Where in the World is Carmen San Diego State? Mapping Out Big 12 Expansion Strategies

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Last week, the Pac-12 announced that it was not seeking any expansion at this time in the wake of its announced Big Paclantic Alliance with the Big Ten and ACC. While some fans of schools remaining in the Big 12 that are hoping for another power conference home may cling to the “at this time” qualifier from the Pac-12, the practical reality is “at this time” really means, “We’re not expanding unless Notre Dame and schools such as, well, Texas and Oklahoma are coming through that door.”

Therefore, reality is setting in for the Big 12 that it will ultimately need to expand and, to that end, the league has formed an expansion subcommittee. At a minimum, the Big 12 will need to have at least 10 conference members after Texas and Oklahoma officially leave for the SEC in order for the league to maintain its current TV contracts with ESPN and Fox. Note that everyone from the Big 12, SEC, Texas and Oklahoma will all publicly state that no one is moving until 2025 in order to comply with their existing agreements. No one can even hint anonymously that there’s a possibility that UT and OU will leave the Big 12 prior to that time. However, in practicality, everyone knows that there will eventually be a settlement so that those schools aren’t spending the next 4 years in lame duck status that isn’t good for anyone. This means that the Big 12 has to be ready to act once it knows the UT/OU exit timeline and staying at 8 members simply isn’t an option.

Over the past decade (decade?!) in writing about conference realignment, I’ve had multiple posts about examining Big 12 expansion candidates complete with dated pop culture references ranging from Avicii to The Bachelor. In reviewing Big 12 expansion this time around, though, I felt that a straight ranking of the candidates really wouldn’t add much to the analysis. The interesting opportunity that the Big 12 has is that, as a result of its current roster of members with a potpourri of institutional types and geographic placement in the center of the country (except for West Virginia), the league can legitimately expand in any direction both philosophically and geographically. With only a small handful of exceptions, the realistic expansion candidates for the Big 12 essentially all have, in baseball terms, the same Wins Above Replacement Value where there aren’t glaring differences. As a result, expansion should be looked at holistically in terms of the overall strategies that the Big 12 could use. Putting on my consulting hat, here are 11 different Big 12 expansion strategies:

1. Lazy AF Bare Minimum Backfilling Strategy – Cincinnati and BYU

If it’s true that no realistic combination of expansion options for the Big 12 can bring in additional revenue and would only dilute per school shares, then it stands to reason that doing just the bare minimum to backfill to 10 members simply to keep the current conference TV contracts intact is high on the list of potential strategies. Cincinnati and BYU were generally looked at as the top targets for Big 12 expansion 5 years ago and that’s likely going to be the same today. (Heck, Cincinnati and BYU were even the two top schools in my Big 12 Expansion Index from 2013.) It’s not the most explosive or Armageddon-like path for the conference realignmentologists out there, but it might be the most realistic.

Out of all of the available schools, Cincinnati is the school that I believe is most likely to get a Big 12 invite. The Bearcats have a solid TV market, an excellent football recruiting area (which would be the best in the Big 12 outside of Texas), as good of an overall athletic history in both football and basketball as any other candidate, a great football program today, and (maybe most importantly) absolutely no baggage of potential issues with religious stances or in-state conflicts with current members. These are all reasons why Cincinnati is the only school that is listed in every single one of the strategies in this post.

Now, from a pure financial value standpoint, BYU is typically viewed to be the most valuable potential addition to the Big 12 due to its TV viewership history and fanbase size. The challenge with BYU is the “baggage” in past objections from other Big 12 members regarding BYU’s Honor Code and its treatment of members of the LGBTQ+ community and the real or perceived difficulty of negotiating with the school in its past conference realignment discussions with both the old Big East football conference and Big 12. That being said, The Athletic quoted a Big 12 source stating that the ones that opposed adding BYU 5 years ago are the ones “leaving the conference”, so the barriers to BYU getting an invite to the league might have come down.

Of course, the flip side is that BYU, with its independent TV contract with ESPN and BYUtv, might be the only school outside of the Power Five that could conceivably turn down a Big 12 invite. Personally, I find that prospect to be doubtful if/when we have an expanded 12-team playoff system with guaranteed spots to the top 6 conference champs, but no one should discount the fact that BYU has different institutional goals compared to any other place in the country. If BYU won’t come or can’t get into the Big 12 for any reason, look for one of either Houston or UCF (both of which will be discussed in the next strategy) to take their place.

2. You Come at the King, You Best Not Miss Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Houston, and UCF

One of the cardinal rules that we have learned over many years of expansion analysis: S**t ALWAYS rolls downhill in conference realignment. That is, any time that a league lower on the pecking order thinks that it could poach a conference that’s higher on the pecking order, that’s exactly when the lower league gets completely demolished. (See the old Big East football conference, Mountain West Conference and WAC in the early 2010s.) When Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby publicly accused ESPN of engaging in a conspiracy to get the AAC to raid the Big 12, I wrote that this might have changed the Big 12’s attitude from taking as few AAC schools as possible (see the Lazy AF Bare Minimum Backfilling Strategy above) to trying to take as many AAC schools of value as possible. This ensures that there’s no chance that a reverse raid occurs in the future or that the CFP committee in a 12-team playoff world is trying to debate whether the Big 12 or AAC champion faced a tougher conference schedule in fighting for a playoff spot.

Houston is a school that should be in the Big 12 with its institutional and geographic fit combined with being directly located in one of the most important markets for the conference and an excellent athletic program for both football and basketball (including a New Year’s Six Bowl win in 2015 and a Final Four appearance this past year). If Houston (the school) was located anywhere outside of the state of Texas, it would essentially be a lock for Big 12 expansion. The one major wrinkle is that Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU may very well not want to elevate an in-state competitor, which is a theme that we have seen throughout conference realignment history. The Athletic mentioned that some in the Big 12 had issues with in dealing with UH board chair Tilman Fertitta in 2016, although my intuition is that’s cover for the more likely reason of in-state conflicts of interests. If I were running the Big 12, I would absolutely add Houston and this particular strategy would be the one that I’d favor the most.

When the Big 12 was looking at expansion in 2016, the league essentially looked at UCF and USF as effectively tied in a coin flip. That’s not the case any longer with UCF’s on-the-field success and building of its brand over the past several years. Today, UCF arguably brings the most pure football value of any option in the AAC along with new entry into the Orlando TV market and recruiting grounds.

3. TV Executives Will Tell Us What to Do Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, Boise State

In the above-referenced article from The Athletic on the Big 12 expansion process, the schools in this strategy were ones specifically named as possibly maximizing football and TV value for the league. Whether that was pure writer speculation or more of an informed opinion is unknown (although my gut feeling is that those names were just thrown against the wall within the context of that article). From a pure football perspective, Boise State might have the best brand value of any Group of 5 team (despite not performing as well on-the-field compared to several AAC options recently), so they are one of the few expansion options with a solid recent history of on-the-field success and corresponding TV viewership.

4. Life After Death Southwest Conference Strategy – Cincinnati, Houston, SMU, and Rice

My head says that this expansion strategy won’t be used by the Big 12, but my heart really wishes that it would. In most conference realignment situations, the reality is that the resulting matchups when games finally get played lack any history or general emotions at all. (Recall the Civil Conflict “rivalry” between UCF and UConn in the AAC where UCF didn’t even acknowledge the existence of the trophy that UConn created.) That won’t be the case here: nothing will be forced. The hate will be real with Houston, SMU and Rice (yes, Rice!) getting into the very league whose creation destroyed the Southwest Conference and demoted them to non-power status for the past 25 years. The rivalries between the those 3 schools and Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU are longstanding and, in some cases, date back over a century. While the main weakness of the Big 12 up to this point has been its overconcentration in the Texas market, that may now be its greatest asset going forward as it rebuilds. So, the strategy here would be to lean into that asset. It may be better to be the clear #2 conference in the State of Texas than to be the #3 conference in Florida or even the #2 conference anywhere else. Honestly, this is the most fun option for me as a sports fan.

5. Stealing Magnolias Strategy- Cincinnati, SMU, Rice, and Tulane

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, there were various discussions of the creation of a “Southern Ivy League” of top academic private schools that was colloquially known as the “Magnolia League” and involved SMU, Rice and Tulane. As I’ve noted previously as the most important rule in conference realignment: Think like a university president and not like a sports fan. This strategy would fit into the university president’s typical desire to raise the academic pedigree of a league. While this may not be the best path to improve football quality, the argument here would be that getting AAU members like Rice (yes, Rice again!) and Tulane would have a greater institutional impact in being academic peers to a critical mass of members of the other power conferences. Even with the defections of Texas and Oklahoma, the actual on-the-field football product for the Big 12 will likely still be very good, but the challenge is about how the league’s members are perceived as overall institutions compared to the rest of the Power 5. Tulane provides a bonus of being directly located in a solid TV market (and world class road trip destination) of New Orleans and opens up another fertile recruiting area. 

