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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It has been a couple of days since the news broke from Sports Business Daily that Fox is poised to enter into a deal with the Big Ten for 50% of the packages that are currently on ABC/ESPN (football and basketball) and CBS (basketball)… for up to $250 million per year for 6 years. Once again, this is just for half of the Big Ten rights that are up for grabs, which would provide for 25 football games and 50 basketball games on over-the-air broadcast Fox (“Big Fox”) and FS1. As observers such as Matt Sarzyniak have noted (who has a great post on the overall dynamics of the Big Ten deal), that amount is approximately the amount that the Pac-12 receives for its entire non-Pac-12 network package. In effect, we’re about to enter into a world where Rutgers and Northwestern are going to earn significantly more TV money than Florida State, Oklahoma, USC and even Alabama and Notre Dame. The Big Ten schools were already ahead before through its creation of the BTN (which everyone should remember how bold and risky that move was a decade ago compared to taking guaranteed money from ESPN), but the gap is going to be blown through the roof if the conference ends up with around $500 million per year for its TV rights without even taking into account the BTN portion. I have had plenty of critiques of Jim Delany and the Big Ten leadership over the years, but their management of TV and media properties has been pitch perfect for the past ten years and far beyond the capabilities (both quantitative and qualitative) of the other power conferences.
Some further thoughts:
I have seen a lot of scuttlebutt online that this indicates that the Big Ten might be leaving ESPN entirely, but personally don’t believe that for a second. For several years, I’ve been predicting that Fox and ESPN will ultimately split the Big Ten’s rights going forward and that is still the most likely outcome. ESPN reportedly “lowballed” the Big Ten in its initial offer, yet that is not necessarily outcome determinative since ESPN did the same thing ten years ago (which eventually spurred the creation of the Big Ten Network) and the parties still eventually got a deal done. It would have been difficult for ESPN to unilaterally come in with a massive offer several weeks ago with the continued cost-cutting throughout its organization and the possibility that this might be the time when the sports rights bubble (to the extent that there actually is a bubble) is going to pop. Essentially, ESPN bet that there wouldn’t be anyone willing to pay the Big Ten’s high asking price (just as it bet that the BTN wouldn’t be successful)… and it looks like they’re going to lose that bet badly.That being said, I’ve written many times before that ESPN’s supposed financial woes are being completely misinterpreted by many sports fans. The reason why so many Disney investors are spooked by any cord cutting and ESPN subscriber losses is because ESPN is, by far, the most profitable media and entertainment entity in the entire world. Note that I said “media and entertainment entity” – this is not just about sports networks. Let’s put it this way: ESPN currently delivers monthly subscriber revenue to Disney that is the equivalent to the domestic gross of Star Wars: The Force Awakens every single month guaranteed… and before they sell a single ad. Disney has relied upon ESPN to deliver monopoly drug dealer profits for years to prop up their entire business. Now, ESPN is “only” making oligopoly drug dealer profits.
All of this is to say that ESPN still makes a ton of money that is far, far, far beyond what Fox, NBC, CBS, Turner or any other entity with sports interests could ever dream of. Even in cost-cutting mode, ESPN still needs to invest in core properties in the same way that the rest of the cost-cutting Disney organization will authorize massive budgets for Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and Disney Princess movies. ESPN leadership can now go back to their overlords at Disney and say, “Look – we tried to get the Big Ten on the cheap and that clearly isn’t going to happen. We have now already let Fox into the door to becoming a top tier sports network competitor and we can’t let someone else, especially NBC/Comcast, to get even more traction on top of them. We need to the funds to pay up here.” Anyone that thinks that ESPN can just plug in more SEC or ACC games into its lineup is fooling themselves. The Big Ten provides a massive lineup of football games in the best time slots on ABC and ESPN and have consistently garnered the best ratings of any of the conferences next to the SEC. The people at ESPN aren’t dumb – they know the difference between a short-term administrative cost cut and a long-term investment in their core product… and the Big Ten has been a huge part of their core product since almost the beginning of the network.
By the same token, let’s not pretend that the Big Ten wants to get away from ESPN. I have seen some Big Ten fans profess a desire to leave ESPN entirely, but that would be as short-sighted for the conference as it would be short-sighted for ESPN to let the Big Ten go completely. The fact of the matter is that if you were to show the exact same game on ESPN versus FS1, the viewership on ESPN would be magnitudes higher. We have already seen a track record of Major League Baseball, Big 12 and Pac-12 games where similar games on ESPN crush the ratings on FS1. There has to be great concern that the notion that “fans will just find the channel if they want to watch a particular game” isn’t necessarily completely true. ESPN is, and will be for the foreseeable future because the stranglehold that they have on sports rights overall, the “default channel” for sports fans. Just walk into any sports bar across the country and, outside of NFL Sundays, the vast majority of TVs are going to be tuned into the ESPN mothership. A game that is shown on ESPN literally gets a ratings bump, whereas that same game on FS1 gets a ratings discount.This greatly matters to the Big Ten, which is trying to position its TV deals in the same way that the NFL has over the past few years. Money certainly matters, but long-term money (the proverbial golden goose) is directly correlated with exposure… and no one can provide exposure like ESPN. Indeed, even with the increase in cord cutting and falling numbers of subscribers, every single other media company in the United States would kill to have ESPN. We have already established that they have the top-rated and most profitable TV network, but it goes beyond just that aspect. Who has the #1 sports news website? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports radio network? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports mobile app? ESPN. Who has the #1 streaming sports network? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports podcast network? ESPN.
That is what a lot of Big Ten fans that care too much about supposed “SEC bias” on ESPN are missing: there is simply no replication for the multi-platform 27/7 exposure that ESPN provides.* Many other companies have tried to apply the ESPN playbook for years and years (see the CBS and Fox efforts to build their own sports websites and radio networks with only a fraction of the audience of ESPN) and have failed. When a Big Ten game is on ESPN, it gets promoted on (a) Mike and Mike on TV, radio, streaming audio and podcasts simultaneously, (b) SportsCenter on multiple networks several times per day, (c) ads on ESPN’s websites and mobile apps, (d) countless other TV, radio shows and podcasts for an entire week, including the all-important College GameDay for college football fans. Other than Inside the NBA on TNT (which is powered by the on-air brilliance of Charles Barkley, there is not a single cable TV platform in any sport that has anywhere close to the audience that ESPN has for even one of its minor shows, much less SportsCenter, GameDay or Mike and Mike.
