The main question that I’ve been getting over the past few weeks is the following: “Is conference realignment really done? Seriously? Isn’t everyone still lying?” Well, from my perspective, power conference realignment is finished for the foreseeable future with one possible exception (which I’ll get to in a moment). The fact that the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and now ACC all have grant of rights arrangements in place really puts a damper on any further movement. Even if grant of rights agreements could be challenged and struck down, the issue is that none of the 4 conferences that have them in place have any incentive to test that (or else they’d be challenging the strength of their own protections). It’s simply slim pickings in terms of expansion candidates that are outside of the 5 power conferences for the healthiest leagues. Let’s take a look at where everyone stands:
(1) Big Ten – The Big Ten certainly has no need to expand at this point without a school from the ACC or Big 12. A school such as UConn might provide a nice market in theory with elite basketball, but that was already a massive stretch candidate with its lack of AAU status and FBS football history. Plus, even if the Big Ten wanted UConn, who the heck else would the conference add with them? Let’s disregard any notion that an odd number of football schools can be workable from this point forward – what was acceptable with the 11-team Big Ten without divisions and a conference championship game is simply not acceptable in the new larger Big Ten. There has to be a Noah’s Ark expansion approach for any conference that has more than 12 members. As much as I’m a Big Ten fan, I’m also not delusional enough to trick myself into thinking that they could raid the SEC since that’s the only power league doesn’t have a grant of rights arrangement as of yet. Note that the Big Ten passed on Missouri (the most oft-referenced school that would plausibly defect) multiple times when the school was a Big 12 member, so it makes little sense that Jim Delany and the university presidents would even target them now, while a school like Vanderbilt might make the ivory tower-types happy but does little for the financial football goals of the conference (and believe me, as much as I enjoy talking about the CIC and academic status of the Big Ten, the “football” part of the equation still needs to be met). After adding Penn State, the Big Ten was more than willing to wait for two decades to find the correct non-Notre Dame expansion candidates, so I find it to be entirely consistent that they’d be fine with waiting another decade to see if schools like Texas, UNC, UVA, Georgia Tech, Kansas and/or Oklahoma are willing to test the free agent market at that point.
(2) SEC – Meanwhile, the SEC is essentially in the same boat as the Big Ten: all of the candidates that it would realistically want are sitting in the ACC or Big 12. The new SEC Network being formed with ESPN isn’t going to gain anything without a UNC-level addition, which means that expansion is pointless for Mike Slive’s group for the next decade. I don’t subscribe to the Clay Travis bloviations that the SEC Network will blow everyone else out of the water (there are some basic concrete reasons why the Big Ten will very likely continue its current TV revenue dominance for quite awhile, not the least of which is that Jim Delany will get to send the Big Ten’s first tier rights out for open market bidding in a couple of years and that would result in a massive windfall even if Maryland and Rutgers don’t add another dime of revenue to the BTN), but the league will certainly make enough to make it rain in the clubs.
(Note that the key market to watch for SEC Network carriage is the state of Texas. To be clear, I believe that Texas A&M has significantly more pull in its home state than, say, Rutgers has in New Jersey. However, the state of Texas is already home to two of the most high profile ongoing sports network carriage disputes in the country with the ESPN-owned sister channel Longhorn Network not being able to strike a deal with any major cable or satellite carrier other than AT&T U-Verse and Comcast SportsNet Houston, which carries Astros and Rockets games and is co-owned by those teams, still not having anything in place with DirecTV and DISH Network (which is particularly problematic in the Texas market that has higher satellite penetration compared to Northeastern markets such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC that have larger percentages of traditional wired cable customers). Now, the SEC Network is going to provide significantly better content than the Longhorn Network, but the fact that such a large portion of the Houston market hasn’t had access to the Rockets led by James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik (I still can’t believe that my battered but still fighting Bulls let that guy get away for nothing in return) for an entire season and currently the Astros (as horrible as they might be on-the-field these days) is an indicator that the SEC Network isn’t just going to get Texas cable and satellite operators to roll over. I fully acknowledge that no cable operator will be able to last a day within the state of Alabama if they’re not carrying Crimson Tide football, so I’m just pointing out the Texas market specifically here as a place to focus upon.)
(3) ACC (plus Notre Dame) – At the same time, the ACC is likely going to spend the next decade in the same mode that the Big Ten was during the 1990s: reserving a spot for Notre Dame. Now, that doesn’t mean that Notre Dame has any intention of joining the ACC as a full football member. Quite to the contrary, I believe that Notre Dame’s ability to stay independent is stronger today than it was 10 years ago when the ACC began its multiple raids of the Big East. Notre Dame has secured an long-term extension of its NBC deal, isn’t subject to any conference championship requirement to have access to the new College Football Playoff, will have access to the Orange Bowl and all secondary ACC bowl tie-ins, and will be in a great power league for basketball and non-revenue sports. There’s less logic in Notre Dame giving up independence today than when it appeared that the Big East was going to collapse without a home for non-football Irish sports in 2003. However, never underestimate how much university administrators delude themselves into thinking that they’re going to be the ones that change the hearts and minds in South Bend. Jim Delany, Deloss Dodds and John Swofford, who I consider to be smart men (whether or not you agree with their actions), have all been fooled on this front. With a grant of rights in place, the ACC doesn’t need to proactively grow at this point and can use the “We’ll wait for Notre Dame to come around” retort to further expansion for awhile (even though anyone that has any clue about how single-mindedly focused the Notre Dame alumni base will fight any hint of giving up football independence knows that they’ll never come around). There’s really no need for the ACC to act unless (until?) it gets poached again by another power conference.
