Conference Realignment Chaos: It’s On Like Donkey Kong

There’s obviously tons of conference realignment news out there from a lot of different fronts, so let’s get right to it (and I’ll warn you ahead of time that I’ll be jumping around a bit):

(1) ACC officially adds Syracuse and Pitt – I don’t know if adding Syracuse and Pitt alone makes financial sense for the ACC, but it’s a great move from a cultural fit standpoint.  Neither Syracuse nor Pitt were likely going to receive Big Ten invites, so it made sense for them to jump at the chance to move to the more stable ACC.  (Personally, I’ve long been a proponent of Syracuse receiving a Big Ten invite and thought that if Pitt could just trade locations with Rutgers, they would’ve been invited to the Big Ten many years ago.  Alas, the Big Ten is looking for football grand slams, which I’ll get to later on.)  This might not be a great football move on paper, yet from a market and academic standpoint, it still makes the ACC stronger than where they were a couple of days ago.

(2) Is 14 (not 16) the new 12? – With the Pac-16 looking like it might come to fruition (Oklahoma seems to be steamrolling over there) and speculation turning to the ACC supposedly not being done and planning to move up to a 16-school league (with candidates like Texas, Notre Dame, Rutgers and UConn being thrown around), the argument is that we are on the precipice of the full-fledged superconference era.

Call me skeptical right now.  The Pac-12 is on the verge of going up to 16 with both Texas and Oklahoma, which certainly justifies an expansion to 16.  For the Big Ten, ACC and SEC, though, there isn’t quite as compelling of a financial argument to move beyond 14 (or even 12 in the case of the Big Ten) simply for the sake of getting to 16… unless we see Notre Dame join one of them.  I’ll have more on that in a moment.  Otherwise, there’s just not enough firepower available for spots 15 or 16 in these leagues to justify large-scale expansion.

Regardless, there are a bunch of schools in the Big East and Big 12 (i.e. Rutgers, UConn, Louisville, maybe West Virginia, maybe Kansas, etc.) that are better off either with as little change as possible (i.e. Texas deciding to stay in the Big 12, which makes that a more palatable destination) or full-fledged realignment Armageddon with 4 16-school superconferences (of which those schools would presumably be in the “top 64” to be included).  What’s NOT good for them is a “tweener” superconference era of 14-school leagues, as they’ll likely end up in a league with Big East and Big 12 retreads without any football kings.

(3) What should the Big Ten do? – Since I’m a Big Ten guy, lots of people have been asking me what Jim Delany should be doing right now.  My unequivocal response: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING UNLESS NOTRE DAME AND/OR TEXAS WANT TO JOIN.  The Big Ten has a tight-knit conference with a national TV network, huge fan bases, great academics and four football kings (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska).  There is absolutely no reason to have Big Ten expansion without Notre Dame (and/or the much less likely Texas) involved.  If the Irish come calling, then my feeling is that the Big Ten would look to add Rutgers to provide a direct New York City market presence (even though I believe UConn has the better overall athletic department).  The Big Ten seems to like Rutgers but not enough to add without Notre Dame.  With the amount of money that the Big Ten is splitting already, the standard is massively high.  Speaking of the Irish…

(4) Notre Dame has to start thinking again – Let’s be clear about one thing: from a pure football perspective, Notre Dame will never be forced to give up independence.  As long as the BCS exists, it’s going to deal with Notre Dame on favorable terms.  When BYU can get a multi-year multi-million dollar TV contract from ESPN, it shows that Notre Dame is not within one iota of being in danger of losing its NBC contract (or having someone else like ESPN pick it up instead).  TV networks and bowls will always want Notre Dame while power schools such as Michigan and USC will continue to schedule the Domers no matter what.

The irony is that the main way to get Notre Dame to join a conference has nothing to do with football.  My reader M pointed out a blog post that I wrote back in June 2010 that could almost be written verbatim again today (Pac-16 on the horizon, Texas A&M going to the SEC and the Big East in danger).  In that blog post, I referenced a source that had knowledge of the Big East conference agreement, which states that in the event the league loses 2 football members, the football and non-football sides can split and maintain their respective revenue distributions (i.e. NCAA Tournament credits).  At that time, what I was told was that the Catholic members were actually the ones looking to opt for a split in the event of the loss of any members.

It’s unclear whether there’s the same understanding now, but either way, Notre Dame’s overall athletic department has progressed to the point where a league with only the BE Catholic schools wouldn’t be satisfactory for a program of the size that’s in South Bend.  Basketball would be fine, but it’s everything else that would be a large problem.  While Notre Dame’s alumni base might be willing to throw all non-football sports under the bus in the sake of football independence, Jack Swarbrick and the rest of the leadership at the school aren’t going to have the same perspective as they have to weigh the interests of a whole lot more student-athletes.  Like Texas, Notre Dame was in the position of having its cake and eating it, too, with football independence coupled with a BCS-level league for non-football sports.  Now, it’s probably going to have to give up one or the other, and considering that Notre Dame was on the verge of joining the Big Ten in 2003 when the remaining Big East schools were much more attractive than whose in place now, it’s an indicator that independence is in danger.  It would be great if the ACC could offer them non-football membership outlined in my last post, yet that seems extremely unlikely now.  Granted, independence is still an institutional identity issue for the school more than a money issue (which is contrary to what a lot of college football fans believe), so you never know where the Irish might come out on this.

One thing to note (and I’ll have to give credit to one of the Northwestern posters on a Purple Book Cat thread on Wildcatreport.com for pointing this out, but I can’t find the link right now): keep a close eye on what Notre Dame is doing (or not doing) with respect to hockey conference membership.  The college hockey world experienced its own Conference Realignment Armageddon this past summer after the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference and a new league that siphoned off many of the best of the remaining WCHA and CCHA programs.  Notre Dame, though, hasn’t announced a single thing about joining a different hockey league even though everyone else had done so a couple of months ago.  If you see Notre Dame announcing that it’s joining the Hockey East next week, it’s probably a pretty good indicator that the Irish aren’t joining the Big Ten.  However, the longer that Notre Dame doesn’t say anything about hockey, the more likely it means the Big Ten is a viable option.  Consider the Notre Dame hockey program the college football realignment canary in the coal mine.

(5) Mergers and Acquisitions – A couple of mergers might be on the horizon to create even more mega-conferences.  CBS Sports is reporting that the remaining Big 12 and Big East football schools are exploring a potential merger.  This makes sense in a number of ways since as long as the Big East and Big 12 are existence, they will have BCS AQ bids through 2013.

Someone that had worked with a conference office told me a couple of weeks ago that a merger between the Big 12 and Big East would be a smart move for the leftover schools.  A conference merger actually occurred in 1991, where the American South Conference merged with a wounded Sun Belt Conference that was on the verge of collapse after losing nearly all of its members.  Why did the American South step in to save the Sun Belt?  It’s because in the event of a merger, it meant that the Sun Belt wouldn’t dissolve and therefore, the NCAA ensured that the new merged league (which would decide to keep the Sun Belt name) would retain all of the NCAA Tournament credits of the departed schools.  In the cases of both the Big 12 and Big East, there’s an even stronger incentive for both conferences to avoid dissolution in order to preserve the NCAA Tournament credits of the schools that left their respective leagues (which are actually quite substantial with schools like Syracuse and Pitt involved) along with AQ status for football.  At the same time, the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC all have fairly strong incentives to see a merger occur as it lowers their potential legal exposure from schools such as Baylor and Iowa State that might otherwise be left out of the AQ level.

On the non-AQ front, the Mountain West and Conference USA are considering a football-only merger in an attempt to procure BCS AQ status.  It will be interesting to see whether a mega-league would be persuasive to the BCS powers-that-be on that front since the issue has largely been about the weakness in the bottom halves of those 2 conferences, which won’t go away (and might even be exacerbated) with a merger.

(6) The Geography of Conference Realignment – Finally, as a political junkie, one of my favorite analysts out there is Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog.  So, I was ecstatic to see him post a massive analysis of college conference realignment to determine the different values of various schools.  I actually wrote about the CommonCensus Sports Map Project several years ago (prior to when most of you had stumbled onto this blog) that Silver used in his posting and had noticed at the time that the SEC schools were largely underrepresented in the college football fan numbers.  Regardless, both the Nate Silver piece and the CommonCensus Sports Maps provide a starting point and an incredible amount of data points to examine for anyone interested in how fans of sports teams are distributed by market.

Over 1500 words about the latest in conference realignment and I’ve barely talked about Texas.  Don’t worry – I’ll be writing much more about the Longhorns soon.  Until then, enjoy the hourly changes in the rumor mill.

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

(Image from TV Tropes)

 

How Far North Will the Dirty South Go?

As we come ever so closer to something official somewhere about Texas A&M moving to the SEC, the college football world has naturally turned to speculating on who is going to be SEC school number 14.  I can buy that the SEC might spend a year or two at 13 schools, but with divisional play having long been in place, an odd number of members is not going to work long-term in the same manner that it did for the Big Tweleven.

Mr. SEC had a nice breakdown of the SEC’s realistic expansion options last week and I agree with his overarching point that there are not nearly as many choices for Mike Slive as the average college football fan believes.  (Note that Mr. SEC is as close to that conference as anyone, so he’s not some biased and blasphemous Big Ten blogger like yours truly.)  I’ll reiterate my belief once again that the ACC is much, much, much stronger than so many people that just see the recent results on the field, current TV contract cycle, and preponderance of hookers and blow in Miami seem to give it credit for.  The ACC has extremely strong academics (which, whether sports fans like it or not, actually matter to academic institutions) along with a core of UNC, Duke and UVA that’s never going to realistically leave.  Mr. SEC’s contention (and I once again agree with him) is that when you’re not including ACC schools (although I’ll evaluate a few of them as cursory measure in a moment) and it should be assumed that the Big Ten and Pac-12 aren’t poachable, then the list of schools that can (1) add value to the SEC and (2) aren’t tied down by home state politics (i.e. the Oklahoma – Oklahoma State situation) is cut down to Missouri, West Virginia and Pitt.  That’s it.  As a result, Mike Slive just can’t start blowing up other conferences like Emperor Palpatine (not that it’s in his best interest to do so, anyway).  Let’s take a look at those 3 schools along with a handful of specific ACC members that often get mentioned as potential SEC candidates:

VIRGINIA TECH

Virginia Tech is probably the most oft-rumored addition to the SEC these days and it certainly makes sense from a financial perspective.  The Hokies have a large fan base that also opens up a brand new fast-growing Southern state for the SEC while providing access to the Washington, DC market.  Here’s the problem (and I know many readers believe I harp on this too much): Virginia state politics.

Let’s take a look at the historical timeline of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s ACC members:

1819 – The dude that wrote the Declaration of Independence founds Big Brother University.

1872 – Little Brother University is founded.

1953 – Big Brother becomes a founding member of the ACC.  Little Brother kicks around in the Southern Conference and then as an independent later on.

1991 – Little Brother joins the Big East.

2003 – Big Brother’s league raids Little Brother’s league.  Little Brother then gets Virginia politicians to pressure Big Brother to scuttle the league’s expansion plans entirely in order to have Little Brother join instead.  It works!

Does that timeline really look like a situation where Little Brother can go and completely screw Big Brother only 8 years when Big Brother directly called in favors to get Little Brother into the ACC?  Make no mistake about it – UVA would be screwed in this situation.  The notion that UV A would be unscathed if Virginia Tech left is a fallacy.  If we believe that the ACC would lose TV money with Virginia Tech leaving (very possible) and/or even worse, the long-term stability of the ACC that UVA founded (another strong possibility), then Virginia legislators are going to put the smackdown on that move.  It’s not just about the ACC or UVA simply surviving here.  At least in the case of Texas A&M, leaving for the SEC wasn’t ever going to damage Texas financially at all and in a strict political sense, the Aggies is closer to UT’s equal in terms of power.  The Commonwealth of Virginia, however, is heavily ACC country and it wouldn’t go over well to see a Virginia-based university that begged politicians to force it in then turn around and completely destabilize it less than a decade later. As a result, I don’t believe that Virginia Tech going to the SEC is realistic.  It’s the best combo of new markets and solid football for the SEC, but that doesn’t mean that they’re attainable.  There’s NFW that a public flagship university that was founded by Thomas Jefferson is going to get screwed by a fellow in-state institution here.