(* Note that it isn’t an accident that ESPN is a master of corporate synergy considering that it is owned by Disney, whose entire existence is based on leveraging its brand across countless platforms. I have never heard of someone that likes Universal Studios, the Jurassic Park movies and NBC call themselves a “Comcast Fan” or a fan of Fox shows and movies call themselves a “Fox Fan” (which is distinct from a Fox News Fan that is an entirely different breed), but you will find millions of Disney fans that travel to Disney parks, watch Disney movies and TV shows and buy Disney merchandise with the Disney branding being a the predominant factor. My sister is a prime example of a Disneyphile. Disney and ESPN simply are masters at synergy via corporate culture that can’t really be replicated even if you followed the exact same playbook elsewhere… and believe me when I say that every one of their competitors have tried.)
At the end of the day, the Big Ten still needs the exposure that only ESPN can uniquely offer. It’s instructive that out of the 4 major pro sports leagues and 5 power college conferences, the only one that doesn’t have a presence on ESPN is the NHL (which has by far the most limited fan base of that group). Just because the Big Ten could theoretically live without ESPN doesn’t mean that it actually wants to do so at all. That’s why I believe that time will heal wounds due to mutual interests and a deal will get done between the Big Ten and ESPN for the other half of the TV rights that are currently in play. The Big Ten won’t take a lowball amount from ESPN, but I think they know well enough to provide a bit more leeway for ESPN’s bid in acknowledgment of their superior platforms for overall exposure compared to Fox. Both the Big Ten and ESPN need each other here.
In looking at the imminent Fox deal with the Big Ten, this seems to be set up to put a weekly football game on both Big Fox and FS1. This will end up being quite a boon for Fox’s college football game inventory quality. From a personal standpoint, I just hope that it improves that actual college football game production quality, which I have found lacking compared to ABC/ESPN and CBS. (I think that NBC’s Notre Dame productions have quality visuals, but the commentary is the college football equivalent of listening to Hawk Harrelson’s calls of White Sox games.) Regardless, if this means that most or all of the games that would have ended up on ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPNEWS are on Big Fox and FS1, then that’s an upgrade in terms of viewership exposure as long as the Big Ten keeps its presence on ABC and the ESPN mothership.Further to what I’ve stated before, I don’t think Fox is as flush with funds as much as ESPN (because absolutely no one is as flush with funds as ESPN), but Fox certainly has a lot more incentive to make a bold move with it being in the upstart position. In particular, FS1 has had a rocky history in its short life. On paper, FS1 has the best sports rights outside of ESPN on paper with MLB, Big 12, Pac-12, Big East, NASCAR, Champions League, FIFA (World Cup), UFC and USGA (U.S. Open) properties, but it doesn’t seem to have a cohesive brand even compared to NBCSN (which seems to have become the yuppie/hipster sports network largely relying upon the NHL, English Premier League and Olympics), much less ESPN. At the very least, the Big Ten may push Fox over-the-top in terms of being a legit college sports destination that it hasn’t quite been up to this point.
Realistically, Fox can never achieve the synergy that ESPN can provide, but there are strong potential cross-promotional opportunities between Fox’s over-the-air NFL package and the new Big Ten coverage along with the clear connection between BTN (which is 51% owned by Fox) and the rest of the Fox organization. The NFL broadcasts on Fox are by far the strongest on the network (which ought to be the case since they are also by far the largest ratings drivers for Fox), so let’s hope that the Big Ten can receive at least comparable quality in terms of treatment.
The reported 6-year timeframe of the Fox deal is unusual compared to the much longer-term deals that the other power conferences have signed. In fact, the Big Ten will end up back at the negotiating table before any of the other power conferences once again. On the one hand, this presents some risk to the Big Ten since they are not locking in today’s high rights fees into the late-2020s or even 2030s. On the other hand, every time that the Big Ten has bet on itself, it has ended up succeeding, whether it was with the formation of the BTN or taking its rights to the open market in a period of uncertainty for sports programming values with decreasing cable subscriptions. By the same token, Fox may be hedging on cable subscriber fee uncertainty itself, as Dennis Dodd had suggested.In any event, the short length of the TV deal means that conference realignment talk might cool down in the immediate term, but will pick up a huge amount of steam in the next 5 years. Whether it’s a coincidence or not (and I tend to think “not”), the end of the 6-year deal term in 2023 is shortly before the expiration of the Big 12’s grant of rights agreement in 2025, which makes any possible damages for a Big 12 defector to be much lower and/or negligible compared to a Big Ten windfall. The same usual suspects of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas as Big Ten candidates. It will also be interesting to see how schools in other conferences (particularly the ACC) are going to adjust to an environment where each Big Ten school could be receiving nearly $60 million per year in media revenue starting in 2017 (as estimated by Awful Announcing), which would lap the SEC’s revenue (much less any of the other power conferences). A few million dollars per year difference in TV revenue may not have been enough to sway the most valuable schools (e.g. Texas, North Carolina, etc.) to switch conferences, but when we’re looking at an eight figure annual gap, it could change the dynamic quite a bit.
The announcement by Jim Delany at the end of 2009 that the Big Ten was exploring expansion was leading to this moment of a new TV contract. Nebraska added a national name brand for football, while Rutgers and Maryland added two massive media markets based on the East Coast. This isn’t the end, though. I still believe that ESPN is going to end up with the other half of the rights. It will be interesting to see what happens with the CBS basketball package (which hasn’t been talked about as much) since that provided great exposure and time slots for the Big Ten (such as the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game leading into the NCAA Tournament Selection Show) even if the contract value itself pales in comparison with football. Digital rights are going to be a much more significant factor in this new contract compared to 10 years ago, while some second tier sports such as hockey, baseball and lacrosse could end up seeing more telecasts beyond the BTN with multiple other networks. The Big Ten’s new Fox deal is a great start and it’s a sign of great things once we get the final overall media rights picture for the conference.
This is by far the most surprising move that I’ve seen from the Big Ten (and possibly any conference) ever since I started following conference realignment. The timing of the Maryland/Rutgers expansion was stealthy, but anyone that has followed this blog since 2010 had been tracking those schools as high on the Big Ten candidacy list. Johns Hopkins coming to the Big Ten as an affiliate member was a natural fit academically and in terms of the need to get a 6th lacrosse member to obtain NCAA auto-qualifier status. In contrast, Notre Dame joining the ACC as a non-football member and then placing its hockey program in the extremely strong Hockey East, seemed to be give the Irish everything that it wanted in preserving football independence, membership in strong conferences for its other sports and kowtowing to the segment of its alumni base that wanted to cut off all possible relationships with the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Big Ten seemed to move on from any possibility of Notre Dame joining the league in any capacity. To see this new arrangement come up is quite remarkable even if it’s just for hockey. Ice hockey could be thawing Big Ten – Notre Dame relations in the way that baseball helped that U.S. – Cuba relations.