6. All My Exes Live in Texas Blackballing Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, and 1 of either Memphis or USF

Going in the other direction from the Life After Death Southwest Conference strategy, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech form a voting bloc that would blackball any other Texas-based additions to the Big 12 altogether. As noted in the initial discussion on Houston, whether it’s fair or not, protecting the home territory of existing conference members has long been a major factor in realignment decisions. Essentially, this is the You Come at the King, You Best Not Miss Strategy with Houston removed and the last spot being a choice between Memphis and USF. Memphis is in an excellent college sports market that brings a fair amount of historical pedigree for both football and basketball. Meanwhile, USF creates synergy as a pair with UCF in solidifying a presence in the Central Florida region where any school that isn’t Florida or Florida State can’t carry on its won. My feeling is that Memphis would win out due to it being stronger as an overall athletic program, although there might be an overarching desire of the Big 12 to create a more impactful presence in Florida.

7. The Mountains Win Again Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Colorado State, and Boise State

The options discussed up to this point have focused on the Big 12 adding schools to the East outside of BYU. However, there’s a fair argument that going West would be better long-term in order to get the conference into a less competitive region of the country that is also fast-growing. The Big 12 (and old Big 8, for that matter) used to have Colorado as a key member before they defected to the Pac-12. This strategy works best with building around BYU and Boise State. Colorado State has long been at the top of the list of schools that would improve its conference realignment prospects drastically if it could be merely consistently competent in football since it has so many off-the-field factors in favor of it in terms of academic profile and a location in a state that is exploding with growth. .

8. Return of the WAC Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Colorado State, Boise State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, and Air Force (alternate: anyone else from the Mountain West Conference)

Taking The Mountains Win Again Strategy one step further, once upon a time, the WAC was a 16-team superconference with games going on at all hours of the evening. The Big 12 could resurrect that model by going big with many of the same teams that were involved in that WAC format. Essentially, this is a full-on raid of the Mountain West Conference. San Diego and Las Vegas markets are two of the largest TV markets that don’t have a direct or de facto connection to a power conference team, so the Big 12 could serve a need in those areas with San Diego State and UNLV, respectively. (Recall that Boise State and San Diego State were willing to join the old Big East football conference for a few moments before conference realignment further took its toll and they decided to re-up with the Mountain West.) Air Force further solidifies the Rocky Mountain region with some national brand value as a military academy. The Falcons have also been willing to play a higher level of competition for basketball and other non-football sports compared to their other military academy brothers of Army and Navy (who will be discussed later on in this post), although the school expressed concern about competing in a power conference in the past. In the event that Air Force doesn’t want to move, the Big 12 would effectively being throwing at a dartboard at a map of the MWC for which school gets the last spot. (Fresno State? San Jose State? Nevada? Wyoming? Utah State? Heck, Hawaii? It’s totally unclear who would win that battle.) 

9. Big Country Conference Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV, and Houston (alternate: either Memphis or USF)

Further to my last point, the old Big East attempted to put together a coast-to-coast football conference in 2012 in the wake of the ACC raiding that league of Syracuse and Pitt and the Big 12 grabbing West Virginia. However, the plan was killed when the league was raided again by the Big Ten (Rutgers) and ACC part 2 (Louisville) shortly thereafter. That’s too bad since they were employing a variation of one of my favorite blue sky ideas from the crazy conference realignment days of 2010: a coast-to-coast football-only Big Country Conference of the Big East plus the best of the then-non-AQ conference schools. For football purposes, today’s proposed Big Country Conference would be a super-fun league that can deliver 14-plus hours of games for TV networks every Saturday (plus plenty of willingness to fill weeknight time slots). The challenge would be that this may not be realistic as an all-sports league for the West members since there isn’t a critical mass of schools in that part of the country (unlike the Return of the WAC option). If those schools As a result, football-only memberships for those schools would require some coordination with a league like the Big West or West Coast Conference to take those Western schools as members for basketball and other sports.

10. I Wish I Was a Little Bit Taller, I Wish I Was a Baller Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Houston, Memphis, Temple, and UConn

It is a common refrain that “football is all that matters for conference realignment.” However, I would push back on the universality of that statement. While it’s true that the top power conferences such as the Big Ten and SEC are making so much revenue that football is really the only sport that can make a material difference, that isn’t necessarily true at the lower levels. Case in point is the new Big East that has been able to thrive both on-the-court and off-the-court financially based on basketball and no longer needing to deal with football members.

Also note the situation in the Big 12 where the most valuable school left for conference realignment purposes happens to be Kansas… and that is due entirely to its status as a blue blood basketball program. As a result, Kansas may very well have the most influence in Big 12 expansion discussions, which means that basketball prowess could become more of a factor in the decision-making. In this case, 3 AAC schools that we have discussed at length already (Cincinnati, Houston and Memphis) are included along with UConn, Temple and BYU. Granted, it’s hard to see UConn switching conferences again after leaving the AAC and going “home” to the Big East for basketball last year while turning independent for football. However, if the Big 12 is looking to really focus on its basketball brand (which will still be excellent with blue blood Kansas, reigning national champion Baylor, alma mater of the latest #1 pick of the NBA Draft in Cade Cunningham in Oklahoma State, and the national runner-up from 2 years ago in Texas Tech), then UConn has the best available brand on the table. Temple also has an excellent basketball history and would bring in the Philadelphia area that, while being perceived as a weak college football fan market, is actually a strong college basketball region with great rivalries in the Big 5.

11. Shock and Awe Strategy – Cincinnati, BYU, Air Force, Navy (football-only), Army (football-only), and 1 of either Houston or UCF

Andy Staples of The Athletic recently wrote about the importance of the 4 Million Club, where TV value is driven by games that draw more than 4 million viewers. The SEC and Big Ten have excelled on this measure since 2015, so it’s not a surprise that they draw in the most TV revenue of any conferences by far. The weakness of the Pac-12 and Big 12 (not counting Texas and Oklahoma games) by comparison was also stark. In looking through the source ratings data at Sports Media Watch, one interesting tidbit is that out of 193 college football telecasts that drew more than 4 million viewers since 2015, only 6 didn’t involve at least one Power Five team (including Notre Dame)… and 5 of those 6 games were Army-Navy games. If the Big 12 could actually make the Army-Navy game into a contest that falls under the conference contract, that may be worth more from a TV value standpoint than any other possible addition. Add in Air Force on top of that and the Big 12 would have all three service academies under its wing. Cincinnati, BYU and Houston or UCF can also be added for depth across all sports.

Now, the Army-Navy game currently has a separate TV contract with CBS, which was a requirement of Navy upon joining the AAC as a football-only member and means that league doesn’t receive any revenue from that matchup. Whether that can be adjusted would make a significant difference as to whether going for an expansion strategy focused on adding the service academies would be financially viable. In any event, Navy, Army and Air Force all do bring national brands that are hard to come by outside of the power conferences.

If I’m handicapping the field, I’d rank the following strategies in terms of likelihood: (1) You Come at the King, You Best Not Miss Strategy, (2) Lazy AF Bare Minimum Backfilling Strategy, (3) TV Executives Will Tell Us What to Do Strategy, and (4) the rest of the field. (EDIT: Thinking about this further, the All My Exes Live in Texas Blackballing Strategy ought to be included on this list. I would move that up to the #3 choice.) It’s not an accident that the same schools such as Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, Houston and Boise State are the ones that are being discussed the most along with a small handful of others. The Big 12 already went through an expansion evaluation in 2016, which would seem to make the process this time around much more efficient in theory. The real question is where the Big 12 wants to go, both literally and figuratively, as their strategies are all across the map.

(Image from IMDb)

The Big Paclantic: Thoughts on the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC Alliance

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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.

SCHEDULING ALLIANCE

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.

CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT

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.

