The Big 12 Expansion Index: Wake Me Up When It’s All Over

Conference realignment at the power conference level has seemingly ground to a halt after what has been nearly four years of rumors, Tweets and blogs speculating on apocalyptic moves. When I created the Big Ten Expansion Index, there seemed to be endless possibilities of how the college sports world would shake out. Now, tools such as grant of rights agreements have at least temporarily paused any realignment within the power conference ranks. However, there’s still a nagging feeling that the 10-member Big 12 won’t stay at its current size. While any belief that some outside force would demand that the Big 12 expand (i.e. the SEC or other power conferences in the new playoff system) should be discredited as completely erroneous (as every conference wants to respect each others’ full autonomy in determining its membership levels), the practical reality is that the Big 12 is the odd duck in a world where other conferences are seeking size and depth in terms of brand names and TV markets while adding conference championship games (as opposed to eliminating them). Just as there will continue to be speculation about the Big Ten expanding to 16 members until it actually does so (particularly with comments such as the recent ones in Inside the Hall from Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass calling 16 schools a “sweet spot”), the Big 12 is going to face the same questions until it gets back up to 12 schools.

With the peripheral rumor mongering noise dying down for the most part, I though it would be a good time to take a step back and create The Big 12 Expansion Index to assess where the viable candidates for that conference stand. To be clear, the purpose of this post is not to endorse the expansion of the Big 12. It’s perfectly reasonable for a Big 12 partisan to see the realistic expansion candidates as the equivalent of looking at a bar full of butterfaces at 3 am while “Closing Time” is playing in the background and saying, “No thanks. Call a cab for me to get the hell out of here.” Personally, I believe that the Big 12 needs to expand in the long-term regardless of any short-term revenue splitting implications, but this analysis can just as easily serve as justification for the conference to not get larger.

I. ASSUMPTIONS

In examining the Big 12 candidates, the following assumptions will be applied:

  • ASSUMPTION #1 – Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.

This was the most important rule when constructing the Big Ten Expansion Index and it continues here with the Big 12. Conference realignment decisions aren’t driven by which school is most highly ranked in the latest BCS standings, who the fans like, or even what coaches and athletic directors may want (no matter how powerful they might be at their respective schools). Instead, university presidents are the ones that ultimately make realignment decisions and they’re looking at the long-term off-the-field big picture much more than short-term on-the-field issues that fans are generally focused upon. To be sure, how well a school plays football (and to a much lesser extent, basketball) is certainly relevant, but TV markets, demographic changes and academic rankings are factors that really get university presidents get much more engaged.

  • ASSUMPTION #2 – The Big 12 lacks the ability to raid another power conference.

A number of Big 12 partisans wanted to believe over the past year that the league would be able to poach high profile schools from the ACC such as Florida State and Clemson. However, that prospect was simply never realistic due to a number of issues that the Big 12 needs to address, namely the demographics of the league outside of the state of Texas (which will be explained further in the index criteria below), overall academic reputation and national football brand names beyond Texas and Oklahoma. The Big 12 was able to save itself due to Texas wanting the Longhorn Network over the creation of the Pac-16 and Fox and ESPN paying a lot of money to keep the league together, but it is a paper tiger when it comes to expansion. As a result, the schools being evaluated in the index are all from the “Group of Five” non-power conference ranks.

II. EXPLANATION OF THE BIG 12 EXPANSION INDEX

The Big 12 Expansion Index assesses candidates on a 100-point scale. Please note that the schools are being graded on their values relative to only other Gang of Five schools. So, it doesn’t mean that if a school that receives a perfect score in the index that it would be as valuable as Florida State or USC. These values also have no relation to the figures that were calculated in the Big Ten Expansion Index*. This is only measuring the distinctions within the Group of Five universe that serves as the realistic pool of Big 12 expansion candidates. Here are the categories:

Football Brand Value (30 points) – As it was with the Big Ten, this is the most heavily weighted category as a reflection of the reality of the college sports landscape. The revenue generated from football is so massive in comparison to the other sports (including basketball) that it is the ultimate driver for expansion in every conference (including more historically basketball-focused ones such as the ACC).

It must be emphasized that Football Brand Value puts much more weight on the long-term history and financial underpinnings of a program over short-term or recent success. Thus, Team A that has sold out stadiums for years whether it wins or loses is much more valuable than Team B that only sells out a 40,000-seat stadium when it’s in the national championship race, even if Team A has had a mediocre seasons recently and Team B happens to rank in the top 25 of the BCS rankings this year. A lengthy tradition of playing football at the top level also carries more cache compared to being a noveau riche program. The “What have you done for me lately?” attitude of most sports fans doesn’t apply here. Instead, the proper question is the opposite: Even if the target school goes 0-12 in a season, will it still attract TV viewers and attendance? In other words, the true value of a football program is really measured by how much attention it still receives when it’s down as opposed to how much attention it gets when it’s up. Granted, it is much more difficult to find schools under this standard at the Group of Five level compared to at the power conferences, which is a large reason why those Group of Five schools aren’t in power conferences in the first place as of now.

National TV Value (15 points) – The calculation for TV values is a bit different for the Big 12 compared to the Big Ten. With the latter’s Big Ten Network, there was more of an emphasis on the value that schools would bring to that channel (which meant it was fairly large market-focused, albeit the Big Ten still ended up small market Nebraska first when all was said and done because of its extraordinary national TV value). The Big 12, though, is more concerned with the value of its national TV contract above all else since the league doesn’t have a conference network (and in fact, grants third tier TV rights to its individual members who then keep all of that revenue to themselves). Losing Nebraska was a major hit on that front and it led to the Big 12’s decision to add West Virginia instead of Louisville in 2011. As with the Football Brand Value category, there is much more weight on programs with longer histories of being national TV draws as opposed to the flavors of the moment. The issue with Big 12 expansion, of course, is that there are really only a handful of Group of Five schools that have any national TV value at all with respect to football.