Notre Dame coming into the Big Ten creates a 7-team hockey league, which is unwieldy for scheduling purposes. The discussion naturally is going to turn to which school comes in as #8 and it continues to look like Arizona State. The Big Ten and Sun Devils have been contemplating possible membership for over a year and I discussed it in depth during last season’s NCAA Tournament. Pretty much everything that I stated a year ago still applies today (minus the part where I didn’t believe that Hockey East members like Notre Dame would join the league as associate members), where Arizona State hits a lot of metrics that the Big Ten is looking for at an individual school level with its key Phoenix market location and the league overall seems to open to adding more affiliate schools. Think about MIT joining the Big Ten for rowing or Rice bringing its top level baseball program to the conference. There are a lot more possibilities for academically-aligned schools in the non-revenue sports.
Hockey fans that might be pushing for a powerhouse hockey program like North Dakota to join the Big Ten are engaging in the classic behavior of thinking like a fan instead of a university president. The academic, market and demographic needs of the conference are completely different than on-the-ice considerations. I’m sure the Big Ten would be very open to the top hockey schools in New England, such as Boston University and/or Boston College, but that is more driven by the league’s interest in the Boston market than competitiveness.
Speaking of markets, an underrated aspect of this move for the Big Ten is that it finally has a hockey presence in its most important market and alumni home of Chicago. Unfortunately, I don’t have an extra $100 million laying around for me to start-up a new Division I hockey program at Illinois despite it having had one of the most competitive hockey club teams and strongest fan bases for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Northwestern has many other athletic funding priorities in building new facilities, so hockey doesn’t seem to be on the radar. The Big Ten would love to rotate its hockey tournament into the United Center in Chicago to go along with Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul, especially with the basketball tournament needing to be outside of Chicago more often with the league’s push into the New York and Washington, DC markets. Note that the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four will be played at the United Center and sponsored by Notre Dame.
I’m someone that takes Notre Dame at its word that the school will stay independent in football. There is no “forcing” the Irish to join any league and its independence is as much of an institutional identity issue for the school’s alumni as it is a football issue. I don’t see this hockey membership having any correlation with Notre Dame possibly joining the Big Ten as a full-time football member down the road.
That being said, the bigger picture issue is whether the Big Ten would consider offering Notre Dame a full non-football membership in the manner of the ACC (and the old Big East before them). Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC ends in 2025, so this is more long-range thinking for the conference. Would the Big Ten offer Notre Dame a deal where it would be a basketball and non-revenue sports member in exchange for, say, 6 football games against B1G opponents each season (compared to the Irish commitment to play 5 ACC opponents per year now)? Previously, I never thought that would even be an option on the table since the Big Ten is as much an “all for one and one for all” league as Notre Dame is an independent school, yet this hockey arrangement legitimately puts that into play. The Big Ten really didn’t care about Notre Dame’s relationship with the old Big East, but the ACC deal with the Irish might have been perceived by Jim Delany and others in Rosemont as much more of a potential threat down the road. This is a huge shift in the Big Ten’s thinking, where there is now a large crack in the league’s decades-long insistence for Notre Dame to be “all in” or “all out”.
The upshot is that this is great for Notre Dame in terms of leverage against both the ACC and Big Ten in the future. The ACC might have gotten a bit cocky with how close it thought it was with Notre Dame over the past couple of years and (at least in some quarters) deluding themselves in thinking that they’ll eventually join as a football member. However, the Irish are now openly stating that they have plenty of options. If Notre Dame could get the Big Ten to budge on hockey membership, it’s no longer a stretch at all that the B1G could eventually make a play for Irish basketball and other non-football sports along with a more robust football scheduling arrangement.
The financial news stories coming out of ESPN over the past several months have been quite negative. The Disney-owned cable network has endured several rounds of layoffs and reported last week that it has lost 7 million subscribers over the past two years. This is of particular interest to the Big Ten, which will be negotiating new television contracts over the next year and has been banking on massive increases in rights fees. All of the Big Ten’s off-the-field moves during this decade, from conference expansion to adding a conference championship, has been leading up to providing the league with maximum leverage in this negotiation. The Big Ten Network has certainly been a boon, but the first tier national TV contract is still the Big Ten’s top priority both financially and in terms of brand exposure by a wide margin.
Many of the Big Ten’s financial projections during the conference realignment process were based upon the assumption that ESPN would offer a massive rights fees increase (which in turn would garner similar bids from other media companies, particularly Fox). However, should the Big Ten be worried with the recent turbulence at ESPN? Do the cost-cutting measures at ESPN mean that the network will pull back on what it could offer to the Big Ten?
John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal recently examined the race for the Big Ten rights and noted that the market may not be as “frothy” as it was when the Pac-12 secured a huge rights fee increase in 2011. However, he still expected “ESPN and Fox Sports to at least double the conference’s annual average payout and share the rights” despite the overall market factors (and he would have as great of an insight of what’s likely for sports media rights as anyone in the business).
I completely agree with Ourand on the likelihood of ESPN and Fox splitting the Big Ten rights (as I also predicted in my last post). This would have the effect of ESPN and Fox not having to each completely break their individual banks yet provide the Big Ten with much larger overall rights fees compared to one single contract holder. At the same time, I believe that the Big Ten greatly values the exposure the ESPN provides via its multiple platforms that can’t be matched by any other media company (even with pressures on the basic cable model). I don’t buy the notion that the Big Ten would walk away from ESPN completely – Jim Delany has set up this league to be like the NFL with multiple high profile media partners viewing it as an essential product. (See this article from Ed Sherman from this past March pointing out the presence of ESPN, Fox-affiliated BTN and CBS all at the Big Ten Tournament.)
At the same time, Big Ten fans shouldn’t pay attention to the arm chair observers (i.e. partisans from other leagues that would love to see the Big Ten fail to meet its expectations) that simply assume that ESPN cutting costs in its operations will mean that it will cut its spending on rights fees (and thereby the Big Ten). Ultimately, content is king, and ESPN in particular needs live sports content whether we live in a basic cable world or cord-cutting a la carte/over-the-top streaming world. If anything, retaining premium live sports programming becomes even more critical to ESPN as more people drop basic cable. It’s not going to sell over-the-top subscriptions like HBO Now with more Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith shows. The only way ESPN is going to get people to shell out $20 (or $30 or $40 or $50 or more per month) if it has to move to that environment is to have the broadest suite of exclusive live sporting events that large audiences want to watch as possible. That includes the Big Ten.
