Texas Longhorns: Going to California (Again)?

When it comes to choosing a conference, the University of Texas has a choice: does it want the nicest house in Compton or an average house in Beverly Hills?

The former is what it would have if it chooses to stick around the Big 12 to keep the Longhorn Network in a Big 12 that definitely won’t have Texas A&M, very likely won’t have Oklahoma and, by extension, Oklahoma State, and possibly won’t have Missouri, either.  UT could continue to be the richest person in the neighborhood by a mile and control the local scene.  Of course, the issue is that everyone in the area that has scrounged up enough of a down-payment is moving out to nicer places.  The latter is what it would own if it becomes an equal TV revenue sharing partner in the Pac-12 (or for that matter, the Big Ten or SEC).  In that case, UT would be another rich guy in a whole town full of rich guys, but it also won’t have to worry about the value of the house going down.

It’s a fundamental question about what UT wants/needs to be.  The Big 12 as saved last summer was really UT’s dream scenario: they essentially were earning independent-type TV money in a conference with their primary regional rivals.  Now that one of their rivals (A&M) might be headed out the door as early as tomorrow and their other main rival (OU) has all but declared it’s heading west to the Pac-12, is the Longhorn Network (which hasn’t even been on the air for a week) more important than UT’s conference?  Larry Scott knows, just like Jim Delany and Mike Slive, that equal revenue sharing is a primary tenet of strong conference unity, so he’s not going to let UT have a separate TV deal when the schools in California like USC have already given up unequal shares in the new monster Pac-12 TV contracts.

Now, I consider Bill Powers (UT president) and Deloss Dodds (UT athletic director) to be smart men.  The Longhorn athletic department didn’t become the wealthiest in the country (even before any LHN cash started coming) by accident.  They likely thought that they controlled all of the cards, where as long as UT stayed in the Big 12, the other big guns of OU and A&M would, too.  I certainly thought that way.  While it wasn’t a surprise to find that the Big 12 wasn’t long for this world, I didn’t believe that it would be killed off only a year after its Summer 2010 stay of execution.

I can’t blame UT for going out and getting the LHN deal.  Any other school that had that type of leverage would’ve done the same thing.  However, I also can’t blame either A&M or OU for looking out for their own interests.  Most people here know me as the guy that wrote about the possibility of Texas going to the Big Ten last year, and as much as I’d still love to see that happen in many ways, there’s really no better conference deal out there for UT than a Pac-16 that includes Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.  Neither the Big Ten nor SEC would ever grant spots to OSU and Tech and even if they’re not outright political requirements for OU and UT, they ensure that the two power schools won’t be complete geographic outliers.

At this point, I can’t see how OU could rationally stay in the Big 12 (particularly after OU president David Boren’s explicit statement of no-confidence in the conference).  (Note that rationality doesn’t always apply in conference decisions.)  The Pac-12 would certainly be willing to take them and OSU without having Texas schools coming along, as the Sooner are a top 10 college football brand.  It’s the LHN that makes what UT will ultimately decide difficult to predict.  There’s just no way that channel could continue to exist within the confines of the Pac-12 (at least as a UT-branded entity).  UT is going to have a really nice house no matter where it lives.  What will be instructive is whether it wants the nicest house on the block or a better neighborhood.  The Longhorns may not be able to have both.

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

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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)

In America, You Leave Big 12. In Soviet Texas, Big 12 Leave You!

Before we get to the latest conference realignment news of Texas A&M sending an effective break-up letter to Dan Beebe and the Big 12, let’s take a moment to pour out some Cris in memory of the Cy-Hawk Trophy Version 2.0.  It lived for less than a week, but it left an indelible image in the minds of Americans the same way that the chick from The Exorcist warms your heart the first time you see her head turn around 180 degrees.  Only this trophy could make the Altoona Senior Bowling League Trophy with a Mold-a-Rama Lion Pasted on the Side (known in some circles as “The Land Grant Trophy”) look like the freaking Stanley Cup by comparison, which was a phenomenal achievement.  It’s a shame that it received a Suge Knight cap in its ass before it even had a chance to explore the world.

As for Texas A&M changing its status to “Single” on its Facebook account, it’s been something that’s been coming down the pike for the last couple of weeks.  What’s interesting is that my questioning of the financial parameters on the SEC side was confirmed by a conference official in the New York Times:

The official acknowledged that because of the length and structure of the SEC’s current television contract, adding Texas A&M and a 14th member would not be financially beneficial from a rights standpoint.

Texas A&M and Team No. 14 are expected to receive a pro rata share equal to what the SEC’s 12 current universities are making: an average of about $18 million in league payouts. (Individual universities can make more money from their separate television deals.)

The SEC deal, which ends in 2025, has a few windows when it can be renegotiated but no one from the SEC or the networks expects any radical change.

So, this move is NOT about the SEC being able to reopen its television deal in order to gain more money than what the United States currently has on hand to pay Social Security checks (as so many people have assumed).  Maybe the SEC sees this as the one opportunity to get A&M in the next couple of decades and that’s why they’re moving now despite not being able to realize much (if any) TV revenue from their addition until after 2024.  Whatever the reasoning might be, it seems that since the SEC can’t just open up its TV contracts again by expansion, such expansion is going to be kept at a minimum for now.  As a result, the obituaries being pre-written for the Big 12 and ACC from the SEC supposedly going into 16-school superconference mode immediately are way too premature.  The SEC will need to find a school #14 fairly soon, but who knows who it will be.  (I do NOT believe for a second that it will be Virginia Tech, but I’ll write about that more extensively in a separate post.)  Right now, appears that either (a) the Big 12 will lose another school to the SEC on top of A&M, such as Missouri or (b) the Big 12 and one of either the ACC or Big East (maybe West Virginia) may lose a school to the SEC, yet in each event those leagues will still continue to live.

This gets to this question: who the hell would join the Big 12 after losing A&M and maybe another school?

Let’s start by putting some asinine “Notre Dame to the Big 12” proposals to rest.  Somehow, a friendship between Jack Swarbrick and DeLoss Dodds with a 4-game football series over the course of 8 years has been transformed by some in Big 12 country to signal Texas and Notre Dame working together to split up the college football universe.  (Examples of this aren’t just in Texas, but the Kool-Aid is spreading all the way to St. Louis, too.)  Putting aside the fact that Notre Dame would effectively throw away, well, ALL of its rivalries in this scenario in order to play Texas Tech, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and friends (as opposed to the more simple solution of just playing the two schools that are of interest them of Texas and Oklahoma as an independent… which ND happens to be already doing), I’ll reiterate what I’ve stated several times on this blog before: independence is a school identity issue for Notre Dame, NOT a TV money issue.  It continues to amaze me how many people think the money that ND is getting from NBC is somehow special when Northwestern and Washington State are absolutely murdering the Irish on that metric in their respective conferences’ equal revenue sharing arrangements.  The point is that ND isn’t independent in order to maintain an NBC contract.  Instead, it’s the other way around: ND has an NBC contract as a means to maintain independence.  In other words, the endgame for ND is independence in and of itself (not the money that is made from being independent, as the school has plenty of money from its alumni base).  Thus, all of the suggestions that the Longhorn Network shows how the Big 12 could offer ND a way to keep its NBC contract are completely irrelevant, as even if that were the threshold issue (and it isn’t), the Big East would gladly take in ND on that basis or, better yet, they could just stay independent.  Now, if we get to a model where there are 4 16-school superconferences and you structurally MUST be a member of one of those 4 leagues in order to have access to the national championship game, then that’s the point where ND would join a conference.  It won’t be a moment before that point, though.

Getting that out of the way, let’s take a look at some realistic candidates to join the Big 12:

1. BYU – This is really the Big 12’s best target that would almost assuredly accept.  I’ve gone over why I believe that BYU would actually be fairly successful as an independent and that translates into being a viable addition to an AQ conference like either the Big East or Big 12.  Based on fan base size and long-term TV value, BYU is clearly the most valuable school available in the non-AQ ranks.

2. Louisville – While conference realignment is all about football, it should be noted that UL was #2 in the country in basketball revenue in its last season in Freedom Hall.  With its new Yum! Center (or as I like to call it, the “KenTacoHut Center”) revenue, the school will almost assuredly be #1 on that list when last year’s figures come out.  At the same time, UL has a solid football fan base that has simply been beaten down by some horrible coaching over the past few years.  If I were Dan Beebe, my plan would be to extend invites to BYU and Louisville immediately after A&M makes it exit.  The issue with Louisville is that they may prefer to stay in the Big East, although that particular league may not come out unscathed if the ACC takes a replacement school or two from there.  I’ve talked to a number of Louisville alums who, at a fan level, do not support a move to the Big 12, but if we’re talking about a league that’s reasonably assured of keeping both Texas and Oklahoma, UL’s leadership might see things differently.

3.  TCU – A Big 12 with both UT and A&M has zero need to add any other Texas-based schools.  With A&M leaving, though, quality becomes more of a concern than markets and it may be more beneficial to go even further into the Texas market compared to some of the other non-BYU non-AQ options out there.  I had been pushing TCU to the Big East for a very long time and was happy to see that marriage happen, yet there’s a chance that they’ll never move in together.  Like Louisville, though, the Big 12 may actually not be that attractive compared to the Big East right now. Adding TCU would be a good football move for the Big 12, but the good (and/or forced) political move would possibly be adding…

4. Houston – There seems to be two schools of thought regarding Houston going to the Big 12.  The first is that this would be a nice move from a political perspective, where the leaving of one Texas-based university from the Big 12 opens up an AQ spot for another school from the state.  If we also believe that UT enjoys tons of control, this is yet another school that it can lean on for the long-term.  The other school of thought, though, is that UT would want nothing to do with Houston.  In essence, it’s almost too easy of a political bailout for A&M while UT ends up being forced to always take care of UH down the line if the Longhorns ever want to explore other options (i.e. heading to a Pac-16).  We’re already seeing some Texas politicians getting into the act on this front.  A year ago, I would’ve put UH near the bottom of the list of any possible Big 12 candidates.  Now, though, they may very well be the most likely next addition.

5.  UNLV – Location, location, location.  This market ought to have a pro franchise yet all of the leagues are still spooked by the tiny bit of gambling that occurs here.  Nevada is also the most populous state that doesn’t have an AQ school.  I’m always surprised that UNLV doesn’t get a little more love in these conference realignment scenarios.  As far as the non-AQ schools go, they have some fairly nice attributes with virtually no local competition (albeit with more value on the basketball side as opposed to football).