(It’s certainly ironic that a school that the ACC didn’t originally want in 2003 may end up being the key to the conference’s long-term stability.  Just as UVA had circumstantial veto power when the ACC last expanded due to the UNC/Duke bloc against any type of addition, Virginia Tech has ended up in the position where it may singlehandedly determine whether the ACC stays intact.  That’s the type of position that legislators love to pounce upon.)

NORTH CAROLINA STATE

Here’s a link to the website of the  University of North Carolina system.  If you look at the list of institutions controlled by the UNC Board of Governors, you’ll find North Carolina State University listed there.  This means the UNC system has to ultimately approve any conference move by NC State.  If you haven’t figured out by now why UNC and NC State will never, ever be separated, I can’t help you.  Considering UNC isn’t going to ever head to SEC for academic and control reasons, NC State isn’t going anywhere, either.

FLORIDA STATE

Florida State is really the only ACC school that I could realistically see heading to the SEC.  Its Big Brother is the one that’s already in the SEC, so this isn’t a situation where Little Brother would somehow be abandoning Big Brother like Virginia Tech or NC State.  It’s probably up to the University of Florida as to whether FSU would get an invite.  The rumored “Gentlemen’s Agreement” among SEC schools to not add any expansion candidates in current SEC states seems more rooted in giving deference to fellow in-state institutions as opposed to some type of outright ban.  FSU doesn’t bring a new market, but the Seminoles clearly have the top national football brand in the ACC and that may trump any territorial overlap concerns with the Gators.

CLEMSON

Clemson is one of the other ACC schools that may accept an SEC invite despite the difference in academics, but the issue is whether Clemson actually brings much to the SEC.  I find Clemson to be more of a fan-based wish as opposed to a financially-sound addition.  To be clear, Clemson has a great fan base and solid athletic programs across-the-board.  However, I think that the SEC looks at them in the same manner that the Big Ten looks at Pitt: a great fit in everything but straight cash homey.  The SEC already has the flagship in Clemson’s home state of South Carolina with a relatively low population while the Tigers don’t have the national name of FSU to compensate.  If you could move the Clemson campus to virtually any state outside of the current SEC footprint, then it would be a top target.  Unfortunately, the one thing that a school can’t change is location unless it’s an online diploma mill.  Speaking of Pitt, by the way…

PITTSBURGH

Even as a guy that is largely known as the blogger that wrote about the possibility of Big Ten adding Texas, the thought of Pitt going to the SEC feels geographically out of whack even though the actual distance may not actually be as far as you think.  It’s a strange thought on the surface and not a cultural or institutional fit, although with the footprint and mishmash of different types of schools in the Big East now, we’re probably at the point where it doesn’t matter.  Pitt has everything checked off that you’d want in a school with great academics, a long football history, and a top tier basketball program.  This would be purely a money play for the SEC to get into Pennsylvania, though, and while money is certainly factor #1 in any conference decision, those types of moves generally don’t work out without some intangible cultural and institutional ties, too.  Pitt might end up being the beneficiary of the domino effect in the event that the SEC takes Florida State and then the ACC needs a replacement (where the Panthers would be a much better match).

WEST VIRGINIA

A year ago, I couldn’t see any reasonable way for West Virginia to end up in the SEC.  Now, though, the Mountaineers might be the most realistic frontrunner with the way everything has played out.  WVU is pretty similar to Iowa – a rabid statewide fan base in a small immediate market but whose grads disperse to major markets nearby and have an incredible traveling reputation.  (Differences: WVU has a functioning basketball team along with top tier rifle and couch burning programs.)  The Mountaineers would be a great cultural fit with the SEC while getting the conference some exposure in the Mid-Atlantic region.  Whether the SEC can get over the school’s small market the way that the Big Ten got over Nebraska’s low population base is another story.

MISSOURI

Ah, Mizzou.  I know that there are a lot of Missouri fans that are convinced that I have it in for them as an Illinois alum, but to be honest, it would’ve been great strictly from an Illini perspective to have had the Tigers as a conference rival in the Big Ten.  The issue was that Mizzou is the kind of school that makes a lot of sense in a multi-school expansion (good TV markets, academics, football and basketball), yet they aren’t necessarily stellar enough in any category to make them the lone addition.  The SEC is probably going to look at Mizzou in a similar fashion, where they likely weren’t going to make the Tigers the primary target but could be very attractive in a pairing with Texas A&M.

My somewhat educated opinion is that the ACC is going to stay intact, so it’s going to come down to a choice between West Virginia and Missouri for the SEC.  Mizzou has the advantage in TV markets and recruiting areas, while West Virginia has the edge in cultural fit and fan base intensity.  If I were in Mike Slive’s shoes, I’d choose Missouri, but I’m getting the impression that Mizzou may stick around the Big 12 minus 2 minus 1.  That’s what happens when your university president heads up the Big 12 expansion search.  As a result, West Virginia is who I’d wager on becoming SEC school #14.

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

(Image from The Movie Mind)

Big East Says No Va to Nova For Now

Back in the fall, the Big East extended an “invitation” to Villanova to move up from Division I-AA football and join the football side of the conference.  After several postponements on a decision by Villanova, the school’s Board of Trustees was finally prepared to vote today to approve the football upgrade.

However, the Big East suddenly said, “SIKE!”

The issue appears to be Villanova’s choice of 18,500-seat PPL Park as a home football venue, which is the soccer home to the MLS Philadelphia Union.  I would certainly understand the hesitancy on the part of the other Big East football schools… if it weren’t for the fact that PPL Park has been well-known as the only realistic stadium option for Villanova for around 5 months now.  Regardless of whether one believes that Villanova joining Big East football is a good idea, it appears to be disingenuous on its face that some of the conference’s football members brought up the stadium situation that they’ve known about for quite awhile at the very last minute.

The New York Daily News reported today that 75% of the Big East’s football members would need to approve the upgrade, which means that it requires a 6-3 majority.  What’s interesting is that the scuttlebutt among Villanova insiders is that the Big East members that are blocking the process are Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse and West Virginia as opposed to the newer members.  (See the 4/11 9:37 am post from the publisher of Rivals site VUSports.com.)  It doesn’t surprise me to see Pitt, Rutgers and West Virginia up there, but the talk about Syracuse having objections is quite jarring as the Orange (along with UConn) have the longest conference relationship with Villanova of any of the football schools.

I explained the rationale for the Big East prodding Villanova to move up in football in my last post: (1) approval of any all-sports expansion (including the addition TCU) by the Catholic members was predicated on Villanova getting a chance to move up and (2) none of the potential expansion candidates from C-USA would clearly add enough football revenue to risk diluting the conference’s basketball revenue even further.  That’s not to say adding Villanova would really do much for Big East football competitively, but they were a necessary political mechanism to obtain the votes for football expansion overall with TCU (which virtually everyone agrees was a great move).

The Big East released a statement that it would continue to perform “due diligence” on the Villanova upgrade.  What I don’t understand is what’s going to change over the next few months – the PPL Park plan “is what it is” and there aren’t any alternative options for Villanova.  If Pitt, Rutgers and others don’t like the Villanova proposal today, then they’re not going to like it in June.  Everyone involved would be best served by an up-or-down vote ASAP instead of dragging this out further.

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

(Image from Sports Business Daily)

The Big Ten’s Fab Five?

The latest Big Ten expansion rumor du jour: a 5 -team expansion with Missouri, Nebraska, Pitt, Syracuse and Rutgers.  South Bend NBC affiliate WNDU (which was owned by the University of Notre Dame until 2006) has a report from “a source in St. Louis”, while Tom Dienhart of Rivals and Yahoo! tweeted about this scenario and then explained to a Nebraska radio station (h/t to Scott C) that he had received his info from Mizzou officials.   The Show-Me State apparently has so many loose lips that we should expect to have the next big expansion news to break out of Branson.  Hooray for more rampant speculation (and beer)!

As far as news stories about Big Ten expansion go, this is at least within the realm of reasonably coming to fruition.  This particular 5-team combination is no surprise to the followers of this blog as we discussed this in detail in the comments a couple of weeks ago with hypothetical pod alignments and the potential financial and prestige merits of this option.  As a far as collective requirements for the Big Ten, this group consists of great academic schools (all are members of the AAU), provides one marquee football brand name (Nebraska), grabs a set of guaranteed households (Missouri) and makes a legit play for the New York City market (Syracuse and Rutgers).  As sports fans, this expansion would look like a mega-blockbuster if one of those schools were to be replaced by Notre Dame, but I’d still characterize this as a game-changing move that improves both Big Ten football and basketball while expanding the conference footprint.  If true, Notre Dame fans will also feel that they’ve dodged a bullet by maintaining independence while simultaneously giving up millions of dollars per year (both in added revenue and reduced travel costs) and watching their league for basketball and non-revenue sports completely collapse.  This is seriously what passes for wonderful news in South Bend these days.

In addition, I found the comments from University of Nebraska president Harvey Perlman to be slightly titillating.  One week ago, he told the Omaha World-Herald the following:

So far, Perlman said, Nebraska hasn’t been approached by another league.

In an article yesterday in the same paper, Perlman was a lot more evasive:

Last week, I asked Perlman if NU had contacted the Big Ten or any conference about joining. His response: “I’m not going to comment on that.”

Things that make you hmmmm…

Anyway, Dienhart suggested that there would be four 4-team divisions if the Big Ten were to go with the proposed 5-school expansion.  Here’s how it could shake out in my eyes:

EAST: Penn State, Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse
WEST: Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois
NORTH:  Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota
SOUTH:  Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern

These “divisions” would really be pods, where the pods would rotate every 2 years.  I’d make the East and West divisions always be opposite each other with the North and South divisions rotating.  At the same time, every team would have a permanent non-division rival as follows:

Michigan – Ohio State
Illinois – Northwestern
Penn State – Nebraska
Iowa – Minnesota
Pitt – Michigan State
Rutgers – Indiana
Syracuse – Purdue
Wisconsin – Missouri

This way, every team has 4 annual rivals while playing everyone else in the conference 2 out of 4 years (with a few exceptions) if there’s a 9-game conference schedule.  The rotating pod mechanism allows everyone in the conference to continue to play each other on a regular basis even in a 16-team conference and still comply with NCAA rules requiring divisions of at least 6-teams each to play an exempt conference championship game.

As for the permanent non-division rivals, despite Pitt’s non-land grant status, I’m fairly certain that Penn State fans will gladly hand over the keys to the Land Grant Trophy (AKA “The Trophy Designed by Rasputin: It Just Won’t Die” or “The Big Ten Bowling League Trophy with a Lion Mold-A-Rama Glued on the Side”) in exchange for an annual game with Nebraska.  Now, if you want a REAL rivalry trophy, check out this bad-ass politically incorrect killing machine that Illini like myself and Northwestern fans get to enjoy… wait a second… WTF?!

I was firmly in the camp of believing that Michigan and Ohio State HAD to be in the same division for a very long time no matter how the conference was expanded and that seriously mucked up logical pod setups if you stuck that principle.  However, I like the aforementioned pods enough that I’ve been convinced that we may be better off splitting the 2 big dogs.  The pods are geographically contiguous and has one marquee football name each.  If Michigan and Ohio State really do have to play each other 2 weeks in a row, maybe that’s not the most horrible thing in the world.  The Worldwide Leader certainly can’t get enough Yankees-Red Sox and Duke-UNC games to slam down our throats, so having a rematch of college football’s best rivalry for the Big Ten championship would be a completely different kind of Armageddon.

All in all, I’d be fairly happy if this 16-school conference came to fruition.  I still think a lot of the value that the Big Ten would be looking for could be achieved in a 3-team expansion with just Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers (assuming that Notre Dame and Texas aren’t in the mix), but this 5-school proposal would definitely lock up the Northeastern quadrant of the United States for the conference with similarly situated top tier research schools that have big-time athletic departments.  It’s a risk to expand in this manner without either Notre Dame or Texas, yet I do feel as though all of these 5 schools could “feel” like Big Ten schools and fit in well with the current members.  Of course, the only way that this works out financially is if the Big Ten Network takes Manhattan.  That continues to be the gazillion dollar issue to be resolved in this conference realignment.