(Image from Chicago Sun-Times)

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Many Bothans Died to Bring Us This Information: Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC Alliance, Rose Bowl Requests and Conference Realignment Impact on the Playoffs

Quite a bit of interesting off-the-field college football news dropped at the end of last week. First, Andy Wittry obtained a Rose Bowl memo to the Big Ten and Pac-12 from earlier this year that outlined what the Granddaddy of Them All is seeking from a new playoff system. That was then followed up by a story with potentially even greater impact, where The Athletic reported that the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC were exploring an alliance that could range from governance issues to scheduling.

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

At the same time, just as a lot of layman fans mistakenly believe that the SEC makes more money than the Big Ten (which isn’t true), the Big Ten would have actually had more at-large bids if the 12-team playoff had been in place during the CFP era than the SEC. I have seen a lot of fans suggest that leagues outside of the SEC would want to cap the number of teams from each conference that could make the playoffs, but they’re forgetting is that the Big Ten absolutely doesn’t want that at all, either. This is one issue where the Big Ten and SEC are aligned.

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.

(Image from Pixels.com)

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

The Art of Deception: Big 12 vs. ESPN

For most conference realignment moves, the timing may often be surprising, but the logic behind them makes sense. The SEC taking Texas and Oklahoma is a perfect example: the move came out of nowhere last week and shocked the college football world to its core, but it’s a move that makes perfect sense for the parties involved with increased money and power.

Every once in awhile, though, conference realignment causes a story that goes beyond the realm of reasonable possibility, such as a Power 5 conference commissioner publicly going postal on ESPN. Yesterday, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent a cease and desist letter to ESPN where he accuses the network of attempting to induce league members to join another conference. Then, he didn’t just let that letter speak for itself: he basically went to every media outlet out there (sans ESPN) and left no doubt about how he really feels. Conspiracy! Deception! Manipulation! Tortious interference! Backstabbing partner! All that we need is a missing body and this would be an episode of Dateline!

The only thing crazier than all of this is ESPN’s alleged plan: dissolve the Big 12 by having 3 to 5 members join the AAC. Not the ACC, but the AAC. Now, from a pure ESPN perspective, the dissolution of the Big 12 makes financial sense: that allows Texas and Oklahoma to move to the SEC without paying any exit obligations (likely in the neighborhood of $70 million to $80 million for each of those schools), move the most attractive remaining Big 12 brands to a less expensive AAC contract that’s 100% under the control of ESPN, and eliminate around $1 billion in rights fees that are remaining on the current Big 12 contract with ESPN. I have no doubt that ESPN would love everything to play out this way.

However, if these allegations are true, this is an insanely brazen and obtuse proposal regardless of incentives for ESPN. If we assume that no other P5 league is going to take any of the remaining Big 12 members, how on Earth did ESPN think this was going to work? Think of it from the perspective of the remaining Big 12 schools of the ESPN “offering”:

(1) This would have involved asking Oklahoma State to ask Tulsa for an invite to a league. It would have involved Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU to ask SMU and Houston to the same. Putting aside football, this would have required Kansas State and freaking Kansas (whose basketball program was founded by basketball inventor James Naismith) asking Wichita State to join the Shockers’ league!

(2) The Big 12 would just willingly disband and give up $140 million to $160 million of exit fees from Texas and Oklahoma.

(3) The Big 12 would further willingly dissolve and give up around $1 billion for the rest of the existing TV deal with ESPN.

Once we take a step back from the initial shock of how openly public this dispute is between the Big 12 and ESPN, the alleged proposal from ESPN is frankly comical. It’s no wonder that Bob Bowlsby claims that he has receipts that ESPN has been attempting this here: any Big 12 school that received a proposal from ESPN for them to join the AAC (not the ACC) so that they can dissolve the league and make less money in the process would have forwarded those texts and emails to the Commissioner’s Office with the subject line: “Dude?! WTF?!”

To be sure, nothing is going to change ESPN’s power position in college sports (or simply the sports world in general). However, I believe that this is going to backfire on the AAC quite badly. The AAC might get a few days of positive news cycles where they appear to be the aggressor as opposed to being the hunted in the conference realignment game. However, when anyone takes a step back and goes line-by-line comparing the Big 12 and AAC members, the fact of the matter is that the AAC would take every Big 12 member while there are several schools that the Big 12 wouldn’t touch from the AAC. That inherently means that the remaining Big 12 schools as a core are simply more valuable than the AAC and it makes more financial sense for the Big 12 to take the best schools from the AAC as opposed to the other way around.

Just 24 hours ago, I would have believed that the Big 12 was aiming to have as little backfilling as possible (maybe just taking 1 AAC school like Cincinnati plus independent BYU) or even simply stand pat at 8 schools. Frankly, the Big 12 has been spending the past several years convincing itself of reasons to not take AAC schools such as Cincinnati, Houston, UCF and Memphis. I believe those days are gone. With this accusation of the AAC coordinating with ESPN for the equivalent of a hostile takeover, my sense is that the Big 12 is going to find every reason to strip mine anything of value from the AAC to neutralize any real or perceived threat here. This may turn out well for the AAC schools that I just mentioned, but any current schadenfreude at the Big 12 predicament from the bottom half of the AAC is wildly misplaced.

In the past week, I feel that a lot of fan chatter has overrated the chances of the Big 12 schools to get an invite to any of the other Power 5 conferences since they were ignoring institutional fits and simply how much more money a school needs to bring to the Big Ten, Pac-12 or ACC just for expansion to break-even for them (much less actually be more profitable). However, it seems as if though the tide has turned where the Big 12 is now underrated in comparison to the AAC and rest of the Group of 5 leagues. The truth is somewhere in the middle – the rest of the Big 12 may not be finding homes in other P5 leagues, but they still have absolute poaching power over the G5 leagues if only because of a combination of autonomy status with the NCAA, incoming exit fees from Texas and Oklahoma and existing NCAA Tournament credits. To say that I’m watching all of this from the sidelines while eating popcorn is an understatement: this is all worthy of downing an entire souvenir Chicago skyline tin of Garrett’s Popcorn.

(Image from the Big 12 Conference)

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

Red River Realignment: Texas and Oklahoma Talk to the SEC

(Image from Omaha World-Herald)

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.

As a result, the Houston Chronicle breaking the story today that Texas and Oklahoma have reached out to the SEC is an earthquake followed up by a tsunami for conference realignment purposes. To quote Dr. Strange, “We’re in the endgame now.” The past two decades of conference realignment (starting with the ACC’s original raid of the old Big East football conference by expanding with Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College) have been leading up to this moment.

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.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Where Big Ten Graduates Live and Conference Realignment

Over the past several years analyzing conference realignment, observers have had access to some overarching data, such as TV ratings, athletic department revenue, population and demographic trends of states and metro areas, and the home states of current college students. However, up to this point, there has been only largely anecdotal and/or unreliable data on a critical piece of the conference realignment puzzle: the specific places where the graduates from each college actually live. As an Illinois graduate, I’ve long known anecdotally that my alma mater sends a critical mass of graduates to San Francisco and Seattle (generally for tech jobs due to the school’s strong engineering and computer science programs) while very few Illini move to Indianapolis despite it actually being geographically closer to campus than Chicago and St. Louis, but it has been difficult to find quantitative data to actually back that up.

This is where a new database from the Wall Street Journal fills the gap.* The Journal worked with a labor market research firm to identify the metro areas where the graduates of 445 colleges now live. It breaks down the most popular locations for the alumni for each school to move to in the United States. What’s also interesting is to see how certain locations are conspicuously devoid of particular schools’ alums, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

(* h/t to Aaron Renn for his original post on this Wall Street Journal database. If you’re interested in urban development and demographic issues, he is one of the best writers out there.)

For someone that’s interested in conference realignment and the college sports business in general, this database is a legitimate treasure trove. As soon as I was made aware of this Journal site, I went through each of the Big Ten schools to identify the top metro areas for each of their respective graduates. Here is the chart I put together with each of the Big Ten schools on top, applicable metropolitan areas listed on the side, and a tier number assigned whenever a market comes up as a top destination for a school’s graduates:

Big Ten Graduate Cities Image 20180517

Key:
Tier 1 = 10% or more of a school’s graduates live in that market
Tier 2 = 5% – 9.99% of a school’s graduates live in that market
Tier 3 = 1% – 4.99% of a school’s graduates live in that market
Dash = Not a measurable destination for a school’s graduates

After creating this chart in my full dorkdom, there are some key takeaways:

FOUR CITIES ARE TOP DESTINATIONS FOR ALL BIG TEN SCHOOLS… AND NONE OF THEM ARE IN THE MIDWEST

There are only four markets in the entire country that drew more than 1% of the graduates from every single Big Ten school: New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco. None of these metro areas are located in the Midwest. Not even Chicago, the heart of the Big Ten, covered every single conference school, albeit the two sub-1% exceptions are the latest East Coast additions of Maryland and Rutgers.

