air network for the top game of the week and 3 or so games on the next tier on the ESPN networks (with probably a guaranteed weekly prime time game). The balance of the games would then be on BTN. If Fox drops or cuts back on Major League Baseball coverage (and as much as I love baseball, any reasonable TV industry observer would recommend that Fox does just that because it’s receiving a horrible ROI for the amount that the network is paying for these regular season ratings), there’s a strong possibility that the network will take over the top Big Ten Game of the Week from ABC. However, I highly doubt that the Big Ten would let the games that are currently on the ESPN networks move to the patchwork quilt of Fox Sports Net stations. Much like the NFL, the Big Ten is going to balance providing a critical mass of games to its own network and maximizing revenue with being extremely exposure conscious with its top matchups. Note that the NFL’s top game of the week package (Sunday Night Football on NBC that has a flex scheduling option to ensure higher-rated matchups later in the season) is actually the league’s least expensive TV contract. The Big Ten could very well end up with a similar setup starting in 2016.
With the new Fox money and anticipated rights fee increases, if the Big Ten were to expand further at this point, each additional school would essentially have to add $30 million to the conference make it into a compelling case for the university presidents – and that’s without the benefit of a bump of a new conference championship game. There’s basically two schools that could even come close to bringing that much: Texas and Notre Dame. For various reasons, the chances of either ever joining the Big Ten in the near future is effectively zero (and we’ll explore them more in-depth later on). Without either of those two schools involved, there’s no way that the Big Ten can add any other schools without the current members taking a pay cut from the new 12-team setup (and I can guarantee you that no one is voting to ever take a pay cut).
2. Big East Football Member Number 9… Number 9… Number 9… Number 9 – The expansion action has shifted to the Big East, which smartly added Rose Bowl-bound TCU for all of the right reasons. At least I got one prediction of a Texas-based school heading to a conference to the east correct. With the Big East having previously stated that its members had approved expansion up to 10 football members, the outstanding issues are (1) whether Villanova takes up the Big East’s offer to move up from Division I-AA (for the love of all things that are good in this world, such as the removal of Brett Favre from the national consciousness, please go back to logical division names, NCAA) and (2) if Villanova refuses, is it really worth for the Big East to go up to 10 with the realistic expansion candidates.
Big East commissioner John Marinatto has indicated that the conference was “not going to wait for Villanova”. However, I believe that his quote (which has gotten a lot of Big East blogs and message board over-excited) was under the guise that if a school such as Notre Dame called up and wanted to join the league for football, then of course there would be an immediate expansion. In practicality with the realistic expansion candidates, the Big East isn’t going to do anything else until it knows for sure about Villanova’s final stance. I’ve generally heard two extremes regarding Villanova with very little in between. There’s a segment of the Big East that completely believes that they’re moving up and the main item to accomplish is finalizing a deal to play at PPL Park in Chester (an 18,500-seat Major League Soccer stadium). The other segment of the Big East absolutely believes that there’s no chance that Villanova will move up because the university’s leadership has a tepid view of it and the financial commitment required is far beyond the school’s reasonable means.
I know what I would do if I were running Villanova: I’d take that invite, ride it like Zorro back to Providence with a big “YES” and figure out the details later. Why they haven’t already done so is fairly maddening. It’s incredulous to me that a school could be taking this much time to decide on whether to accept a golden ticket that sixty-plus other university presidents would sacrifice their math departments for. My impression is that Villanova fancies itself to be more of a Boston College-type than a Holy Cross-type with respect to sports and if Nova wants to protect its basketball team and athletic department overall from future conference realignment earthquakes, the best way to do so is having a BCS football program.
Now, I don’t really believe that adding Villanova for football will do much to help the Big East, although the conference gets a bit more rope to work with after having added TCU. If extending an invite to Villanova was the political grease to get the Catholic members of the Big East (or at least enough of them) to address the football expansion issue overall, then it was a necessary move. Villanova is one of the old-line members of the Big East and if it wants to move up for football, everyone has to expect that the school will get to join that pigskin league first even if other programs are supposedly more “deserving”. I’m just a bit wary that Villanova seems to have been dragged into this kicking and screaming, which I doubt will draw much sympathy from the Boise States of the world.