However, that doesn’t mean that Disney has slashed all of its movie budgets. Quite to the contrary, Disney will greenlight massive production and marketing budgets for its tentpole franchises and brands, such as Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar, that dwarf the figures that have been used in the past even on an inflation-adjusted basis. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is estimated to have a production budget of $200 million and films of that size typically have marketing costs that come close to matching that number dollar-for-dollar on top of that. The Avengers: Age of Ultron had a combined production and marketing budget of over $340 million. When it comes to premium content, Disney isn’t skimping because those tentpole movies have downstream impact on the company’s business, such as merchandising and theme park tie-ins. (This classic Spaceballs clip is now literally the business strategy for all of Hollywood.)
What Disney did completely cut, though, was its middle budget film division. Disney sold off Miramax in 2010 (less than a year after Disney purchased Marvel), which was the Oscar nominee producing machine of films such as Pulp Fiction. The prestige film business might provide nice publicity during awards season, but it doesn’t generate the top-to-bottom movie/merchandising bonanza of tentpole films like Star Wars or the pure ROI of low-budget movies. As a result, Disney has gotten out of the mid-budget film market entirely.
This “high/low” budget strategy while cutting out the middle is almost certainly what ESPN has in mind. Indeed, one the highest profile casualties of ESPN’s recent cost-cutting was the elimination of Grantland. In my opinion, Grantland had produced the best content on any ESPN platform over the past few years (particularly Zach Lowe on the NBA and Bill Barnwell on the NFL) with its mix of sports and pop culture analysis targeted to educated readers. The issue from ESPN’s perspective was that employing the talent to produce such high-level analysis was relatively expensive, yet its mothership website has been getting its most hits for fantasy football lineup recommendations. What is ESPN going to spend its resources on in the future: more top flight reporting on Outside the Lines that is getting marginal ratings, or more lowest common denominator hot take shows where the same broadcast can take up a couple of hours on ESPN2, get syndicated on ESPN radio affiliates across the country and be uploaded to the ESPN website as a podcast? It doesn’t take long to figure that one out.
Believe me – I don’t personally like these trends. Even though I’m a massive Star Wars fan and I’ve got my tickets with the exact seats reserved for opening weekend (along with buying the spectacular Chewbacca Illini T-shirt shown above that might as well have been custom-made for me), I’m also a large watcher of prestige films (and I have zero interest in cheap horror flicks). Grantland was one of my favorite websites and I can’t stand vapid talking head shows (whether news-based or sports-based). We need more resources dedicated to hard news and smart analysis. Unfortunately, the Internet’s business model doesn’t really reward that type of content compared to slideshow click-bait. As a result, prestige content producers may need to go toward an NPR-type funding model.
Putting my personal feelings aside, the high/low budget strategy still works very well for the Big Ten. As far as sports properties go, it’s definitely the equivalent of a tentpole movie franchise and, timing-wise, it’s the only tentpole of any kind available on the TV rights market until the next decade. That’s not hyperbole. Outside of the NFL (which is the undisputed king of TV sports), college football has consistently delivered the best week-in and week-out ratings out of any sport for U.S. viewers and the Big Ten has been at the top of those ratings next to the SEC for many years. This is not a property that ESPN can afford to lose (whether on the mothership cable channel or ABC, whose Saturday programming is heavily reliant on the Big Ten), and this is also not a property that Fox can afford to miss out on. Top tier sports brands like the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, SEC and Big Ten aren’t going to be the ones that are worried about cord cutting because they are all proven drivers of viewership on multiple platforms. Inexpensive sports rights with lower production costs and high ROI (think West Coast Conference basketball with Gonzaga games) will also be in high demand. The sports brands that should be worried are the ones that have relatively high production costs but lower viewership, such as Group of Five conference college football and non-major tennis and golf events.
At the end of the day, ESPN (and likely Fox with them) will end up paying top dollar for the Big Ten just as its Disney corporate siblings continue to pay top dollar for Star Wars films. Going forward, ESPN is in a position where it needs to keep its premium sports rights because that is the only way that it can maximize its value regardless of whether the world stays with basic cable (where such rights are needed to keep the basic cable subscriber fees high) or moves to an over-the-top environment (where such rights are needed to draw in direct paying subscribers). ESPN still paid a premium for more European soccer rights in the past month (as Ourand pointed out) and was still willing to sign up for massive deals with NBA and Major League Baseball when they were fully aware of the erosion of their basic cable subscriber numbers. The Big Ten has tentpole sports content and that will always be in demand.
This begs the question that has been circulating quite a bit these days: is there a sports TV rights bubble that is about to pop?
It’s a lot more complex question than many observers give it credit for. On the one hand, cord cutting is accelerating with a major complaint being that non-sports fans are having to pay higher cable and satellite bills for sports networks that they do not watch. As a result, cable subscriptions rates are going down, which drags down the subscriber fees that networks such as ESPN depend upon. On the other hand, sports programming is one of the few (if not only) exclusive draws to cable and satellite television in the first place, so the relatively inelastic demand from sports fans is arguably even more important to cable networks than ever. In essence, when push comes to show, cable networks may rather lose the more price sensitive cord cutters than lose the higher paying sports fans.
It’s an interesting paradox: sports rights fees are arguably both the largest cause of cord cutting and the largest hedge against cord cutting. A non-sports fan is rightly going to question the wisdom of paying for cable when he or she can get the same lineup through a less expensive combination of Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or Hulu (plus maybe even HBO Now). By the same token, sports fans are more dependent upon cable than ever. Cable is no longer just a repository for surplus niche events, but now is the home (whether in whole or part) of the NCAA Tournament (including the Final Four), the College Football Playoff and nearly all bowls (including the bluest blue blood brand of the Rose Bowl), and MLB, NBA and NHL playoff games. More importantly, sporting events are exclusive and unique – a viewer can get news coverage as easily from an over-the-air network or Internet as he or she can from cable, but an over-the-air Ohio State game is not a replacement for a Michigan game for a Wolverines fan.