To be sure, the Wall Street Journal notes that those four particular markets draw from a much wider range of colleges across the country. The sheer sizes of the New York and Los Angeles markets swallow up a lot of college grads and all four of the cities have strengths in industries that attract a national talent pool: finance in New York, entertainment in Los Angeles**, tech in San Francisco, and government and politics in Washington.

(** My favorite Big Ten-to-Hollywood story at the moment: former Penn State basketball player Joonas Suotamo is taking over the role of Chewbacca. Also, while this isn’t reflected in the domestic data, the Big Ten will have a monopoly on Americans in the British royal family after this weekend when Hollywood actress and Northwestern alum Meghan Markle marries Prince Harry.)

Still, the Big Ten’s top-to-bottom presence in those four markets is noteworthy because the only other Division I conference that has every member in those same markets is the Ivy League… and all of the Ivy League schools are in relatively close proximity to New York and Washington. Interestingly enough, all of the Ivy League schools have at least a Tier 3 presence in Chicago, too.

BIG TEN GRADS LARGELY STAY IN THEIR HOME STATES, GO TO CHICAGO, OR LEAVE THE MIDWEST COMPLETELY

Putting aside Maryland and Rutgers, Chicago is still the market with the deepest ties to the Big Ten by a large margin. It is a Tier 1 market for 6 schools, Tier 2 market for 2 schools and Tier 3 market for 4 schools. No other metro area has more than 2 Tier 1 Big Ten school connections. This isn’t exactly surprising with the annual migratory pattern of new Big Ten grads taking over apartments in Lincoln Park and Lakeview every summer (while the older Big Ten grads like me move on to places like Naperville).

Big Ten schools also send a lot of grads to the largest metro areas within their own home states. Every Big Ten school has a Tier 1 connection to at least one market located in its home state. Note that there are many metro areas where the principal city is located in one state but parts of its market are located in another state. New Jersey is a classic example where it’s largely split between the New York and Philadelphia metro areas. There are several other border areas in the Big Ten footprint such as the St. Louis metro area being partially in Illinois, the Louisville and Cincinnati metro areas crossing into Indiana, and the Omaha market including portions of Iowa. Ultimately, a state keeping a large number of grads from its flagship or other large schools isn’t exactly surprising, either. Going home will always be a strong draw.

What’s stunning to me, though, is the utter lack of Big Ten grads going anywhere else in the Midwest other than Chicago or a metro area that has a presence in their school’s state. Detroit is the 2nd largest metro area in the Midwest, relatively easy driving distance from most of the Big Ten schools, and larger than both the Seattle and Denver markets. Yet, the only 2 Big Ten schools outside of Michigan and Michigan State that have even a Tier 3 connection to Detroit are Northwestern and Purdue. Meanwhile, 10 Big Ten schools have a Tier 3 connection with Denver and 8 of the league’s colleges have a Tier 3 connection with Seattle.

In fact, the only instances where a Big Ten school has a Tier 3 connection (much less stronger ones) with a Midwestern market that isn’t either Chicago or wholly or partially located in its own state are (i) the aforementioned example of Northwestern and Purdue with Detroit, (ii) Iowa and Wisconsin with Minneapolis, (iii) Minnesota with Milwaukee and (iv) Nebraska and Iowa with Kansas City (which is a market that isn’t even in the current Big Ten footprint). That’s it… and it’s actually even worse when digging deeper because the trading of Badgers and Gophers between Milwaukee and Minneapolis comes with the caveat that there is tuition reciprocity for Wisconsin and Minnesota state residents for their respective flagship universities. In essence, a Milwaukee resident effectively treats Minnesota as an “in-state” school and it would be the same for Minneapolis residents with respect to Wisconsin. As a result, a lot of those Badgers and Gophers are just heading back to their home markets.

If Midwestern metros want to have any chance of changing their slow growth compared to the rest of the country, it’s clear that they need to do a better job of attracting the college grads that are just beyond their own home state universities. There really isn’t a great reason why Indianapolis isn’t drawing at least 1% of grads from neighboring state Big Ten schools like Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State… and Indy is one of the healthier Midwestern economies. Essentially, the Midwest metros with the exception of Chicago have completely ceded their “home field advantage” for Big Ten grads to the coasts and other high growth locations (e.g. Dallas, Atlanta and Denver).

WHAT’S BAD FOR THE MIDWEST MIGHT BE GOOD FOR THE BIG TEN

Paradoxically, the horrific inability of Midwestern markets other than Chicago to capitalize on the pipeline of Big Ten grads that are often within short driving distance is largely a good thing for the conference. The Wall Street Journal database shows that the Big Ten has the most nationalized alumni base of the Power Five conferences from top-to-bottom. As noted previously, the only other conference where every school has at least a Tier 3 connection with New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco is the Ivy League. More than half of the Big Ten has at least a Tier 3 connection with Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver and Seattle. There are 4 or more Big Ten schools with a Tier 3 connection with Houston, Miami and Phoenix, too.

This helps explain why the Big Ten has consistently received larger media revenue compared to its biggest football rival of the SEC. While the SEC might often receive superficially higher TV ratings compared to the Big Ten, the SEC has much more concentrated intense interest from alums that still live in its home footprint of the South. In contrast, the Big Ten might have a little bit less intense interest in its home footprint of the Midwest/Northeast (outside of places like Ohio), but that’s compensated by its very broad presence of alums in large and wealthy markets from coast-to-coast (AKA valuable viewers).

At the same time, to the extent that cable subscriber fees that have been largely based on home market interest are at risk for the Big Ten Network, the Big Ten is still in the best position of any Power Five league to take advantage of any new media rights paradigm due to its more national footprint. The New York Yankees have a combination of national and regional advantages that made them the wealthiest team in the radio era, over-the-air TV era, and cable TV era… and they’ll be the wealthiest team in the over-the-top streaming era or whatever else might come down the pike. I believe that the Big Ten will continue in that same type of position in the college sports space – they’re the conference that still has the strongest combination of home state passion with a national fan base.

DEMOGRAPHICS AND CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT

Let’s get back to the four cities that have a connection with every single Big Ten school: New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco. If anyone wants to wonder why the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers, just look at this data. The additions of those schools were not so much about Maryland and Rutgers actually delivering their respective home markets of DC and NYC, but rather bringing the Big Ten product directly to where the league’s alums now live. It’s no different than why pro sports leagues are so insistent on having franchises in places like Florida and Arizona: it’s not that they are delusional to believe that those markets will have great homegrown fan bases, but rather that they are places where transplants from New York, Chicago and Boston can directly watch their favorite teams.

The underpinnings of the bond between the Big Ten and Pac-12 beyond the Rose Bowl becomes clearer here, too. Not only are Los Angeles and San Francisco uniformly popular for Big Ten grads, but Denver, Phoenix and Seattle also have strong Big Ten connections. The proposed Big Ten-Pac-12 partnership from earlier this decade that ultimately fell apart would have fit right in line with the demographic data.

To be very clear, I don’t believe that the Big Ten is anywhere near expansion mode. We likely won’t see any real discussion of Power Five conference realignment until the current Big 12 grant of rights contract expires in 2025. That being said, the Wall Street Journal database provides a lot of fodder for which markets make the most for the Big Ten in the event that it wants to expand its footprint further along with some explanation for demonstrated interest in certain schools during recent rounds of conference realignment. The following is simply my blue-sky thinking as opposed to any evidence that there will be realignment moves in the near future.

Texas was mentioned prominently as a past Big Ten expansion target and that was a no-brainer at all levels: a top academic national brand name school with a blue blood football program that delivers a massive high growth population state is the top prize for every Power Five conference even above Notre Dame. The fact that Dallas has a Tier 3 connection with 9 existing Big Ten schools and Houston has connections with 4 conference members is just the proverbial icing on the cake. However, the value wasn’t as obvious when Georgia Tech was also identified as a Big Ten expansion target. The Big Ten graduate data partially points to why the league was interested in the Yellow Jackets: the Atlanta market is one of the most prominent destinations for conference grads with 9 Tier 3 connections.