Local TV Value (10 points) – While national TV value is more important to the Big 12 with respect to expansion candidates, there’s certainly still an interest for the Big 12 to expand to new TV markets (as the national TV contract can be impacted by local TV market coverage). The defections from the Big 12 over the past 4 years caused the conference to lose its only two top 25 TV markets that were located outside of the state of Texas (Denver and St. Louis). For this category, 10 points will be granted to a top 25 market, 7 points to a 26-50 market, 3 point to a 51-75 market, and then 0 points after that. Please note that any school that is already located in a Big 12 market will receive zero points in this category no matter how large its local market might be.

Demographics/Recruiting Value (20 points) – This was a category that wasn’t included in The Big Ten Expansion Index, but it would have been if I knew then that Jim Delany was going to use the word “demographics” in conjunction with expansion more than any other word over the past 4 years. While there’s some correlation between demographics and local TV value (as a larger market generally means more favorable demographics), the word “demographics” is really a code word for a very tangible concern for football fans and coaches: football recruits. It always irks me whenever I see comments to the effect that the Big Ten’s additions of Rutgers and Maryland didn’t do anything for the conference in football. Quite to the contrary, that expansion was very important for on-the-field matters because New Jersey and Maryland, according to a study by Football Study Hall, happened to be the top two non-Sun Belt states not already in the Big Ten footprint in terms of producing Division I football recruits (and it wasn’t even close).

The very real danger for the Big 12 compared to the other power conferences is that its coverage in the state of Texas (which is the nation’s top football recruiting state and a beast in terms of population growth) has masked its completely poor demographics in the rest of the conference. There’s no demographic depth at all in the conference once you get beyond the Lone Star State, which has come so close to collapse on multiple occasions over the past few years. Without Texas, the Big 12 dies (whereas each of the other power conferences might be severely wounded if their very top brand name school left, but they would likely still find a way to carry on since they have fuller slates of markets and populous states). In this category, 20 points go to any school in a state that is in the top 5 of Division I recruits annually under the Football Study Hall study (as there’s a huge gap between #5 and #6), 15 points go to any school in a state ranked 6 to 10, 10 points go to any school in a state ranked 11 to 20, 5 points go to any school in any other state that produces at least 20 Division I recruits per year, and 0 points for states under 20. As noted by Football Study Hall, the states that have 20 or more Division I recruits per year have produced 93% of all Division I football players since 2008, so any state under 20 isn’t helping the Big 12’s demographic cause. As with the Local TV Value category, any school that is already located in a Big 12 state will receive zero points in this category.

Academics (5 points) – The Big 12 would certainly like to add top tier academic schools, but it won’t necessarily nix any expansion candidate on those grounds. This is in contrast to the Big Ten, where the Academics category was weighted heavily enough to effectively exclude any school that didn’t meet the threshold as being a viable candidate. For the purposes of the Big 12, 5 points will be assigned to any school that has at least 2 of the following 3 qualifications: an AAU member, ranked in the top 100 of the US News undergraduate rankings and/or ranked in the top 300 of the ARWU world graduate school rankings. A school that has 1 of those qualifications will receive 3 points. Everyone else will receive zero (as the Big 12 would likely only be swayed by truly exceptional academic reputations).

Basketball Value (5 points) – As I stated in the Big Ten Expansion Index post, personally, there’s nothing that would make me more delirious as a sports fan than Illinois winning the national championship in basketball. However, when it comes to conference expansion discussions, basketball has been even less of a consideration than I originally thought 4 years ago. This is too bad since there is a whole slew of excellent or even elite basketball programs available in the Group of Five (much more so than football programs). That being said, if all things are relatively equal in the other categories, then basketball considerations could be the tipping point. An elite program and/or fan base will receive 5 points and a solid program and/or school with a fair amount of tradition will get 3 points.

Geographic Fit/Need (5 points) – Normally, this is a category that is based on pure geographic proximity. However, the Big 12 also has a geographic need to bridge the distance gap between West Virginia and the rest of the conference. As a result, schools in states that are located within that gap along with other states immediately adjacent to the current Big 12 footprint will receive 5 points, while everyone else will receive zero. This is an all-or-nothing category – either a school meets the geographic need or it doesn’t.

Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power (10 points) – This is a category that wasn’t considered for the Big Ten since it was really looking for established old money schools. In the Big 12’s case, though, its realistic expansion candidates almost all have warts of some nature. In fact, there are quite a few candidates that would be looked at in an entirely different light in a positive way if they were merely competent in on-the-field football performance (much less being powers). As a result, much like an unpolished prospect with a lot of athleticism in the NFL or NBA draft, the upside potential of a school should be taken into consideration by the Big 12. This is especially true for a school that could potentially have “monopoly power” of being the only power conference program in its home state. Other factors include whether a school is a flagship or academically elite, has a proven basketball fan base, or has made a lot of recent investments in football facilities.

(* Note that the Mutual Interest category that was in the Big Ten Expansion Index was eliminated here. Any Group of Five school would join the Big 12 in a heartbeat.)

III. EVALUATION OF BIG 12 EXPANSION CANDIDATES

The candidates are listed in reverse order from least desirable to most desirable. Once again, for the purposes of this evaluation, it is assumed that the only viable Big 12 expansion candidates are not currently power conference members and the calculations are based upon comparisons only to other schools within that non-power conference school group.

A. ALL HAT, NO CATTLE

RICE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 5
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 35
Overview: Fantastic academic institution with a lot of history with the former Southwestern Conference teams in the Big 12, but the lack of a new market or recruiting area is a killer for its candidacy. It would take some massive on-the-field accomplishments (i.e. winning the Group of Five bid to a top bowl in the new College Football Playoff system multiple times) for Rice to move up here.