As a result, I don’t see complete doom and gloom for ESPN and sports networks in the future. For all of the alarmist articles about ESPN’s supposed impending demise over the past few weeks due to employee shuffling and Disney’s earnings reports, ESPN is still the single most valuable media and entertainment property on Earth. The reason why investors are scared isn’t because ESPN’s revenue and profit levels are bad, but rather that they have set such an insanely high bar financially that anything that deviates from that bar is worrisome. To put it into perspective, ESPN is still averaging about $6.61 per subscriber per month with over 92 million subscribers, which translates into $7.372 billion per yearbefore they sell a single advertisement. That is over $614 million per month in just subscriber revenue (once again, we’re not even talking about the commercials that ESPN sells), which is more than the domestic gross of any movie released by Disney in history (and in fact, more than the domestic gross of any movie in history except for Avatar and Titanic). Just think about that: ESPN is generating revenue from just subscriptions that is more than what Disney grosses domestically from any Marvel, Star Wars or Frozen movie every single month… and once again, before they sell a single advertisement.
To be sure, the incredible amount of money that ESPN is generating that is propping up the entire Walt Disney Company (and national and regional sports networks are similarly propping up companies such as 21st Century Fox and Comcast) is exactly why investors are so spooked by any deterioration of the basic cable model. When Disney has been able to set ESPN on auto-pilot and generate more revenue than a new Star Wars movie without lifting a finger every month, both companies and investors start taking that seemingly endless cash flow for granted.* Still, there’s so much money at stake that cable networks are unlikely to stop investing in sports since they are what will keep such cable networks relevant regardless of whether the industry moves from a basic cable to a la carte or over the top environment. Hence, the Big Ten will still likely rake in massive record-setting cash for college sports deals when it signs its new TV contract(s) over the coming year.**
(** Just my semi-educated guess: look for the Big Ten to split its first tier rights between ESPN and Fox, where the ABC/ESPN package will effectively be the same as today, but the games that are currently on ESPN2/ESPNU/ESPNEWS getting sent over to Fox/FS1 with some provisions for better game picks if they are carried nationwide over-the-air. The BTN contract is locked-in going until the 2031-32 season, so that won’t be changing. I don’t believe that the Big Ten is truly interested in selling all of its rights to solely Fox, as exposure is still extremely important the conference in the same manner as the NFL. In fact, the NFL TV rights model is a good template for what the Big Ten wants to do, which is to ensure that it’s getting exposure and revenue from several of the top media players instead of just one.)
(3) Illini Coaching Dumpster Fire – As many of you know, I’m an Illinois alumnus and fan. I’ve seen enough dysfunction with Illini football over the years that I barely batted an eye when they fired their head coach only a week before the season opener. At a core level, Tim Beckman was a terrible football coach, awful in press conferences, disjointed with the media and, according to the evidence, abusive to his players. The question in my mind isn’t whether Tim Beckman should have been fired, as that was obvious to me after his first season in Champaign. Instead, the question is what the heck did Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas ever see in Beckman in the first place? If Beckman had an interview that was anything like his conversations with the media, what possessed Thomas to see anything in him? Let there be no doubt: this was a CYA firing by Mike Thomas, but the seat under his own “A” is going to be burning hot coal for awhile. To be fair, many of the non-revenue programs have seen quite a bit of success under Thomas, particularly volleyball, tennis, golf and baseball. However, football and men’s basketball are where power conference athletic directors are ultimately judged and Thomas has, at the very least, underachieved with both of them.
Here are my basic expectations for the Illinois football program: considering its location with access to the Chicago and St. Louis recruiting areas along with Big Ten membership, this team should at least be winning 6 to 8 games per year to consistently make it to bowl games while challenging for the weaker Big Ten West every 4 years or so when senior-laden teams cycle through. This shouldn’t be much to ask for. I’m not delusional in believing that Illinois should be having Ohio State-level success in football or becoming the dominant team in the Big Ten West. However, I also don’t buy some of the national narratives that Illinois football has to be inherently bad. Illinois is not like Indiana or Kansas where football will always be a placeholder until basketball season starts, so I’ll never accept the “Illinois is a basketball school” excuse for football ineptitude. (Besides, a top tier athletic department should have the ability to perform well in both football and basketball. See Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin just in the Big Ten.) Instead, Illinois is simply a fairweather football school in the same manner as 90% of other college programs: they sell tickets when they win but fans won’t come out when they lose. The Illini football fan base is similar to the fan base of my Chicago White Sox – there are large numbers of us out there, yet we aren’t paying to watch a poor product like, say, Cubs fans have historically done. Illinois has made several terrible bad football decisions in the past, but there isn’t any structural reason why the school can’t have at least a competent football program. The immediate issue is that I don’t trust that Illinois will make a competent football decision until Mike Thomas is gone.
Of course, even with the turmoil surrounding Illinois football, I’m still pathological enough of a football fan to get excited for a Friday night game against Kent State. I’m fairly certain that my hopes and dreams for the Illini and Bears this year will be quickly crushed within the next 4 weeks, but until then, que sera, sera. Enjoy the games and holiday weekend!
I don’t position this blog as a newsbreaking site, but I have heard from a knowledgeable person with extensive contacts with current and former Big 12 members (i.e. knew specific details about Nebraska heading to the Big Ten and Texas A&M to the SEC beforehand that couldn’t have been simply guessed from the news) that basically had this to say: Oklahoma isn’t happy with the Big 12 and wants to get out.
Putting aside all of the valid issues of whether the Big 12’s grant of rights agreement can be broken or whether Oklahoma could politically leave Oklahoma State behind (both of which need to be cleared before any moves are even possible), it doesn’t seem as though OU wants to stand pat. David Boren’s comments about wanting Big 12 expansion with the “right schools” was more of a warning shot to the rest of the league because, frankly, the “right schools” wouldn’t ever take a Big 12 invite. As a result, everyone in Sooners land seems to agree on the overarching desire to leave the Big 12, but there are two mindsets within the school: the academic wishes of Boren and the athletic interests of OU Athletic Director Joe Catiglione. (Emphasis that these are currently mindsets that could take years to play out – please don’t interpret anything here as “Oklahoma is leaving for Conference X by the end of the year.”) Boren, not surprisingly, wants a more academic league, but it seems as though his focus is more on the Pac-12 as opposed to the Big Ten as of now. That’s not to say that OU wouldn’t consider the Big Ten (as it did in 2010), but there are still apparently concerns that the B1G would find OU to be academically acceptable. In contrast, the Pac-12 would like Oklahoma if they came with, say, Kansas. The West Coast league just doesn’t want an OU/Oklahoma State expansion (which is what OU had offered back in 2011 in the wake of Texas A&M bolting the Big 12 for the SEC). Meanwhile, the athletic side of the school would relish going to the SEC. Once again, the SEC would take Oklahoma in a heartbeat without Oklahoma State coming along. The SEC would likely prefer Kansas, as well, provided that the biggest dog of them all of Texas rejects their overtures.