There wasn’t much discussion about Colorado being a possible Big Ten school in the past, but Denver has Tier 3 connections with every Big Ten school except for the 4 that are closest to the East Coast. I’m not alarmist about the Pac-12’s status among the Power Five conferences (unlike some others) and I won’t subscribe to pie-in-the-sky scenarios (e.g. the Big Ten adding schools like USC and UCLA). However, I wouldn’t put it past the Big Ten to make a play for Colorado in the next decade if the Pac-12’s relatively lower revenue makes it vulnerable. Colorado is an AAU school in a major market with a critical mass of Big Ten alums and even in a state that’s contiguous with the current conference footprint (via Nebraska).***

(*** As a reminder, the Big Ten does not have a contiguous state requirement for expansion. The league will jump over states to get Texas, UNC or similar caliber schools if they ever wanted to join. That being said, geographic proximity is certainly an important factor, especially if it’s not a blue blood program.)

Kansas is also sitting there from the Big 12 as an AAU school with a blue blood basketball program and Kansas City is one of the few Midwest markets that been able to draw non-local Big Ten grads from multiple schools. I have long been on the record that the most valuable single plausible (e.g. no poaching Florida and USC) expansion scenario for the Big Ten that doesn’t involve Texas, Notre Dame and/or ACC schools is the league adding Kansas and Oklahoma. Their smaller markets on paper are countered by having national draws in basketball and football, respectively, along with deeper connections to a lot of major markets beyond their home states’ borders (such the OU presence in the Dallas market).

On the Eastern side of the Big Ten footprint, 10 of the 14 conference schools have connections with Boston. Adding a school to cover the Boston market would effectively make the Big Ten into the conference of the entire North. However, the challenge is finding an acceptable school that fits into the conference. Boston College is obviously located directly in that market, but it isn’t a great institutional fit as a private religious university (although that wouldn’t stop the Big Ten from adding Notre Dame if the Irish were willing to come). I’m not completely dismissive of a BC to the Big Ten scenario down the road since it still has great academics and a location directly in the Boston market, although it’s a stretch.

UConn is a more of an institutional fit as a flagship school, has strong connections to both New York and Boston and a top level basketball program historically. However, its largest roadblock can’t really be fixed by anything other than the passage of time: the Big Ten simply isn’t adding a school that has only been playing FBS football since 2002. In fact, that’s an underrated factor in why UConn isn’t in any Power Five conference today. All of the years that UConn played Division I-AA football might not as well exist. In the minds of the powers that be, UConn is more of newbie than a school like UCF (upgraded in 1996), and that’s a black mark in a universe where being able to say that a school has been playing at the highest level of football since the 1800s actually matters. It might sound arbitrary and unfair, but old school pedigree is simply an absolute requirement when getting to the Power Five level and dealing with very literally the snobbiest group of people on Earth AKA university presidents. Even a bad football history can be overcome if it’s at least a long football history (e.g. Rutgers).

Syracuse actually sends a similar percentage of its grads to the Boston market as UConn despite a farther distance from Upstate New York along having the largest percentage of grads of of any FBS school living in the New York City market with the exception of Rutgers. While Syracuse is a private school, it’s a very large one where it almost serves the role of a flagship-type institution for New Yorkers. As a result, it has Big Ten-like attributes in a region where Ivy League and other elite private universities have historically kept public universities in a subservient position.

To be sure, demographics are only part of what goes into the conference realignment equation. If schools are in markets that don’t necessarily have strong ties to existing Big Ten alums but are bringing in elite blue blood programs (such as Oklahoma football or Duke and/or North Carolina basketball), then those elite brand names are going to win out.

Still, it has been fascinating to go through the grad destination profiles of the Big Ten schools along with other colleges across the country. Once again, in matters more important than conference realignment, Midwestern cities in particular need to review this data and understand that they are giving up their home field advantage of nearby Big Ten grad talent to coastal cities that are providing such talent with more professional and economic opportunities. This is sobering data for every Midwest city outside of Chicago. They likely knew that this challenge was happening at some level, but the results are actually even worse than expected.

P.S. For long-time readers of this blog, I know that it has been a long hiatus. Thank you for your patience and continued support. I promise that I’ll get more posts up before the next Avengers movie comes out next summer that will inevitably undo what happened at the end of Infinity War.

(Image from Amazon)

 

No Shocker in Conference Realignment

wichita-state-mascot

Ever since the Big 12 decided to not propose to anyone after its Bachelor-esque expansion process back in the fall of last year, we have had one of the deadest periods in conference realignment news of any substance in this century. At least for the Power Five conferences, the world has entered into an era of stability. Until some combination of Texas, Oklahoma and/or Kansas decides that they no longer want to stay in the Big 12, it’s difficult to see much movement in the near future at the Power Five level.

However, the stability at the top has allowed for the non-power conferences to reassess their own long-term plans. The American Athletic Conference was the league that was most at risk in the Big 12 expansion process with Houston, Cincinnati and UConn being heavily discussed as potential invites. Now that the Big 12 has given the AAC a reprieve, the Group of Five league’s members know that they’re legitimately in this particular home for the long haul whether they like it or not. As a result, this is the first time since the AAC was formed in the wake of the collapse of the old Big East football conference that its member schools are truly looking at their respective futures within the AAC as opposed to outside of it.

Over the past few weeks, there have been an increasing number of reports from various outlets that the AAC is interested in adding current Missouri Valley Conference school Wichita State as a non-football member*, culminating in a report from Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated from this past Saturday that the AAC and Wichita State are engaged in expansion talks with mutual interest.

(* A pet peeve of mine in conference realignment stories is when there’s a reference to “basketball-only” membership since it wrongly implies that a school is being added only for basketball. Instead, such school is being added for all sports for which the league sponsors except for football, which is why it is really a “non-football member.)

I’ll be honest: I have been a long-time skeptic of both the AAC wanting to add non-football members and Wichita State’s chances of escaping the MVC. On the AAC side, the divide between the old Big East’s football and non-football schools was a major factor in the eventual dissolution of that league and the memories of how the Catholic 7 (Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, Marquette and DePaul) split off to form the current Big East have still been fresh. From the Wichita State angle, they always seemed to be a classic fan favorite for expansion based on on-the-court performance but not a university president favorite with respect to academics and TV markets (similar to Boise State football). Interestingly, unlike most non-power conference schools, Wichita State actually didn’t have an issue with financial resources. When Shocker basketball coach Gregg Marshall was being courted by Alabama a couple of years ago, Charles Koch (most well-known with his brother David as the duo in charge of Koch Industries and arguably the most powerful and influential fundraisers for the Republican Party and conservative causes) spearheaded a group of boosters to make Marshall one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in the country. However, the stances of the AAC and MWC to not add non-football schools (at least up until apparently now) and the lack of institutional and geographic fits with the Big East, Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference meant that the MVC was looking like Wichita State’s only realistic choice.

As a result, the AAC backing off of its stance against non-football members will end up being a Godsend for Wichita State assuming that this proposed expansion is finalized. Wichita State was going to have to start looking at initiating an FBS football program in order to find a different league… and even if they were to do that, it would have been no guarantee that they would have received an invite from the Sun Belt (much less the AAC or MWC). The fact that the Shockers are in position to be able to get into the AAC without needing to go through the extremely risky and expensive process of starting up an FBS football team is everything that the school could have possibly wished for outside of a non-football invite to a Power Five conference.

For the AAC’s part, the proposed addition of Wichita State indicates that football can no longer be the only conference realignment consideration for leagues that are outside of the Power Five world. The Group of Five leagues are earning less TV money with both football and basketball than the new Big East is with just basketball alone, which shows that a strong college basketball brand still has value in the marketplace compared to a weaker college football brand. Even if TV money isn’t taken into account, the Group of Five leagues are inherently going to be more reliant on revenue from NCAA Tournament credits (which rise when each conference member advances a round in the Big Dance) compared to the Power Five leagues since those basketball dollars are going to be a larger share for them compared to College Football Playoff dollars. Indeed, Thamel and others have pointed out that Wichita State won’t likely add much to the value of the AAC’s TV contract, but it can certainly drive a lot of conference revenue in the form of winning games in the NCAA Tournament (which earns additional credits).

So, several years after hybrid conferences were declared by the public at-large to be dead, it’s possible that those league formats could be making a comeback. The Mountain West Conference would certainly look better if it could add this year’s national runner-up Gonzaga, although the West Coast Conference is in a much stronger position to protect its membership due to the presence of BYU and the uniform institutional fit of all members being private schools in the West (similar to the Big East on the other side of the country). (Personally, I don’t believe that the WCC is poachable unless the Big East to decide to go waaaaaaay outside of its current geographic footprint.) In terms of the prospects for other recent NCAA Tournament darlings, Florida Gulf Coast has had the Shocker-esque problem of being a non-football school that’s a geographic outlier, but they could fit really well with Conference USA if that league were to entertain a hybrid membership again. Plus, FGCU is located in the Fort Myers-Naples market that is one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country and a massive amount of wealth due to its significant snowbird population with little direct spectator sports competition.