6. Air Force – National following and generally performs the best out of the service academies.  From a pure financial perspective, Air Force might be right behind BYU in terms of desirability.  As for actual football, though, there’s a big-time risk that the Falcons will have competitive issues at the AQ level in the way that Army couldn’t even handle C-USA.  There’s simply always going to be a limit to how well Air Force could ever perform (not that this is unjustified, as its students have far more important duties than playing football).

7.  New Mexico – Flagship university of a fast-growing state with an excellent basketball fan base.  The problem: they’re to football what Rebecca Black is to singing.

8.  Memphis – Ditto, only it’s not a flagship.

9/10.  SMU/Rice – All you need to know is here.

Purely throwing crap against the wall right now, I’d say that A&M is the only loss from the Big 12, which will spur DeLoss Doss… er… the conference to invite BYU, Houston and UNLV to get back up to 12.  In other news, we have real football games being played next week.  It can’t come soon enough.

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

(Image from Rotten Tomatoes)

You Down with SEC? Yeah, You Know Me!

Well, I strive on this blog to be 100% right approximately 1% of the time.  I’ll have to co-sign this column by Stewart Mandel: it’s looking more and more like I was wrong about the Texas A&M to the SEC rumors (as he also admitted), but it still doesn’t quite make sense to either of us from a rational perspective.  Up until literally a few hours ago, it has all looked like completely fan-based chatter.  I’m honestly taken aback that it now appears that the SEC university presidents are going to meet on Sunday to discuss an A&M invite and the school’s Board of Regents will follow up with a meeting on Monday.  (We’ll address various rumors regarding schools like Florida State, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma and Missouri if necessary if something actually happens next week.)  I’ve always understood why Texas A&M fans wanted to go to the SEC and frankly, never disputed that it would be a good move for them.  The SEC is absolutely a superior conference to the Big 12 (both competitively and financially) and any Longhorns that think A&M wouldn’t benefit from moving are being disingenuous.  That’s the whole reason why that I argued in my last post that it would be UT people more than those from Baylor or Texas Tech that would work to block such a move.  I certainly understand the resentment/anger factor, as well.  As an Illinois alum, I’m still envious of Michigan’s central connection to the The Big Chill, which is a landmark achievement in the history of white people dancing.  Despite some interesting comments from various A&M factions about my loyalties or biases, I personally have nothing against the Aggies at all.

That being said, I share Mandel’s befuddlement about what’s in it for the SEC (although for slightly different reasons).  Let me be clear: my opinion has nothing to do about the value of Texas A&M itself.  As I’ve stated many times before, Texas A&M is extremely valuable and I could see why the SEC would want them in a vacuum where there is no domino effect on the rest of the college football landscape or there’s a clean slate in terms of TV contracts.  However, there’s a fairly good chance that we’ll see significant domino effects if this move occurs and, more importantly, it continues to be unclear to me how the SEC can monetize expansion with the length of its current TV contracts with ESPN and CBS.  Dennis Dodd yesterday stated that all conferences have a “look-in” provision that Mike Slive had described, so it’s not as if though that the SEC has some unique terms here where they get to expand at will in a manner that other conferences aren’t able to do.  At the very least, it’s not as easy as “expansion = look-in trigger = more $$$”, or else we’d see conferences expand every single time that their own TV contracts fell behind by a little bit.  To paraphrase a wise little green dude, that leads to fear, and fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.  To the extent that the SEC can open up its current TV contracts by expanding, every other conference can do it, too.  If it’s that “easy”, then the conference with the most incentive to expand is the ACC considering that the deal that they signed last year is looking quite outdated and could get outpaced by the Big East next year if the status quo holds.  It’s for those reasons why conferences only have a “look-in” when they expand, but networks have an explicit termination right in the event of conference contraction.

From a long-term perspective, Texas A&M certainly adds a ton of value to the SEC.  The Aggies have a rabid fan base and truly bring in the entire state of Texas as a market.  The recruiting benefits are also unquestioned.  Still, I still haven’t hard anyone explain how the SEC is going to cajole ESPN and CBS to throw more money around when their TV contracts last until the mid-2020s.  It’s one thing for those networks to maintain a good working relationship with the SEC, but entirely another to have to throw hundreds of millions of more at contracts that are locked-in for over a decade. Maybe ESPN and CBS could ensure that the SEC schools still get the same per-school share (so the current SEC members end up being revenue neutral), but those two networks, who have dealt with much larger entities like the NFL, aren’t simply going to be pushovers and provide some type of massive financial incentive that would encourage expansion.

I also know that a lot of readers believe that I overemphasize state politics, but I’ll continue to disagree on front.  Texas A&M might procedurally be able to get around Texas politicians by approving the move to the SEC on Monday in a year when the legislature is not in session.  (And I thought Illinois legislators were lazy! We’ll still take down anyone in blatant corruption, though.)  However, as a practical matter, the A&M Board of Regents are going to have to work with these legislators in the long-term, so it’s not as if though they can just ignore them.  Besides, if I’m a state legislator, do you think I want to put out more sound bites about crushing budget deficits, ignoring entitlement/pension reform and and failing to cure stagnant job growth?  Fuck that shit.  I’d be all over talking about college football like white on rice under any possible tangential hook.  (The federal guys in Washington certainly do it regularly when they complain about the BCS.)  Maybe it’s a moot point and the Aggies know that they have the requisite political support, but that’s to be determined in the maybe-too-late Texas House Higher Education Committee meeting that’s supposed to take place on Tuesday.

Last year, the entire world was convinced that the Pac-16 was a “done deal” on a Friday without any doubt in anyone’s mind, but after a weekend of rampant discussions, it ended up collapsing within a few days.  In conference realignment discussions, absolutely nothing is a done deal until you see an announcement with both the inviter and the invitee at a press conference with signed paperwork.  This goes double in the case of public universities located in the state of Texas.  Also note that Tony Barnhart (about as plugged-in with Mike Slive as anyone) and Mr. SEC seem to intimate that it’s not necessarily full speed ahead from the SEC side with a lot more smoke coming from College Station as opposed to Birmingham.

So, while it looks there’s a good chance that I’m going to be eating some crow with a Texas A&M move to the SEC, let’s just wait to see if we get some Stevie Wonder signed/sealed/delivered action on Monday.  After that, we can get back to doing what we do best here: engaging in rampant completely unsubstantiated speculation!

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

(Image from Mr SEC)

The Jump to Conclusions Game: Why Angry Aggies Aren’t Enough to Move Texas A&M to the SEC

Nature abhors a vacuum and with a month to go until football season starts, conference realignment talk is back at a fever pitch even though there’s nothing really going on. The latest scuttlebutt is that Texas A&M is dancing with the SEC again with the rest of the Big 12 getting all hot and bothered about their high school recruiting targets getting TV time on the Longhorn Network (which has been placated… for now).

Believe me – I loooove conference realignment talk. It’s the reason why 99% of you are reading this blog in the first place. However, the “Texas A&M to the SEC” rumors are driving me up the wall, not necessarily because it would never happen (even though that’s what I personally believe), but that so many commentators on this subject simply argue that “Angry Aggies = SEC Move” without any further analysis. (For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on Texas A&M, but the same principles can be applied to rumors involving angry Oklahoma and Missouri fans.) I went through a fairly detailed look at why I didn’t believe that A&M could go to the SEC several months ago and think that all of those arguments still hold true.

To be clear, I believe Texas A&M is an extremely valuable school and if the SEC could add them with no conference realignment repercussions elsewhere, then I could see it happening. A&M has a lot more value than the average UT fan would likely admit. The problem is there could be major conference realignment repercussions that the SEC will not want to witness happen (i.e. its main competitors getting even stronger with the Pac-12 adding Texas and/or the Big Ten adding Notre Dame) – the SEC wanting to add A&M as a reactionary move in 2010 is much different than pulling the trigger and causing the dominoes to fall in 2011. At the same time, A&M’s value is exactly why UT won’t just let them walk away.

Regardless, there’s a segment of the college football fan population that’s simply always going to believe that Texas A&M is heading to SEC just because the Aggies are pissed off. (Remember Missouri was pissed off at the Big 12 last year, too. Also look at all those Big East schools that are supposedly pissed that the conference won’t split. Tons of options for all of them, right?) That’s fair enough, but all I ask of this segment of the population is to address the following roadblocks to that ever happening:

1. The SEC can’t just rip up its TV contracts simply because it expands – A decent number of columnists/bloggers have taken SEC Commissioner Mike Slive’s comment that there are periodic “look-ins” for its contracts with CBS and ESPN and came to conclusion that the conference could set fire to those deals in the event of expansion. While the terms of the SEC TV deal are not public (and that’s the case for any conference), this is a dangerous assumption that I would wager is 99.99% incorrect. (The .01% allows for the slight chance that Slive has compromising pictures of various CBS and ESPN executives with Casey Anthony.) ESPN certainly doesn’t believe that the SEC’s “look-ins” can reopen the TV deal:

The agreement with ESPN calls for a “look-in” review after the first five years but can occur sooner, said Burke Magnus, ESPN senior vice pres ident of college sports programming.

“We knew when we made a 15-year deal that time was not going to stand still so we purposely built in these look-ins,” Magnus said. “They don’t reopen the deal. There’s no outs. It’s an opportunity for both of us to really take stock of where we are and see what we could be doing better.”

It is standard operating procedure that these types of contracts have provisions that protect the network, NOT the conference, in the event of membership changes. In a post by the excellent college TV sports blogger mattsarz about the C-USA/ESPN lawsuit, he attached the underlying TV contract that was made public as part of the complaint that was filed. Here’s the language about regarding membership changes:

10. CONFERENCE COMPOSITION

(a) Essential Institutions. The participation and availability for televised play of the following academic institutions shall be deemed to be of the essence of this Agreement: University of Texas El Paso, Rice University, University of Alabama-Birmingham, University of Tulsa, University of Southern Mississippi, Memphis University, Tulane University, University of Houston, Marshall University, University of Central Florida, East Carolina University and Southern Methodist University.

(b) Unavailability. If any Conference team leaves the Conference or is otherwise unavailable for televised play as authorized by this Agreement (in either case, “Unavailable”) for any Season during the Term then ESPN and Conference will negotiate in good faith after such Unavailability comes to ESPN’s attention to determine appropriate adjustments to this Agreement. In such negotiations, the parties shall take into account, among all other relevant factors, any new members that are added to the Conference in replacement of the Unavailable members. If the parties cannot agree on the appropriate adjustments, then ESPN will have the right in its sole discretion to elect by the May 1 prior to the affected Season (unless such Unavailability occurs thereafter, in which case ESPN will have the right to make its election within 30 days after it is notified by Conference of the Unavailability) to reduce the rights fees hereunder in the same proportion as the number of Unavailable teams bears to 12. ESPN will also have the right at any such time to terminate this Agreement if the Conference has in any season fewer than ten member institutions that are NCAA Division I-A members and that are available for televised play as provided above. In addition, if additional institutions join the Conference (i.e., bringing the number of member institutions to 13 or more), then within 30 days after ESPN is notified by the Conference to that effect, ESPN and Conference will engage in good-faith negotiations regarding potential increases to the rights fees due hereunder.