Ah yes – Texas. The Longhorns aren’t oblivious to their rivals to the north. In a perfect world for Texas (as described to me by my Big 12 guy), they would want to join the ACC as full members with… wait for it… Notre Dame. Apparently, the UT people are convinced that the new College Football Playoff system will eventually drive the Irish to join a conference and Texas wants to be right alongside them. In turn, UT would also have Oklahoma and Kansas follow along to create an 18-school ACC behemoth. Texas would be fine with the same type of move to the Big Ten (although Notre Dame is contractually obligated to join the ACC if it chooses to drop independence until 2027, which would seemingly make that prospect impossible). The new Texas leadership doesn’t have the West Coast preference that their leaders circa 2010 had, so any new deal with the Pac-12 seems to be out. At the same time, the SEC continues to be simply a non-starter for the Longhorns.
Personally, I reflexively reject the viability of any realignment move predicated on Notre Dame joining a conference as a football member, where we might as well say that Texas would be willing to join the MAC if Notre Dame comes along with them. Also, the Irish would have 100% made a 4-team playoff in a year like 2012, so I consider any supposed South Bend-based worries about the CFP system to be false hopes for Texas partisans. Until I see actual consternation from Notre Dame itself about today’s college football world, they are going to be an immovable object. In that sense, it seems as though the smoke from Texas is more of a “If we get the PITCH PERFECT deal to move, then sure, we’ll move.”
Contrast this with Oklahoma, where they appear to be making public comments and private moves to put themselves in position to bolt from the Big 12 with merely a passable offer (as opposed to the perfect one that Texas would require). It then becomes a matter of whether it’s worth the risk of breaking the Big 12’s grant of rights of agreement with unpredictable damages claims (which I wrote about a couple of years ago) and/or any political fallout if Oklahoma proactively leaves the Big 12 without Oklahoma State.
If I were running the Big Ten, it’s time to take advantage of one of those rare moments where a national football brand name is essentially begging for offers. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if we assume that Texas, Notre Dame and ACC schools are off the table, then the single most valuable expansion that the Big Ten can have at this point is adding Oklahoma and Kansas. These are two of the most elite blue blood brand names in college football and college basketball, respectively, and their small markets on-paper compared to Eastern options are irrelevant when they can effectively turn the Big Ten Network into a legit national network instead of a mostly regional one (which may become more important as cable cord cutting continues and the TV industry starts moving toward an a la carte or at least less-than-basic cable model). Also note that Kansas actually had the highest third tier TV rights revenue of any Big 12 school prior to the formation of the Longhorn Network, so it has been shown that the BTN can basically charge any price within KU’s market (and presumably OU’s market) and garner a ton of more revenue even with fewer households on paper.
Finally, I’m as much of a Big Ten academic snob as anyone, but Oklahoma’s academic reputation rankings have long been right in line with Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa State despite OU never having had membership in the Association of American Universities. If the Big Ten is fine with Nebraska no longer being an AAU member from an academic standpoint, then that should make any concerns about OU’s academics much less of a roadblock. The prospect of Oklahoma and Kansas moving within the next few years is simply much more likely than schools like Virginia and North Carolina leaving the ACC within the next generation, so an OU/KU combo is the best viable expansion option for the Big Ten by far as of today.
I know that is has been a looooooooong time since my last post. Between coaching basketball and baseball teams for both of my kids and work, it’s been tough to write lately. The patience of the readers and commenters here is sincerely appreciated.
University of Oklahoma President David Boren on Wednesday reiterated his stance that the Big 12 should expand to 12 teams.
“I think it’s something we should strive for while we have the time, stability, all of that to look and be choosy,” Boren said. “(We) can be very selective about who we want to add. It would have to add value to the conference. I think we should.”
Boren said he worried about not only the perception of the league as other major conferences have expanded but there long-term health of such a setup.
“How many years can this go on?” Boren said. “Finally, it just gets to be really debilitating. I worry about that. That’s something I just worry about long-term about the conference, not short term.”
Boren also threw some shade on the Longhorn Network and the notion that the Big 12 TV revenue distributions would be reduced by expansion:
Boren also said without explicitly naming it that the Longhorn Network—which keeps the Big 12 from having a conference network like the SEC, Big 10 and Pac 12—is a big problem for the conference.
“The elephant in the room remains the network south of us that has struggled and has in a way as long as it’s there,” Boren said. “And we have done quite well with our network and if anything ever changed, it has value to it which we see. But someday, maybe we’ll get past that other problem as well. It’s a problem.”
Boren said the problem of reduced revenue per school with expansion wasn’t as big of a hurdle as it had been made out to be.
“The contract says that our main television contract … if we grow from 10 to 11 or 11 to 12, their payments to us grow proportionally,” Boren said. “So everybody’s share stays the same. If it’s ‘X’ dollars, it stays ‘X’ dollars.
“Our main media contract says it’s not the same pie now cut 12 ways instead of 10.”
Boren did say that that only includes the primary television contract, not other revenue that is split between the schools.
“It’s not total because there’s some smaller—much smaller—amounts of money around the edges but if you can find the right people, it should be additive even though it’s split 12 ways instead of 10.”
Boren provides an important confirmation that the Big 12’s first tier TV contracts would increase proportionally in the event of expansion. Essentially, the notion that each Big 12 member’s revenue slice would be reduced in the event of expansion is largely a non-factor. As a result, any potential Big 12 expansion school doesn’t need to show that they would directly increase the value of the league by $20 million (as some Big 12 expansion opponents have suggested) – that increase is already baked into the conference’s TV contracts.
Does this mean that the Big 12 will take my advice and invite BYU and Cincinnati (or Memphis or other potential candidates)? I’ll reiterate my belief that the Big 12 has been focusing on short-term revenue dollars at the expense of long-term stability… and Boren indicates that there isn’t even much of a short-term revenue upside to avoiding further expansion. The worst thing that happened to the Big 12 leadership (and in turn, many of their fans) is that they deluded themselves into believing schools from the ACC (notably Florida State) could possibly be interested in joining the Texas-centric league. Ever since that occurred, the Big 12 has been paralyzed on the expansion front with an overrating of their position in the conference realignment marketplace (which is #5 out of the 5 power conferences). The Big Ten might have initially wanted Texas and Notre Dame (and to be sure, I wanted them as a fan), but the league moved on with adding a national brand in Nebraska and two mega-markets with Rutgers (New York City) and Maryland (Washington/Baltimore). The Pac-12 had a Pac-16 proposal to create a superconference that would have completely upended the college sports world by adding Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado, but when that fell through, the league quickly shifted gears to solidify the Rocky Mountain region with a smaller expansion with Colorado and Utah. The SEC surely would have wanted Texas and Oklahoma, too, but they went out and nabbed Texas A&M and Missouri. The ACC will always dream of getting Notre Dame as a full member while harboring their own delusions of thinking that they could ever raid the Big Ten, but that league still got the Irish to commit to being a non-football member with 5 football games per season against ACC opponents and pilfered much of the value of the old Big East.