Meanwhile, the single act of Wichita State leaving the MVC for the AAC can have a significant ripple effect throughout the non-football Division I conferences. When Creighton left for the new Big East in 2013, the MVC looked heavily at replenishing its membership with Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and Valparaiso from the Horizon League prior to settling upon Loyola University Chicago. My impression is that the MVC will look at both UIC and Valpo again since strengthening that league’s Chicago area presence is likely a top priority for that league’s presidents. While MVC fans might prefer to add better on-the-court options that might be located in smaller markets (such as Murray State, South Dakota State or North Dakota State), there’s a much bigger picture in play here: the MVC schools themselves cannot survive without as many tuition-paying students from the Chicago area specifically as possible. With public school budgets getting slashed and private university enrollments falling outside of the elite tier, the competition for tuition dollars is only getting tougher as the number of college students declines overall. Illinois has turned into the largest net exporter of students to out-of-state colleges of any state in the country. The three biggest beneficiaries of this net outflow from Illinois just happen to be the states of Iowa, Indiana and Missouri… which happen to form the MVC footprint along with Illinois itself. In essence, the Chicagoland area is to general student recruiting as the state of Texas is to football recruiting and the MVC schools need to keep growing their share of that pool. Therefore, the MVC gaining even a handful of extra impressions per year in the Chicago region by playing a school like UIC can be critical to, say, Drake and Evansville (much less in-state Illinois schools like Bradley, Illinois State and Southern Illinois). The MVC is going to be a one-bid league going forward if Wichita State leaves no matter who it can realistically add (e.g. adding A-10 schools such as St. Louis and Dayton is NOT realistic), so the leadership of that league is likely going to focus much more on off-the-court factors compared to on-the-court performance. That also means that it would be a bit surprising if the MVC decided to replace Wichita State with multiple schools to go up to 12 members (as keeping the membership total at 10 would maximize per school payouts of NCAA Tournament and other conference-level revenue).

If the MVC poaches from the Horizon League, that could put schools like IUPUI (from the Summit League) or Belmont (from the Ohio Valley Conference) in play as targets. It will be interesting to see just how much realignment will ultimately occur throughout the Division I ranks simply based on Wichita State being added as a non-football member to the AAC.

What impact does all of these potential moves have on the Power Five conferences? We’ll have more on that soon.

(Image from Business Insider)

The Return of Conference Realignment: Summer of Big 12 CYA Expansion

For the past several years, the Big 12’s public position on potential expansion was constantly wait-and-see with lots of studies being commissioned and a general lean towards staying at 10 members. The league’s presidents and other stewards (despite public proclamations from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby to take action on expansion one way or the other) seemed to indicate that they were simply not motivated to expand, effectively stating that the options weren’t good enough (sort of like how much of America despises both major presidential candidates at record levels). The focus from the Big 12 was more about short-term maximization of their ability to make it into the College Football Playoff (whose leaders finally figured out today that New Year’s Eve blows for watching playoff games).

In meantime, though, the Big Ten put into place the structure of a new record-breaking TV deal with Fox and ESPN (on top of existing rising revenue from BTN) and the ACC announced the formation of the ACC Network with ESPN that will provide a financial windfall for that conference. Not coincidentally, the Big 12 presidents put down their Pokémon Go* games for a few moments and changed their tune on expansion within 24 hours of the finalization of the ACC Network deal. Now, the Big 12 is looking to add at least 2 and maybe even 4 additional members.

(* The Charmander as Houston Cougar image above come from a SBNation post about all of the FBS football teams’ corresponding Pokémon characters that was written well before the Pokémon Go craze came about. Enjoy!)

What happened? Well, it appears that the Big 12 might have finally gotten off of its delusion that it could ever attract members of the ACC or any other power conference. Coaches like Bill Snyder and partisan Big 12 fans might try to suggest schools that left the Big 12 wish that they could come back, but trust me on this one: every single person that actually matters at the schools that left the Big 12 are happy to be far, far, far away from that dysfunctional mess. The Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC are all academically, financially and demographically superior to the Big 12… and it’s not even a contest. The ACC Network deal seems has to cemented the notion that the Big 12 can’t hold out for the misguided hope to pick off other power conference schools (albeit Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated reported some residual delusion within the Big 12 that they could poach some Pac-12 schools in the next decade, which ought to be asinine to anyone that has followed conference realignment over the years). Every reasonable Big 12 expansion target is going to come from one of the non-power Group of 5 (“G5”) conferences outside of independent BYU.

At the same time, this self-realization by the Big 12 members is coupled with the very real fear that Texas, Oklahoma and/or Kansas could be out the door when the current conference Grant of Rights agreement expires in 2025 or even upon expiration of the new Big Ten TV deal in 2023 (which gets into the time range where breaking the GOR agreement might be financially feasible). The other members of the Big 12 have already seen Texas attempt to create the Pac-16 and Oklahoma’s leadership openly talk about the school having options in the realignment sphere. Maximizing short-term money by keeping membership numbers low is only sustainable if the Big 12’s three top flight risks stay put. As a result, the Big 12 has to engage in some “CYA expansion” whether they believe that UT, OU and KU will stay or not. When the conference’s largest TV markets, top athletic recruiting territory, fastest growing area, best academic institution and most valuable national brand name are all wrapped up in the single school the University of Texas, the rest of the Big 12 needs to expand and diversify its membership for survival in the event that the Longhorns ever decide for a “Texit”.

Now, that being said, the worst house (the Big 12) in Beverly Hills (the power conferences) is still significantly more valuable than the nicest house in Compton (G5 conferences). As Thamel noted, each member of the Big 12 makes more annual TV revenue than the entire AAC (which is the highest-paid G5 conference). Indeed, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said this week that he has been “talking to the (athletic directors) and the president of the schools that might leave, and it looks like some of them will.” The chasm between the power and non-power ranks is so stark that none of the G5 schools to pass on any opportunity to join any of the 5 power conferences (the “P5”) regardless of geography or a hope that another better “fit” within the P5 might be coming down the road in the future (e.g. an Eastern school like UConn isn’t going to pass on a Big 12 invite in the hopes of an ACC or Big Ten invite later). Every G5 school has to take any Big 12 offer that it receives immediately because this expansion process might constitute the last new additions to the power conference ranks for the next generation. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the handful of G5 schools that are in position to make the jump.

When I started writing frequently about conference realignment with the formation of the Big Ten Expansion Index nearly seven(!) years ago, I’ve made some correct predictions and quite a few wrong ones. However, I will always believe in my first rule of conference realignment: “Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.” Too many sports fans look at recent on-the-field records (what I call the “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” Syndrome) and not the long-term off-the-field factors that drive conference realignment, such as TV revenue, markets, demographics, stability and academic prestige. No one should analyze an expansion candidate based on the best case scenario where a school goes 12-o in a football season. Instead, the proper analysis for adding a school is whether it still provides value (whether in the form of a major TV market, top recruiting territory or academic excellence) even if it has a 0-12 record. This is something that I have stressed for many years and I’ll continue to emphasize it here. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the schools that are generating the most discussion for Big 12 expansion:

POLE POSITION

CINCINNATI

I created the Big 12 Expansion Index nearly three(!) years ago that admittedly had some interesting results (such as a high ranking for San Diego State) due to my desire to create an index based on as many objective factors as possible without inserting any subjective “smell test” bias. Still, my overall conclusion at the time was that Cincinnati was the very clear #1 best fit for Big 12 expansion and I still firmly believe that to be the case today. Whether the Big 12 expands by 2 or 4 schools, it’s extremely difficult to see how Cincinnati wouldn’t be involved in any combination. At worst, the Bearcats seem to be the #2 option out of the realistic expansion candidates regardless of who might be the personal #1 favorite of any Big 12 school. They provide a solid new TV market, excellent historical performance in both football and basketball, revamped facilities, an entry point into the state of Ohio (which would become the best football recruiting territory in the Big 12 outside of the state of Texas), good academics (particularly at the graduate level) and a way to eliminate the issue of West Virginia being a geographic and cultural island within the league. Cincinnati might not be the very best option in any of those individual categories, but it is the only one that is good-to-great across-the-board for the Big 12.