As you can see, ESPN was able to get a concrete reduction in fees or even completely terminate the agreement if C-USA lost enough members, but if C-USA added any members, all that the parties would be obligated to do was to engage in “good-faith negotiations”, which as an attorney I can say is Kumbaya B.S. with no real meaning. ESPN was the only entity with a legitimate stick here. A conference would only have power if it actually had concrete termination rights in the event of an expansion, which wasn’t the case in the C-USA contract.

Even though C-USA is relatively small player, we can deduce that the power conferences also have a similar clause. The Big Ten, for instance, gained a new marquee member in Nebraska last year and even added a brand new conference championship game (which wouldn’t happen in the case of SEC expansion). If the Big Ten had a termination right that some are assuming that the SEC somehow has, then Jim Delany would’ve called ESPN ten seconds after the new Pac-12 monster contract was announced and said “I’m out!” That obviously hasn’t happened – the Big Ten still has to wait until its current TV deals are done in 2016. It’s also instructive that both the ACC in 2003 and the then-Pac-10 in 2010 performed their respective expansions only a few months prior to their respective TV rights going back up for open bid. That shows that those conferences needed to time their expansions to coincide with their new TV deals (as opposed to the other way around, as the A&M-to-the-SEC believers are arguing) because that’s the only way that they could receive the financial benefits from expansion immediately.

Frankly, this all makes sense. Networks would never reasonably agree to tearing up TV contracts based on expansion because they want to know who the conferences are expanding with (not just expansion in and of itself), and even then, it’s almost impossible to assign a value to any prospective expansion candidates ahead of time. In turn, networks can definitely assign a value to a conference as presently constituted, so they have leverage to get out of deals (or receive relief) in the event that such conference loses members.

So, unless Mike Slive can produce some Casey Anthony photos, we should assume that the SEC has terms just like everyone else: the SEC is stuck with its deals until 2024 unless its TV partners willingly give it more money prior to that. This brings us to the next point…

2. ESPN isn’t going to willingly hand the SEC more money for expansion – Let’s take a quick look at where ESPN stands right now. First, ESPN worked extremely hard to keep the Big 12 together last year in order to block the formation of superconferences by going so far as to give that league the same amount of money even though it had just lost its most populous non-Texas state (Colorado), a marquee national name (Nebraska) and a conference championship game. Second, ESPN has just invested a ton of capital in the Longhorn Network, which essentially depends upon the Big 12 surviving as none of the other BCS conferences besides maybe the Big East would let that monstrosity live.

Call me crazy, but when considering those two points, it seems quite far-fetched that ESPN would actually provide an incentive to the SEC to expand with Texas A&M (and/or Oklahoma and/or Missouri and/or whoever else you want to throw in) that would directly kill off the Big 12 that ESPN has every incentive to save. Plus, with the amount that ESPN is paying the Pac-12 now and with the Big Ten contract going up for bid in a couple of years, it doesn’t make any sense that the network would give the SEC any ability to increase its rights fees prior to 2024. If the SEC’s contract was up in a couple of years like the Big Ten’s deal, then maybe I could see ESPN throwing more dollars in order to lock in an extension, but there’s no business logic for the network to re-open a deal that’s locked in for the next 13 years that the SEC can’t do anything about.

3. Objectors to high school games on the Longhorn Network are arguing semantics (and that’s ultimately a losing argument) – There’s a massive public flagship university located in one of the top football recruiting states in the nation that has entered into a multi-year multi-million dollar third tier rights deal with a regional sports network that is wholly-owned by a large multimedia conglomerate. There are some football and basketball games along with coaches’ shows and other promotions showing the university. The RSN also telecasts high school football games that potentially showcase that university’s recruits. Such public flagship university does not own any part of such RSN.

I’ve just described the contract that the University of Florida has with Sun Sports. It also describes the deal between the University of Texas and ESPN for the Longhorn Network. Structurally, the two deals are virtually exactly the same. ESPN completely owns the LHN, and therefore, controls its programming decisions, just like Fox owns and controls Sun Sports. The main difference is branding, where Florida is part of a network that also shows the Miami Cheat (among other teams) while Texas has its Longhorn moniker in the ESPN’s network’s name. So, does the NCAA come down on the LHN for a branding decision but doesn’t care about Sun Sports? If the LHN simply changed its name to “ESPN Austin”, would it make a difference? Is a network that has 10% UF content acceptable, but another with 90% UT content unacceptable?

Note that this is different than the BTN and Pac-12 Network situations, where the schools in the Big Ten and Pac-12 have actual equity interests in those channels. This makes it much easier for the NCAA to regulate those types of setups or, more importantly, regulate them in a way where the NCAA doesn’t lose in a court challenge. The Texas relationship with the LHN, on the other hand, is really just a straight-up traditional rights fees deal that Florida and a whole host of other schools have with various regional sports networks. As a result, the NCAA, the Big 12 and any other challengers to the LHN would largely have to rely on semantics (the name “Longhorn Network”) with subjective benefits as opposed to the ownership structure of the network itself that can objectively measured, and courts hate arguments about semantics. If ESPN thought the fight was worth it (and that’s a business question as to whether it would spend millions of dollars in legal fees in order to show high school games on TV), it would likely flatten the NCAA (quite possibly the most blatant example of an antitrust violation that we currently have in America, which is a subject for another blog post at some point) in court, just as the University of Oklahoma did in its landmark lawsuit where the Supreme Court struck down the NCAA’s control of TV rights (thereby opening up the ability for conferences and schools to freely enter into contracts with TV networks directly as we see today). The NCAA telling a network that isn’t actually owned by a member school what it can and cannot show on TV could be construed as an overstepping of its authority and, considering the inherently collusive nature of the organization (hundreds of schools making collective decisions that affect students, agents and media personnel that aren’t even employed by such schools), it needs to be careful on how it phrases its regulations.

When the LHN deal was first announced, I was initially puzzled when UT didn’t take an equity interest in the channel, but we now see one of the main benefits. Is showing high school games on the LHN shady? Absolutely! Can the NCAA or Big 12 regulate it? It could try, but at face value, I doubt it would withstand a court challenge. The Big 12 athletic directors themselves have put the kabosh on high school games on the Longhorn Network for this year, yet I’m sure we’ll see this issue come up again next summer and the conference could face the same legal scrutiny as the NCAA would. If ESPN believes the fight is worth it, the NCAA is a fairly easy lawsuit target.

4. People that keep ignoring Texas politicians will get fooled again – Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice, I’m in fucking denial. In the three major conference realignments since the 1990s, two have been heavily shaped by the whims of Texas politicians. The third was shaped by the Virginia legislature. I’ll point back to my “You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Aggies” post that goes through why it’s critical to take into account the irrational nature of Texas politicians with respect to anything regarding football. At the very least, it would be nice to see some other commentators on conference realignment that this is a very real impediment to change. Gov. Rick Perry might be a former Aggie Yell Leader, but if he wants to run for president, he’ll need to raise a lot of money from UT alums (and Texas Tech and Baylor alums), which brings us to the next point…

5. UT needs A&M in the same conference together – Many UT alums likely won’t admit it, but as I’ve stated before, Texas A&M is an extremely valuable school. That’s why UT simply isn’t going to let them walk away, and if it means making some financial concessions or telling ESPN to not show high school games on the LHN to keep the peace (along with applying their own political pressure plus the support of Tech and Baylor), then they’ll do it. There were a number of factors that went into play in the Pac-16 deal collapsing last year, but the threat of A&M heading to the SEC at that time was extremely high on the list. It’s instructive that the Pac-16 deal could’ve easily moved forward if UT was fine with only moving with Tech (and maybe having Utah or Kansas replace A&M in the Pac proposal) while A&M went to the SEC, yet it didn’t happen. I’ll always remember one of the first comments from a connected UT alum on this blog when the Big Ten first announced that it was exploring expansion almost 2 years ago and how he described that UT, in no uncertain terms, would not let A&M head off to the SEC as the Longhorns knew that opening up the state of Texas to that conference for TV and recruiting purposes would be a killer for their own program.

At the same time, count me in as someone that will always believe that the prospect of UT going independent is an empty threat. Money is important, but many commentators are ignoring how important institutional culture is in making decisions, too. Ultimately, UT needs an entourage like a Hollywood starlet. The school’s actions time and time again have shown that having power over others is how it gets it rocks off. It wants to have schools like Texas Tech and Baylor dependent upon it and it certainly doesn’t want A&M be in a separate higher profile league. UT doesn’t just want to make the most money – it wants to control college football in the state of Texas completely, and that requires A&M to be in the fold. Notre Dame is a J.D. Salinger-type recluse that doesn’t want any attachments to anyone, which is why they have chosen to be independent as an institution (even though they’d actually make substantially more television money in the Big Ten). UT simply isn’t like that – it has always positioned itself as the proverbial sun for a bunch of other schools.

UT and A&M have come very close to separating two times before over the last two decades, yet the leaders of both schools have never been able to pull the trigger (even if some their respective fans would love to use a machine gun on the relationship). A combination of politics, institutional culture and uniquely shared endowment money that makes football TV revenue look like pocket change (see the Permanent University Fund) has always kept them together.

Could Texas A&M end up in the SEC? I guess anything is possible, but let’s be clear that just because Aggies are angry doesn’t mean that they’ll move to the SEC. Any rational analysis needs to address (1) why the SEC would expand when it has no leverage to renegotiate its current TV contracts (meaning that the current SEC schools would be subsidizing any expansion until 2024), (2) why ESPN would help out the SEC on that front when it has direct interests in keeping the Big 12 alive, (3) how a court challenge to any restrictions on showing high school games on the Longhorn Network would turn out, (4) why Texas politicians would suddenly be wallflowers on conference realignment when history clearly indicates that they are not only not wallflowers, but completely interventionist and (5) why UT would just roll over and let A&M walk away. I would love to entertain arguments that address all of those massive roadblocks. “Aggies are steaming mad”, however, isn’t a valid argument.

