Quite a bit of interesting off-the-field college football news dropped at the end of last week. First, Andy Wittry obtained a Rose Bowl memo to the Big Ten and Pac-12 from earlier this year that outlined what the Granddaddy of Them All is seeking from a new playoff system. That was then followed up by a story with potentially even greater impact, where The Athletic reported that the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC were exploring an alliance that could range from governance issues to scheduling.
As I stated in a prior post, the power of the SEC expansion move to add Texas and Oklahoma is that it really leaves the other power conferences with no realistic options for a response on their own (to the extent a response is even necessary). Virtually every semi-realistic superconference idea since 2010 has involved Texas and/or Oklahoma moving (including the very real and legitimate Pac-16 proposal)… and the SEC was able to grab them both without having to add anyone else. As much as the SEC move is about making as much money as possible, the real beauty of the move is that it still makes sense without the money. Texas actually gets to restart two historical rivalries with Texas A&M and Arkansas, the Red River Rivalry between UT and OU continues and the moves were geographically contiguous. This isn’t like some of the suggestions that I’ve seen trying to add USC and a handful of other Pac-12 schools to the Big Ten where all of the additions are just left on a Western island. That type of move might make money in the short-term, but that isn’t the hallmark of a long-term relationship. In contrast, the SEC expansion simply makes sense. This is not a shotgun marriage. I am an Illini and Big Ten guy to the core and can fully acknowledge that the SEC simply made the most baller conference realignment move ever.
Therefore, it makes sense to me that the other power conferences (to the extent that they’re not trying to raid each other) are trying to see how they can work together. Hence, the potential for an alliance between the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC. We have all of the attributes of the Rebel Alliance fighting against the Galactic Empire that just built the Super Death Star Conference that I speculated about for the Big Ten over a decade ago. (Yes, I will shoehorn Star Wars references into my posts whenever possible.)
Granted, this feels like a response to fans calling their leagues to “Do something!!!” as opposed to anything comprehensive. From the Big Ten alum perspective, that’s a bit of my fear since I firmly believe that the Big Ten doesn’t need to “do something” simply as a response to the SEC move. As a reminder, the Big Ten still distributes more money per member than any other conference (including the SEC) and that figure will likely increase even more dramatically when the conference signs new first tier television contracts to start in 2023. In fact, the Big Ten may very well be making more money per member than the SEC even after they add Texas and Oklahoma. The way that the Big Ten receives profits and revenue directly as a part-owner of the Big Ten Network is simply much more significant than what the SEC receives from the SEC Network (which is wholly-owned by Disney/ESPN) and that has largely accounted for the revenue difference between the two leagues for the past decade despite the SEC performing better on-the-field.
In contrast, the Pac-12 has a conference network that has largely been failure in terms of generating revenue, while the ACC is locked into an underwhelming contract with ESPN until 2036. It’s pretty stunning that the Big Ten could end up 3 or 4 new TV deals with raises each time before the ACC gets a chance at a new one. This wouldn’t be an alliance of equals – the Big Ten would be carrying the water here financially and they also have the most depth of attractive brands to offer for non-conference scheduling arrangements.
So, what’s in it for the Big Ten? There are two primary things that the league could be looking for here (outside of governance issues that are interesting to me as a lawyer but would bore the tears out of all of you):
- Long-Term Access to Growing Demographics – The Big Ten is more than fine in terms of financially competing with the SEC for the next decade or so. It’s not really about the near-term money. However, the Big Ten’s main long-term risk (identified by Jim Delany in the conference realignment round starting in 2010) is that the population trends in its footprint are quite poor compared to the other power conferences. It’s evident in the 2020 Census data that was released in the past week where the Midwestern states are generally in slow-to-no-growth mode (with my home state of Illinois being one of only 3 states that straight up lost population since 2010). Meanwhile, the Pac-12 and ACC feature pretty much every high growth state outside of Texas: Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, etc. An alliance with those leagues could allow for the Big Ten to get more consistent exposure in those regions without having to go through (or having the option of) expansion.
- Playoff Issues and Rose Bowl Protection – Outside of what other conference realignment moves might happen, the biggest question on everyone’s mind is how the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma impacts the proposed 12-team playoff. Some people believe that it might be altered in format or derailed altogether. Others, such as Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, are concerned about a new playoff system being handed to ESPN instead of going to the open market.