PRIME CONTENDERS

HOUSTON

When some Tweets from well-connected Dave Sittler surfaced over one year ago(!) that Houston would be a prime expansion target for the Big 12, I noted the following:

Putting aside the Big 12’s obvious delusions of grandeur of reverse raiding the Big Ten for Nebraska or adding Notre Dame and/or Florida State, this actually appears to be some legitimate information from someone with contacts with people that control the situation. Follow Sittler’s Twitter timeline for some further comments. Bottom line: Houston has seriously vaulted itself into Big 12 expansion talks. Now, this makes little sense for the Big 12 when looking at the typical goals of power conference realignment, such as expanding into new TV markets and recruiting territories. However, we would be remiss to forget that Texas politics (whether we’re talking about the state itself or the university) effectively control the Big 12 (as Sittler alluded to in his Tweets). The Big 12 was initially formed with heavy demands from then-Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and other Texas politicians in order to get Texas Tech and Baylor to tag along with UT and Texas A&M. It’s a bit of surprise to see such relatively strong statements about Houston’s Big 12 candidacy here, but not completely shocking when looking at the political history of the conference. Back in the midst of conference realignment mania in 2010, I recall then-UT President Bill Powers stating that it was a goal for Houston to become a “Tier 1” university, so there was an acknowledgment even back then of some broader goals to elevate the stature of that school.

Sure enough, look at the explicit Tweets from the past week from the Governor of Texas, Lt. Governor of Texas and the President of the University of Texas:

The president of Texas Tech then also issued a statement in support of adding Houston to the Big 12. It’s pretty clear that no matter what people will try to argue, there’s a whole separate political game that’s being played here where the normal metrics of conference realignment (such as obtaining a new TV market) do not apply.

Keep in mind that the Big 12 requires 75% of its members to approve a new school, which means any expansion candidate needs 8 votes. As a result, Texas and Texas Tech cannot block Big 12 expansion by themselves, but don’t be surprised if TCU and Baylor fall in line behind their state counterparts. TCU and Baylor might be private schools, but they certainly aren’t beneath the state political game, particularly with how Baylor got into the original Big 12 due to powerful alums in the Texas state government in the early-1990s and leveraged lawmakers that played a part in derailing the proposed Pac-16 deal of 2010. Meanwhile, TCU essentially owes its Big 12 membership to the efforts of UT, so it’s not a stretch to see the Longhorns call in a chit on that front.

The upshot is that it won’t take much for the Texas-based schools to effectively have veto power over any Big 12 expansion decision: if UT and Texas Tech are politically-aligned and just attract one of either Baylor or TCU, then they have as much leverage as the University of Virginia did in making its vote for ACC expansion in 2003 contingent upon inviting Virginia Tech (which also happened to be forced upon UVA by state lawmakers, including prominent moves by then-Lt. Gov. and current US. Senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine*). There are other reasons that Houston could be a solid expansion pick for the Big 12, such as its institutional support and solidifying a Houston TV market that is being encroached upon by the SEC via Texas A&M and LSU fans, but the Texas state political developments may trump everything else. That’s why no one other than Cincinnati should feel very safe in a 2-team expansion by the Big 12 and a great candidate could be left without a chair when the music stops even in a 4-team expansion.

(* Judging by the Democratic National Convention last night, I’m fairly certain that Tim Kaine loves balloons more than my 7-year old twins… and every other kid that I’ve ever met in my entire lifetime.)

BYU

If Houston could get into the Big 12 because of outside personal political relationships even if it doesn’t fit traditional conference realignment goals, BYU might end up outside of the Big 12 because its relationships (for better or worse) within the conference haven’t been as strong despite being arguably the strongest single expansion option. When looking at what “matters” to university presidents in expansion, BYU seems to fit the bill: great fan base, excellent academics, new and growing TV market, national appeal due to its direct link to the LDS church (essentially being to Mormons what Notre Dame is to Catholics) and a fantastic top-to-bottom athletic department*. If the Big 12 were to pick a school based on a blind resume of the metrics that are critical to conference realignment decisions, I’d be certain that BYU would be picked every time.

(* I’ve seen some suggestions that BYU might end up being a football-only candidate for the Big 12 in order to avoid Sunday play issues, but that doesn’t seem like the right move for the conference considering how strong BYU is in basketball and non-revenue sports. BYU’s entire athletic department can provide a ton of value, whereas there are some other schools that we’ll discuss later that would make more sense as football-only membership considerations.)

Yet, for whatever reason, the expansion prospects for BYU seem to run hot and cold. There are certainly plenty of observers out there that believe that BYU is near the top of the list, but then there are very well-respected reporters that have been correct more often than not on realignment news (such as Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com) that have been much more skeptical of BYU’s chances. One argument that is out there is that the Big 12 is focused on expanding to the east. The prohibition of athletic teams playing on Sunday is another possible negative factor, although it wouldn’t be applicable to football. A more pernicious suggestion brought up by Chadd Scott is that there could be an anti-Mormon sentiment among university administrators.

Despite the cold bucket of ice water above for BYU fans, I’ve been on the record many times that if I were running the Big 12, the top two picks for expansion based on what the conference claims to be looking for ought to be Cincinnati and BYU. If the Big 12 is looking to maximize revenue (which is goal #1 in conference realignment), then it’s difficult to see them passing on BYU regardless of any other perceived problems.

UCONN

UConn is right next to BYU in terms of being an extremely valuable school by G5 standards that would fare well in a blind resume test. It is the only school mentioned here that’s a true unambiguous state flagship university, which P5 members inherently like since most of them are flagships themselves. At the same time, Connecticut has great academics, a location that gives them access to the massive New York City and Boston TV markets on top of its affluent home state and elite of the elite programs in basketball (both men and women). Indeed, UConn’s stock has been justifiably rising in Big 12 expansion reports compared to very few mentions over the past couple of years. UConn just feels like it should be a P5 school and it has the athletic department revenue to back it up. The two main concerns for UConn’s Big 12 candidacy are (a) geographic fit and (b) football fit (which rules conference realignment). The geographic fit issue is based on the fact that it extends the already far-flung Big 12 all the way to the Northeastern corner of the United States. Personally, I think that issue can be overcome by UConn since it could argue that it wouldn’t be any more of a geographic outlier than BYU (who doesn’t seem to get docked points as much on geography) and its access to the NYC and Boston markets would justify the move.

Now, the football fit isn’t as easily explained away. It’s not so much the on-the-field performance of UConn, but rather that the other football-based metrics, such as the lack of a recruiting territory (where New England and the neighboring State of New York constitute arguably the worst per capita FBS recruiting region in the country). UConn also simply has a young FBS football program – it only moved up to then-Division I-A in 2002 in a world where P5 conferences (whether right or wrong) put a premium on having generations of tradition.

So, the institutional profile, TV markets and overall athletic department strength point to UConn being a very strong candidate for the Big 12 even if there’s only a 2-team expansion, yet the geographic and football fit issues make it vulnerable enough that its fans are unfortunately going to sweat whether it’s a 2 or 4-team expansion. To be clear, if I were running the Big 12, I’d certainly add UConn in a 4-team expansion since I believe that it’s clearly a P5-level institution, but it’s a school whose prospects are hard to read in the real world. UConn is essentially in the same “hot or cold” boat as BYU where there are respected people that believe that they’re near the top of the Big 12 expansion list while others that are in the know aren’t as optimistic.

MEMPHIS

If Houston has political backers in Big 12 expansion, Memphis is engaging in some Chicago/FIFA/IOC-style “patronage” with FedEx chairman Fred Smith essentially offering to pay for the Tigers to get into the league. Memphis also brought out its biggest PR gun to date this week:

The next time that someone tells you that you’re the dorky college football equivalent of a baseball sabermetrician for being obsessed with conference realignment, you can retort that Justin Timberlake (who is in contention for The Song of the Summer yet again*) is ALL-IN on the action.

(* My personal definition of “The Song of the Summer” is (a) it needs to be played within the first 15 minutes after the dance floor opens at any wedding that summer and (b) Grandma needs to be dancing to that song without irony or needing to participate in a gimmicky line dance. On those metrics, Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is probably taking the cake since it’s a bit peppier than the entries from Drake and Panda while also being completely inoffensive. I think Sia is coming on strong here as we get towards the end of the summer, though. Unfortunately, my favorite performance from JT isn’t getting much airplay at weddings.)