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

(Image from ThinkGeek)

You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Aggies

It was as predictable as a lackadaisical road game for the Illini basketball team. When the University of Texas signed its network deal with ESPN, the drumbeats from people that aren’t looking at the big picture started: “Well, this means Texas A&M is heading to the SEC sooner rather than later.”  It’s a stance that’s become reflexive among many widely read pundits.  Unfortunately, that stance is absolutely and positively dead wrong.

If there’s one overarching takeaway that you should get from this blog post, it’s that what Texas A&M wants to do means jack.  I’m very certain Aggies all across America (especially the younger ones) would love nothing more than to move to the SEC, yet that’s irrelevant.  What really matters is what Texas A&M is allowed to do, and with a Molotov cocktail of an SEC that doesn’t really want to expand, Texas state politicians that are out to quash any move that will injure Texas Tech and Baylor, and ESPN specifically wanting the Big 12 to live, that leaves with Texas A&M with virtually no options outside of staying right where they are.

THE REACTIONARY SEC

Let’s start out with the most basic rule in conference realignment: it takes two to tango.  In order for Texas A&M to even consider to move, the SEC has to want to add them in the first place.  There’s a widely misguided belief in the blog and message board world that since the SEC reportedly invited Texas A&M and Oklahoma over this past summer, that means there’s an “open invite” for the Aggies and Sooners.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Everyone is forgetting the circumstances under which the SEC invited those two schools.  OU president David Boren stated that the Pac-16 proposal was researched and planned, while the SEC invitations were “a reaction to the situation”.  The SEC was never proactive in last year’s conference realignment because they didn’t (and still don’t) have any type of vehicle to justify expanding beyond 12 schools.  This is in contrast to the Big Ten, whose Big Ten Network can garner additional revenue from adding more basic cable households, and the Pac-10, who was so far behind in revenue that it was worth it for them to take a huge leap in order to add UT and friends.

The fact of the matter is that the SEC loves the status quo.  They are Wal-Mart to the Big Ten’s Target in college football’s financial hierarchy, with everyone else way behind.  The last thing that the SEC wanted was to see major changes to the conference landscape where a third equal competitor would rise up or, even worse, being sent to a permanent third place position.  So, the only reason why the SEC offered A&M and OU those invites was because they were looking at a world where 2 superconferences were about to be formed – the Pac-16 with UT as the centerpiece and a 16-school Big Ten with Nebraska and Notre Dame as the main additions – and they had to draw a little blood in order to not completely get left behind.

We need to make this clear: the SEC invites to A&M and OU were completely reactionary.  Once the Big 12 was saved and superconferences weren’t formed, the reasoning for the SEC to expand evaporated.  There is only one way that the SEC can lose its dominant position next to the Big Ten at this point: if UT moves from the Big 12 to another conference (because as we’ve explained here before, they’re never going to the SEC themselves).  That’s something the SEC absolutely doesn’t want to see happen.  As a result, the SEC isn’t going to make a proactive move on the Big 12 because it’s not going to risk giving UT a reason to explore the Pac-16 proposal again.  If some other conference makes a move on the Big 12, then the SEC will react in order to pick up the pieces, but they’re not going to attack first.  The only realistic way A&M gets an SEC invite is if someone else raids the Big 12.

ALL CONFERENCE POLITICS ARE LOCAL

Now, let’s say that I’m completely wrong about all that I just said about the SEC and they extend invites to A&M and OU, anyway.  That doesn’t mean that the Aggies (or OU, for that matter) can just move willingly.  Here’s a quick recap of the major conference realignments since the collapse of the Southwestern Conference:

1994 – UT and A&M attempt to move to the Big 8 by themselves to create a 10-team conference.  Texas legislators catch wind of the plan and use political pressure on those 2 schools to force Texas Tech and Baylor into the league, too.

2003 – The ACC invites Miami, Boston College and Syracuse.  Virginia legislators catch wind of the plan and use political pressure on UVA to force Virginia Tech to get an invite in lieu of BC and Syracuse.  BC eventually gets an invite later on, while Syracuse is still in the Big East.

2010 – The Pac-10 invites the entire Big 12 South except for Baylor.  The deal falls apart and Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott attributes it to the political heat from Texas legislators with Baylor getting left out.

See a pattern here?  State legislators have played a central role in all three major conference realignments in the past 20 years, including Texas legislators specifically in two of them.  Public universities are controlled by a ton of different interest groups, including people whose loyalties lie with competing universities.  Notre Dame, as a private university, can simply listen to its own rabid alumni base in making decisions.  Texas A&M (and other public universities) can’t do the same.  Despite this fact along with recent conference realignment history, virtually every single column that I’ve read suggesting that Texas A&M will eventually head to the SEC either (a) completely ignores Texas politicians altogether or (b) makes unsubstantiated comments that the politicians aren’t obligated protect Tech and Baylor anymore.

What?!  It’s incredulous to me how anyone that observed what occurred this past summer could think for two seconds that Texas politicians won’t get involved.  If anything, it proves that Tech and Baylor have more pull than previously anticipated.  As I’ve admitted previously, I certainly made the grave mistake a year ago in my conference realignment analysis of underestimating how much Texans believe that football matters are of the utmost political importance.  I haven’t seen a single person articulate a legitimate reason why a single thing has changed in the political environment in Texas since this past summer or even 1994.  The Texas legislature has literally done more to shape college conferences over the past 20 years than any other entity.  Besides, even if you assume that Tech and Baylor don’t have a Bob Bullock-type figure to hammer through their interests, UT is going to be right alongside the supporters of the little brothers on this issue.  UT wants nothing to do with A&M in the SEC (for good reason) and the Longhorns know how to play the political game as well as anyone.  I really hope people aren’t naive enough to think that Texas politicians are just going to sit on the sidelines if A&M attempts to move to the SEC by itself. 

IF TEXAS TECH AND BAYLOR AREN’T BETTER OFF WITHOUT A&M THAN WITH THEM, THEN DO NOT PASS GO

The main argument that I see from those that believe that A&M is heading to the SEC is that Texas Tech and Baylor can be “taken care of” in order to placate the politicians.  There is a prevailing belief that as long as the Big 12 survives with UT staying there, then A&M can move alone.  The problem with this line of thinking is that Texas politicians have consistently placed a MUCH higher standard of what it means for Tech and Baylor to be “taken care of”.  Having those schools “taken care of” really means two options:

(1) UT and A&M are in the same conference as Tech and Baylor.  Period.

OR

(2) Tech and Baylor are financially stronger without one of the big brothers in the same conference than with them.

Think of it this way: if I come and take a wrecking ball to your kitchen, you’re probably not going to think you’re “taken care of” if I point out the fact that I left your bedroom intact, so at least you’re not homeless.  Well, Texas A&M can’t just leave the Big 12 and make more money in the SEC while simultaneously reduce the conference revenues for Texas Tech and Baylor (and for that matter, UT) and claim that they’re “taken care of”.  That’s a proactive move by A&M that hurts those in-state little brothers.  So, simply saying that Tech and Baylor are still in an AQ home isn’t good enough for the Texas politicians.  A&M has to find a way to ensure that Tech and Baylor somehow make more money with the Aggies leaving the Big 12, which most reasonable people would conclude simply isn’t realistic.  As noted earlier, the SEC doesn’t really have a financial vehicle to justify expanding in the first place, so every expansion candidate has to pull more than its own weight.  A&M is a very good catch for any conference by itself, but that school isn’t worth SEC having to add any type of financial dead weight (Tech or Baylor) in order to get them.

As for OU, the Sooners are even more tethered to Oklahoma State politically than the Texas-based schools are to each other.  The T. Boone Pickens mafia will destroy that prospect immediately.  There’s absolutely no scenario where OU would move to another conference without Okie State.  None.  Zip.  Nada.  Zilch.

THE PAC-16 PROPOSAL IS THE MINIMUM FOR ANY FUTURE CHANGES

Here’s the bottom line: the Pac-16 proposal is now the bare minimum that politicians will consider.  That proposal protected Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, yet the big brothers of UT, A&M and OU ultimately rejected that deal.  As a result, those big brothers expended pretty much all of their political capital on conference realignment.  There was a massive offer from a major conference that was willing to take Tech and Okie State, which means that the big brothers can’t now look their respective state legislators in the face and say that they’re ditching the little brothers for a better deal elsewhere.  (This includes the prospect of UT going independent.)  From this point forward, there’s absolutely NFW that the politicians in either Texas or Oklahoma are going to let the big brothers move without something that replicates the original Pac-16 proposal at the very least.  If you believe Larry Scott, Baylor has to protected in order to ensure it gets approved, too.

Some OU supporters are already ruing the day that they walked away from the Pac-16 offer.  (Of course, that’s neither here nor there.  OU wasn’t getting a Pac-10 invite without UT also coming along.)  Honestly, A&M’s reluctance to go to the Pac-16 might be what ends up forever binding them to the Big 12 that so many of their alums now hate.  Why would Texas politicians let them go off to the SEC alone when all of UT, A&M and Tech would’ve been taken care of in the Pac-16 deal if A&M didn’t have any reservations to going west?  The answer is that they’re not – A&M is stuck, whether they like it or not.

ESPN ISN’T STUPID – THEY WANT THE BIG 12 TO LIVE

Finally, there’s a pretty basic item that so many people are missing: ESPN paid up last summer specifically to save the Big 12, so they wouldn’t have entered into a deal with UT unless they believed the Big 12 would stay together.  Certainly, ESPN wouldn’t have created the new UT network if it would have the effect of actually breaking apart the conference that it just saved.  ESPN might be annoying from a journalistic standpoint, but their business people aren’t stupid.

(Indeed, in the third quarter of 2010, ESPN provided half of the profit of the entire Disney Company.  Think about that for a second: add up all of Toy Story 3 ticket sales, all of the people visiting Disney World and Disneyland, all of the Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh swag sold, all of the ABC advertising revenue, all of the Disney books and DVDs hawked, all of the High School Musical and Hannah Montana crap, all of the Disney Broadway show tickets, and revenue from thousands of other Disney properties, and they still weren’t as profitable altogether as ESPN was by itself.  That’s power.)