The point is that the other 4 power conferences gained more power and adjusted even when they didn’t get their #1 and/or #2 expansion options, whereas the Big 12 simply survived. Now, the Big 12 will always survive as long as Texas stays there. The MAC could add Texas and it would be automatically deemed to be a power league. However, if the Big 12 ever wants to get past mere survival and continuing to be the primary target for raiding by the other power conferences, it needs a more cohesive long-term strategy that doesn’t involve pie-in-the-sky hopes and dreams. The only realistic pool of expansion candidates for the Big 12 exists in the non-power “Group of Five” conferences plus independent BYU. The Big 12 can’t just sit back and wait for much longer – it needs to proactively find a way to extract value from 2 (or even 4) expansion candidates from that group in order to be more than a very regionalized (with a West Virginia appendage) conference.
Otherwise, the words of David Boren should be cautionary to the Big 12: this doesn’t sound like a guy that would turn down an invite from the Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC. Indeed, once you get past the expansion targets that multiple conferences lust after because of their combination of athletic value and academic prestige (i.e. Texas, Notre Dame, North Carolina), Oklahoma is probably the single most valuable school that you could plausibly envision actually moving conferences in the nearish-term (defined as the next 10 years). I’ve stated here previously that if you take away any Texas/Notre Dame/Florida State expansion scenarios, the Big Ten adding Oklahoma and Kansas is probably the most valuable expansion that the league could realistically obtain. Their respective direct markets might not be the largest, but the national brand values of Oklahoma football and Kansas basketball are massive. With the NYC and DC markets already in the fold, the Big Ten Network is not necessarily going to be swayed by market size unless it’s the size of California, Texas or Florida (all of which might be unrealistic). Instead, expansion is about taking the last step of turning the BTN into a true national network, which is something that OU football and KU basketball can do. (Think about how much more attractive the Big Ten West looks as a division with Oklahoma in the fold, too.) On paper, Oklahoma may have some academic issues with the Big Ten since it is not an AAU member, but I believe the conference would look at form over substance in this instance with such an elite national football brand. Oklahoma has long been in the same academic tier as its neighbors of Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, so this would not be a completely outside-the-box expansion. To be sure, it would be a much easier case for OU if it did have AAU membership, but they’re such a valuable potential addition (like non-AAU member Notre Dame) that I think that it would tip the balance.
The massive mountain-sized caveat, though, is that Oklahoma and Kansas aren’t schools that have complete autonomy over their conference decisions. Oklahoma State and Kansas State need to be taken care of if those schools move, which means either (a) the Big 12 can’t collapse (AKA Texas can’t move anywhere else) as a result of OU and KU ditching the league or (b) OSU and KSU have to come along with them as a package. This is big difference from the decisions of Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri leaving the Big 12 and even Texas A&M was able to avoid outside political pressure (which had occurred during the collapse of the Southwest Conference in connection with the formation of the Big 12 and the potential leaving behind of Baylor in the Pac-16 proposal) since Texas had (and still has) such huge financial incentives with the Longhorn Network that provide it with golden handcuffs to the Big 12.
Indeed, the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 would all take Oklahoma in a heartbeat, but the existence of Oklahoma State could limit the options of the Sooners. Note that the Pac-12 turned down an expansion proposal from Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the chaotic days following Texas A&M’s announcement that it was leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, which means that the Pac-12 did NOT reject Oklahoma as an individual expansion candidate. If Oklahoma and Kansas were making that expansion proposal instead, then they would almost assuredly be Pac-12 members today.
Regardless, David Boren is pretty directly stating that Oklahoma isn’t that happy with where the Big 12 is today. Whether OU has any leverage to do anything about it depends upon whether it can act alone (in which case it has all of the options in the world with the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) or needs to do everything in tandem with Oklahoma State (where the only option might be to grit their teeth and stay in the Big 12).
After Iowa State lost within the opening hours of the first round (sic) of the NCAA Tournament, I didn’t even bother checking my bracket (IlliNIT Blues) until yesterday since I had figured my horrible Final Four prognostication skills (having had first weekend losers Iowa State and Villanova in addition to Kentucky and Wisconsin) would leave me in smoldering ashes. So, I was quite surprised to see that I’m second place in my work pool and nearly in the top 5% of the ESPN brackets nationwide. Granted, my entry is guaranteed to have a Harrison Ford-piloted crash like the 1969 Cubs (or 1984 Cubs or 2003 Cubs or 2008 Cubs) since my points possible remaining are extremely low (as in Illinois basketball scoring in crunch time low), but it goes to show you how there’s still life even when half of your Final Four is gone within a 72 hour period.
As noted in last week’s post, the conference realignment front is fairly quiet these days for the power leagues with the exception of the prospect of Arizona State joining Big Ten hockey. However, there are some rumblings in the non-FBS Division I conferences that are basketball-focused, so let’s get the lay of the land:
(1) Big East Expansion (or lack thereof) – The Big East has the ability to poach any non-FBS Division I school that it wants (which is something that not even the Big Ten or SEC can say at the FBS level). Every school from the Atlantic 10, West Coast Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and any other non-FBS league would take a Big East invite immediately. From there, any Big East expansion would have a massive trickle-down effect on the conferences below them. However, the Big East is sort of in the same position as the Big 12: it really does want to expand (regardless of what their respective commissioners and other PR people might say publicly), but the issue is that there aren’t 2 glaringly obvious candidates. As I’ve stated previously, St. Louis University seems to be the main lock for a future Big East invite regardless of how they might be performing on-the-court at any given time. SLU has the TV market, academic institutional fit as a private Catholic university, geographic location as a bridge between Creighton and the rest of the league, and facilities that the Big East is looking for as a total package. So, the primary issue is finding a partner for SLU, which isn’t as clear. Dayton has played very well on-the-court with a great fan base along with being a private Catholic school, but its TV market isn’t as attractive, Xavier is close in proximity, and there’s going to be consternation within the league about adding two Midwestern schools (as opposed to finding at least one Eastern expansion candidate). VCU has also been great on-the-court and has a desirable location, but it’s a large public school that isn’t an institutional fit with the rest of the Big East. Wichita State (which we’ll examine even further in just a moment) has the same institutional fit problems as VCU with a much less desirable location and TV market. Richmond is a great academic school with a solid basketball program, but it competes in the same market as VCU with fewer fans and a lower national profile. Davidson is similar to Richmond and has the advantage of the Charlotte market, but has a very small enrollment and alumni base (albeit wealthy and academically elite).