In all seriousness, Memphis has a number of attractive attributes for the Big 12: improving football program, solid TV market, excellent basketball fan base (which may or may not translate to football), location in a top notch football recruiting territory and geographically sensible for the conference overall. The negatives are based on academic reputation and its direct competition from the SEC from multiple directions. If Cincinnati is a likely pick and Houston has the political leverage to get into the Big 12, it feels like this is going to be a competition between BYU, UConn and Memphis for the last two spots in a 4-team expansion. In particular, outside of the fact that both UConn and Memphis are known more as being basketball schools, UConn seems have strengths where Memphis is weaker and vice versa. It will be interesting to see what the Big 12 prioritizes here.

ALL OR NOTHING

UCF AND USF

I put Central Florida and South Florida together in the analysis since my feeling is that the Big 12 is either going to add both of the schools or neither of them at all. The main arguments in favor of UCF and USF are location, location and location. The Big 12 obviously has a great hold on the state of Texas but suffers from very poor demographics outside of it, so the thought of adding the state of Florida to that mix for TV market and recruiting purposes can seem intoxicating. At the same time, both UCF and USF have massive enrollments (particularly UCF), which helps when the perception is that bigger is better.

However, the flip side of being in the state of Florida is that UCF and USF face the strongest in-state competition by far of any the Big 12 expansion candidates with the exception of Houston (which has political factors in its favor within the Big 12), so the on-paper market size may not translate into legitimate market share. I’ve spent more time in the I-4 Corridor between Orlando and Tampa than any other place besides my hometown of Chicago. The fact of the matter is that Florida and Florida State have as strong of a hold as any pair of schools has on their home state in the entire country (including the Texas and Texas A&M combo in the state of Texas). Plus, the Miami Hurricanes will still get significant mindshare in the Southern half of Florida whenever they end up being competitive. (Don’t let the current relative down period for the Canes lull you into thinking otherwise.) Other Big 12 expansion candidates might be in markets that are within the territories of P5 conferences, such as Cincinnati being within the Big Ten footprint (covered by Ohio State) or Memphis being within the SEC footprint (with Tennessee as an in-state competitor and Ole Miss being nearby across state lines), but the P5 fan penetration in those markets are on the weaker end. In contrast, the Orlando and Tampa markets are among the strongest ones out there for both the SEC and ACC. There are a lot of college football fans on paper in those markets, but they’re also largely accounted for by the Gators, Noles and (to a lesser extent) Canes. It would be like an upstart baseball league deciding that it was going to take the Yankees and Mets head-on in the New York market based on the theory that there are a lot of baseball fans living there (which would be financial suicide).

Therefore, a conference can’t expect to extract any value out of the Florida market with only one school unless they’re UF, FSU or maybe Miami. If the Big 12 really believes that getting into the Florida market is truly what is best for their long-term interests, then it ought to add both of UCF and USF. Otherwise, adding only one of those schools is simply going to provide a Florida outpost on paper without really gaining any legitimate market share. The league simply can’t compete in the state of Florida in a half-assed manner with such dominant pre-existing competition from the SEC and ACC. Once again, market share means much more than market size in this particular analysis. This is an all-or-nothing proposition for the Big 12.

ON THE UPSWING

COLORADO STATE

The fact that Colorado State has been wedging itself into the Big 12 expansion discussion shouldn’t be a surprise if you have been applying my first rule of conference realignment of thinking like a university president instead of a sports fan. CSU has solid academics in a fast-growing market that has only one direct P5 competitor (former Big 12 member Colorado). The state of Colorado is sort of the opposite of the description of the Florida market above: there isn’t very much competition considering the size of the population base, but a lot of people aren’t committed to being fans of CU or college sports overall. The risk of adding Colorado State is that the Big 12 would be adding a school where its home market sports fans aren’t known for having a propensity to support college sports. On the other hand, the Denver market in particular is growing so fast with such fantastic demographics in terms of income and education levels that it’s an area where the Big 12 presidents would love to get back into ASAP. The addition of Colorado State to the Big 12 would seem to make the most sense if they’re paired up with BYU as part of a 4-team expansion (with the other 2 schools from the east).

THE PRESIDENTS’ SOFT SPOT

TULANE

Pushing further on the first rule of conference realignment of thinking like a university president, I’ve said for several years that Big 12 expansion observers ought to keep an eye on Tulane. This is the only school in the Big 12 mix that is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU) that is a marker of being a part of the educational elite. (Rice is also an AAU member, but they don’t seem to be garnering any real consideration.) At the same time, Tulane is in the New Orleans market with access to top notch recruiting in the state of Louisiana and only one in-state competitor (albeit a monster in the form of LSU). I’m not saying that Tulane is likely to be added to be the Big 12, but they’re going to get a lot more consideration than the average fan would expect because they’re the type of school that university presidents love. Indeed, Jake Trotter of ESPN.com brought up the prospect of Tulane being a Big 12 expansion candidate earlier this week.

THE FANS’ SOFT SPOT

BOISE STATE

Bob Bowlsby mentioned the possibility of adding football-only members to the Big 12, which for many observers brought to mind two schools: BYU and Boise State. As I noted earlier, it doesn’t make much sense to me to add BYU as a football-only member because it has such a strong top-to-bottom athletic program than the Big 12 ought to want as an all-sports member. In contrast, Boise State seems to fit as a potential football-only option since its non-football sports aren’t bringing as much value and they’re even more geographically isolated from the rest of the Big 12 than BYU or UConn (which isn’t a big deal for football but can cause logistical challenges for all other sports). The problem is that Boise State is the classic “Thinking Like a Sports Fan” choice, where fans love watching Boise State on-the-field (at least compared to virtually all other G5 options), but they don’t fit any of the academic, TV market or demographic metrics that university presidents are looking for in expansion decisions. The on-the-field performance of Boise State over the past decade has been stunning, yet the problem for the Broncos (whether right or wrong) is that conference realignment is more about off-the-field attributes. The main off-the-field factor that Boise State can hang its hat on is that it has become the most valuable national TV property in the G5 to the point that the current Mountain West Conference media contract has a provision that was effectively written to provide the Broncos with a financial bonus for national appearances, so that would be the attribute that the school is going to emphasize in any Big 12 discussions.

THE SERVICE ACADEMIES

AIR FORCE, ARMY AND NAVY

At least for me, the schools that immediately came to mind when the Big 12 said it was contemplating football-only members were the service academies. Indeed, Air Force, Army and Navy are strong national brands with stellar academics and the Department of Defense recently opened the door for their athletes to have their 24-month service commitment waived if they go directly to the pros after graduation (which could help with recruiting). Do I think any of these schools are likely to end up in the Big 12? Not really. However, that would likely be more because Air Force, Army and Navy would take themselves out of consideration themselves as opposed to the Big 12 not wanting them. Air Force was reportedly approached several years ago by the Big 12, but preemptively nixed the discussions because the Cadets were concerned about competitiveness. This stance might change if the academies start getting more top-level athletes due to the more open policy of allowing grads to go straight to the pros. Regardless, the service academies have unique value that isn’t replicated anywhere else at the G5 level, so they ought to considered if football-only options are on the table for the Big 12.

CONCLUSION

The Big 12 has kicking the proverbial can down the road on expansion for years and years. Frankly, they should have expanded to at least 12 back when they lost Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC and the league was teetering on collapse. There’s still a decent chance that the Big 12 could come back and state that they won’t expand any further, but this time seems different. It was one thing for the Big 12 to be behind the Big Ten and SEC in terms of financial stability since that has been the normal state of college athletics for the past few decades, anyway. However, it’s an entirely different matter to find the Big 12 cemented on a lower pecking order than the ACC. I believe the Big 12 has finally realized that size does matter in terms of college sports power even if they never end up with their own conference network. In fact, Dennis Dodd is reporting that the Big 12 is looking to make an expansion decision prior to the beginning of this season, which means that the college sports world could have some finality on this issue within the next few weeks. For the G5 schools that are pushing for an invite to the Big 12, August 2016 will be the most important month in the histories of their respective athletic departments. Once the door closes on Big 12 expansion, the power conferences will be set in place for the next generation.

(Image from SBNation)

B1G TV Deal Coming Out Like a Fox

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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.

(Image from Detroit Free Press)

Big Ten Adds Notre Dame… for Hockey

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In a move that came out of nowhere, the Big Ten will be adding Notre Dame as a hockey member starting in 2017-18. A few quick thoughts on an otherwise sad day with all that has happened in Belgium:

  • 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.

(Image from The Daily Domer)