So, ESPN entered into the deal with UT based on assurances that the Big 12 was going to live on, and the cable giant has a ton of control over that.  With the Worldwide Leader holding the purse strings for the Big 12’s next TV contract, they’re going to provide juuuust enough to keep the non-UT members placated to ensure the investment in the Longhorn network was worth it.  ESPN wants nothing to do with paying massive rights fees for superconferences, which is why they intervened when it looked like the Big 12 was going to collapse.  The status quo is what they desire for college conferences and they have the financial capital to pay out accordingly in order to keep it that way.  Make no mistake about it – ESPN knows that UT staying in the Big 12 is ultimately what provides it stability and that’s a big reason why $15 million per year for the Longhorn Network is a relatively inexpensive insurance policy for the Worldwide Leader.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE FOR A&M

At the end of the day, if A&M or any other Big 12 school had an issue with UT’s new TV network, the time that they had any leverage was last summer.  They’ve all known for years that UT has been planning for a new TV network, so this wasn’t a surprise.  In fact, it was a key negotiating point of last summer’s realignment discussions.  Now that they agreed to keep the Big 12 together and, more importantly, rejected a Pac-16 deal that would’ve protected Texas Tech and Oklahoma State specifically, A&M in particular doesn’t have any more chips to play.  You can’t always get what you want, Aggies.  Instead, you can only do what you’re allowed to do, which isn’t much at all.

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

(Image from Texas A&M to SEC Facebook Page)

Longhorn Network Not Much of a Money Hook and Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 10/29/2010

Well, maybe the University of Texas won’t be taking over the world after all.  The Sports Business Journal is reporting that ESPN and Fox are essentially in a dead heat in winning the right to partner with Texas on a new Longhorn television network.  Some interesting details gleaned from the article:

  • It doesn’t appear that Texas is attempting to take back more TV rights to football and basketball games from the national Big 12 contracts, which means they are essentially building this network based upon the rights that they have now: typically one football game per season and a handful of non-conference men’s basketball games.  As a result, the network will have a heavy reliance on non-revenue sports, pre/postgame programming and coaches’ shows.
  • Texas actually won’t have any equity stake in the network.  Whoever is the winning bidder will own 100% of the network and then pay a rights fee to Texas that the school expects to be approximately $3 million per year.  This is similar to the deal that the Mountain West has with Comcast for the mtn.  The Big Ten, in contrast, has 51% ownership of the Big Ten Network and pays out twice as much as the Texas estimate to every single one of its schools (approximately $6 million per year per school).

Honestly, it’s a bit underwhelming and definitely not going to have the impact that a lot of people predicted.   If Texas doesn’t try to take more football and men’s basketball games in-house, then the network will really have no impact on the Big 12’s national TV contract position (beyond the impending losses of Nebraska, Colorado and a title game).  The Longhorn network is really just Texas attempting to monetize the TV rights that it already owns as opposed to taking any additional inventory away from the other Big 12 schools.

The fact that Texas won’t have any equity stake in its network is also fairly surprising.  Granted, this virtually eliminates any downside risk for the school, but it also caps the upside where it won’t benefit from rising subscriber fees and advertising revenue in the same manner as the Big Ten Network.  A number of Texas alums have told me that the school had started spending on TV network infrastructure, so I’m puzzled by how there’s no equity involved.

Finally, the revenue figures are not real game changers at all, as it’s nowhere near what the Big Ten Network provides all of its schools in an equal revenue sharing system.  Considering that Fox Sports Net recently agreed to pay the Texas Rangers around $80 million per year (effectively a massive Godfather offer in order to prevent the MLB franchise from starting its own competing network and note that this was signed before the Rangers’ World Series run), I would’ve thought that a Longhorn network would make quite a bit more than $3 million per year, especially when it seemed to be such a point of public consternation for other Big 12 schools.

In fact, if the value of the Longhorn network is really going to be only $3 million per year, then it’s obvious to me that this network had absolutely nothing to do with (1) the near-collapse of the Big 12, (2) the ultimate rejection by Texas of the Pac-16 proposal or (3) Texas refusing to consider to join the equal revenue sharing leagues of the Big Ten and SEC, both of which would’ve paid a heck of a lot more with a lot less heartburn.  As dysfunctional as the Big 12 was and still is, an entire league was not going to break up over a $3 million TV package.  I highly doubt that either Texas or the Pac-10 killed the Pac-16 deal over this amount of money, either.  As I’ve also said many times before, if Texas really wanted to maximize its TV revenues, then it would’ve just joined either the Big Ten or SEC, and the relative low amount of revenue coming from the Longhorn network proves this point.

At the end of the day, the ownership structure of this network and financial figures point to the powers-that-be at Texas simply wanting the Big 12 to live.  Maybe it was fear of the wrath of Texas-state politicians.  Maybe it was the real threat of Texas A&M heading off to the SEC.  (Look at this comment from last December from knowledgeable UT alum reader Longhorn Lawyer and the last 3 paragraphs outlining the school’s position about A&M going to the SEC – it’s fairly instructive, especially considering it was made loooong before the Pac-16 proposal was even dreamed up.)  Maybe the Texas dream really has been being able to control something to the effect of an SWC plus Oklahoma league.  Whatever it is, the relatively low revenue stream for the Longhorn network means that the Texas decision for staying in the Big 12 goes beyond financial issues and that the school’s end goal is definitely not independence.

FRANK THE TANK’S FOOTBALL PARLAY

Work obligations prevented me from getting my BlogPoll ballot in on time this week, so we just have some quick picks today (home teams in CAPS and odds from Bodog via Yahoo!)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

  • Purdue (+17) over ILLINOIS
  • NOTRE DAME (-8.5) over Tulsa
  • Michigan State (+6.5) over IOWA 

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 2-1

Illini Games for the Season: 4-2
Overall Season: 9-14-1

NFL FOOTBALL

  • Jaguars (+6) over COWBOYS
  • RAMS (-3) over Panthers
  • Steelers (+1) over SAINTS

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 2-1

Bears Games for the Season: 3-4
Overall Season: 11-10

Have a great Halloween weekend!

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

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Conference Threat Levels

Yes, I’m alive and so is this blog.  With the slowdown in conference expansion news, it was a good time to take a summer break after going non-stop for the first 6 months of the year.  However, the start of the football season is only a couple of weeks away, so the activity will be picking up once again (less on expansion and more on actual football).  I’ll be voting in the BlogPoll (which will likely continue to be found on CBS Sports.com) this year, so there will be a weekly post during the season with my selections at the very least, which all of you can rip apart with impunity.  If you want to lobby me on behalf of your favorite team, please feel free to do so, as well.  To keep you occupied until that starts up for the year, here’s my look at where the BCS conferences stand regarding realignment issues using the Department of Homeland Security Advisory System:

OSCAR THE GROUCH THREAT LEVEL

BIG TEN

The Big Ten continues to be in control of any future conference expansion nationwide.  With the addition of Nebraska, the conference now has a championship game and can expect to receive a large uptick in its national TV revenue in the next few years with the popularity of the Huskers.  The East Coast bastion of the Wall Street Journal, which one might have expected to push the Big Ten to grab Rutgers or Syracuse, showered a ton of praise on the conference’s marriage with Nebraska last week and pointed out that this was a significant shift in college football that has flown under the radar with all of the Texas/Big IIX drama.  I believe that I speak for the majority of Big Ten fans in being incredibly excited to see Nebraska start Big Ten play in 2011.

I just hope that the Big Ten doesn’t f**k things up with a wacky divisional alignment.  I’ll repeat what I noted in my post from a few weeks ago: Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS).  Most proponents of a gerrymandered divisional alignment like to point out the dominance of the Big 12 South over the Big 12 North over the past several years as an example of the danger of a pure geographic alignment, yet forget that the Big 12 North was the dominant division for the first few years of that conference’s existence.  I’m exponentially more fearful of the aimless ACC divisional alignment which has no logic and broke off natural rivalries.  Karma has been a bitch for the ACC since it has never ended up its intended result of a Florida State-Miami championship game.  I don’t want to see the Big Ten make the same mistake.

I’m not surprised by the choice of Indianapolis as the site of the first Big Ten Championship Game, although my preference would’ve been Chicago, which is the conference’s marquee market and has a cross-section of alums from all of the Big Ten schools.  Personally, I don’t think cold outdoor weather really should be an issue for Big Ten football from a competitive standpoint, but it does matter to TV interests.  The Big Ten and ABC likely want to place the Big Ten Championship Game in a prime time slot, and while the cold weather is bearable when at least the first half is played in the daylight, it is a rough experience at Soldier Field or Lambeau Field for a typical December night game.  I blame all of this on the choice of the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois to drop a UFO in the middle of the Soldier Field columns instead of building a brand-new domed/retractable-roof stadium for the same cost (or even less) that could’ve been in the rotation for Final Fours and Super Bowls.  (Cost to renovate Soldier Field from 2001-2003, which reduced seating capacity by over 5,000: $625 million.  Cost to build University of Phoenix Stadium from scratch from 2003-2006 with a retractable roof and North America’s first roll-out grass field: $455 million.  Which taxpayer base got its money’s worth?)   It is ridiculous that Indianapolis is consistently beating out Chicago for top-tier sports events – this is the equivalent of Hartford getting marquee properties over New York City.

As for future expansion, the Big Ten would likely be able to grab any school other than Notre Dame and Texas.  The issue, of course, is that it’s doubtful that the Big Ten really wants any school other than Notre Dame and Texas right now.  If Rutgers or Syracuse can go on a run of BCS bowl appearances to generate New York/New Jersey interest in college football again, then that could change things, but all indications right now are that integrating Nebraska is the top priority unless the Irish or Longhorns change their minds.

Notre Dame still remains a Big Ten expansion possibility in the long-term for one major reason: academics.  The leadership at the school has continued to be open to joining the Big Ten because it believes that could aid Notre Dame into gaining membership with the American Association of Universities.  This top-line academic priority for the university directly clashes with the Irish alumni base’s unwavering need to retain independence at all costs.  Notre Dame’s leadership is in a bind since the school arguably grants more power to its alumni base over university affairs than any other BCS school, which means that crossing them results in putting their own heads on the chopping block regardless of whether they believe moving to the Big Ten makes sense academically and financially.  I don’t envy the people in charge of Notre Dame at all – independence is an integral part of the school’s identity, which is why the alumni base fights so hard for it, but it may hold the school back from achieving its ultimate academic goals and, as the Big Ten and SEC continue to expand their revenue advantages over everyone else, will negatively impact the athletic program’s success, as well.  Eventually, there will be a group of leaders at Notre Dame that will be willing to risk career suicide by having the school join the Big Ten, but those people will likely be from the current undergraduate population’s generation that cares more about ND being an academically elite school than its football status.  That group likely won’t come into power for another two decades.

Texas, on the other hand, is going to ride its proposed Bevo TV like Zorro for the foreseeable future.  I’ll get to more about this later on, but suffice to say, there won’t be any marriage between the Big Ten and Texas with the school’s approach to using and abusing conferences.

