With the Big 12 on the verge of signing a large new TV rights extension deal with ESPN and Fox and seemingly heading toward a period of stability, conference realignment is looking more about completing the domino effect of the moves by the power conferences.
The merger of the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA is progressing at tortoise speed with 16 schools for now and periodic rumblings/threats that it may grow as large as 24. There’s still the specter of the Mount USA Alliance losing Air Force to the Big East, but that would likely be the extent of any further defections. Honestly, outside of the possibility of having to replace Air Force, I don’t see any real value in the Mount USA expanding further. As of now, there can be an easily manageable 16-team conference with 2 logical 8-team divisions. Adding any more schools would be the essence of expansion for the sake of expansion. The Mount USA is already in a precarious position with how much their TV contracts would be valued today, so further expansion would likely just dilute any rights fees. So, if the Mount USA is smart, the WAC will receive a reprieve.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic 10 is the new scene for hot conference realignment action. Temple will be leaving for the Big East while Charlotte has been invited to the Sun Belt in connection with the school’s move-up to Division I-A football in 2015, which means the A-10 is looking for reinforcements. Brett McMurphy of CBSSports.com has reported that VCU, George Mason and Butler have had discussions with the A-10. If this is consummated, I like the move from the perspective of all parties involved. The A-10 would establish rivalries in the Washington, DC area (George Mason vs. George Washington) and Richmond (VCU vs. Richmond) while providing Midwestern bridge between its Ohio members (Xavier and Dayton) and St. Louis University by adding Butler. In turn, the A-10 has consistently garnered multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament, which is something that none of the potential additions could count on in the Colonial Athletic Association or Horizon League, respectively.
If I were running the A10, I’d also be taking a look at current Horizon League members Loyola University Chicago and Detroit. While they haven’t had recent Final Four runs like VCU, George Mason and Butler, those schools fit well with the large Catholic school contingent in the A-10, are located in large TV and recruiting markets, and provide a critical mass of schools in the Midwest.
Are these moves as titillating as the persistent rumors thrown around about the Big 12 poaching ACC schools such as Florida State and Clemson (which I don’t buy for one second)? Of course not, but it’s important to note the range of the aftershocks of the realignment of the power conferences. If the Atlantic 10 expands, then the Horizon League and CAA will likely need to find replacements, which means even more leagues further down the food chain are affected. The drive for big-time college football revenue is impacting every type of Division I institution, including those that don’t play football at all.