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

(Image from FanHuddle)

The Value of Expansion Candidates to the Big Ten Network

The Big Ten appears to be stepping up the timetable for expansion dramatically, where what once looked like a 12-18 month process might now result in announcements prior to the end of June.  So, this is a perfect time for a guest post from Slant reader Patrick, who is a long-time veteran of the television industry.  (This means that he can actually drop some knowledge, as opposed to being a speculative Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer like myself.)  If you’ve been following the comments on last week’s post, Patrick has been providing incredibly insightful analysis based on industry information and has pinpointed some critical items in the Big Ten Network revenue model that definitely has changed some of my prior thoughts on expansion.  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that he has provided the most informative viewpoint that I’ve come across since the Big Ten announced that it was exploring expansion back in December and it has changed a number of my views on the candidates.  So, everyone should give Patrick some major kudos for investing his time on this critical issue.  Here’s what he has to say (and my take on it thereafter):

With all the talk of Big Ten expansion lately I could help but wonder why the richest conference with the highest pay outs would want to expand. Wouldn’t that break up the pie into smaller pieces? Wouldn’t that cut the take from the current conference members? In short, NO, a resounding NO! The Big Ten schools together made roughly  $214,000,000 as of the last report. $100,000,000 from ABC / ESPN, $2,000,000 from CBS, and the schools collected $112,000,000 from the newly formed Big Ten Network. That is $19,454,545 per school. The regular network haul of $102,000,000 per year isn’t going to change. Any new members would need to make up that difference, plus carry their own weight of $38,146,166 in new revenues to the Big 10 Network. The conference only controls 51% of the Big 10 Network, FOX News Corp owns the other 49% and takes 49% of the overall profits. So each possible addition would need to earn the conference $19,454,545 per year AND earn FOX News Corp $18,691,621 AND make up the difference in the take from ABC / ESPN / CBS to break even for the current members. Since the conference reported a $112,000,000 payout, the actual profit margin of the Big Ten Network is around $219,607,840. In addition, there are a number of news stories indicating that the universities take this year was just shy of $22,000,000. I haven’t seen anything official on that but if it is true than the BTN made around $272,000,000 in the most recent year. Almost a $50,000,000 climb year to year for a brand new network. So why would anyone mess with that? How could any university earn that much for the BTN?

Advertising!

By the Big Ten’s own admission they are clearing about $0.36 per subscriber per month for the states inside it’s footprint. They also tell us that there are 26,000,000 subscribers and it is AVAILABLE to 75,000,000 people. The BTN wants to increase the available number but even more important is to increase the subscriber numbers, and there is an opportunity to do that within the current footprint. Regardless, at $0.36 per month for 26,000,000 households over 12 months I only came up with $112,320,000 for a cable carry rate. Well short of the $272,000,000 that the network likely made last year. The other $160,000,000 is advertising revenue! Live sporting events get big advertising dollars and the BTN is loaded with them. As Frank pointed out, if the conference were to expand, many more games would be on the BTN. Football, basketball, and maybe down the road a Big Ten hockey conference. Throw in a few conference championship games in different sports and expansion makes money just by added Live programming and increased quality of programming. A few creative tweeks in the scheduling and you could have every Big Ten game make it to air somewhere, which is good for everybody. For the Big Ten to get to 12 schools the addition would need to equal $38,200,000 to break even, for 3 schools they need to reach $114,500,000 combined, and for 5 schools a whopping $190,800,000.  If I were to just pull the #2 – #6 schools from my estimate they would bring in roughly $266,000,000. In that scenario, FOX News Corp profit (by adding 5 schools) goes from $107 million up to $201 million. It would not surprise me to see FOX News Corp gently nudging this process along. If advertising is earning the BTN in the ballpark of what I am thinking, then FOX has realized they opened a gold mine and want to see how deep it goes.

But what about the schools being batted around? I did my level best to average numbers, to play it conservatively, to be fair across the board with finding any schools potential. Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are a little tough to gauge because they don’t add any new television markets. But I found that by extrapolating what is already happening with the conference and the Big Ten Network, combining that with my television experiences, and taking into account some of the posters comments and thoughts I came away with what I feel is a pretty fair assessment of the potential of the candidates. As many of you have noted, game attendance and athletic revenue are important. I used attendance to gauge the level of support and fan interest to help me put a dollar value on ratings potential. If the fans won’t even fill their own stadium, how valuable is the team overall? Any team that joins the Big Ten will share in the Big Ten pie, so I subtracted off the current tv pay out for those teams to gauge strength in their home markets. Then extrapolated to find a decent estimation of a new tv markets potential for advertising revenue. I also averaged in the carry rates for the home market or markets with the number of cable subscribers. I did add a category to try to account for additional Live programming on the BTN and gave each school a flat $10,000,000 for the additional sports coverage, that is probably too low but I am leaning to the conservative side.  The following is a summary of the totals of my findings.

CANDIDATES TOTAL ADDED REVENUE ESTIMATE
 
Texas $101,369,004
Rutgers    WITH NYC $67,798,609
Nebraska $54,487,990
Maryland $50,818,889
Boston College $48,382,692
Notre Dame $47,629,255
Kansas $46,320,092
Missouri $45,901,459
Syracuse $43,504,813
Connecticut $38,080,271
Pittsburgh $34,365,175
Iowa State $31,831,077
   
Syracuse  WITH NYC $65,874,573

For a full chart with my calculations, please see this Word document:

Big Ten Candidates TV Analysis

This table could be read many different ways, I have no clue what the Big Ten will do. I could make a strong argument for Nebraska, Missouri, Rutgers, Maryland, Pittsburgh, and Kansas. If Syracuse can deliver NYC then they might be in but the amount of research they do will hurt their cause. Texas is an absolute no brainer, they lead in almost every category. I don’t think Iowa State is viable, but I was VERY conservative with these numbers. It would be hard to ignore Notre Dame and Nebraska being the #2 and #4 most valuable college sports franchises. Interesting that Kansas is right there behind Nebraska and ND in athletic revenue. If anyone wants to pass along better or more current numbers, I would appreciate it. In addition, with the talk and discussions that were flying around Sunday about the AAU meetings and the accelerated time table, I firmly believe that my estimates are probably too low. The fact that they want to move this quickly with an expansion means that the potential revenue is HUGE and the decision isn’t even a tough or close one. Also in some of the statements coming from the Big Ten brass and Notre Dame, I highly doubt Notre Dame is going to be included in the expansion. I now think that the expansion will happen, and I think that they will go all the way to 16 teams. I believe they will get AAU member schools, and the Big Ten presidents seem to be very interested in graduate research.

 I for one can’t wait, Bucky Badger playing against Nebraska would be an awesome sight!

– Patrick

Based on Patrick’s analysis, there are a few important things that I take away from this:

(1) The 60/40 Rule – This might be the most important piece of information regarding Big Ten expansion that I’ve seen to date: the Big Ten Network makes 60% of its revenue from advertising and 40% 0f its revenue from carriage fees.  I’ll be honest with you – I thought that it would’ve been the other way around and it has definitely altered the lens through which we need to look at expansion candidates.  What this basically means that if push comes to shove, the Big Ten should pick a school that has a great fan base (which translates in viewers for ad revenue) as opposed to market size (which contributes to carriage fees).  This actually brings some common sense back to the discussion, where somehow the world has been convinced over the past few months that Rutgers must be the most valuable school on Earth due to the location of its campus.  We’ve been very focused on footprint sizes and research funding in our discussions lately, but at the end of the day, ad revenue is the #1 source of dollars for the Big Ten Network and that’s based on finding schools that Joe Blow in Anytown, USA will want to watch.  Here’s a chart of some of the expansion candidates with their football TV ratings from last year.  (Note how well Nebraska and Pitt performed compared to everyone else.)  Now, that doesn’t mean that expanding the footprint is irrelevant (as the New York City market is still an important target for the Big Ten), but it definitely lets people “think like sports fans” a little bit here.

(2) Pitt MIGHT make money for the Big Ten – Most of the readers out there know that I personally love Pitt as an academic institution and athletic program, but just couldn’t find any way how the school could add to the Big Ten’s coffers financially.  Well, if Pitt’s ratings for football and basketball are good enough (and judging by the chart I linked to above, they probably are), then the school can end up being financially viable.  Patrick has stated that his figures for Pitt and Notre Dame are very conservative, so if Pitt continues to draw high football ratings, it changes the equation significantly.   Now, Pitt can’t really be put into the same category as Notre Dame or Nebraska where the national draw clearly overrides a lack of new BTN households, yet it does have the advantage of being one of the few expansion candidates that has strong programs in both football and basketball.  Speaking of Nebraska…

(3) If the Big Ten wants to make a ton of TV money, it will invite Nebraska – I’ve been increasingly become more and more supportive of Nebraska joining the Big Ten lately and Patrick’s analysis completely sealed it.  Nebraska’s small market be damned – the Husker fan base is as rabid as any other in the country and they will tune in anytime, anywhere.  (If you were wondering, the photo at the top of this post is evidence of how Nebraska fans completely took over South Bend a few years ago when they played Notre Dame.)  In fact, Patrick’s figures mean that we should remove Nebraska from the realm of “Well, they might be coming instead of Missouri” or “They’re a good back-up if Notre Dame doesn’t want to join” and put the Cornhuskers into the “lock” category instead.  I will now officially be shocked if Big Ten expansion occurs without Nebraska involved.

(4) 16 Schools = Huge Inventory – The 60/40 rule that favors advertising revenue also gives a whole lot more credence to making a 16-school conference financially viable. I recalled this piece from Don Ohlmeyer on that examined how ESPN chose to schedule programs:

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=ohlmeyer_don&id=4582425

The message that I got from this was that LIVE EVENTS = RATINGS. A live hot rod competition after a college football game actually holds more viewers than a studio show that talks about said game, even though they have nothing to do with each other at face value.

The Big Ten expanding up to 12 schools really doesn’t increase the inventory of conference football games (which are the higher value games) very much at all. Assuming that the Big Ten continues with an 8-game conference schedule, it would have 48 conference games as opposed to 44 conference games in a season. At 14 schools, it would go up to 56 conference games. At 16 schools, though, the Big Ten would almost certainly go to a 9-game conference schedule, which would catapult the inventory up to 72 conference games.

What does 72 conference games allow you to do? Well, let’s assume that the Big Ten provides 4 games to ABC/ESPN every week (2 games on ESPN and ESPN2 at 11 am CT, 1 game on ABC at 2:30 pm CT, and 1 prime time game), which is a package that would likely see a substantial increase in rights fees when it’s now presumably including Notre Dame and/or Nebraska on top of the current Big Ten members plus a conference championship game. This leaves 2 conference games for the BTN for every single week of the season (except for maybe Labor Day weekend, which is reserved for MACrifice games). With non-conference games mixed in, the BTN could have football triple-headers virtually every week. Going up to 16 schools increases the amount of live football on the BTN in a dramatic fashion and if twice as much live football compounds the amount of ad revenue earned, then I’m starting to see how going up to 16 schools makes more financial sense under the BTN model than 12 or 14 schools.

Then, we get to basketball, where a 16-school conference can get at least one basketball game onto the BTN onto every day of the week except for Friday, whereas now the BTN usually only has games on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. That’s a dramatic jump in the number of high quality basketball games on more nights of the week. This also still leaves enough for the Big Ten to add 1 or 2 more basketball games on ESPN per week for widespread exposure (and likely garner a rights increase there, too, if schools like Syracuse or Pitt added to the mix). Of course, Friday night can be reserved for the new Big Ten Hockey Conference game(s) of the week if Notre Dame joins. There’s even some side benefits in the spring with baseball (as Nebraska and Notre Dame lift up the quality of that league substantially) and lacrosse (where a new Big Ten league could be formed with Syracuse as the national headliner if that school is invited). Other sports such as women’s basketball and volleyball can end up with new national (and TV-friendly) brand names, too.