UCF appears to be the school-in-waiting if Villanova rejects the Big East football invite. I really didn’t like the thought of UCF getting invited to the Big East over TCU if the conference was choosing only one of them, but the Knights make more sense as part of an expansion on top of the Horned Frogs. With the sheer size of the school’s student base coupled with the prime recruiting location, the Big East is looking at UCF as a high upside school. Now, I’ve probably spent more time in Central Florida than any place other than Chicago and Champaign and believe that the area is always going to be Gator country by a wide margin, but the rapid growth of UCF cannot be denied. A school such as East Carolina has a better pure fan base in terms of actually showing up to games and Houston offers a larger market, yet UCF seems offer enough of each of those factors that it appears to be the best choice of the rest for the Big East overall.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Big East has to go up to 10 football schools immediately (and thereby possibly 18 schools for other sports). As I noted in the Big East Expansion FAQ post, the Big East still makes more TV money from basketball than football and a school such as UCF likely wouldn’t move the ESPN rights fee meter very much (if at all). None of the C-USA schools are going anywhere, so the Big East can choose to see if a school such as UMass, which will likely be moving up the Division I-A level, develops into a viable Northeastern-based program that would fit extremely well into the conference. Now that the Big East has 9 members with the TCU addition and the Big Ten has put its expansion on hold, there’s not the same sense of urgency to add school #10.
I’m personally about 50/50 on this. Part of me believes that 10 football/18 basketball members in the Big East would be more desirable for the “perception of stability” factor that the league needs more than anyone else while getting a program such as UCF up to speed at the BCS AQ level. (I’ve also got a way to split up an 18-team Big East basketball league into divisions that I believe will make pretty much all of the schools happy with home-and-home annual games with their top rivals and still playing everyone else frequently enough to maintain some conference unity. However, I’ll save that for another post.) On the other hand, there’s no real need to rush and the Big East may be well-served to just concentrate on integrating TCU for the next couple of years.
3. Knife the WAC and Head for the Mountains – Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson has been coming after the WAC like Freddy Krueger ever since this past summer when there was a brief moment where the WAC looked like it was going to be the raider instead of the raidee. Hawaii is all but confirmed as the latest defector from the WAC to the MWC as a football-only member. I’ll give Thompson a whole lot of credit on this front: the MWC is going to be significantly weaker on an absolute basis with the losses of Utah, BYU and TCU, but it’s stronger on a relative basis compared to the other non-AQ conferences by mortally wounding its top competitor of the WAC. The national perception of the MWC is that it’s still a desirable league at the non-AQ level, which is a fairly impressive feat considering that any conference losing its three most valuable members would typically be reeling. Thompson obviously took some notes of what to do (and what not to do) from how the Big East reacted to the ACC raid of 2003 and had a prepared disaster recovery plan on how to react to any defections. There’s absolutely no chance that the MWC is going to rise up to AQ status in this next bowl cycle (or probably ever), but it’s in a great position to be first in line for any non-AQ BCS bowl bid annually.
4. The Texas 12 – There are still days where I can’t believe that the Big 12 survived, yet now that it has, it must be emphasized once again that the conference is a whole lot more stable than many pundits give it credit for. To be sure, the Big 12 isn’t bound together because its members actually want to be with each other. However, Texas wants this league to survive more than ever with the newly anticipated ESPN-owned Longhorn Network and that’s about 99% of the battle.* I know that it’s VERY fashionable for college sports fans to believe that Texas eventually wants to become independent and then all hell will break loose in the Big 12, but that’s ignoring the constantly volatile emotions of Texas-based politicians. The single biggest mistake I made in my early posts regarding Big Ten expansion and UT was completely underestimating the extent to which Texas politicos would get involved in conference realignment. Even if UT really wants to go independent and/or Texas A&M really wants to go to the SEC, they’re bound together by the threat of mutually assured destruction if one of them makes a first move similar to the US and USSR during the Cold War. Neither UT nor A&M can be perceived to be the one that killed the Big 12 and then drawing the wrath of Texas Tech and Baylor sympathizers in the legislature. For all of the school’s financial power on paper, recall how much Texas needed to show that Missouri and Nebraska had wandering eyes first before it could attempt to create the Pac-16. Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott himself said that the exclusion of Baylor from the Pac-16 proposal gave rise to a “tsunami effect” in Texas politics that killed the deal as opposed to anything with UT’s TV plans.
(* In what will surely be an interesting case study in testing how strong the Chinese walls are between the business and journalistic sides of ESPN, the Worldwide Leader filed a lawsuit last week against the University of Texas System under the Texas Public Information Act (h/t to duffman) to obtain documents from this past summer’s conference realignment discussions even though the network is right in the middle of negotiations with UT on the formation of the Longhorn cable channel.)
As a result, those 4 Texas-based schools are politically bound together as a group. Add in the similarly bound Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (with OU being on the record that it is always going to want to be in the same conference as UT) and you have 6 total schools that have to be together no matter what, which severely limits them being anywhere other than in the Big 12. With 2 of those schools being national marquee brands, any conference that has that group is going to survive just fine and make enough TV money for all of its members even in an unequal revenue distribution system. The “Little 4” of Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Iowa State might be wise to continue to have good relations with the Big East as a fallback option (which KU coach and Illini defector Bill Self said almost happened this past summer), but they’re not going to affirmatively split off from a league where they can still play UT and OU annually in a new round-robin Big 12 schedule unless an inebriated Big Ten suddenly throws invites their way after a Saturday night binge on Rush Street.