UNLV
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 37
Overview: The Runnin’ Rebels score low right now due to a horrid stretch of on-the-field football performances over the past several years, but they’re a program to watch if it can get a new state-of-the-art football stadium into place. This is a school that provides the highest profile sports teams in the Las Vegas market with a strong basketball fan base, so their value skyrockets if they can avoid complete ineptitude in football.

COLORADO STATE
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 5
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 43
Overview: It’s a mystery why Colorado State doesn’t ever seem to be able to get its act together on-the-field. On paper, this is an institution that ought to be attractive to a power conference with its solid academics and location in fast growing and demographically desirable Colorado, yet their putrid football performances over the past decade have nixed them from any type of consideration. CSU, like UNLV, is looking to build a new football stadium to increase its chances to move up in the athletic world.

SMU
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 43
Overview: The issue with SMU (and any other Texas-based school) is that they’re not bringing any new TV markets or recruiting areas that the Big 12 doesn’t already have blanketed. Now, that isn’t an automatic disqualifier for a Big 12 candidacy (see the addition of TCU in 2011), but it would likely take perfect scores in the Football Brand Value and National TV Value categories to make that happen.

NEW MEXICO
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 45
Overview: New Mexico is in a very similar situation to UNLV with an excellent basketball program and fan base with potential monopoly power in its home market… but its on-the-field football product has been unacceptably terrible for a long period of time. The Lobos actually have a leg up on UNLV in terms of academics and being a geographic fit with the Big 12, so they’re a school that can rise rapidly in the pecking order with merely some football competence (much less prowess).

HOUSTON
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 3
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 48
Overview: See the comments about SMU, only Houston has more basketball tradition. There is also the wild card that the Big 12 may want a physical presence in the Houston market in the same way that TCU is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, but the Cougars would still need to have some overwhelmingly extraordinary football success for this to be a possibility.

MEMPHIS
Football Brand Value – 10
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 10
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 7
Total: 49
Overview: Memphis is essentially an Eastern mirror of UNLV: large urban basketball school with historically terrible football over the past decade. The advantage that Memphis has by comparison is that it’s located in a rich football recruiting area and aids in bridging the geographic gap between West Virginia and the rest of the Big 12. Memphis has shown that they have excellent basketball fans – if they can get that to translate to football, they have quite a bit of upside. The main drag is being the midst of heavy SEC competition.

B. INTRIGUING, BUT NOT PRACTICAL

BOISE STATE
Football Brand Value – 30
National TV Value – 15
Local TV Value – 0
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 7
Total: 52
Overview: From a national TV contract standpoint, Boise State might be the single most valuable school that is outside of the power conferences as of today. The question that university presidents will always ask, though, is, “How long will this last?” As you can see, Boise State doesn’t bring anything else in terms of demographics, academics, basketball or geography. This is a school whose attributes are purely based upon on-the-field football performance, which is actually exactly what university presidents tend to shy away from since such success is difficult to maintain even when a program has all of the financial resources in the world (see Texas and USC right now and Alabama prior to Nick Saban coming in). There might be a point where Boise State becomes the Gang of Five equivalent of Nebraska where markets and demographics become completely irrelevant with having such a strong football brand, but we aren’t there yet.

TEMPLE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 15
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 3
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 53
Overview: This is an interesting potential play for the Big 12 by going directly east of West Virginia. The good news is that Philadelphia is a massive market with access to an excellent football recruiting state*. The bad news is that Philly is a tepid college football market (and those that follow college football there tend to follow the king program of Penn State) and there’s a sense that Temple won’t ever develop into much more than what is now (which isn’t satisfactory for the Big 12). The school has had plenty of chances to become a legit power program and never succeeded.

(* For fans of “Friday Night Light”s (the TV series), just picture that fantastic final scene in the finale with the football in the air transitioning from Texas to Philly. If only conference realignment were as smooth.)

CONNECTICUT
Football Brand Value – 20
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 0
Academics – 5
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 57
Overview: In a vacuum, UConn is arguably the most power conference-like school that isn’t in a power conference today. If this were an ACC Expansion Index, then UConn would be close to a perfect score. Frankly, there’s still a part of me that’s surprised that UConn isn’t in the ACC already, but I perfectly understand why Louisville got the nod last year. The problem with the prospect of UConn going to the Big 12 is that it’s not a good fit for what the conference is seeking in expansion. UConn has actually performed aptly in football over the past decade outside of the last couple of years, yet the New England region is a black hole when it comes for football recruiting (particularly considering how it’s a high population area) and the school’s men’s and women’s basketball prowess probably has the least value to the Big 12 out of any of the power conferences (as hoops mainly benefit conferences that either have networks like the Big Ten has or strong basketball syndication deals like the ACC). Now, UConn’s Big East pedigree and relatively strong brand name means that the school has a large amount of upside, but it may not matter to the Big 12 with Connecticut being so far geographically from the conference’s core.

C. NEEDS WORK, BUT KEEP AN EYE ON THEM

TULANE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 5
Local TV Value – 3
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 15
Academics – 5
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 58
Overview: Tulane has been in the on-the-field football doldrums since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but the Green Wave might be resuscitating itself at just the right time. The school is building a brand new right-sized on-campus stadium and the football team is bowl eligible this season. Tulane’s academics are arguably the best of any school in the Group of Five besides Rice and the state of Louisiana is one of the best pound-for-pound football recruiting areas in the country. Honestly, out of all of the schools on this list, Tulane has the best chance out of anyone to realize its Tremendous Upside Potential and moving up to the top.

D. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

SOUTH FLORIDA
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 63
Overview: The allure of USF is purely about a demographic play – athletic directors and coaches fall all over themselves over the thought of combining the recruiting territories of Texas and Florida. (Note that this is a bigger reason for any fan of a school that’s not in the SEC to be scared of how successful that league can integrate Texas A&M.) USF has shown some flashes of football ability, but it’s been inconsistent. There is also extremely heavy power conference competition within the state of Florida (with Florida, Florida State and Miami gobbling up market shares), so there’s a limit to how large of a fan base that USF can realistically build.

CENTRAL FLORIDA
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 0
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 7
Total: 65
Overview: UCF has the exact same overview as USF above (just switch USF with UCF) except that UCF has a bit more upside as (a) being one of the largest schools by enrollment in the country and (b) having fresh chances to perform at higher levels of college football (whereas we’ve already seen what USF was and wasn’t able to do in the old Big East).

SAN DIEGO STATE
Football Brand Value – 15
National TV Value – 10
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 0
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 67
Overview: San Diego State has similar attributes as UCF and USF on the opposite coast when it comes to football, but the Aztecs have the advantage when it comes to basketball value and the fact that it is the primary Division I sports school in the San Diego market. While Florida and Florida State have statewide fan bases in the Sunshine State, California is much more fragmented by market, which means that SDSU has more potential to “deliver” its home market despite the on-paper proximity of UCLA and USC compared to the AAC’s Florida schools.

E. THE ONLY CHOICES TODAY

BYU
Football Brand Value – 30
National TV Value – 15
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 5
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10
Total: 75
Overview: BYU has strong enough of a national brand to garner an independent TV contrac with ESPN, a massive worldwide fan base, its own TV network and a solid football tradition. My criteria for demographics and academics likely undercount the true value of BYU, as its relevant demographics are really related to the world’s Mormon population and it has top tier undergraduate academics. Boise State might have the best record of recent on-the-field achievements out of any non-power conference school, but BYU is the one institution at this level that legitimately looks, feels and acts like a power conference program.

CINCINNATI
Football Brand Value – 30
National TV Value – 15
Local TV Value – 7
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 20
Academics – 3
Basketball Value – 5
Geographic Fit/Need – 5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 5
Total: 90
Overview: I’ve been mentioning Cincinnati as a strong Big 12 expansion candidate for awhile, but it wasn’t until constructing this index did I see how the school really does hit virtually every metric that the conference should be seeking. Among the Group of Five schools, its Football Brand Value is strong with multiple BCS bowl appearances and consistent performances over the past several years despite a number of coaching changes. The state of Ohio is a football recruiting powerhouse with only one in-state power conference competitor (albeit a massive one in the form of Ohio State). The school’s academics are solid, it has a great basketball history and its location is in a major market with probably the best geographic bridge to West Virginia of any viable candidate. The only question with Cincinnati is whether it can really perform any better on-the-field that it already has in football during the past few years. Still, that’s a minor issue compared to how the school has created a consistently competitive football program.

So, if the Big 12 were to expand today, it’s clear that Cincinnati and BYU have a huge gap over the rest of the field. Whether that type of expansion would be compelling enough to the Big 12 to make a move at all is still an open question.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Frank the Tank Mailbag: Part I – I’m Not in the Realignment Business. I’m in the Empire Business.

A message from a reader:

https://twitter.com/PaJosKo/status/377236445855252480

Well, I deserve that. I know it’s been a long hiatus here with the new college football and NFL seasons starting, over half of the Breaking Bad final season passing by and lots of twerking since my last post, so let’s get to answering some questions in part 1 of an overflowing mailbag Q&A:

There were a ton of “Division 4” questions, so here’s a sample:

My overarching thought on the impact of the proposed Division 4* is (going along with the Breaking Bad theme) that there won’t be any “half-measures”. On the conservative end, this could be a straight-forward exercise for the football schools to get more leverage in rule-making (which is what Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has intimated). Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of FBS schools (from the SEC down to the Sun Belt) have been in favor of instituting full cost of attendance payments to athletes, whereas the main opposition has come from non-FBS Division I schools. If the impetus behind creating a Division 4 is to simply get more control over the NCAA governance process, then that suggests that all FBS conferences will end up in that top division. Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com has reported that that this is what NCAA faculty representatives are essentially recommending.

(* Is it just me, or does everyone associated with the NCAA have the naming ineptitude of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West? They changed the perfectly logical Division I-A and Division I-AA to FBS and FCS. They messed with the even more logical NCAA Tournament regional names of East, South, Midwest and West for several years before reverting back. Now, we’re talking about a “Division 4” that’s supposed to be referring to the top level of college sports even though one would think that this would be below Divisions II and III. Nothing about the name “Division 4” makes sense, which means that the NCAA will probably end up choosing it in the end.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Division 4 could truly be the formal separation of the 5 power conferences plus Notre Dame (no matter what you think of the Irish, you have to always include Notre Dame) so that there could be more radical changes down the road. Maybe there could be payments to players beyond the full cost of attendance. Maybe athletes will be allowed to auction off their autographs on ebay. Probably most intriguing (and what I think is the long-range goal) is that this is all about setting up an 8-team playoff with the 5 power conference champs with auto-bids and 3 at-large bids without having to deal with the “riff raff” of the Group of Five leagues (and protecting the power leagues from any legal challenges to that playoff system on top of that). Imagine a playoff with a traditional Rose Bowl (Big Ten champ vs. Pac-12 champ) plus the Sugar Bowl (SEC champ vs. at-large), Orange Bowl (ACC champ vs. at-large) and Cotton or Fiesta Bowl (Big 12 champ vs. at-large) as quarterfinals. The ratings and money would be through the roof along with supercharging the interest in the regular seasons of all of those power conferences (meaning even more ratings and money) and they get to control all of it without having to share with the revenue takers. That can be done with a totally separate Division 4 in a way that probably can’t occur in the current NCAA structure.