So, maybe that’s why the chatter about a 16-school conference has taken center stage: if you have that many more high value football and basketball games plus a ton of other sports of interest where you’ve got live programming every night of the week that’s comparable to the college games on the ESPN networks, that can increase ad revenue dramatically (and in turn, carry rates could increase as the BTN becomes more “essential” to viewers’ lives).

(5) My Latest Prediction That Will Change in a Week – Looking at Pat’s figures, it’s clear to me that the Big Ten pretty much has to at least try for the New York market unless Texas and Texas A&M come walking through that door.  The question will be whether the Big Ten believes that it’s worth it to take both Rutgers and Syracuse.  I get the feeling that the Big Ten’s university presidents have a fondness for Rutgers as  fellow public flagship (and I’ve stated before that they make sense in a multi-school expansion), even though my personal choice would be Syracuse if we had to take one or the other.  The academically-minded people in the Big Ten love Pitt and I think that if there’s any financial case for the conference to to be able to take them, they’ll likely do it.  Missouri, although it doesn’t have gangbuster financial numbers, would  probably be seen as a “safe” option because it can at least be counted on with reasonable certainty to deliver any households in its home state that don’t already carry the Big Ten Network on basic cable at the Tier 1 rate.

The one item that I disagree with Patrick on is Notre Dame – if his figures are close to correct, then I have a hard time believe that the Irish will turn down such a huge windfall for playing a lot of the same teams that it already plays annually in football (especially if its home for basketball and Olympic sports is destroyed).  I feel pretty good that Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers would all be involved in a 16-school Big Ten.  This essentially leaves Pitt and Syracuse for the last spot (unless the Big Ten wants to cut further into the Big XII by taking a school like Kansas).  If the Big Ten wants the better institutional fit, it will choose Pitt.  If the Big Ten really thinks that locking down New York is possible for college sports, then it will choose Syracuse.  With such a large-scale expansion, the Big Ten may put more emphasis on institutional fit to ensure maximum cohesion (especially since renegade Notre Dame is very likely to be involved), which would give the edge to Pitt (as much as it pains me as an avowed Syracuse supporter).  I know that this an about-face from what I’ve been saying for quite awhile.

So, here’s my current bet on who will join a 16-school Big Ten: Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri, Pitt and Rutgers.  If Notre Dame continues to balk, I believe that we’ll see Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers added for a 14-school conference.  This will probably change by the end of the week (and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if Pitt is replaced by Syracuse in the 16-school scenario), but that’s my line of thinking right now.

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

(Image from Ning)

Welcome to the BC

As we enjoy a glorious first round of the NCAA Tournament, which included Notre Dame losing to my long-time bracket busting favorite Ol’ Dirty University, there have been rumblings that that the real plan for the Big Ten is a permutation of JoePa’s Dream Conference, with an expansion threesome of Notre Dame, Rutgers… and Boston College.  Hawkeye State of the ever esteemed Black Heart Gold Pants (whose love for freedom fighter J Leman knows no limitations) had heard these rumors and then commenter Justin noted the same thing in this posting last night.  Now, I’m just an unfrozen caveman lawyer/blogger, so I’m certainly not reporting this as news or fact.  However, this doesn’t seem to be a far-fetched scenario considering that I believe that the Big Ten has a two-pronged plan to both add large markets for the Big Ten Network and grab at least one national marquee football name.

I’ve seen a number of people bring up BC as a Big Ten expansion candidate before and, frankly, I never took it seriously.  As I’ve noted before, the ACC is a fairly tight-knit group, while BC isn’t exactly high on the Boston sports agenda.  That being said, if the Big Ten inviting BC is ultimately the final hook for the conference to grab Notre Dame, then I believe that it would move forward.  While Boston is definitely a pro sports town, BC at least has the advantage of being the clearly designated major college football home team in that area, while the New York City area really doesn’t have any single school of that nature.  Thus, there’s a reasonable argument that BC, for all of its issues of supposedly not delivering its home market very well for the ACC, still would have enough pull (in conjunction with Notre Dame and Penn State) to get the Big Ten Network onto basic cable in Boston (whereas a school like Syracuse, by comparison, would be speculative in terms of its ability to deliver homes in the NYC market).  That turns BC into a pretty powerful asset for the Big Ten in and of itself.  Let’s also not forget that this could create a kick-ass Big Ten hockey league.  (Illinois doesn’t even play Division 1 hockey and I’d be excited to see that type of league formed.)  At the same time, the ACC may not really care if BC stays or not – it may just as soon grab Pitt and/or Syracuse instead and say goodbye to BC in a mutually agreed upon separation.

Now, the Notre Dame fan readers out there will likely point out something that a lot of non-ND fans don’t seem to realize: the Irish and Boston College really aren’t that close emotionally.  There’s a perception that they’re tied together as the only two Catholic universities that play FBS football, yet they really didn’t play on a regular basis until the 1990s.  Notre Dame arguably cares about 3 schools: Navy from a historical and emotional standpoint and USC and Michigan from a marquee competitive standpoint.  Everyone else would be expendable, including BC (who is rolling off of Notre Dame’s schedule in the coming years).

Still, the Big Ten inviting BC would effectively remove the last two “non-emotional” arguments that Domers have against Big Ten membership: the inability to play a “national” schedule and having no peer institutions in a conference that’s dominated by large public flagship universities.  If the Notre Dame/Rutgers/BC additions were to occur, I fail to see how Notre Dame’s schedule would be materially different from what it is today.  Assuming that Notre Dame continues to play Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and BC annually within conference play plus USC and Navy in non-conference play, the Irish would be retaining 6 of its 8 main re-occuring rivals.  Pitt would fall off of the schedule, but it would be replaced by Penn State in the Big Ten, which delivers the same market as Pitt and is a much larger national name.  The one true loss would be not playing Stanford anymore, but Notre Dame would still be heading to California with its USC rivalry and the Irish would in turn be playing the likes of Ohio State (which, even with its Midwestern location, provides much more of a “national game”) and get some direct access to prime recruiting territory in the state directly east of Indiana.  Add in a regular trip to the ND-fan heavy New York area at Rutgers and it’s very hard to argue that the Domers would lose much of its “national” schedule at all while concurrently adding some much better teams.

Meanwhile, the other major Notre Dame complaint is that it would be a member of a conference without any of its institutional peers, thereby putting itself at risk of being on the losing end of a lot of “11-1” or “13-1” votes in the Big Ten.  I’m not exactly sure what issues with respect to athletics would be so different between Notre Dame and the rest of the Big Ten that there would be that wide of a gulf – as some commenters pointed out, no one has ever pointed out anything specific that ND has an objection to other than joining a conference in the first place.  Certainly, Northwestern is a higher-rated private university with tougher admissions standards than Notre Dame and we haven’t seen any type of acrimony between NU and the supposedly “big bad public schools”.  If there’s any major conference in the country that actually has upheld high academic standards, it’s the Big Ten from top-to-bottom.  The discussion occurring in the comments section in the “Notre Dame to the Big Ten: Thy Will Be Done?” post has been fascinating.  I agree with alot of commenters that it’s incredulous that some Domers think that there’s some type of academic downgrade by moving to the Big Ten (once again, it doesn’t seem to bother the people in the tougher academic environment at Northwestern) or that improving graduate research will somehow be toxic to the Notre Dame undergraduate experience (as several commenters have noted, ND actually has been ramping up its graduate research capabilities on its own and that the school has been doing itself a disservice by downplaying this fact to its alums, who mistakenly still think that the undergrad focus continues to prevail and use it as another excuse to not join the Big Ten).

Look – I have a lot of friends that went to Notre Dame and Domer commenters such as Rich have been presenting viewpoints in a very civil manner on this blog knowing that he’s going to be critiqued.  I completely understand and respect the emotional foundation that ND alums have towards independence.  I’m not going to argue with that and it’s pointless for anyone else to do that, either.

It’s just that the Notre Dame supporters need to understand that the stand that they are taking is simply that: completely emotional.  The financial advantage of independence is now gone since the Big Ten’s TV revenue completely trumps Notre Dame’s NBC contract.  Now that Notre Dame doesn’t schedule the likes of Miami, Florida State, UCLA and Tennessee anymore, the “national” schedule of yesteryear is dead and its hypothetical conference schedule in the Big Ten would actually draw more national interest than a game against Washington State in the Alamodome.  The academics in the Big Ten supercede all of the other BCS conferences, so it’s not as if though there is some type of greener pasture for Notre Dame elsewhere on that front.  Finally, if Boston College were to join the Big Ten, then Notre Dame wouldn’t even have the argument that it doesn’t have any peer institutions within the conference.

There’s no problem with those emotional ties per se.  The fact that any of us watch and care about spectator sports at all is a fairly irrational practice.  However, I do have a problem when those pure emotions are attempted to be supported by substantive arguments that don’t hold water anymore (if they ever did in the first place).  At the end of the day, do you want the leadership of any organization that you care about, whether it’s a charity, company or university, making long-term decisions based on pure emotion?  Good intentions based on tradition aren’t necessarily enough to make sound decisions for the future.

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

(Image from Sports Illustrated)

Big Ten Study Leaked: What’s the Purpose?

 

The Chicago Tribune reports today that the Big Ten has received a study from William Blair & Co., a Chicago investment banking firm, that analyzed five expansion candidates: Rutgers, Syracuse, Pitt, Missouri and Notre Dame.  According to the Tribune’s source, the report indicated that the Big Ten members would be able to increase their current payouts of $22 million or more with expansion with the “right team or teams”.  The source also said that these were the “obvious candidates” and other schools could be considered.

I’ve worked on enough business deals and seen enough positioning in the media through the years (whether we’re talking about trades in sports or political wrangling) to know that leaks to the press rarely occur without a purpose that was authorized from above, especially when dealing with places that have tightly-run ships like Jim Delany’s Big Ten.  So, what was the purpose of this leak?  Was it to put cold water on the thoughts of Texas or even other schools like Nebraska or Maryland joining the conference?  Maybe Notre Dame is a legitimate candidate after all and we shouldn’t assume that they’ll never join?  Is it to try to get Big Ten fans comfortable with the idea that the 12th school isn’t going to be nearly as sexy as we hope?  Or could it be a classic stalking horse case, where the Big Ten is effectively telling the rest of the Big XII schools like Texas and Nebraska, “Just so you know, we make more TV money than you do now.  We’d make a lot more money if we take Missouri and we’re willing to do it, while you’d make even less.  So, maybe we should do lunch?”

All of those reasons are certainly possible.  My personal opinion is that it would be unconscionable to have Texas alums legitimately considering a move to the Big Ten (and generally not having a knee-jerk reaction to it in the same way as Notre Dame alums) and then add a school like Rutgers or Missouri instead, but I’m just an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.  Teddy Greenstein, who wrote the Tribune article, is of the opinion that Rutgers is at the top of the list (if you discount, in his words, the “pipe dreams” of Texas and Notre Dame).  Now, I believe that Greenstein is one of the better writers in the Chicago sports media (and believe me, having suffered through a period where both Skip Bayless AND Jay Mariotti were competing columnists here at the same time, I appreciate the good ones), but I have to take issue with this line of thinking:

Fans wonder: Does New York care about Rutgers? The simplest answer: When Rutgers wins, yes.

During Rutgers’ football nirvana season of 2006, its game against Louisville on ESPN drew an 8.1 rating in the New York market, a “phenomenal number,” according to one TV executive. That night, the Empire State Building was lit up in scarlet.

This anecdote continues to keep coming up and it’s a red herring.  I fully expect any school that’s competing for a possible slot in the national championship game to receive incredible ratings in its home market, even in a historically poor college football town like New York.  That’s not the issue!  Here’s what I stated in the original Big Ten Expansion Index post:

It must be emphasized that Football Brand Value puts much more weight on the long-term history and financial underpinnings of a program over short-term or recent success. Thus, Team A that has sold out 80,000-seat or even 100,000-seat stadiums for decades whether it wins or loses is much more valuable than Team B that only sells out a 40,000-seat stadium when it’s in the national championship race, even if Team A has had a mediocre seasons recently and Team B happens to rank in the top 3 of the BCS rankings this year. The “What have you done for me lately?” attitude of most sports fans doesn’t apply here. Instead, the proper question is the opposite: Even if the target school goes 0-12 in a season, will it still attract TV viewers and attendance? In other words, the true value of a football program is really measured by how much attention it still receives when it’s down as opposed to how much attention it gets when it’s up. The Big Ten will only consider programs that have large and real hardcore fan bases that will stick them in good times and bad as opposed to programs that have bandwagon fans that will bolt when there’s a 7-5 season.