So, a 12-school Big Ten is going to be the new status quo for awhile.  There will still some long-term demographic challenges as the US population continues to move to the Sun Belt and the coasts, but as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the addition of Nebraska is one of those rare moves that will make both the financial bean counters in Park Ridge and the fans in the stands and living rooms happy.

SEC

The SEC stands alongside the Big Ten as the most stable and powerful conferences in the country.  Whether the SEC can realistically grow is an open question.  Unlike the Big Ten, which was at an unstable 11 members without a championship game and positioned in the middle of the country where it could conceivably expand anywhere except for the West Coast, the SEC hasn’t had an urgent need to get bigger.  It doesn’t really want to expand unless there’s: (1) a large market added and (2) an upgrade to the conference’s academic profile.  The lingering perception that the SEC wants to tear apart the ACC (or can actually do it) is a ridiculous notion.  The two schools that would add the most to the SEC from the ACC, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, are two of the least likely schools to ever consider an SEC invitation (as I’ll discuss in a bit).  West Virginia has the Big East’s best traveling fan base but its worst TV market, so that doesn’t make very much sense, either.

As a result, the state of Texas is the only potential goldmine left for the SEC, but as we’ve seen with the stunning non-breakup of the Big IIX, pulling off anyone from that conference would entail adding a bloc of schools en masse (and the Pac-10 found out that not even that could work).  The SEC really only cares about Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma – virtually everyone else in the Big IIX is worthless filler from a financial perspective.  The conference wants nothing to do with Texas Tech, Baylor and/or Oklahoma State, which may all be political requirements for those that want any of the Big III from the Big IIX.  Missouri is in the same position with the SEC as it is the Big Ten – decent market with a decent sports program, but not revenue accretive enough to justify expanding for.  ESPN’s analysts will continue to slob the knob of the SEC on the field, yet there really isn’t that much that it can (or should) do off the field.  Mike Slive might engage in some saber-rattling about the conference maintaining its power if other conferences expand beyond 12 teams, but realistically, he knows that the SEC has a great set-up today and is never going to expand just for the sake of keeping up in terms of sheer numbers of members.

COOKIE MONSTER THREAT LEVEL

PAC-10/12

The Pac-10 went for the proverbial jugular with its offer to invite half of the Big 12, but ultimately ended up with only Colorado and Utah.  These are decent additions for the Pac-10 as geographic and cultural fits, but they don’t really raise the national profile of the conference in the Eastern and Central Time Zones.  The Pac-10 is obviously performing its due diligence on forming a new TV network with former Big 12 Commissioner and Big Ten Network president Kevin Weiberg in the fold.  However, there is valid skepticism out there that it could ever come close to being as financially successful as the BTN (fan intensity is lower, , which means that the conference might not add that much more TV revenue taking games in-house compared to signing a larger comprehensive deal with ESPN or other established cable networks.

Still, the Pac-10’s main disadvantage from a TV perspective is a great advantage from a conference alignment viewpoint: its West Coast location.  The Big Ten and SEC won’t even think of touching any of the Pac-10 schools, which means that the Western conference is safe from any possible poachers.  The Pac-10 is safe and stable for the foreseeable future, which means that it’s worth any exit fee that Colorado may have to pay to the clusterf**k of the Big IIX.  As with the Big Ten and SEC, the state of Texas is really the main market that actually can move the meter for the Pac-10, and considering the manner in which talks broke down between the Pac-10 and the University of Texas harem, it may forever be an unattainable goal.

BERT THREAT LEVEL

ACC

I’ll repeat what I’ve stated several times on this blog: the ACC is MUCH safer than the general public gives it credit for.  Even though the SEC and Big Ten could theoretically offer more money to any of the ACC members, it may not be enough of a difference to overcome the charter member status of schools such as Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina (who have been mentioned at various times in connection with the Big Ten and/or SEC) or the academic prestige gap between the ACC and SEC.  Note that the ACC is the only conference other than the Big Ten that has an academic consortium and, for lack of a better term, it has “snobby” members and leaders that aren’t very willing to jump to the SEC compared to football-focused fans.  Virginia Tech on paper would seem to be the main school that might have some interest in the SEC, but with the way that the University of Virginia was hamstrung by Virginia politicians to force the Hokies into the ACC back in 2003, VT leaving the ACC and the commonwealth’s flagship university that expended a ton of political capital several years ago for more money in the SEC is not going to work with the Virginia legislature.

The new TV deal that the ACC has in place with ESPN cements the ACC’s stability even further.  Really, the only reason why the ACC is at “Bert Level” is that Maryland could very well fit into the Big Ten and there might be at least a tiny bit of mutual interest, but the Big Ten’s desire in going toward the East Coast appears to be predicated on Notre Dame coming along, too.  There is definitely nothing that the Big East could offer to draw Boston College back – Eastern fans might constantly bemoan the geography, but that school is clearing so much bank compared to what it had before that its leaders don’t care.  Thus, the ACC is in good shape overall.

ERNIE THREAT LEVEL

BIG EAST

Here’s where the conference realignment discussion gets interesting again.  From one perspective, the Big East could be considered extremely vulnerable due to its geographic proximity to the Big Ten and ACC, fairly good academic institutions, large markets on paper and disjointed sports membership.  On the other hand, if none of the individual schools are actually revenue positive to the Big Ten or ACC, then they aren’t going to be expansion targets and the conference is de facto safe as no one has anywhere else to turn.  As I mentioned in connection with Maryland above, the Big Ten’s East Coast strategy is tied in with Notre Dame, so as long as the Irish stay independent, the Big Ten is not likely to expand again in the near future.

As a result, the Big East is somewhat safe, but it’s also stuck.  There isn’t an obvious football expansion candidate east of the Mississippi River (Memphis, UCF, ECU and Temple are usual “meh” suspects) and even if there was, the hybrid football/non-football membership complicates anything getting done.  Villanova moving up from FCS to FBS has been thrown around as an option, yet even if the school decided to upgrade tomorrow, it would take several years to make that transition.  Futhermore, if Villanova somehow completed the upgrade, it’s hard to see why the school could really draw more or perform better at the FBS level than its Philly neighbor of Temple, which got kicked out of the Big East as a football-only member even when the conference was looking for warm bodies in the wake of the 2003 ACC raid.

I’d still recommend that the Big East go after TCU plus one other school to go up to 18 overall members and 10 football members since I believe that TCU is the main school in the country besides BYU that is a true BCS-level program that’s stuck in a non-BCS conference and it’s never going to get an invite from its regionally-friendly Big IIX (as it has no need for yet another Texas-based school).  The other usual suspects for Big East expansion typically use the “If we were in a BCS conference, we’d be SOOOOO much better” argument, which is akin to saying that you’re a no-talent ass clown that can churn out hit records with the aid of a vocoder.  (I’m looking at you, Kei$ha.)  The Big East doesn’t need project programs – it needs greater respect immediately and a material improvement to its national TV contract.  TCU at least provides a chance for the Big East on those fronts.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the Big East leadership is forward thinking in that way at all.

A split between the football members and the Catholic schools has long been blog and message board fodder, yet the fact remains that the Big East basketball contract (which is larger than the football contract) depends upon the large markets that those Catholic universities provide.  Therefore, a split won’t happen unless there’s a big-time incentive to do so (i.e. the Big IIX splits apart and a bunch of BCS programs need a new home).

As for the prospects of a Big East TV network, call me EXTREMELY skeptical that it could work.  If the Pac-10 is going to have a tough time making a network pay off financially, and that’s a conference with significantly better market penetration on the West Coast than the Big East on the East Coast, then I don’t know how a Big East network could ever get off the ground.  The Big Ten Network had a perfect storm of a top-level cable partner (Fox) that provided national carriage immediately (Fox had control of DirecTV at BTN’s launch) plus large schools with large alumni bases that REALLY care about college sports located in large markets that don’t have a lot of regional cable network competition.  It’s a different proposition to attempt to get a network onto basic cable in the New York City area, which already pays for YES, SNY and MSG, when the Big East isn’t even the clear dominant conference in that region.  (The most popular conference in the Mid-Atlantic according to a 2007 NCAA study: the Big Ten.)  Without NYC, the Big East network simply won’t come to fruition (and conference helper Paul Tagliabue apparently agreed when he bashed the notion of people on Long Island watching Rutgers after their tennis matches).

So, the Big East is in a stalled car.  Individual members that want to get into the Big Ten (Rutgers, Syracuse, Pitt) might actually wish that things were more fluid again, but until Notre Dame wants something other than independence, the Big East will talk publicly about “exploring” plans for a TV network and expansion and implement absolutely none of them.

ELMO THREAT LEVEL

BIG IIX

Oh, the Big IIX.  The more that I think about how this conference is still alive, the more that I understand how guys like Bernie Madoff can steal millions from otherwise smart people.  Dan Ponzi Beebe sold a handshake deal to academic leaders holding degrees galore with millions of dollars of unwritten promises based on (1) supposed future TV income that won’t be negotiated until a few years from now and (2) exit fees from Nebraska and Colorado that will be tied up in litigation for years and will likely be significantly discounted from the current sticker price.  Not only that, but some Big IIX people have actually deluded themselves into thinking that Arkansas would leave the SEC and Notre Dame would give up its entire identity as an independent to join this “conference” based on future revenue that doesn’t yet exist and isn’t in writing ANYWHERE.  WTF?!

How schools like Texas A&M bought this bullshit (and that’s what it is – complete bullshit) is beyond me.  The Aggies have good reason to get quite restless without ANY paper trail regarding these promises.  Of course, who knows why the heck the school would’ve agreed to all of this without something in writing in the first place, which makes it harder to defend a new “F**k you, pay me” stance.

Outside of A&M, I firmly believe that the University of Texas will rue the day that it spurned the Pac-10’s offer to add half of the current Big 12 (even if Texas A&M went separately to the SEC) – it will NEVER get a better opportunity to be in an upgraded academic conference with larger markets AND bring along a bunch of its regional rivals.  Instead, UT has banked its entire future on its own TV network and has even started making non-conference scheduling decisions based upon it by killing off a series with Minnesota over a video rights dispute.  Texas better be damn sure that this TV network is going to work because I’m still flabbergasted that this is the route that it chose to take when it had virtually every single option (Pac-16, Big Ten, SEC, independence, even the ACC) on the table.  In a few years, when everyone figures out that the TV revenue that Ponzi Beebe promised won’t ever materialize, Texas may not have any choice other than the Big IIX because no other conference is going to turn over the requisite TV rights that would make Bevo TV viable.