What I don’t see is something in between, where a Division 4 is formed with the 5 power conferences plus, say, the American Athletic Conference and Mountain West Conference. There is very little point in the power conferences going through the exercise of creating a Division 4 when the end result is only relegating the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt. The power players aren’t going to deal with a litany of acrimonious lawsuits unless the end game is complete and 100% control with only the conferences that they deem worthy (and judging by the fact that the 5 power conference commissioners keep speaking with each other as a group without the involvement of anyone else, it should be pretty clear who they want to deal with). Either it’s going to be a massive change to the system (separation of the 5 power conferences plus Notre Dame into a new division) or little change outside of NCAA procedural matters (giving all FBS schools more latitude in setting their own rules). The “half-measure” of the AAC and MWC coming along for the ride with the power conferences doesn’t seem very likely to me, which is why individual Group of Five schools need to hope for more conference realignment for guaranteed protection. Speaking of which…

I don’t believe that further conference realignment is necessary for a Division 4 split. As we’ve gone over before on this blog, for all of the moves in conference realignment over the past few years, where we stand today really isn’t that much different than where we stood in 1998 when the BCS system first started (only we’ve consolidated from 6 power conferences into 5). Every school that was in one of the 6 BCS conferences in 1998 is still in one of the 5 current power conferences today with the exception of Temple (who was a football-only member of the Big East that was relegated for reasons completely outside of conference realignment), while a grand total of 3 schools (TCU, Utah and Louisville) have been elevated. This indicates that the power conferences are pretty firm in who they want to associate with and changing perceptions is a glacial process. Now, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope for some schools…

I can now answer this question nicely since we had a successful “Hate Cincinnati” weekend in the Frank the Tank household (Illini over Bearcats on Saturday, which frankly shocked the hell out of me, and Bears over Bengals on Sunday). Cincinnati and its AAC/old Big East zombie counterpart UConn are definitely power conference material on paper. The issue is more about whether any of the power conferences will see a need to expand proactively while everyone other than the SEC is at the start of long-term grant of rights agreements that make it difficult (if not impossible) for power schools to move amongst themselves. Overall, the Big 12 is more likely to want to expand at some point because of their small size, poor demographics outside of the state of Texas and the fact that IF a grant of rights agreement were to be broken (a massively large IF), it would be in the context of the Big Ten raiding the Big 12 again (more on that in a moment), which would bode well for Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a solid football program in a good TV market with access to a great recruiting area for athletes of all types (whether football or basketball) while also providing a geographic bridge to West Virginia for the Big 12. As a result, Cincinnati is likely next in line for the Big 12 (alongside BYU) if that league wants to expand. The problem for Cincy fans, of course, is no one knows if or when that expansion would happen in the near future.

The ACC would probably favor UConn over Cincinnati if it had to choose, although that conference did deviate from its traditional criteria in choosing Louisville last year. The main issue for any school with hopes of joining the ACC is that it doesn’t seem plausible that it would expand outside of either (a) backfilling in the event of a raid by the Big Ten and/or SEC or (b) pairing a school with Notre Dame joining as a full member, neither of which seems to be on the horizon in the short-term. There’s at least some argument that the Big 12 would proactively expand regardless of what the other conferences do, so that at least gives Cincinnati some hope.

Some Big Ten conference realignment questions:

Let’s start with my previous post, where I point out how difficult and unlikely it is to break a grant of rights arrangement over the next decade or so. As a result, the likelihood of Big Ten expansion in the near future is extremely low, as I don’t believe that the conference is interested in anyone that isn’t already in one of the 5 power conferences (meaning no one in the AAC or any other Group of 5 conference is compelling enough).

Now, whenever the Big Ten expansion does kick up again, Kansas is certainly high up there on the list. The Jayhawks are to future Big Ten expansion in the way that Pharrell Williams ended up singing on the two largest Billboard hits of the summer (“Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky”) despite not headlining either of them: it’s hard to see KU not involved as a contiguous AAU school with an elite basketball program, but they also can’t be the biggest athletic name in that expansion, either. One thing that I’ve loved about writing this blog is that I hope that I’ve helped to elevate the discussion of conference realignment to take into account factors that many fans didn’t consider previously (i.e. academics, TV markets, branding, etc.), yet we sometimes do need to take a step back and realize that the product on the field (or court) is still what makes all of the off-the-field money possible, so expansion has to serve those needs. Thus, a hypothetical Kansas/Virginia or Kansas/Missouri (not that I think the Big Ten is ever going to poach the SEC and vice versa) expansion combo for the Big Ten might serve some TV market and AAU status purposes, but that doesn’t have the requisite athletic (and more specifically, football) impact that is required for what could conceivably be the last two spots in the Big Ten. (For all of those that would counter, “Rutgers and Maryland weren’t added for sports!”, I would say that (a) there was a football goal achieved since New Jersey and Maryland were the two top non-Sun Belt states for football recruits that weren’t already in the Big Ten footprint and (b) pure TV market additions were acceptable when looking that them in conjunction with the elite football addition of Nebraska.)