For what it’s worth, I firmly believe that once all of the emotions die down with the SEC expansion, the 12-team playoff will get passed in largely the format that has been presented. For all of the concern about the SEC locking down multiple at-large bids per year in that system, what will be even worse for the other power conferences is continuing on with the current 4-team playoff and seeing more years like 2018 where the SEC is getting multiple bids where it shuts out those competing leagues entirely. The Pac-12 has been the most open power conference in support of an expanded playoff for many years – they’re not backtracking here.
At the same time, just as a lot of layman fans mistakenly believe that the SEC makes more money than the Big Ten (which isn’t true), the Big Ten would have actually had more at-large bids if the 12-team playoff had been in place during the CFP era than the SEC. I have seen a lot of fans suggest that leagues outside of the SEC would want to cap the number of teams from each conference that could make the playoffs, but they’re forgetting is that the Big Ten absolutely doesn’t want that at all, either. This is one issue where the Big Ten and SEC are aligned.
Here’s my overarching belief about the impact of conference realignment (or lack thereof) on playoff issues: Just because the 12-team playoff would be good (or even great) for the SEC doesn’t mean that it isn’t good (or even great) for everyone else. The Big Ten wants just as many multiple bids as the SEC and they’ll get that here. The Pac-12 wants more consistency of getting their conference champ into the playoff and they’ll get it here, too (particularly with the downgrading in status of the Big 12). The SEC and Notre Dame were very clear that they aren’t agreeing to an 8-team playoff system unless it’s only taking the top 8 teams without any protection for conference champs, which would be pointless for the other leagues to agree to in a playoff expansion. It’s hard to know where the ACC stands, but if Notre Dame is clear that they’re voting one way, they’re probably not to push a system that their Irish partners would outright reject. The playoff proposal is more than the Group of Five conferences could have ever realistically hope for in terms of access – there’s NFW that they’d turn it down. Finally, the Big 12 (who had a lead role in creating the 12-team playoff proposal with the SEC) needs this to pass more than ever. Their league is effectively going to be completely shut out of the national championship race if the 4-team playoff system continues after Texas and Oklahoma leave.
Ultimately, fans generally love this 12-team playoff proposal. (It’s interesting that the only pushback that I ever see about the proposal are places like the comment section of my blog and hardcore college football-centric forums. We get into the weeds of the process and are hyper-focused on who gets an advantage. However, there hasn’t been a single “normal” sports fan out there that I’ve spoken to that doesn’t *LOVE* this proposal… and it’s the “normal” sports fans that are required for the massive audiences that justify ESPN paying for this playoff in the first place.) Believe me when I tell that even what the general public considers to be “wealthy” schools got financially hammered with the pandemic in the past year (and it isn’t over yet). So, as much as a school like Ohio State might be fine with waiting to take a new playoff system to the open market for TV negotiations, the reality is that the vast majority of other college can’t wait for 5 more years for a new playoff system when they legitimately need the money NOW (as in the Death Star reactor core is about to explode NOW). Remember that over 90% of FBS teams won’t be participating in a 12-team playoff every year… and those schools would be getting substantially more money for doing nothing. This is the easiest money grab in history and the fans will be happier than ever.
The proverbial genie was out of the bottle as soon as the 12-team playoff proposal was announced publicly. Can you imagine if we had to wait 5 years for a 12-team playoff and all we’d hear every week is, “If the 12-team playoff were in place today, then these teams would be in, but we still have to wait a bunch of more years.” No conference can look their fans in their eyes and in good faith reject the playoff at this point. There might be touchpoints around the edges to figure out, but when there’s a rare instance where fan desire and financial interests actually align, it’s going to happen.
Of course, one of those touchpoints for the Big Ten and Pac-12 is the Rose Bowl. In the memo referenced earlier in this post, the Rose Bowl Management Committee stated that they had the following objectives in a new playoff system (note that the memo was written in April prior to the 12-team playoff consensus, so they were covering either an 8-team or 12-team playoff):
1) Development of an independent media contract with the Rose Bowl Game, its partner conferences, and a telecast entity for an annual quarterfinal game;
2) Preferred access for the Rose Bowl Game on an equal rotating basis to a Pac 12 or Big Ten team available for that round of competition;
3) A Most Favored Nation position among bowls and other venues for hosting CFP Semi-Final and Championship games; and
4) The proposed quarter final Rose Bowl game shall occur on January 1 annually in its historic telecast window (approximately 5 p.m. Eastern time) following the Rose Parade.