(4) Pac-12 – The Pac-12 is an interesting case since it could conceivably benefit from further expansion with schools that are outside of the 5 power conferences (particularly the Mountain West) from a pure financial standpoint, but none of the realistic candidates for that league fit the requirements for markets and/or academics. BYU has a great brand name with a national following and solid academics, but the political viewpoints of the LDS make that school into a non-starter at places like Berkeley. UNLV provides a great market with potentially a gleaming new football palace in Las Vegas, yet the school is far off from what the Pac-12 wants for academics and even worse on the actual on-the-field football front. New Mexico has a similar decent market/horrific football combo. Hawaii could possibly pass muster in terms of academics and football, but this is one case where geography is likely untenable. (It’s still a quicker flight from Los Angeles to Miami than it is from LA to Honolulu.) Boise State’s football prowess and national TV appeal can’t overcome its academic standards that the Pac-12 won’t accept. So, the Pac-12 seems to be boxed in even if it wanted to expand.
(5) Big 12 – As a result, any realistic chance for further power conference expansion in the near future rests with the Big 12. When Jim Delany, Mike Slive, John Swofford and Larry Scott tell reporters that their respective conferences are happy with their current membership levels, I believe them. All 4 of those conferences are at natural stopping points. In contrast, the Bob Bowlsby and the Big 12 seem to have unfinished business – being at 10 members in this environment of larger conferences is much more tenuous than it was 3 years ago, so there’s going to be a lingering feeling of instability with the Big 12 until it gets back up to at least 12 schools in the same way that no one could rest easy when the Big Ten sat at 11 members. While the Big 12 doesn’t have any truly obvious expansion options, they have a bit more leeway compared to the Pac-12 geographically, academically and culturally. For instance, what bothers the Pac-12 about BYU isn’t going to fluster a conference that has a member that didn’t allow any dancing on campus until the Tupac/Biggie feud was at its zenith. The Big 12 could also conceivably expand in virtually any direction within the continental United States, so it’s not implausible that the conference could consider any of UConn, Cincinnati, Colorado State,New Mexico and/or UNLV.
The problem, though, is that the Big 12 is boxed in financially. Unlike the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC (and maybe eventually the ACC), the Big 12 doesn’t have a conference network that can leverage additional households in expansion and is entirely dependent on its national ESPN/Fox deal for conference TV revenue. Now, schools such as Texas and Oklahoma enjoy lucrative third tier rights deals within the Big 12, yet that doesn’t do anything to support overall conference expansion. Plus, the expansion candidates are still largely flawed, as the best football schools like Boise State don’t bring any solid TV markets or recruiting grounds while the schools with the best demographics (e.g. UNLV, New Mexico, Colorado State) have some of the worst FBS football programs anywhere. BYU plus Cincinnati or UConn would seem to be the best shot for the Big 12 to maximize financial value in expansion out of what’s realistically available, yet that combo may not be enough. Unfortunately for the Big 12, the conference’s leaders (or maybe just Texas AD Deloss Dodds specifically) got sidetracked for awhile by chasing the expansion lottery dreams of Notre Dame and Florida State while passing on what could have been lucrative and stability-producing additions with Louisville (which would have given a nearish geographic partner for isolated West Virginia) and BYU. The ACC grabbed Louisville to backfill for Maryland, though, and that ended taking a lot of solid expansion combos for the Big 12 off the table (as any desirable expansion for the Big 12 that didn’t include the pipe dreams of Notre Dame and/or Florida State involved Louisville on some level).
To be sure, the Big 12 (a) probably will always be a pretty good conference in terms of football on-the-field by virtue of being the most prominent conference in the recruiting rich state of Texas and (b) will unequivocally be a power conference with high national TV revenue numbers and bowl appeal as long as Texas and Oklahoma are members. However, that’s also a blessing and a curse, as the conference’s over-reliance on the state of Texas and a couple of marquee brand names exposes some of the same weaknesses in the Big 12 that eventually caused the old Southwest Conference to collapse. The demographic growth prospects of the state of Texas specifically are fantastic, but that masks the fact that the Big 12’s demographics outside of Texas are the worst out of all of the 5 power conferences by a wide margin. (This is a large reason why I never bought what was seemingly a widespread belief that ACC schools would defect to the Big 12 no matter what financial arguments some observers attempted to make.) Long-term, the Big 12 is at risk because there isn’t a ready reservoir of brand names that it can expand or merge with in the way that the old Big 8 took Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor from the SWC. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Big 12 is at risk of completely breaking up like it did back in 2010-11 since I firmly believe that Texas desires the ability to control (or have perceived control over) a conference more than even making the most TV money, but it’s still the power conference that is bound almost entirely by the strength of its current TV contract (which will eventually expire) as opposed to the strength of its bonds beyond that (unlike the academic bonds of the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 or the geographic institutional football focus of the SEC). So, the Big 12 is still be the power conference that will be most susceptible to raids in the future, just as it was 3 1/2 years ago when Jim Delany first announced that the Big Ten was looking to expand. We may just have to wait another 10 years before power conference chaos happens once again. Until then, we’ll need to pay attention to the non-power conferences and basketball leagues (Oakland moving to the Horizon League was announced today and Davidson appears to be heading to the Atlantic 10 as rumored) for our conference realignment fixes.
(Image from Sports Illustrated)