Putting aside the obvious no-brainer additions like Texas, I’m firmly in camp of supporting the addition Oklahoma to the Big Ten and I don’t believe that it’s a purely fan-focused football move. The main detraction for Oklahoma that I often see is that it isn’t an AAU member, but its academic metrics aren’t really far off at all from now-non-AAU member Nebraska and its neighboring old Big 8 AAU schools (Missouri, Kansas and Iowa State). There isn’t the wide academic gap between OU and Nebraska that there was in the case of Louisville compared to the rest of the ACC. Some Big Ten observers believe that the non-AAU status of Oklahoma is a non-starter, but I doubt that the conference would have engaged performing due diligence on the Sooners unless there was some legit interest involved. More importantly, the lack of AAU status for other expansion candidates was simply another reason on top of a number of other factors that made the target school undesirable (i.e. geography, lack of a fan base, lack of a football brand name, not a new TV market, etc.). It’s easy for the Big Ten to ignore a merely “good” football program based on academics (i.e. West Virginia or Louisville), but Oklahoma is a top level king school that would bring a ton of national TV dollars. Even Oklahoma’s smaller home state population on paper is mitigated by the fact that its fan base crosses over into North Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area (and Kansas, by the same token, can’t just be looked at by its home state population alone since it’s the top college team in the Kansas City market that takes a large chunk of Missouri).

The upshot is that if the Big Ten goes to 16 schools, then the last 2 additions actually need to make markets irrelevant. What are the 2 additions that can truly transform the BTN from a regional network to a legit national network? Sure, if the Big Ten has the choice, they’d want Texas and Notre Dame (or some other unattainable major market prize like North Carolina or Florida). However, if we’re talking about the top brand names that are willing to reciprocate the Big Ten’s overtures, Oklahoma and Kansas are sitting right there to supercharge the conferences’ football and basketball lineups, respectively. Penetrating a diverse market like New York City has as much to do with the national interest in various teams as it does with local interest, which aids the cases of OU and KU.

Frankly, the biggest factor working the Big Ten going after either OU and KU (much more than academic concerns) is the political pressure of those schools’ respective in-state brothers (Oklahoma State and Kansas State). I believe the Big Ten would expand with an OU/KU combo, but the conference won’t be willing to take either Oklahoma State and Kansas State in the process. Those “little brother” schools might be non-negotiable from a political perspective even if Jayhawk and Sooner fans don’t want to believe that to be the case, so that could stop Big Ten expansion regardless of any Big 12 grant of rights concerns. So, that brings me back to my initial point that Big Ten expansion isn’t likely, albeit it’s still fun to talk about after all of this time.

I’ll be back with Part II of the mailbag going over issues such as EA Sports NCAA ’14, Big East expansion and pro sports realignment shortly. Talk to you again soon!

(Image from Zap2It)

Playing Their Cards Right: Louisville Invited by the ACC

The ACC washed away any rumors of expanding up to 16 by sending out a single invitation to Louisville this morning while also indicating a sea change in the thought process of the conference’s leadership. For years, the ACC refused to consider schools such as West Virginia on the basis of academics, which meant that Connecticut would have been a virtual lock over the likes of Louisville and Cincinnati to have received an invite from the conference if this situation had occurred even one year ago. However, the brand value of the ACC’s football side has diminished so greatly over the past several years that conference commissioner John Swofford and company took a different tact this time around. Even the chancellor of the University of North Carolina (which is to the ACC what Texas is to the Big 12) admitted flatly that the addition of Louisville was completely about athletics as opposed to academics.

Kudos to Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich for getting his school into this position. He has proven himself to be one of the top athletic directors in the country in turning a basketball school that was in Conference USA not too long ago into a comprehensive top-to-bottom sports program that made sure it wouldn’t get left behind in a new football-driven world. Louisville already would have the largest athletic budget in the ACC outside of UNC, which is quite amazing considering that the Big East’s conference distributions are completely paltry compared to what the ACC has been doling out to its members. Out of all of the schools that have moved in conference realignment over the past couple of years, no one has gone out and made their own luck like Tom Jurich and Louisville. This is a big-time athletic department that should have been in an AQ conference long before it was invited to the Big East in 2003 and certainly shouldn’t have been sweating it out in the current round of realignment.

Unfortunately, the ACC’s decision left behind another school that deserves better than a watered-down Big East: UConn. I rarely blame the leadership of schools for failing to get spots in different conferences since so much is out of the control of those individual institutions. However, the ACC invite should have been UConn’s to lose. UConn had the academic profile and better geographic fit for the ACC along with a larger immediate TV market (#30 Hartford vs. #48 Louisville) and entry points to two massive metro areas (New York City and Boston). Yet, UConn somehow got characterized as a weaker football addition and athletic department overall compared to Louisville in the past week despite going to a BCS bowl and winning a national championship in men’s basketball in the same season only two years ago. That’s an accomplishment that not even Texas and Ohio State have been able to achieve. I told several UConn fans late last week that their school was doing an extremely poor job in addressing the negative public perception issues and Louisville had taken ownership of being a “football move” for the ACC (never mind that Louisville is the highest basketball revenue generator in the country and it’s not even close). What really wasn’t that large of an athletic achievement gap between UConn and Louisville became perceived as a massive gulf in the eyes of the media and fans and, faced with the increasing scrutiny of whether the ACC ought to maintain its power conference status in football, this might have been the one time that the university presidents were won over by public sentiment in an expansion decision. This is an instance where the UConn leadership can’t take an “it is what it is” look at what has occurred. My impression is that they believed (as I admittedly did) that the ACC was going to vote in UConn over Louisville and Cincinnati on academics just like it did in all of its other raids of the Big East previously. They didn’t bank on the ACC’s mindset changing, failed to address what the ACC was concerned the most about in the college conference landscape and, as a result, got burned. It’s a shame since Connecticut ought to be in a better home than the new Big East, but they whiffed on their best (and possibly only) opportunity to move on up.