The fact that then-35-year old Danny Almonte led his baseball team to the Little League World Series and was front-page news in New York for the better part of a month in 2001 didn’t turn the NYC market into a “Little League” town.  Even the New Jersey Nets could deliver the New York market once a decade when they’re competitive.  The problem is the other 9 years in the decade when they’re non-entities, where the fact that they play a few miles away from Midtown Manhattan becomes irrelevant.  Taking the NBA analogies further, commenter Dcphx brilliantly described Rutgers as “the 7′ 3″ athletic center that NBA GMs can’t avoid drafting.”  My initial response was that I was worried that Rutgers would be the expansion equivalent of Michael Olowokandi.  Like NBA GMs ignoring the fact that Olowokandi didn’t have a post-up game, basic boxing-out fundamentals, or any discernible basketball skills whatsoever other than being REALLY tall, it feels like a lot of people (particularly the TV executives that are disproportionately based in the NYC market) are blinded by the size of the the New York market or even just the New Jersey portion of it with respect ot Rutgers without taking into account their actual athletic history (whether it’s in football or basketball).  Upon further review, the thought of adding Rutgers might even be closer to the Pistons drafting Darko Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony in 2003, where a team on the precipice of a championship felt it was better to keep its “chemistry” than adding a guaranteed superstar to a top-of-the-line squad.  As applied to Big Ten expansion, concerns about “geography” are the equivalent of the Pistons wanting Darko for “chemistry”.  (FYI – if you’re able to combine my concurrent dreams of being a conference commissioner and NBA general manager, I will turn into warm puddy.)

Let’s think of it this way: the Big Ten has spent the last two decades waiting around for Notre Dame.  During that process, they’ve actually looked at Missouri, Syracuse, Rutgers and Pitt several times and they were never deemed worthy of being invited before.  They’ve also given up conference championship game revenue during that period of time as a result of waiting for the Irish.  The Big Ten then took a massive risk of building its own TV network (which a lot of people ridiculed at the time), which has now paid off in spades in the form of TV revenues that far surpass what Notre Dame receives from NBC.  This means that the Big Ten has never had more leverage in terms of adding schools in its entire history.  So, after all of this time and at the height of its power, is the Big Ten really going to cash in all of its chips after all of that time on a potential project like Rutgers?  A “safe but not glamorous” choice like Missouri?  Is the Big Ten, with all of its financial advantages today, really going to add a school that doesn’t bring as much to the table as Penn State did to the conference or even Miami did to the ACC?  While there might be some Big Ten ADs out there like Ron Guenther that think small, Jim Delany is a big-time visionary and I have full faith that he’s not going to push a move just for the sake of making a move.  If the Big Ten doesn’t add Notre Dame, then it’s going to go after a school that’s even better (not secondary choices that are lower in terms of impact).  Call me naive, crazy or one-track minded, but money has a way of making “pipe dreams” on paper  in sports fan terms become much more realistic.

(UPDATE: This was written without taking into account today’s story, but The Rivalry, Esq. has a great look charting the ups-and-downs of talk regarding various Big Ten expansion candidates.)

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

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

Why the “Pitt Joining the Big Ten” Rumors are False

I was planning on some non-Big Ten expansion material this week, yet a flurry of rumors about the University of Pittsburgh joining the Big Ten are flooding my inbox.  Let’s put aside my personal assessment of Pitt as described in the Big Ten Expansion Index post (where I said that the school fit the Big Ten academically and athletically, but the fact that it wouldn’t bring in a single new Big Ten Network subscriber would kill any chance for the Panthers).  The Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries has gone through the anatomy of this rumor (where Pitt athletes were supposedly told of the move in a closed door meeting) and correctly notes that it’s ridiculous.  At the same time, I just wanted to point out a few additional and very basic points to this story which would show why any reasonable person would conclude that this rumor is false:

(1) I negotiate large business deals with large corporations for a living.  In every business deal that I have ever worked on (whether it was for several thousand dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars), the parties enter into a confidentiality agreement at the beginning, where breaching such confidentiality would almost immediately kill that deal.  If Pitt’s administration was stupid enough to tell a couple of hundred teenagers and early-20s students the most highly confidential information that you could possibly think of and expect such information would be kept secret for a week when almost all of them wouldn’t even be affected (since the earliest that Pitt could join would probably be 2013, which would mean anyone older than a freshman would no longer be at the school by that time anyway), then the school (a) doesn’t deserve the financial windfall of joining the Big Ten since it can’t be trusted to keep such important information under wraps and (b) would have been an egregious breach of confidentiality that would likely nix the deal.

(2) Let’s assume that Pitt’s administration was indeed as stupid as described in point #1.  If at least several hundred people knew about such an important and Earth-shattering news story ahead of time (because if the athletes found out that type of information, it is reasonable to assume that they’re going to start telling their roommates and family members immediately), you wouldn’t see just a handful of random Tweets and Facebook statuses that were supposedly taken down and erased forever.  There would be literally hundreds of first-hand Tweets and Facebook postings (not just “I heard a rumor” references) confirming this information.

(3) The supposed deletion of web postings described under Point #2 only comes up if you actually think that Twitter and Facebook are going to start changing their entire user policies to cover up some Pitt rumors at that school’s request.  Seeing that these and other Internet companies constantly battle with the Chinese government over censorship issues (and thereby risking the potential revenue of over a billion users), I highly doubt either social networking site is going to all of the sudden start engaging in that type of censorship because the University of Pittsburgh SID called in a favor.  These companies’ business models are entirely based on the free flow of information.

(4) At the same time, as blind as the mainstream media might be at some points, an outlet such as ESPN or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette would’ve received some type of word if every single Pitt athlete knew what was happening.  It’s tough enough to keep 10 people from leaking information in areas of society way more important than college sports (i.e. the White House), so if you honestly believe that a few hundred students received first-hand information about a major conference move and absolutely none of them leaked that to the mainstream press that follows them everyday, I don’t know what to tell you.

All in all, the coaches might get a phone call a day or two before a possible announcement (like Mike Brey did as he described when Notre Dame almost joined the Big Ten in 2003), but it is unfathomable to me at multiple levels that (a) Pitt would tell its athletes of a conference move ahead of time at all in the first place and (b) even if Pitt wanted to tell its athletes, that it would do so an entire week in advance of an announcement.

UPDATE #1 (2/10/2010): Teddy Greenstein from the Chicago Tribune has stated that any “Pitt joining the Big Ten” report is “bogus” and cites sources from the Big Ten itself.

(Image from The Unofficial Visitor)

The Big Ten Expansion Index: A Different Shade of Orange

The Big Ten has sent college conferences across America into a tizzy with its announcement that it will examine the possibility of expanding. Of course, the announcement was really a non-announcement – the conference has always looked at expansion issues every few years. However, this feels a little bit different this time around where it feels as if though the conference is finally starting to think about options outside of the Irish-born elephant located in the middle of the conference footprint in South Bend that always seems so stubborn (or what they would call “independent”).

A few years ago, I wrote that if the Big Ten ever wanted to expand with a school other than Notre Dame, then it ought to invite Syracuse for a variety of reasons. A lot of the same analysis still applies today, although I wanted to do a comprehensive review of the various candidates using a 100-point index (as I’ll expand upon in a moment). The conclusion is that the best available Big Ten candidate certainly wears orange, but it’s not who most of the general public is discussing (even though it makes incredible sense considering that a new school has to have a massive impact in order to make it worth it for the conference, which is the nation’s oldest and wealthiest, to split the pot 12 ways instead of 11). We’ll get to that in a bit.

I. GENERAL RULES

There are two overarching rules to examining potential Big Ten expansion candidates:

RULE #1: Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.

RULE #2: 11 + 1 = 13

The first rule is something that over 90% of the pundits (whether it’s in the “traditional” media or on blogs and message boards) violate with impunity on this subject. A massive number of sports fans see Team A vs. Team B as being a good matchup in this particular season and think that the Big Ten ought to expand solely based on that reasoning yet not even bother to address any academic requirements. Others put a high value on strict geography without even thinking about financial matters such as whether a school will add any new TV markets. Contrary to an Internet-fueled urban legend, there isn’t any rule that says that all Big Ten states much touch each other. Even if such rule existed, finding the right school completely trumps any geographic issues for a conference that looks at itself as an exclusive club. I’m going to hammer on this geography issue A LOT because too many sports fans are hung up on this when the university presidents really don’t care about it as much as being aligned with peer institutions for BOTH academics and athletics wherever they might be located.

As for the second rule, that isn’t just fuzzy math for a conference with 11 members that still calls itself the Big Ten. The reason why the Big Ten has stood at 11 members for so long is that Penn State, which has been an unqualified success in bringing an enormous amount of resources to the conference, is now the baseline standard for any type of expansion candidate. That is, a new school must bring financial, academic and fan base value to the conference that is way above and beyond what an average school would bring to the table. The Big Ten DOESN’T need 11 + 1 = 12, where all that does is add another mouth to feed without materially changing the fortunes of the current conference members. At the same time, the Big Ten absolutely positively will not even consider 11 + 1 = 11.5, where the revenue split per school would actually go down by adding a 12th member. Instead, a viable expansion candidate has to show that by becoming the 12th school in the conference that it would be the equivalent of bringing value that is above and beyond simply adding a conference championship game – essentially, the Big Ten needs 1 marquee school that is worth 2 average schools. Hence, the proper math for the Big Ten is 11 + 1 = 13.

(Note that the excellent Big Ten lawyer blog The Rivalry, Esq. borrowed a modified version of the 11 + 1 = 13 concept in its own analysis of Big Ten expansion candidates and gave a shout out my way in the process.)

So, when some columnist, blogger or message board poster starts talking about Big Ten expansion, remember those two overarching rules at a bare minimum when considering whether the writer has a financially and academically astute brain built for running conferences or a sports stereotype “What have you done for me lately?” brain. Only the former type of brain has any type of credibility.

II. EXPLANATION OF THE BIG TEN EXPANSION INDEX

As I alluded to earlier, I’ve built a 100-point Big Ten Expansion Index that evaluates the viability of each particular school’s Big Ten candidacy. There are 6 categories (Academics, TV Brand Value, Football Brand Value, Basketball Brand Value, Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit, and Mutual Interest) that receive different weights depending upon how important they are in the decision-making process. If a school were to receive a perfect score in each category, then it would have 100 points. Here are detailed explanations of the categories and how they are weighted:

Academics (25 points) – This is a zero-sum category: either a school meets the academic requirements and receives the full 25 points or it doesn’t. Casual sports fans tend to ignore this component since they just see conferences for how they perform on the field or hardwood. However, academics are heavily weighted in this analysis because membership in the Big Ten also means membership in the Committee for Institutional Cooperation (CIC). That’s not a small consideration as the Big Ten universities plus former conference member University of Chicago share research and resources among each other for academic purposes. Therefore, any expansion candidate needs to fit in with academic discussions among U of C and Northwestern faculty just as much as they need to bring prowess to the football field against Ohio State and Michigan. Membership in the American Association of Universities is preferred but not required if a school is in the upper echelon of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Tier 3 schools, however, are going to be eliminated right off the bat no matter how much they might bring to the athletic side of the equation.

TV Value (25 points) – An expansion candidate needs to either bring new major TV markets to the conference or be such a massive national name that it would overshadow a small market. Outside of the obvious school in South Bend, any school that overlaps a market that the Big Ten already has today without bringing new markets on top of that will receive 0 points – the most important point that people need to understand is that being within the current Big Ten footprint is a massive negative to the conference. Too many sports fans mistakenly think the opposite way, where they think that because School X is in the same state as Ohio State or School Y used to have a long rivalry with fellow in-state school Penn State means that they are good fits for the conference, when in reality those types of schools bring little or no value to the Big Ten because they don’t add any more TV households to the table. I’ll repeat the mantra here: think like a university president instead of a sports fan.