Plus, the Texas legislature made sure that everyone respected its authoritah.  For all of the power that UT is supposed to have in the college football world, it was made clear in this realignment process that it will be forever shackled to at least Texas Tech, which is much more problematic than being only paired up with the fairly attractive Texas A&M.  As a lone free agent, Texas is arguably the most valuable program that any conference can get (even above Notre Dame), but when it has to bring along 4 or 5 others, then it’s a completely different value proposition and the school isn’t nearly as enticing.  The Pac-16 deal was the main chance that Texas could break away from at least Baylor and let Texas A&M go its own way, yet now it has foreclosed a whole bunch of long-term options unless things happen outside of its control (i.e. A&M bolts to the SEC by itself).  The Big Ten and SEC aren’t going to offer to add schools en masse like the Pac-10 did and if the Texas legislature freaked out about UT separating from its other in-state brethren to go to another conference, I don’t see how it could ever try to go independent (which is probably the situation the school is best suited for in a perfect world).

Essentially, the Big IIX is held together by Bevo TV, some Texas politicians and a bunch of unwritten promises from Ponzi Beebe.  No wonder why Nebraska and Colorado ran out as quickly as possible and Missouri has been begging for a Big Ten invite for months.  I guarantee you that NU and CU are going to settle for a whole lot less than what the Big IIX is demanding in exit fees since UT will have zero desire to allow what they’ve done behind the scenes over the past several months to be aired out publicly in court.  Big IIX could possibly add some schools from the Mountain West or C-USA if it wanted to, but with the reprieve from ABC/ESPN where it will pay the current level of TV rights fees even with two fewer members and no conference championship game, the financial incentive isn’t there.  With the Longhorns’ first-priority needs to have league leadership control and its TV network above all else, I believe that the only conference other than the Big IIX that they might end up in over the next few years is a brand new one that they create from scratch as opposed to an existing BCS conference.  Therefore, Texas isn’t going to be the first mover in any future conference realignment scenarios (just as it was the case this past summer).  It will be up to a school such as Texas A&M to have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the legislative powers that be and act in its own interests as a university if it wants to leave the Big IIX.

As of today, all is quiet on the conference realignment front.  That’s not a bad thing as we can watch some actual football again.

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

(Image from flicker)

Getting Krunk on Expansion News (or Lack Thereof)

Ah, I love the smell of napalm and crushed Big Ten expansion dreams in the morning.  Judging by the over 1000 comments to last week’s post (a record number for the blog), we’re all exasperated that Jim Delany and the Big Ten have at least publicly stated that they will stick to original timetable of 12-18 months to examine expansion candidates.  This is certainly a fascinating topic, but Lord help me if I’m still speculating12 months from now about who the Big Ten will be adding.  At that point, I’d rather be speculating about… Big East expansion!  Let’s get to my thoughts on last week’s events:

(1) You lie!!! – In all seriousness, I’m not one of those people that subscribe to conspiracy theories and break every conference official comment down like the Zapruder film.  However, if there’s one thing that needs to be beaten into people’s heads after this past week, it’s this: TRUST NO ONE.  The various of lists of 5 and 15 candidates that the Big Ten leaked and every public comment that has been uttered mean nothing to me at this point.  The one reporter that seemed to actually have a decent clue as to what was going on in the Big Ten expansion story, Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune, appeared to get solid information that the conference was fast-tracking adding new schools and then had to make a complete retraction a couple days later.  If Greenstein is getting played by the Big Ten, then every other reporter is getting played, as well.  I’ve received info from credible people that Texas and Notre Dame are definitely still in legitimate play for the Big Ten and other info that the conference has moved on regarding both of them.  Commenters have posted information suggesting that Maryland preemptively nixed any consideration for Big Ten membership and that Northwestern’s president revealed to a sorority that the conference had actually made a decision as to who it was inviting.  Tom Shatel, one of the Nebraska beat writers at the Omaha World-Herald, shared his frustration that people he trusted last week that stated that the Cornhuskers weren’t part of the Big Ten expansion talks are now saying that the school is definitely in the mix.  It’s impossible to parse through what’s true or false in all of this.

At this point, there is no combination of Notre Dame and/or any Big East and/or Big 12 schools that are AAU members that would surprise me.  If the Big Ten announces in June 2011 that it’s adding Pitt, Syracuse and Rutgers, I wouldn’t flinch.  If the Big Ten announces in 2 weeks that it’s adding Texas, Texas A&M and Notre Dame, it wouldn’t faze me at all.  It’s all fair game at this point.  The leaks so far have been so contradictory that we’re all better off assuming that they’re red herrings.  There’s a plan out there that might be way more aggressive than even the Super Death Star Conference that I’ve brought up or it could very well be a conservative addition of a geographically contiguous school or 3 purely for households.  No one except for Jim Delany and the Big Ten university presidents knows WTF is going on.

Of course, we’ll still have fun pouncing on every leak and rumor in the meantime.

(2) Backdoor meetings are where it’s at – Some commenters astutely noted that Jim Delany isn’t going to call a press conference one day and say, “I’ve just informed the Big East and Big XII that they need to bend over and assume the position.”  If and when Delany talks to his fellow commissioners, it’s going to be private and it’s likely such commissioners would want to keep it that way so they can start planning for their own raids of leagues like the Mountain West and Conference USA.  Delany would certainly not want anything to do with speaking about anything substantive with the feeding frenzy of the media horde gathered at the BCS meetings last week.  This seems like such a simple and logical concept, yet in a world where we’re craving information on this subject, we’re dying for any type of official statement of a go-ahead.

(3) Time is on the Big Ten’s side – I really doubt the Big Ten is going to take the full 12-18 months to examine this expansion issue.  That’s just my gut feeling as the university presidents likely wouldn’t be able to stomach having this story hanging over their heads in the press for such a long period of time.  It could very well be the case that the Big Ten’s university presidents know how they want to proceed and that they simply didn’t want Delany to inform the Big 12 and/or Big East commissioners of the Big Ten’s targets at the media-filled BCS meetings.  Honestly, I don’t know what could be taking so long unless the Big Ten is vetting every single possibility with the two schools that matter the most: Notre Dame and Texas.  Those are certainly two schools worth waiting for if the Big Ten believes that either of them would be willing to join.  Every single other school in the Big East and Big XII would leap toward Big Ten membership, so if the Big Ten was solely targeting non-Notre Dame/Texas schools, this could’ve been wrapped up weeks ago.

(4) Big East being “proactive” by “hiring” Paul Tagliabue and expanding to Jacksonville – As Brian Cook of Sporting News and mgoblog (not the former Illini quasi-great) stated, “Soviet Big East Raids You!”  (I’m not going to lie – I could keep myself entertained making up Yakov Smirnoff-isms for hours at a time.)  On paper, it sounds like a massive coup that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been tapped as a strategist for the Big East.  He’s actually providing his services pro bono because he has a very direct interest in how all of this plays out as Chairman of the Board of the Directors at Georgetown.  What does this mean?  Well, if Tagliabue has anything to do with it, the hybrid format of the conference will continue on into perpetuity.  Georgetown would be severely damaged if the Big East split up and one of his tasks will be to ensure that doesn’t happen.  If the Big East were to lose multiple schools, he has the gravitas to tell schools that might be ready to split (i.e. Louisville) that the hybrid is still the revenue maximization model for the conference.  The Big East football schools might not trust anything that the Big East office says anymore, but if the former commissioner of the NFL says that ESPN will still pay a lot more money for a hybrid league than a split league, then that’s going to carry a lot of weight.  As a DePaul law grad, though, I really hope that Tagliabue doesn’t decide that the Big East would be better off skipping the Los Angeles market in favor of the next municipality that whores itself with a taxpayer-financed stadium.

Honestly, there is absolutely nothing “proactive” that the Big East can do at this point to prevent a member from leaving for the Big Ten.  Even if the Big East could somehow create a new TV network that could generate large amounts of cash, there’s no way that could be up and running even if the Big Ten takes the maximum amount of time to complete its expansion process.

Of course, Tagliabue unintentionally torpedoed the prospect of the Big East ever creating its own network by dumping on the thought that the Big Ten adding schools in the New York area would deliver homes for the Big Ten Network by saying the following:

“One of the real challenges for the networks is to provide value, but you only provide value in markets where you provide traction,” he said. “Is Minnesota and Rutgers going to get a big rating on Long Island? Give me a break. Every game isn’t Michigan and Michigan State.” He added, “Am I going to rush home from a tennis game on Saturday to watch Minnesota and Rutgers if I live on Long Island?”

Now, I’m not exactly a favorite person with the Rutgers message board crowd, but I’ve got to defend the school here.  WTF was Tagliabue doing completely ripping apart a current member of the Big East when his job is to presumably keep the conference intact?  Maybe he was suggesting that Midwestern schools like Minnesota wouldn’t exactly attract the Long Island tennis club crowd, which is likely true, yet that’s quite a disingenuous statement coming from someone representing a league that includes Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati (who don’t conjure up images of summer parties in the Hamptons).  In fact, the highly-rated 2006 Rutgers game where the Empire State Building was lit up in scarlet red was against Louisville as opposed to an Eastern school, which goes to show you that New Yorkers simply want to watch good teams play other good teams regardless of geographic location.  If I were a Rutgers fan, I don’t know how I could deal with someone in a leadership position in the Big East saying that about my school.  At worst, it was a complete cheap shot and at best, it came off extremely wrong with logic that didn’t follow considering that the Big East isn’t a purely Northeastern football league anymore.

(5) ESS – EEE – SEE SPEEEED! – SEC Commissioner Mike Slive articulated the real reason for expansion: it’s a high stakes pissing contest to see who can lay claim to the “Bad Motherfucker” wallet.  More than anyone, there’s kind of this lingering assumption that if the Big Ten expands to 16 schools, then the SEC MUST respond because it simply can’t handle not being the biggest (and therefore, the best).

Frankly, this line of thinking doesn’t make sense to me at all.  I know a lot of fairly knowledgeable people are convinced that we’re going to end up with 4 16-team superconferences after everything shakes out, yet too many people seem to forget that every single conference other than the Big Ten doesn’t have a financial vehicle like the Big Ten Network that would make it financially viable to perform such a large-scale expansion.  The Big Ten isn’t expanding just to expand – it’s looking to maximize the per-school payout for each of its members.  All of the other conferences are going to do the same and I fail to see how any of them would be able to make it a profitable venture to expand beyond 12 without its own conference network.  Heck, even the Big Ten isn’t guaranteed a windfall by going beyond 12 schools (even though it at least has an argument with the Big Ten Network).