I know a lot of expansionistas out there are just waiting for the next defection from the ACC to cause a chaotic exodus beyond Maryland (with names like Florida State, Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and N.C. State moving around), but I’ll reiterate that I don’t see that happening. Conference realignment isn’t necessarily a zero sum game. The Big Ten will likely be able to gain more value out of Maryland than the ACC lost from that school defecting, just as the Big East is losing more value from Rutgers and Louisville leaving than the Big Ten and ACC will respectively gain from those schools. UNC and UVA, in particular, still see themselves as Southern schools culturally (hence a negative reaction toward the Big Ten at this time) along with top notch academic standards (which means that notwithstanding the ACC’s addition of Louisville, this is a large mark against the SEC), and as long as those two schools are there, the ACC is going to receive favored status from the college sports powers that be and that decreases the likelihood of others (such as Florida State) going anywhere else. As with all things in conference realignment, we always have to say “never say never”, but it will likely take years for UNC and UVA to get to the point where they’d seriously consider leaving the ACC.

In the meantime, get ready for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge to continue tomorrow night on ESPN, as Rutgers plays Louisville for the Big East football championship.

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

(Image from 97.1 FM The Fan)

List of 15 Big Ten “Candidates” is Who May Come With Texas or Notre Dame (not Instead of Them)

Lots of people have been discussing in the comments section on the “Template for Shooting Down Any Argument Against Texas Going to the Big Ten” post a story from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel stating that the Big Ten has hired a research firm to evaluate an “initial list” of 15 schools, with a quote from Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez saying that Texas isn’t on that initial list.  (H/T to WolverinePhD, among others, for sending in the link.)  I don’t interpret this study as Texas not being a target.  As Dennis Dodd stated on CBS Sportsline (who has voiced skepticism about Texas joining the Big Ten):

[I]f Notre Dame and/or Texas showed a willingness to join the Big Ten, there wouldn’t be much research to do.  The two schools are seen as the only slam-dunk candidates in an otherwise muddied expansion picture.

Exactly.  The Big Ten doesn’t need to pay presumably tens of thousands of dollars (if not more) to hire a research firm to say that “Adding Texas and Notre Dame would be sweeeeeeeeeet!!!”.  The conference knows that already and its university presidents don’t need to be convinced of the attributes of those schools.  Instead, you hire a research firm to evaluate the schools that you AREN’T sure of and look at the positives and negatives of them.  A research firm that’s providing value is going to look at issues that aren’t obvious, such as whether Syracuse or Rutgers can really deliver the New York City market or Nebraska’s national brand name can compensate for its small home market.  It’s a waste of money to have someone come in and state that “Texas would really add a lot of eyeballs to the Big Ten Network while being awesome in sports and academics.”  No shit, Sherlock.  Tell me something that I don’t know.

The fact that the Big Ten has a list of 15 schools that it’s looking at is an indication that the conference is looking at numerous schools that are significantly outside of its conference geographic footprint.  To me, this exercise looks a lot more like an evaluation of “Who do we add on top of Texas and/or Notre Dame if we’re willing to go to 14 schools?”  From a realistic standpoint, schools from the SEC aren’t going to ever move while the 2 schools that the Big Ten would want from the Pac-10 (USC and UCLA) are no-brainers in the same category as Texas and Notre Dame where there’s no point in even examining them because they’re in if they want to join.  Here is my semi-educated guess as to who is on that list of 15 schools as well as the key questions that the Big Ten ought to be asking about them:

1.  Syracuse – Does it really bring in the NYC market?  Can it bring in the NYC market when it’s combined with Penn State?  If yes, does Syracuse or Rutgers do this better?

2.  Rutgers – See comment for Syracuse.

3.  UCONN – Can it make inroads into both the NYC and Boston markets?  It’s not an AAU member but its overall rankings are pretty solid, so is that good enough academically?  Is the youth of the football program at the Division 1-A level a complete non-starter?

4.  Pitt – Great for both academics and athletics, but can they really add much in terms of TV viewers with Penn State already delivering the Pittsburgh market, especially when there are other candidates that are similar but can bring in new markets?

5.  Maryland – Is it more trustworthy in its ability to deliver the DC and Baltimore markets than the other East Coast candidates with respect to their own markets?  What does a Maryland/Penn State combo do for the conference in terms of delivering the Mid-Atlantic region?  Is there enough commitment to the football program in terms of long-term competitiveness?

6.  Virginia – An unequivocal academic superstar, but are its athletic programs good enough to add more value?  Can it really deliver the DC market any better than Maryland?

7.  Virginia Tech – Rising in terms of academics but not an AAU member, so is that satisfactory?  Can it really deliver the DC market any better than Maryland or UVA?

8.  Boston College – Can it really deliver the Boston market?  Is the fan base large enough to justify inclusion?  Very strong undergrad program but isn’t an AAU member, so will it fit academically?

9.  Miami – Can it deliver the Florida market by itself?  It’s not an AAU member and doesn’t have great graduate programs, but it’s a top 50 undergrad school.  Is that enough in terms of academics?  Is the poor attendance and traveling fan base for the football program trumped by its extremely strong national TV drawing power?

10.  Missouri – Has the ability to draw in the St. Louis and Kansas City markets, but is that enough considering that there are options in more populous regions like the Northeast, Florida and Texas?  Many assume that it’s an academic fit as an AAU member, but it’s actually lower in the US News rankings than Nebraska, so does it really meet the Big Ten’s academic requirements?

11.  Nebraska – Is the national drawing power of its football program enough to compensate for its tiny home TV market?  Lots of questions as to whether it would be an academic fit even though it’s an AAU member already.  Does it meet the Big Ten’s academic standards?

12.  Colorado – Long assumed to be a top Pac-10 target, but could it be a viable Big Ten candidate since it’s actually a better academic and cultural fit with the Big Ten than anyone in the Big XII besides Texas?  Is the population growth trend in the Denver area more attractive than adding presently larger markets like the state of Missouri when looking at this decision 20 or 30 years down the road?

13.  Oklahoma – Obvious national football power, but without AAU membership (unlike Missouri or Nebraska) or high academic rankings (unlike UConn), can it fit in academically?