Request #1 is actually consistent with today’s CFP system. The current ESPN CFP deal is a series of contracts: a CFP contract that covers the National Championship Game and the New Year’s Six Access Bowls (including any semifinal games played in those particular bowls) and then separate contracts with each of the Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls (the “Contract Bowls”). When a CFP semifinal is played in a Contract Bowl, that comes under that particular Contract Bowl deal with ESPN as opposed to the overarching CFP contract. Whether this could realistically continue in the new system is an open question, but the Rose Bowl is essentially asking for the status quo on that front here.
Request #2 is quite logical if the Rose Bowl is a permanent quarterfinal game, particularly where the top 4 conference champs would be provided byes in the proposed system. With the effective demotion of the Big 12, it’s going to be more likely than ever that both the Big Ten and Pac-12 will among the top 4 conference champs on an annual basis, so the Rose would have access to them. Frankly, I would expect the same with respect to the SEC with the Sugar Bowl and ACC with the Orange Bowl when those bowls are quarterfinals. Otherwise, there’s little point in using the bowls as quarterfinal sites in the first place. What’s most interesting here is that the Rose Bowl is conceding that the new playoff system is going to prevent a Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup – they’re acknowledging that they’ll get either conference in a given year, but not both. That makes it a whole lot more realistic for the Rose Bowl to get integrated into the playoff system.
Request #3 seems to be a bit strange and conflicts with the notion of a permanent Rose Bowl quarterfinal game on New Year’s Day. This might be taken to mean that Pasadena would have a Most Favored Nation position to host these games in addition to the Rose Bowl Game itself. That’s a little tougher to see.
Request #4 is insanely important to the Rose Bowl. Remember that the Rose Parade and Game are intertwined specifically on New Year’s Day. I know that it can be perceived as hokey and is often frustrating to fans outside of the Big Ten and Pac-12 that this is such a key point, but if you’ve ever been to the Rose Parade followed up by the Rose Bowl Game, it all makes sense.
In my mind, Requests #2 and #4 could be fairly easily granted. The trade-off to me is that the Rose Bowl can be a permanent quarterfinal, but that means that it can’t host semifinal games (eliminating Request #3). I’ve got to believe that the Rose Bowl would fine with that scenario. Request #1 is really up in the air – I doubt that we’d have a situation where the Rose Bowl is the only bowl that gets this treatment if it’s allowed. Ultimately, I believe that Requests #1 and #2 would also need to apply to whichever bowls are connected to the SEC and ACC (currently the Sugar and Orange, respectively).
Linking this back to the Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC alliance, everyone should remember that the ACC just hired a new commissioner that started only 6 months ago in February 2021: Jim Phillips. What’s key here is his background – his job right before being ACC commissioner was the athletic director at Northwestern and served multiple stints on the Rose Bowl Management Committee. Phillips also attended undergrad at my alma mater of Illinois. The point here is that the ACC commissioner intimately understands the Big Ten and its relationship with the Rose Bowl. It wouldn’t surprise me if Phillips knows the Big Ten presidents and athletic directors better than Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren simply because of the length of time Phillips spent at Northwestern.
So, to the extent that the Big Ten and Pac-12 need help securing their preferences for the Rose Bowl in the new playoff system, Jim Phillips could very well be a friend on that front. The ACC supporting the Big Ten/Pac-12/Rose Bowl relationship would change the dynamics greatly – it would turn it into 3 power conferences supporting it as opposed to it just being the self-interested Big Ten and Pac-12 fighting for it. Of course, if Phillips is smart (and I definitely think that he is), he’ll get a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” quid pro quo with getting support from the Big Ten and Pac-12 for a similar setup for the ACC with its contract bowl, whether it continues to be the Orange Bowl or maybe a rotation between the SEC and ACC in the Sugar Bowl. Just change all Rose Bowl requests to refer to the Sugar Bowl, SEC and ACC with a guaranteed 9 pm ET quarterfinal on New Year’s Day and that might ultimately be the compromise between the “Power 4” in the new playoff system.
Speaking of the Power 4, it’s instructive that the Big 12 was left out of the Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC alliance discussions entirely. The Big 12 is looking at a position similar to the old Big East football conference following the ACC’s raid of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College as a league that’s above the non-power conferences, but clearly behind the other power conferences. The silver lining is that the alliance discussions also indicate that the Big 12 isn’t likely to be poached further, which means that it can move forward with unity as a league (even if its individual members may long for an invite elsewhere). The backfilling/expansion options for the Big 12 will be the topic of another post soon. Until then, May the Force Be With You.
(Image from Pixels.com)
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