Another important consideration here is that the Big Ten’s future media revenues are going to be heavily dependent on the performance of the Big Ten Network. As with any basic cable channel, whether it’s ESPN or the Food Network, the Big Ten Network’s revenues and profitability are largely based upon getting into as many basic cable households as possible – pure and simple. The TV ratings for a particular school in a market don’t mean as much as whether such school has enough leverage and drawing power in a region or market to get the Big Ten Network onto basic cable there. What this means is that there’s going to be a heavy premium (if not outright requirement) that a new school delivers the largest number of cable TV households possible on top of what the Big Ten has now. On the flip side, if a school doesn’t add any new Big Ten Network subscribers, then that school is a non-starter.

Football Brand Value (30 points) – This is the most heavily weighted category as a reflection of the reality of the college sports landscape. The revenue generated from football is so massive in comparison to the other sports (including basketball) that no expansion is likely to happen in the Big Ten unless the new school is a bona fide gridiron power. It’s why the ACC was willing to water down its basketball conference with football schools like Miami and Virginia Tech a few years ago and the root of the massive unilateral pushback from the major conferences about any type of NCAA Tournament-esque college football playoff proposal – there’s so much money involved with football that there’s no rational economic reason for the BCS conferences to share it.

It must be emphasized that Football Brand Value puts much more weight on the long-term history and financial underpinnings of a program over short-term or recent success. Thus, Team A that has sold out 80,000-seat or even 100,000-seat stadiums for decades whether it wins or loses is much more valuable than Team B that only sells out a 40,000-seat stadium when it’s in the national championship race, even if Team A has had a mediocre seasons recently and Team B happens to rank in the top 3 of the BCS rankings this year. The “What have you done for me lately?” attitude of most sports fans doesn’t apply here. Instead, the proper question is the opposite: Even if the target school goes 0-12 in a season, will it still attract TV viewers and attendance? In other words, the true value of a football program is really measured by how much attention it still receives when it’s down as opposed to how much attention it gets when it’s up. The Big Ten will only consider programs that have large and real hardcore fan bases that will stick them in good times and bad as opposed to programs that have bandwagon fans that will bolt when there’s a 7-5 season.

Basketball Brand Value (10 points) – Personally, there’s nothing that would make me more delirious as a sports fan than Illinois winning the national championship in basketball. However, when it comes to conference expansion discussions, basketball simply won’t be much of a consideration, which is why the Football Brand Value category is weighted three times as much as the Basketball Brand Value category. A common argument that you’ll see on blogs and message boards is that “Team A won’t leave Conference X because Team A is a basketball school and Conference X is so much better in basketball than the Big Ten.” Once again, this is a sports fan view as opposed to a university president view. As I alluded to before, the financial value of football outweighs basketball interests by such a massive margin that every single all-sports athletic director in America will take a bad football program in a top drawing football conference over a championship caliber basketball program in the best basketball conference without hesitation.

That being said, if all things are relatively equal in the other categories, then basketball considerations could be the tipping point. In that event, this index assigns 10 points to a school that would be a legitimate marquee basketball program in the Big Ten, 5 points to a middle-to-upper middle class basketball school that isn’t quite a top program but would at least provide some depth and 0 points to a school that doesn’t bring anything to the basketball side of the equation whatsoever. There might also be a specific case where the conventional financial argument between football and basketball could be turned on its head (which will be addressed in examining how Big Ten Network distribution could work with a certain school located in Upstate New York).

Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit (5) – This is more of a “smell test” category. Does a school have existing or historic rivalries with any Big Ten schools? Is the atmosphere balancing academics and athletics at the expansion target in line with the rest of the conference? When the average sports fan looks at the conference alignment, does it seem to make sense? 5 points are given to a perfect fit across the board, 3 points are given to a good fit in some respects but maybe less so in others, while 0 points are given to anyone that simply would stick out like a complete sore thumb (with much more emphasis on the character of the school as opposed to geography).

Mutual Interest (5) – The basic question is the likelihood of whether an expansion candidate would actually accept an invitation from the Big Ten. This is relevant because Notre Dame publicly declined an official Big Ten invitation in the late-1990s, which was a drawn-out process and left a lot of sour feelings among the conference members. As a result, the conference has no desire to invite anyone unless that school has confirmed with its university president and board of trustees that it will say “Yes” without a public debate or discussion. 5 points are given to a school whose university president will be on the next plane to O’Hare and start popping champagne the moment that the Big Ten extends an offer, 3 points to a school that will give an invitation heavy consideration but could go either way and 1 point to a school that will hear the Big Ten out yet will almost certainly reject any offer.

III. EVALUATION OF THE BIG TEN EXPANSION CANDIDATES

The candidates are listed in reverse order from least desirable to most desirable. For the purposes of this evaluation, I’m assuming that the only viable expansion candidates are currently independent or members of the Big East and Big 12. For various reasons, the Big East and Big 12 have the most unstable conference situations where a move to an extremely stable Big Ten would be attractive on paper, while there is little reason for any school to leave the SEC, ACC or Pac-10 at this time (meaning suggestions that I’ve seen elsewhere that the Big Ten should add the likes of Maryland, Vanderbilt and/or Kentucky aren’t going to be examined here). I’ve placed the candidates into tiers of Pretenders, Contenders and The Only Real Choices.

A. Pretenders

CINCINNATI
Academics: 0
TV Value: 0
Football Brand Value: 10
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 0

Mutual Interest: 5
Total: 20
Overview
: This is the ultimate example of the short-sighted sports fan “What have you done for me lately?” choice based upon this particular year’s results as opposed to thinking like a university president. Cincinnati is in the third tier of the U.S. News rankings, doesn’t add any new Big Ten Network subscribers since Ohio State already has the city of Cincinnati covered for the conference (and then some) and it would be an urban commuter school in a conference that is largely composed of large flagship universities where nearly all of the students live on campus. For those that think that the Football Brand Value is too low at 10, remember that the criteria is a long history of football success as opposed to recent gains. At the end of the day, Cincinnati couldn’t sellout 40,000 seats until it was in the national championship race (which indicates a high level of bandwagon fandom), its coach couldn’t take the Notre Dame job fast enough despite being the #3 team in the country, and the school doesn’t even have a football practice facility. In contrast, Ohio State has practice facilities that put almost every NFL team to shame. Here’s my personal litmus test for expansion discussions: anyone that mentions Cincinnati as a viable Big Ten candidate loses all credibility whatsoever with me on the issue.

LOUISVILLE
Academics: 0
TV Value: 10
Football Brand Value: 15
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 0
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 40
Overview: Similar to Cincinnati, Louisville is a tier 3 school, which eliminates them off-the-bat. Elite basketball program and excellent fan base overall (even with the football team being in the doldrums lately), yet there rightfully isn’t much buzz about Louisville as a candidate.

IOWA STATE
Academics: 25
TV Value: 0
Football Brand Value: 10
Basketball Brand Value: 0
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 43
Overview: The only expansion name that gets thrown out by the pundits more idiotically than Cincinnati might very well be Iowa State. I’m not exactly sure why the Big Ten would want to take one of the least valuable schools in the BCS that is located in a small state which is already covered by the conference with a much more popular flagship. If it wasn’t for Iowa State having a halfway-decent engineering school, it would be the worst possible Big Ten expansion candidate out there. Yet, Iowa State’s name gets tossed around merely because it’s within the Big Ten footprint, which I’ve already explained is actually a massive negative mark as it doesn’t open up any new markets. Therefore, I’ll amend my original litmus test for expansion discussions: anyone that mentions Cincinnati or Iowa State as a viable Big Ten candidate loses all credibility whatsoever with me on the issue.

WEST VIRGINIA
Academics: 0
TV Value: 10
Football Brand Value: 25
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 43
Overview: On the field, West Virginia is a solid school across-the-board: excellent football program with a great traveling fan base, an upper tier basketball program and a dormant rivalry with Penn State. However, the off-the-field considerations will kill any talk about the Mountaineers – it’s a third tier school academically and the school brings very few new TV households.

B. Contenders

PITTSBURGH
Academics: 25
TV Value: 0
Football Brand Value: 20
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 63
Overview: Pitt is mentioned by a lot of pundits as a top candidate for Big Ten expansion or maybe even the very best candidate outside of Notre Dame. Certainly, there is a lot to base this upon: excellent academic research reputation, long history in football, elite basketball program, a great-but-dormant rivalry with Penn State and there’s no doubt that Pitt would accept a Big Ten offer. However, WAY WAY WAY too many people have completely forgotten about the obvious problem with Pitt: just like Iowa State and Cincinnati, Pitt wouldn’t add a single new Big Ten Network subscriber. Penn State already delivers the Pittsburgh market and much more (Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania), so Pitt’s TV value to the Big Ten is zero. It’s unfortunate that Pitt couldn’t trade locations with Rutgers – if that were the case, then Pitt would be an excellent candidate. Alas, the one thing that Pitt can’t change is its location, which means that it won’t ever receive an invite from the Big Ten.

RUTGERS
Academics: 25
TV Value: 15
Football Brand Value: 15
Basketball Brand Value: 0
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 63
Overview: Another popular name that’s being discussed in the general public and it’s almost solely based on the location of Rutgers in the New York DMA. The problem is that it’s highly debatable as to whether Rutgers has the leverage to get the Big Ten Network onto basic cable in the New York City area overall or even in just New Jersey. In fact, a lot of neutral observers would say that the Big Ten already has the most popular school in that market in the form of Penn State, so adding Rutgers wouldn’t even do much on that front. Therefore, the market of Rutgers is fantastic on paper, but its ability to deliver that market is questionable at best, which results in it only having a TV Value of 15. Without guaranteeing the NYC market, Rutgers isn’t really very attractive.

MISSOURI
Academics: 25
TV Value: 15
Football Brand Value: 15
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 3

Total: 66
Overview: As an Illinois fan, it would be fun to see the Braggin’ Rights games for both football and basketball be taken in-house. However, as someone that always wants the best for the Big Ten overall, Mizzou is more of a “meh” move. There’s some decent value on all of the fronts in terms of academics, TV markets (the portion of the St. Louis market that the Illini don’t deliver and Kansas City), football, basketball and cultural fit, so it’s not as if though there’s anything particularly bad about the school. Yet, nothing screams out that adding Mizzou is a spectacular game changing move by the Big Ten, either. As I stated earlier, Penn State is the standard for Big Ten expansion, and on that front, no one can reasonably put Missouri anywhere near that level. If the Big Ten just wants to expand just for the sake of expanding, then Missouri is a decent choice, but I don’t think that’s the Big Ten’s modus operandi. Therefore, I think that the heavy talk about Missouri going to the Big Ten is mostly coming from the Mizzou side as opposed to the Big Ten side. (Please see this interview with the Missouri athletic director, who seemed to be saying, “Please invite us to the Big Ten!” in the most diplomatic way possible.) Plus, as I’ll get to later, it’s possible that all of the Big 12 schools are up for grabs, in which case there truly is a non-Notre Dame game changer available.

NEBRASKA
Academics: 25
TV Value: 15
Football Brand Value: 30
Basketball Brand Value: 0
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 3

Total: 76
Overview
: I’m giving Nebraska the benefit of the doubt on the academics front here – its undergraduate admissions standards are significantly below anyone else in the Big Ten, but it’s an AAU member with solid graduate programs. Still, Nebraska brings maximum points in the most important category of Football Brand Value. Hypothetically, is Average Joe Sports Fan in Anytown, USA going to be that interested in watching Missouri vs. Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State or Rutgers vs. Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State? Probably not. However, Nebraska vs. Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State will get marked on the calendar by ABC for national distribution immediately an draw massive ratings year-in and year-out. Nebraska’s issue, though, is that while its national reputation is great for traditional TV contracts with ABC/ESPN, its tiny home state doesn’t help much with the Big Ten Network since the school probably won’t spur many cable providers outside of its home markets to add the channel. As a pure football move, Nebraska would be a fantastic addition, but I think the TV market issue is significant enough to keep the Cornhuskers from receiving an invite.