In the case of the SEC, there are very few schools that make sense for it in terms of expansion at all.  I see names thrown around like Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson, but all of them would be duplicate teams in markets that the SEC already owns.  There’s very little point in the SEC adding more schools within its current footprint.  In fact, there are only two markets that would add value to the SEC:  Texas and North Carolina.  The problem is that in order to obtain those markets, it would need to try to add the University of Texas and UNC, both of whom would likely completely shun the SEC due to academic reasons.  Throughout this process, I’ve corresponded with many Texas alums (NOT the T-shirt fans that just care about football) and they’re pretty much unanimous in stating that the UT administration will NEVER entertain any thought of joining the SEC.  It cannot be underestimated how much the academically-minded administrators at Texas loathe the thought of the SEC.  I think about this every time I see a columnist wrongly assume that “Texas = South” and therefore “Texas = SEC”, when in reality UT likens itself to be more like Berkeley or Michigan as opposed to any of the SEC schools.  UNC is even more snobby with respect to academics and the Tar Heels have emotional ties to the ACC that go far beyond what Texas has with the Big XII.  So, the chances of the SEC adding either of those schools is between slim and none.  Without them, there aren’t any other worthy markets in the South that the SEC hasn’t already covered.

(6) Why is this topic addictive? – A number of commenters have been wondering about why this expansion topic is so fascinating.  As someone that had been writing this blog for 5 years about a variety of subjects and didn’t focus on conference realignment until the last few months, I’ve also been thinking about how I got hooked on it.  At least for me, I’ve always enjoyed writing about big-picture movements in the sports world and you really can’t get much more big-picture than power schools switching conferences.  Could you imagine if the Yankees and Red Sox approached the Cubs and Dodgers to join the AL East in order to form a super-division of all of baseball’s most popular teams?  (Please note that as a die-hard White Sox fan, it pains me to admit how popular the Cubs are and will likely always be.  I take solace in the fact that they’re paying $19 million to an 8th-inning setup guy.)  Well, the equivalent isn’t just possible in college sports, but it’s happened numerous times.  Within the past 20 years, Penn State joined the Big Ten, Miami joined the Big East and then later switched to the ACC and Texas helped form the Big XII and could be on the move again.

Let’s face it, though: this is like crack-cocaine to the sports blogging world.  As regular commenter allthatyoucanleavebehind noted, it’s a lot more fun to talk about expanding with schools like Syracuse and Rutgers (or really anyone other than the massive players like Texas, Notre Dame and Nebraska) than to actually have to play them when expansion finally occurs.  Once the Big Ten actually makes an announcement regarding expansion, we won’t have a quick fix of speculative blogging material anymore… at least until we start talking about Big XII expansion.

At that point, all I’ll want to do is to rush home from my tennis match to catch the Illinois vs. Rutgers game.

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

(Image from Retecool)

Multi-Phase Big Ten Expansion: How to Create a Super Death Star Conference

As I was going through the always insightful comments (since people seem to love talking about superconferences) and pondering life’s great questions, such as what Desmond’s plan is on LOST or why Justin Bieber has been a trending topic on Twitter for the past 15 years, it occurred to me that a multi-phase expansion for the Big Ten may actually be a strong strategy for the conference.  For a very long time, I thought that if the Big Ten was going to add multiple schools, it would do it all at once because it wouldn’t want to risk not ending up with its desired end combination by inviting 1 or 2 schools and then hoping that someone like Notre Dame would join down the road.  However, what if the Big Ten could invite 2 specific schools who would accept that would (a) apply maximum pressure on the big names to join in “Phase 2” and (b) even those big names don’t end up joining, those 2 schools plus another school that the conference apparently likes would still provide enough value where expansion would be considered to be a success?

A large part of the leverage that the Big Ten has right now is due to the fact that it stands at an odd number of 11 members, which provides the possibility of the conference adding 1, 3 or 5 schools (or even standing pat).  Basically, it’s the conference equivalent of the “triple threat” position in basketball, where the player with the ball has the ability to dribble, pass or shoot.  No one knows which direction the Big Ten is going to go right now.  The mere threat of Big Ten expansion has caused the Big East and Big XII to wonder if they’ll survive and at least making the ACC consider some contingency plans.  If the Big Ten just adds one member in an attempt to have a multi-phase expansion, then a lot of that threat goes away – the perception will be that the Big Ten is at a stable 12 members with a conference championship game and provides a strong possibility that it wouldn’t look any further.  However, if the Big Ten invites 2 strategically targeted schools that would almost certainly accept, then the conference creates even more fear and chaos in the college sports world.  Standing at 13, it’s clear that the Big Ten is pursuing a superconference strategy and there is an absolute guarantee that it needs to add 1 or 3 more members.  If there’s a frenzy about the Big Ten’s plans today, just imagine what it would be like if the conference expands with a guarantee that it will add at least one more.  The Big Ten would also show schools like Notre Dame and Texas that the conference isn’t bluffing when it says that it’s moving on.

Let’s look back at the Big Ten Expansion Index, which is likely how most of you found this blog in the first place.  After Texas and Notre Dame, I had ranked Syracuse and Nebraska as the next two best candidates for the Big Ten.  For separate reasons, Syracuse and Nebraska also happen to serve as the ideal “Phase 1” invitees to the conference.

Reading the tea leaves from Notre Dame, a split of the Big East current hybrid structure is the most likely way to “force” it to join a conference (regardless of what the school’s alums believe).  Well, if the Big Ten were to choose just one Big East school that would most likely cause the Big East to split, it would be Syracuse.  The Orange are the glue that holds the hybrid together because no other Big East football school has as much invested in rivalries with the conference’s Catholic schools for basketball.  Without Syracuse, the other football schools would almost have to split simply for self-preservation.  Those remaining Big East football schools wouldn’t know whether the Big Ten would really want any of them in Phase 2 of the expansion and with only 7 members, they absolutely have to add another member immediately just to have the minimum number for a conference to exist in the first place.  Practically speaking, they would likely want to split from the Catholic schools to have the leeway to add 2 new members to cover the situation where the Big Ten may end up taking another Big East school in Phase 2.

On the other side of the Big Ten footprint, we should note something very important with respect to the Big XII: it takes 4 schools to stop any changes to the current inequitable revenue sharing structure that favors Texas more than any other school.  Missouri’s chancellor has complained about this openly.  Right now, there’s a solid bloc of 4 schools preventing those changes:  Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma… and Nebraska.  Those 4 schools consistently receive the most national TV appearances of the current Big XII members, so they receive the largest share of conference revenue on a year-in and year-out basis.  (Note that as much as a lot of otherwise incredibly civil Husker fans complain about how much Texas supposedly controls the Big XII, Nebraska is one of the reasons why Texas has such a large financial advantage over the rest of the conference because the Cornhuskers are still a net beneficiary from that revenue distribution model.)  If the Big Ten takes Nebraska away, then the other Big XII schools will have a super-majority to enact the revenue sharing changes that they’ve long wanted and block the prospect of allowing member schools to create their own TV channels (such as the Longhorn Sports Network).  Who is going to be really pissed off in that situation because it now no longer has the supposed financial “control” of the Big XII?  Texas, who is already behind all of the schools in the Big Ten and SEC in TV money even with the Big XII’s deck completely stacked in the Longhorns’ favor.  If Missouri could be considered a “stalking horse” to try to get Texas, actually taking Nebraska can directly hit the pocketbook of Texas like no other Big XII school except for Oklahoma (who won’t ever get a sniff of a Big Ten invite due to academic concerns).  Texas A&M would be in a similar position.  Nebraska leaving the Big XII gives those two Texas schools a clear financial reason for them to move conferences (to the extent that it’s not there already) AND the political “moral authority” (as Barking Carnival has noted before) of telling the state’s politicians that they need to move pronto regardless of what happens to Texas Tech and Baylor because the Big XII is a dead man walking.

In summary, the Big Ten can announce that it’s inviting Syracuse and Nebraska, both of whom I believe the conference likes regardless of who else might be added.  The effect of this is even more panic in the college sports world since 2 BCS conferences will have lost key members and it’s clear that the Big Ten is going to want to add at least 1 more school (or maybe 3).  This causes the Big East to split up simply for self-preservation (which would drive Notre Dame to the Big Ten) and the Big XII’s power schools would no longer have veto power to avoid changes to its revenue distribution model (which would drive Texas and Texas A&M to the Big Ten).  We would then have a Super Death Star Conference (the one that the Empire attempted to build in Return of the Jedi):  Notre Dame, Texas, Texas A&M, Syracuse and Nebraska as new members of a 16-school Big Ten.

Now, what if the desired fallout doesn’t go as planned for the Big Ten, where Notre Dame and/or the Texas schools stay put?  (In the words of future Ole Miss mascot Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!!!”)  This is not really a problem because the Big Ten has already added a huge national football name (Nebraska) and a marquee basketball school that happens to be the only BCS school in the state of New York (Syracuse).  The Big Ten would then invite Rutgers as school #14, which gets the conference to stake its geographic claim to the New York/New Jersey area.  As a result, the Big Ten has increased its national cache for both football and basketball while adding on concrete households in the form of a major presence in the nation’s largest TV market.  (This is “JoePa’s Quasi-Dream Conference” that I wrote about here.)  Adding Syracuse and Nebraska as schools #12 and #13 allows the Big Ten to disrupt the current comfort zones of Notre Dame and Texas and applies serious pressure on them to join the Big Ten themselves, but also provides a hedge in the event that those major players aren’t persuaded at the end.

I’ve stated before that Nebraska would be the one school that could make me eat my words that the Big Ten wouldn’t expand without Notre Dame or Texas involved.  Frankly, JoePa’s Quasi-Dream Conference is a pretty good outcome for everyone associated with the Big Ten.   The sports fans get great national programs in football and basketball (plus major upgrades in other sports with Nebraska baseball and women’s volleyball and Syracuse lacrosse).  The academically-minded people maintain a conference entirely composed of members of the American Association of Universities.  The traditionalists get a geographically contiguous conference that “conservatively” adds on to both sides of the league footprint.  The TV executives get another marquee football name for national TV contracts and entry into the New York/New Jersey area for Big Ten Network households.  Maybe most importantly, these are all schools that seem to actually WANT to be in the Big Ten (as opposed to feeling forced to join).  This can maintain the close-knit atmosphere that I believe is the Big Ten’s greatest qualitative strength.

That would be my maniacal multi-phase expansion plan if the Big Ten is truly looking to move up to at least 14 schools – go for the proverbial royal flush in a way where the conference is still guaranteed to be the chip leader no matter what happens.

(NOTE:  In response to several requests, I’m putting together an updated post on the potential fallout on other conferences, so stay tuned.)

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

(Image from Eco Auto Ninja)