If I were a betting person, SLU and Dayton are still the odds-on favorites to eventually get into the Big East once it decides to expand. I feel that the fact that VCU is a public school ultimately tanks their candidacy even though they are attractive on virtually all other factors that the Big East desires in terms of location, TV market, fan base and location. Wichita State has never been a realistic Big East candidate since their issues are much broader beyond being just a public university (as you’ll see below). Richmond might be able to wedge into the mix if they can get some more high profile NCAA Tournament runs – as of now, their on-the-court attributes are going to matter more than their off-the-court attributes (which already fit well with the Big East).
For now, the biggest emerging challenger to Dayton for spot #12 in the Big East is Davidson. The small number of students at Davidson isn’t optimal, but the Big East has always been more of a TV league dependent upon casual large market fans as opposed to an alumni-based league (unlike the Big Ten and SEC). Davidson is within the Charlotte TV market, has legitimately elite level academics, performs well on-the-court, and would address the wariness of Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s of adding two Midwestern schools. So, keep an eye out on Davidson on the Big East expansion front.
(2) Wichita State: Nowhere to Run – The non-FBS school that I get asked about the most lately regarding switching conferences is Wichita State (and that has accelerated this past week with their current Sweet Sixteen run). I certainly understand the fan love – as you can see from my bracket, I have the Shockers going to the Elite Eight (and as far off as I was on Iowa State, I was equally convinced that Wichita State would come out blazing against Kansas). However, as much as Wichita State was wrongly underrated by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee this year, the school is overrated by most sports fans as a conference realignment candidate. When I started writing about conference realignment with the Big Ten expansion index, my credo was always: “Think like a university president, not like a sports fan.” Wichita State is a perfect example of the disconnect between the thought processes of sports fans and university presidents. Sports fans see Wichita State as a school with great fans and astounding on-the-court success with a recent Final Four appearance and a memorable takedown of Kansas to get to the Sweet Sixteen this year. However, university presidents see Wichita State as a non-flagship public school that’s ranked in the 200s in the U.S. News rankings that’s located in a small TV market with little recruiting value (whether for athletes or “regular” college students). Remember that university presidents care just as much about what a school brings to the table when it’s awful on-the-field/court compared to how well it’s performing at its peak. Wichita State is a classic case of looking great for fans when they’re playing well, but it’s extremely tough for university presidents to see their value when they’re not playing well (as they’re not bringing academic prestige, an institutional fit, a major TV market, etc.).
Just look at the conferences that would be a step up from the MVC for Wichita State. The Big East, as noted above, is one of the most institutionally-aligned conferences outside of the Big Ten and Ivy League, where all members are private urban schools with a basketball focus. As a result, Wichita State simply isn’t a viable Big East candidate. The Atlantic-10 has some public universities, but it’s still more similar to the Big East as being private school-centric and the league may very well retrench from the Midwest if/when the Big East takes SLU. The American Athletic Conference (AAC) and Mountain West Conference (MWC) don’t seem interested at all in adding non-football members, so Wichita State won’t be considered. Even the West Coast Conference (which is a geographic stretch for Wichita State) has the same type of private school lineup as the Big East.
Unfortunately for Wichita State, it doesn’t matter how well the Shockers might perform on-the-court. Much like the power conference invite prospects for UConn (who has been an elite men’s and women’s basketball power), the off-the-court issues prevail in conference realignment and, as the old adage goes, “It takes two to tango.” Wichita State can want to leave the MVC all that it wants, but the conferences hold the power here. It’s not Wichita State’s choice to make to leave, so its only realistic option is to strengthen the MVC.
(3) MVC Expansion and UAB (and the Chain Reaction for the Horizon League and Others) – Fortunately for Wichita State, the debacle of UAB getting its football program stripped by the University of Alabama power brokers in Tuscaloosa (with new allegations that it was a predetermined decision that was railroaded through the UAB leadership) might end up having a solid UAB basketball program that just scored a huge upset of my Final Four pick Iowa State fall right into the laps of the MVC. Conference USA appears to want to have all members to have football, so the league may kick out UAB for having had the misfortune of being governed by self-interested political appointees from a more powerful campus. As a result, UAB’s future conference membership for basketball and other sports is in flux, with Al.com reporting that there is mutual interest between UAB and the MVC. As horrible as the UAB football situation has been, the MVC would be about as good of a landing spot for the UAB basketball program as it could reasonably expect and, in turn, UAB is about as good of an expansion candidate that the MVC could realistically invite.
If the MVC adds UAB, the league would be unlikely to stay at just 11 members. This means that it will have to find a 12th school somewhere, which could then cause a chain reaction throughout many of the non-FBS conferences below them. When the MVC was exploring expansion a couple of years ago and ultimately decided upon inviting Loyola, the league had explored UIC and Valparaiso of the Horizon League heavily. This makes sense from a university president perspective – all 3 of Loyola, UIC and Valpo are located in the Chicago market, which is where a disproportionate number of MVC students and alums live. (A notable exception to this is Wichita State, which doesn’t have much of an alumni presence in the Chicago area.) The basketball fans within the MVC would probably prefer a pure on-the-court-focused addition like Murray State (although Valpo does have some on-the-court bona fides), but I’d expect MVC school #12 to be another Chicago market school. The demographics of the MVC generally look like the old Big 8, which isn’t sustainable for a league for the long-term. The irony is that Wichita State, the most important school in the MVC, would likely be unhappy about another Chicago area school, yet the rest of the MVC membership knows that Wichita State can’t go anywhere else for the reasons set forth above (which means that the most valuable school in the conference might have the least say in expansion matters).
As you can see, even one move by a smaller conference like the MVC could end up triggering large repercussions throughout Division I conferences. If the Big East were to expand, it could cause mass-scale change for non-FBS conferences on the level that we saw in 2010-2013. Of course, if the Big 12 were to expand, then all bets are truly off throughout college sports.