SYRACUSE
Academics: 25
TV Value: 20
Football Brand Value: 20
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5
Total: 83
Overview
: As I noted earlier, Syracuse was my favorite Big Ten expansion candidate outside of Notre Dame for a long time. The analysis from my original post still largely stands. If the goal of the Big Ten is to gain entry into the New York market and effectively dominate the East Coast in the same way that it dominates the Midwest, then I believe Syracuse is a much smarter addition than Rutgers. While Syracuse football probably doesn’t have the leverage to get the Big Ten Network into New York DMA households just as Rutgers, the difference-maker here could be Syracuse basketball. New York is a terrible college football town, but it’s a pretty good college basketball city, and on that front, Syracuse is at or near the top in that market. So, NYC residents may not care to get the Big Ten Network for a handful of Rutgers or Syracuse football games per year, but they may very well have enough interest in 10-15 Syracuse basketball games per year to launch the BTN into basic cable distribution there. In essence, the “football means everything in college sports” mantra could be turned on its head here with respect to New York where basketball is the driving revenue factor. I’m not saying that this logic will hold in practicality, yet at least it seems more likely to me than the thought of either football programs at Rutgers and Syracuse really having an impact for the Big Ten in the NYC market.

C. The Only Real Choices

NOTRE DAME
Academics: 25
TV Value: 25
Football Brand Value: 30
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 5
Mutual Interest: 1

Total: 91
Overview
: It’s pretty simple as of today – if Notre Dame wants to join the Big Ten, then it’s in. The national fan base of its football program is unparalleled and, frankly, it would propel the conference into East Coast markets such as New York better than pretty much any school that’s actually located on the East Coast.

Of course, it’s easy to see what’s in it for the Big Ten. However, the issue has always been about what’s in it for Notre Dame. While I personally believe that Notre Dame will continue with its current stance in favor of independence, the college sports financial landscape has drastically changed since the Fighting Irish rejected a Big Ten invite in the late-1990s. What the average sports fan doesn’t realize is that Notre Dame’s NBC contract, which is what the uninformed pundits point to as the major reason why the Irish wouldn’t join the conference, pales in comparison to what every single Big Ten and SEC school makes from their respective conference TV contracts. Notre Dame reportedly makes around $9 million per year from NBC, which was a level that made it the top TV revenue school back in 1999. In contrast, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported last week that the Big Ten is currently making $242 million per year in TV revenue which is split equally among the 11 schools, meaning that everyone from Michigan to Northwestern is taking in $22 million per year. Think about that for a second: the vaunted Notre Dame was the #1 TV revenue maker in the entire country up until just a few years ago, yet it’s now only #3 in its own home state behind Purdue and Indiana (and less than half as much of each, at that).

How did this happen? It’s the fact that the TV landscape has tipped completely in favor of cable over the past decade. Cable channels have a dual revenue stream, where they make a certain amount of money for each subscriber it has every month plus advertising on top of that. In contrast, over-the-air networks can only rely on advertising. For instance, about $3 of your monthly cable bill goes to ESPN whether or not you watch it. ESPN is in over 100 million households, which means that it’s making $300 million per month and $3.6 billion per year in subscriber fee revenue… and that’s before the network sells a single ad… and that’s not counting its revenue from ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPNU and ESPN Classic. As a result, ESPN is the single most profitable entity in the entire Disney empire, which is why the network can afford to pay much more for high profile sports events such as Monday Night Football (note that ESPN is paying almost twice as much for MNF as NBC is for a better flex option slate of Sunday Night Football) and the BCS bowls than the traditional TV networks. When Comcast bought NBC Universal last month, the main prize was the stable of profitable cable channels such as CNBC, MSNBC and Bravo. In contrast, NBC itself is bleeding over several hundred million dollars per year in losses and is the main reason why General Electric wanted to sell the entertainment unit in the first place.

While the Big Ten has ensured that its top tier games continue to be shown on ABC for football and CBS for basketball, it has taken advantage of the sports landscape by securing massive cable revenue for its second tier games on ESPN and its own Big Ten Network. The SEC has done the same via its own wide-ranging media rights deal with ESPN. Notre Dame’s issue is that it’s almost impossible for it to take advantage of these financial changes by being outside of a conference unless it moves all or most of its games to cable (i.e. Versus, which is now a sister company to NBC in the new Comcast conglomerate), which defeats the main advantage of having an independent TV contract in the first place (nationwide over-the-air NBC coverage whether you have cable or just rabbit ears). As a result, independence has turned from Notre Dame’s greatest financial asset into possibly its greatest long-term financial liability.

Therefore, the “Notre Dame makes way too much money as an independent with the NBC contract to ever join a conference” argument is simply not true anymore. For the first time in a century, it may very well be in the rational economic interest of Notre Dame to join the Big Ten. The academics and faculty in South Bend already strongly supported a move to the Big Ten in the 1990s because of the CIC research opportunities and now the financial people might be on board. Of course, this type of logic doesn’t necessarily apply to Notre Dame alums (no offense intended for the Irish fan readers of this blog – I sincerely mean it in a positive way that describes the special passion that alums have for the school) – it’s “independence or die” for them. As I’ve thought about this issue more, this longstanding mentality might actually be as much of a roadblock for the Big Ten as it is for Notre Dame. On one side of the ledger, you have school that has spent most of its history protecting itself and profiting from independence. On the other side, you have the nation’s oldest collegiate conference where most of its members have dealt with each other for over 100 years, share everything equally and have a legitimate “all for one and one for all” mentality. Ohio State truly understands that what’s best for the Big Ten overall is best for Ohio State individually. Could Notre Dame ever adopt that type of worldview? It might be impossible, which could lead to a lot of heartburn down the road.

As a result, it would behoove the Big Ten to look toward another powerhouse university where there appears to be much more mutual interest than the pundits are generally acknowledging. This is a school that the Big Ten could add as a 12th member and unequivocally never think about Notre Dame again…

TEXAS
Academics: 25
TV Value: 25
Football Brand Value: 30
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 3
Total: 96
Overview
: You’re not seeing a misprint – the University of Texas-Austin is the single best possible addition for the Big Ten and the Longhorns are a whole lot more open to it than what the public seems to realize. The average sports fan that has been raised to view college conferences in a regional geographic context probably believes the notion of Texas going to the Big Ten is weird, crazy, upsetting and will never happen. However, as I stated under the Notre Dame overview, the college sports landscape has completely changed from a decade ago where national TV contracts and cable channel distribution now rule the day.

Putting aside any geographic concerns for the moment, Texas is a perfect fit in almost every possible way from the Big Ten’s perspective. The academics are top notch where Texas is one of the nation’s top 15 public universities in the latest U.S. News rankings and its graduate programs are right alongside Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin as among the elite for public flagships. The football program in Austin was just ranked as the most valuable in all of college football by Forbes magazine (#2 is… Notre Dame) and, unlike Nebraska, the Texas basketball program is playing at an elite level, as well. As I’m writing this blog post, both the Texas football and basketball teams are ranked #2 in the country. At the non-revenue sport level, Texas would completely put Big Ten baseball back on the map. Finally, the value of the Big Ten’s traditional TV deals and Big Ten Network revenue would skyrocket with the addition of the #5 (Dallas-Fort Worth) and #10 (Houston) TV markets in the nation plus the entire state of Texas (the country’s 2nd most populous after California). While it’s questionable whether Syracuse or Rutgers could really break the Big Ten into the New York area, there’s absolutely no doubt that Texas would deliver the Big Ten Network to every single cable household in the Lone Star State. The market impact is incredible – the Big Ten, which already has the largest population base of any conference, would further increase such base by over 1/3 with Texas to over 90 million people. When you start thinking about Texas as a possible Big Ten candidate, the thought of inviting Missouri, Syracuse or Rutgers feels like a inconsequential move.

It’s clear why the Big Ten would want Texas. So, why on Earth would Texas want to join the Big Ten? Well, the financial implications are massive. As I stated earlier, the Big Ten receives $242 million per year in TV revenue to split evenly among its 11 members, which comes out to $22 million per year for every single school. In contrast, the Big 12 receives $78 million per year in TV revenue that is split unevenly among its 12 members based on national TV appearances. That comes out to $6.5 million per year for the average Big 12 school. Even Texas, which is a beneficiary of the Big 12’s unequal revenue distribution model since it receives a large number of TV appearances, received only about $12 million in TV revenue last season according the interview with Missouri’s AD that I linked to earlier. In other words, every single Big Ten school makes $10 million per year more than Texas does on TV revenue whether such school is on ABC 12 times or the Big Ten Network 12 times. Remember that the $10 million difference is more than what Notre Dame receives from its vaunted NBC contract. If Texas were to simply bring enough to the Big Ten to maintain the status quo of per school revenue, that would be an 83% jump in TV revenue for the Longhorns immediately off the bat. Considering that the addition of Lone Star households to the Big Ten Network’s distribution would yield an even greater increase in revenue, Texas would easily see in excess of a two-fold increase and maybe even close to a three-fold increase in TV revenue whether it wins or loses.

The average sports fan will look at those numbers and retort, “It’s not all about the money. It’s about rivalries and the passion.” That’s a fair enough point. However, consider that Texas has only been in the Big 12 for 15 years, compared to the original Big 8 members like Nebraska and Oklahoma that have been together for nearly a century. Texas cares about playing Oklahoma (which was a non-conference rivalry for decades up until the formation of the Big 12 in 1994) and Texas A&M. After those two schools, the general consensus among Texas fans is that they could care less about Texas Tech, Baylor and virtually everyone from the Big 12 North (who are all old Big 8 members). Similar to how most of the schools in the East (particularly Big East schools) consider Penn State to be a rival yet the Nittany Lions don’t reciprocate that feeling, all of the Southwestern schools think of Texas as their main rival while the Longhorns simply don’t care about them. Also note that outside of the states of Texas and Colorado, the Big 12 is a decidedly Midwestern conference, only those Midwestern states pale in population size compared to the Big Ten’s Midwestern base. What this means is that the Texas ties to the Big 12 are fairly loose and not ironclad at all in terms of history while the geographic factor really isn’t that important considering how many Big 12 schools are in the Midwest. If Texas maintains its rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the non-conference schedule, the Longhorns keep their two most important regional rivalries alive while opening themselves up to the entire nation during the conference schedule.

Speaking in terms that the average sports fan in Texas ought to understand, think of the Dallas Cowboys. When the NFL realigned its divisions in the 1990s, it strongly considered moving the Cowboys to the NFC West. It made geographic sense and, at the time, the Cowboys were in the middle of its run of great games against the San Francisco 49ers, so there was some emotional juice that could’ve been taken to a higher level with those teams in the same division. However, Jerry Jones completely insisted that the Cowboys stay in the geographically-challenged NFC East. Why? Because the Cowboys wouldn’t be able to continue being “America’s Team” by playing teams in the South and West Coast. In order to obtain a national fan base, you need to play in the major markets in the East. If Texas were to move to the Big Ten, it would break out from being a school with a strong regional fan base into one that could be the equivalent of the NFL Cowboys with a national fan base by playing in a disproportionate share of the largest markets in the country located East of the Mississippi River.

Academics are also an extremely important selling point for Texas. The issue with the academic standards in the Big 12 is that there are no academic standards in the Big 12. Texas is the highest ranked Big 12 school in the U.S. News rankings tied at #47 (the Big Ten schools ahead or tied are #12 Northwestern, #27 Michigan, #39 Illinois, #39 Wisconsin and #47 Penn State) while every single other school in the Big 12 except for #61 Texas A&M is ranked lower than every other Big Ten school (the lowest ranked are Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa tied at #71). No one else in the Big 12 comes even close to the academic research abilities of Texas. The potential entry of Texas into the Big Ten would include membership in the CIC, which opens up a whole new level of academic research opportunities for the school that simply doesn’t exist in the Big 12. The first general rule that I mentioned about discussing Big Ten expansion was that people need to think like a university president as opposed to a sports fan. If moving to another conference would (1) make more money for the athletic department AND (2) improve the academic standing of the university, you’ve made quite a powerful argument to the Texas university president.