While the Big 12 isn’t safe in a warm and fuzzy family way, it looks like it’s safe in a maximum security prison way. No one’s getting out of there even if they want to very badly.
5. Notre Dame Network? – Let’s me repeat another item that I didn’t quite fully understand until the last few months: NOTRE DAME WANTS TO BE INDEPENDENT FOR THE SAKE OF BEING INDEPENDENT. It isn’t about making the most TV money, or else they’d join the Big Ten. It isn’t about having the easiest road to BCS bowls, or else they’d join the Big East. Instead, Notre Dame’s independence is a PRINCIPLE and about SCHOOL IDENTITY. As a result, ignore the recurring columns suggesting that Notre Dame joining the Big East would somehow provide a nice geographic distribution of opponents while providing easier BCS access. (Remember that Notre Dame has failed to even play 3 Big East opponents per year that it agreed to back in 2003, much less a full conference slate. Why the heck would they all of the sudden want to play 5 or more Big East conference games as even a “partial member” when they just signed scheduling deals with Texas, Miami and BYU after the summer’s conference shuffling? None of that makes any sense. At the same time, the Irish see a “national” schedule as playing schools such as USC, Michigan, Miami and Texas, not just any random schools that happen to be located in certain states.) You can also ignore anything from Big 12 country suggesting that UT’s ability to create a TV network within a conference would spur Notre Dame to join, too. Maybe those strangely delusional Big 12 fans that suddenly believe that they can pick off Notre Dame along with members of the SEC (i.e. Arkansas and LSU) or Pac-10 (i.e. Arizona and Arizona State)* have forgotten that as an independent, the Irish can create a network anytime it freaking wants to.
(* Just because no one can get out of the Big 12 maximum security prison doesn’t mean anyone else actually wants to get in.)
In fact, that’s exactly the latest item on the rumor mill. You should take the following with a heavy grain of salt, but I’ve heard and seen in a few places is that Comcast/NBC is working on putting together a Notre Dame Network that would be an Irish Catholic-focused cross between the Longhorn Network for sports and the BYU network for religious programming. The Universal Sports network that’s currently being shown on a number of cable systems and NBC-owned digital subchannels across the country and broadcasts Olympic sports could possibly be converted into this Notre Dame Network. The main thing that makes this plausible to me is that this sounds like something that Notre Dame would want to do. The school has been consistent in insisting upon its own branding and independent identity (which kills the prospect of any joint network with the Big East that a lot of that conference’s fans are hoping for other than working with them to procure rights for Notre Dame’s non-football sports). It doesn’t want a network that’s under the umbrella of the Big East, Big 12, Big Ten or any other conference. Instead, this is about complete and 100% autonomy for Notre Dame in all respects.
Believe me, I sympathize with all of the fans of conferences that continue to dream about Notre Dame. Many of us college football fans complain about Notre Dame 364 days per year about their “special treatment”, but when that one day comes with a semi-possible rumor that the Irish are looking to join your conference, you immediately get starry-eyed with thoughts of world domination. It happened to me based on the logic that the Big Ten actually was (and still is) the one conference with the concrete financial wherewithal to make the Irish richer. Let me be clear: there is no such thing as logic regarding independence with the Notre Dame alumni base that runs that school. As a result, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Notre Dame Network comes to your TV within the next year or two and the Irish will be more independent than ever.
With the conference realignment situation settling down, we’ll turn to another favorite topic in my next piece: the annual “How can we make the college football postseason better?” post. I know every two-bit columnist and blogger in the country covers that topic to the core, but let’s face it: it’s fun to talk about, so that’s all that matters. Until then, let’s bask in the glow of the Illini football team going to the Texas Bowl even after having predictably Zooked themselves against Fresno State (the biggest positive development of Big Ten expansion is that it takes football scheduling after Thanksgiving completely out of the hands of Ron Guenther), the Illini basketball team gathering steam with big back-to-back wins against North Carolina (I don’t care if they’re down this year) and Gonzaga, both the Bears and Bulls leading their respective divisions (Derrick Rose continues to be my favorite active athlete on Earth right now with Julius Peppers vaulting up to #2), the Blackhawks looking a bit better again (although let’s hope Patrick Kane comes back as soon as possible) and the White Sox actually shelling out money for free agents (adding Adam Dunn AND probably keeping Paul Konerko – I love it as long as Dunn doesn’t spend a single moment in the outfield). Not a bad holiday sports season in the Frank the Tank household so far. Not bad at all.
(Image from Husker Locker)