Finally, there’s a CYA aspect to all of this for Texas. Please take a look at this discussion about expansion options on Barking Carnival, which is my favorite Texas blog. I was shocked to find very few “BIG TEN FOOTBALL SUX”-type comments and instead saw a whole lot of consternation about the long-term viability of the Big 12 overall. Here’s something that I didn’t think about before: if Missouri were to hypothetically leave the Big 12 for the Big Ten, then the Big 12 could end up imploding (i.e. Colorado would bolt for the Pac-10) or at least be severely weakened. The reason is the subpar Big 12 TV contract that I mentioned earlier. St. Louis and Kansas City are decent markets and Missouri is a decent state for a conference like the Big Ten, but none of them have much of an impact when the conference already has Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and the entire states of Ohio and Michigan. In contrast, St. Louis and Kansas City are respectively the 4th and 5th largest markets for the Big 12 (and more importantly, respectively the 2nd and 3rd largest markets outside of Texas) and Missouri is by far the largest state in the conference other than Texas. Therefore, the loss of Missouri would cause the currently bad Big 12 TV contract to get even worse since no possible replacement school from, say, the Mountain West (i.e. BYU, Utah, etc.) would come close to replacing those markets and households. In turn, all of the Big 12 schools might be sent scrambling for new homes. While that might be a doomsday scenario, Mizzou leaving for the Big Ten would severely damage the Big 12 at the very least.

So, if all of the Big 12 schools could be theoretically up for grabs, why the heck would the Big Ten go after a minnow (Missouri) when it could get a whale (Texas) instead? Why the heck would the Big Ten take Missouri or even Nebraska and let Texas possibly walk off to the much less financially powerful Pac-10? Why the heck would Texas just let a middle tier school like Missouri leaving for another conference put its future in limbo? Simply put, if a decent-but-not-great school like Missouri leaving could have that much of a potential impact on the Big 12, then that’s clearly evidence that the conference is unstable and maybe a powerhouse school like Texas will understand that it needs to start evaluating more stable options (if it hasn’t already). This presents a monster opportunity for the Big Ten to swoop in and solidify its place as the nation’s most powerful sports conference.

Sports-wise, the Big Ten has a reputation of being staid and conservative. In terms of overall conference management, however, the Big Ten is quite forward looking and thinks outside of the box. It’s easy to say that the Big Ten Network is an obvious cash cow for the conference as of today, but at the time of its formation, it was a massive risk considering that it could’ve easily taken a massive traditional rights deal from ESPN in the same manner as the SEC without the pain of a year of fighting for basic cable distribution in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. It now looks like the Big Ten is going to benefit from that risk. Similarly, I’m convinced that the Big Ten isn’t going to make a “meh” move simply to get to the 12 teams needed to stage a football conference championship game. The new school has to be strong enough where if Notre Dame all of the sudden decides that it wants to join a conference in 10 or 20 years, the Big Ten can comfortably say “No” and not have buyer’s remorse about the 12th member that it added. I don’t think that Missouri, Syracuse or Rutgers would come close to meeting that standard, but Texas hits the mark and even more. Therefore, there’s one task for the Big Ten over the next year or so:

Hook ’em.

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

UPDATE #1 (1/4/2010) – Tons of great feedback on this post, so I’ve addressed some additional issues in Big Ten Expansion Index Follow-Up #1: Superconferences, Conference TV Revenue and More Reasons Why Texas to the Big Ten Makes Sense.

UPDATE #2 (1/8/2010) – Confirmation that the Big Ten “contiguous state” rule is a myth, responses to blogs and message boards from across the country and, most importantly, the views of Texas fans in Big Ten Expansion Follow-Up #2: Nationwide and Longhorns Fan Responses on Texas to the Big Ten.

UPDATE #3 (1/20/2010) – More on the financial gap between the Big Ten and Big 12, how Notre Dame almost joined the Big Ten and thoughts on the East Coast schools and fallout in other conferences in Big Ten Expansion Follow-Up #3.

UPDATE #4 (2/1/2010) – Why the “Pitt Joining the Big Ten” Rumors are False.

UPDATE #5 (2/11/2010) – Newspaper reporting that the Big Ten has entered into preliminary discussions with the University of Texas.

UPDATE #6 (2/17/2010) – Template for Shooting Down Every Argument Against Texas Going to the Big Ten

UPDATE #7 (2/21/2010) – Explaining why the “initial list” of 15 Big Ten candidates is an examination of who would join WITH Texas and/or Notre Dame (NOT instead of them).

UPDATE #8 (3/2/2010) – What’s the purpose of the Big Ten leaking a study of Notre Dame, Missouri, Rutgers, Syracuse and Pitt?

UPDATE #9 (3/6/2010) – How Rutgers could work in the Big Ten (as long as another national marquee name also comes along)

UPDATE #10 (3/9/2010) – Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick leaves an opening for the Irish to join a conference.

UPDATE #11 (3/19/2010) – Rumors that the Big Ten is looking to add Boston College, Notre Dame and Rutgers.

UPDATE #12 (3/24/2010) – How the Pac-10 could affect Big Ten expansion.

UPDATE #13 (3/29/2010) – Notre Dame’s AD runs his trap again.

UPDATE #14 (4/6/2010) – Big Ten considering a 16-school conference.

UPDATE #15 (4/12/2010) – How a multi-phase expansion could be a good idea for the Big Ten.

UPDATE #16 (4/19/2010) – The value of expansion candidates to the Big Ten Network.

UPDATE #17 (4/25/2010) – Getting krunk on expansion news (or lack thereof).

UPDATE #18 (5/2/2010) – Rumors about a 5-team expansion with Nebraska, Missouri, Pitt, Rutgers and Syracuse.

A Defense of Big Ten Football

ohio-state-buckeyes-texas-longhorns-fiesta-bowl

When I wrote this post on the “Conference Pride Paradox” a little over two years ago, Big Ten football was at its zenith with 2 BCS bowl victories during the prior season and its premier rivalry (which, in my opinion, is also the best rivalry in all of sports) of Ohio State vs. Michigan was being hyped for weeks as the Game of the Millennium with a #1 vs. #2 matchup for the first time.  After the Ohio State won that classic game, the national debate was centered around how Michigan deserved another shot at the Buckeyes in the National Championship Game.  Thinking back about those days that really weren’t very long ago at all, it’s amazing how far the national reputation of Big Ten football has fallen.  With Ohio State’s loss last night to Texas (albeit one that could have been prevented had the Buckeyes just kept a safety or two back in the secondary to make a tackle), the Big Ten has now lost 6 straight BCS bowl games (2 in each of the last 3 seasons).

There’s no doubt that the nation has a right to be skeptical about the prospects of the next Big Ten invitee to a National Championship Game (and frankly, no one should be surprised if Ohio State is right back in that mix next year with the players that they have coming back).  However, with Big Ten bashing becoming so fashionable among college football fans, I believe that the performances of the conference over the past 3 seasons need to be into context.  Please note that the following comments aren’t excuses – if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best at anytime anywhere, and the Big Ten teams that have gone to BCS bowls have failed miserably on that front.  It’s just that when one looks at who and where the Big Ten has played in its recent BCS matchups, it becomes apparent that the only ones that have the right to say anything are USC and the top tier of the SEC (as much as I loathe them).  Everyone else that is piling on the Big Ten (i.e. Big East, ACC, and Big 12 fans, Pac-10 schools that aren’t USC, Mountain West Conference bandwagoners riding a hot Utah team, etc.), though, need to STFU since they all likely would be in the exact same position of the power Midwestern conference if they had to play the same games.

Here are the Big Ten’s BCS opponents over the past 3 seasons:

  • USC in the last 3 Rose Bowls in Pasadena
  • Florida in the 2006 National Championship Game in Arizona
  • LSU in the 2007 National Championship Game in New Orleans
  • Texas in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl in Arizona

Look at that list of teams – it’s complete murder’s row of marquee national programs without a single breather.  The Big Ten didn’t get to play the likes of Wake Forest, Louisville, Cincinnati, or Hawaii, who were BCS participants in other bowls during this period.  Unlike the conferences that are participating in Thursday night’s National Championship Game, the Big Ten didn’t lose to non-BCS conference teams in the manner of the Big 12 (the Boise State-Oklahoma gem in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl) or the SEC (last week’s stunning Utah beat-down of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl – there was nothing fluky about the Utes in that game).  Yet, those conferences haven’t been indicted in their entirety even though their marquee teams failed to beat smaller schools whose stadiums have fewer amenities than the average SEC weight room.

The one true horrible loss for the Big Ten was Florida’s thrashing of Ohio State in the 2006 National Championship Game, where the Buckeyes had been ranked #1 nearly the entire season and were strongly favored to win the game.  After that, though, note that two 2nd place Big Ten teams (Michigan in 2006 and my alma mater Illinois in 2007) along with this year’s Penn State team got to play USC in de facto Trojan home games right outside of Los Angeles.  How many champions from any conference, much less 2nd place teams like the Big Ten has sent, are going to beat USC head-to-head in Los Angeles?  Anyone that has even a smidgen of knowledge about college football knows that this is a monster task in a sport where home field advantage is a huge deal and nowhere near the same as playing Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl or Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.  The Big Ten doesn’t have a Rose Bowl problem or a Pac-10 problem – it has a USC problem.  Of course, every other conference would also be “exposed” as having a USC problem if its champion or 2nd place team had to play the Trojans in LA every year.  (Please note that I wouldn’t trade the Big Ten’s relationship with the Rose Bowl for anything in world since it’s the one BCS bowl outside of the National Championship Game that people actually care about.  My trip to Pasadena following the Illini last year was one of the greatest sports experiences of my life, with the exception of that game thingy.)  If USC didn’t crush its Pac-10 competition every season (outside of the annual obligatory game where they don’t show up against a ridiculously inferior team, which ruins their national championship chances) where some other team from that conference would get to the Rose Bowl, then there likely wouldn’t be a Big Ten drought in that game.

Similar to the USC situation, LSU arguably received an even greater home field advantage with last year’s National Championship Game being played in New Orleans.  Once again, would any team from any other conference have won essentially a road game at LSU in that situation?  SEC fans have earned the right to crow here, but any other conference that throws stones at the Big Ten has to realize that if they had sent a representative to that game, they also would have been crushed.  West Virginia would have received the honors to get thrashed if they had taken care of business against a pathetic Dave Wannstedt-led Pitt team while Missouri would have been the victims if they had beaten Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game on the last weekend of the regular season.  None of that happened, so Ohio State, whose resume by the end of that weekend consisted of doing to the least wrong of any of the BCS conference champions that season, backed that ass up into the right to play in the title game on the road where they were guaranteed to be huge underdogs.

Finally, Texas was heavily favored to crush Ohio State in last night’s Fiesta Bowl but the Longhorns only salvaged a win because of a Buckeye defensive meltdown in the last 2 minutes of the game.  (By the way, it was fascinating to witness Jim Tressel use the reverse-Tebow technique of using Todd Boeckman to spot Terrelle Pryor at quarterback, where the intent was actually to bring in a traditional pocket passer for one or two plays at a time in order to change the pace from having a running quarterback.  The increasing reliance on spread or spread-esque offenses isn’t necessarily the greatest trend for college football overall, particularly for young QBs that want to reach the NFL, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Once again, I’m not saying that the Big Ten’s performances in BCS bowls have been anywhere near satisfactory.  The Big Ten receives a ton of perks for having teams that draw huge television ratings (the only BCS bowls that have had over a 10.0 rating outside of the National Championship Games since the ACC-spurned conference realignment in 2003 are all of the games that have featured a Big Ten team) and the most national and wealthiest fan base of the BCS, which includes placement in the Rose Bowl (the highest profile bowl) and the other BCS bowls salivating over taking one of the conference’s other teams for an at-large bid.  With that elevated position, the Big Ten is justifiably going to receive more scrutiny when compared to USC or teams from the SEC and the conference’s teams will need to start performing.  I have faith that the Big Ten will bounce back soon enough since conference performance is cyclical, which is often hard to remember in a “What have you done for me lately?” world.  Earlier this decade, the SEC and Big 12 were the conferences being criticized as being weak and without depth.  The Big East was hailed as being back as a power conference two years ago but now is facing calls of not deserving an automatic BCS bid.  The old cliche of “what goes around comes around” is very true in college sports, so the haters out there won’t have the Big Ten to kick around much longer.

(Image from Arizona Republic)