14.  Kansas – 99% of these decisions are about football, but Kansas isn’t any ordinary basketball school (where only Duke, UNC and Kentucky can compare nationally).  Is the elite status of its basketball program enough to compensate for a historically weak football program that no longer has the services of Baby Mangino?

15.  Texas A&M – Is the Big Ten truly fine with the thought of Texas A&M coming along with Texas in a package deal?  Are the Aggies really a threat to go to the SEC if the Big Ten doesn’t invite them?  What do they bring to the table that Texas doesn’t bring alone?

The Big Ten will NOT expand unless it adds Texas and/or Notre Dame.  The conference is in a financial position where it doesn’t make any sense to settle for anything less.  This “initial list” is examining who might come along for the ride on top of the main targets.

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

(Image from Scout.com)

Big Ten Expansion Follow-Up Post #3 – More on the Financial Gap Between the Big Ten and Big 12, Notre Dame’s Independence in Question, East Coast Family, and Fallout in Other Conferences

I never intended this blog to be exclusively devoted to Big Ten expansion issues (and one of these days, I’ll get back to my regularly-scheduled moaning about the respective states of the Illini, Bears and White Sox as well as analyzing the inevitable Bulls trade deadline rumors that make “Texas to the Big Ten” seem like a lock by comparison), yet a number of recent comments from all of the wonderful readers out there and news events necessitate another follow-up post. If you haven’t already read them, here are the original Big Ten Expansion Index post and follow-ups #1 and #2.  As a side note, there’s been a bit of speculation that I must be an unemployed stoner or doctoral student (or both) to have the time to write such long posts.  In reality, I’m actually an extremely time-pressed attorney that is raising twin babies at home, which is why I hadn’t written anything prior to the Big Ten Expansion Index post for a period of 6 months.  Thus, these blog posts are the product of halfway-cognizant insomia (and I really wish I was joking about that).  Anyway, let’s go through everything in general categories:

1. Missouri Would Have a $10 Million Financial Boost with Big Ten Membership (and Texas would, too) – The St. Louis Business Journal has presented an analysis that shows that it would make at least $10 million per year more in the Big Ten compared to the Big 12. This is based on the current Mizzou revenue share in the Big 12 of around $8.4 million and the Big Ten’s revenue figures of today (which would assuredly jump with the addition of a conference championship game and additional Big Ten Network subscribers). What’s also noted in the article (but not emphasized since this is written from the Mizzou point of view) is that the Texas revenue share in the Big 12 was around $10.2 million last year (which was the most in that conference), which is even less than what I was basing my financial assumptions on in the original Big Ten Expansion Index post. For all of the squawking from non-Texas Big 12 fans that I’ve seen on virtually every blog and message board that has reviewed my blog posts, the supposed Texas control of revenue in the Big 12 amounts to less than a $2 million per year advantage over Missouri (not chump change, but not exactly dominating, either). Yet, according to the St. Louis Business Journal’s numbers, that $2 million difference would pale in comparison to the minimum $10 million per year boost that either Missouri or Texas (or any other Big 12 school) would receive by going to the Big Ten.

As Deep Throat once said to Bob Woodward in a dingy parking garage, “Follow the money.” Even if you reasonably believe that a school like Texas would ultimately have to reject an invite from the Big Ten due to political factors (which I fully acknowledge is a critical issue), the financial calculations from the St. Louis Business Journal would show why Texas would at least look at Big Ten membership seriously and that this isn’t a proposal that’s going to be ignored from the beginning (as a lot of non-Texas Big 12 fans seem to believe). Let’s put it this way: if some other company proposed to give you a $10 million raise for doing the exact same thing as you’re doing now, chances are that you aren’t just going to completely ignore it and say, “Nope. I’m not even going to listen.” Non-Texas Big 12 fans (as well as fans from a lot of other conferences) want or hope that’s what Texas is going to respond to an offer of at least $10 million more per year (or to put it in more impactful terms using simple multiplication, a minimum of an extra $100 million over the course of 10 years): “Nope. I’m not even going to listen.”  This isn’t even accounting for the fact that (1) people seem to expect Texas to just let Missouri walk away to double its TV money and concurrently weaken the already poor Big 12 contract (thereby pulling the Longhorns’ TV revenue down even further) and (2) the academic funding from the CIC dwarfs the athletic side of the equation. 

I can completely accept the argument that the Texas state legislature could kill this deal from a political standpoint, but I don’t think anyone can reasonably believe that any school is going to just automatically turn down at least $100 million over the course of 10 years without performing some heavy due diligence and analysis to see whether it’s worth it.  Plus, it’s not as if it’s only the beancounters from Wu-Tang Financial are considering this a real possibility.  For the skeptics out there that the Texas fan base would be completely against this, please look back at the comments from Texas alums to my prior posts along with the links to various Longhorns blogs and message boards and see what they’re saying.  In addition to all of that, here’s yet another fairly positive discussion from the Texas blog Burnt Orange Nation.   Once again, think like a university president as opposed to a sports fan here.  The Big Ten offers Texas and every other school in the Big 12 (and frankly, every other BCS conference) more money for the athletic department via its TV contract and more money for academics via the CIC.  Any university president is at least going to evaluate that type of proposal with some heavy consideration.

2.  Notre Dame Almost Joined the Big Ten in 2003 – Last week, Notre Dame basketball head coach Mike Brey spilled the previously unknown beans about how extremely close the Fighting Irish were to joining the Big Ten when the ACC raided the Big East back in 2003. If you read the initial Big Ten Expansion Index post, you’ll know that every single Big Ten school makes about twice as much TV money as Notre Dame’s NBC contract (and as shown by my first follow-up post, the additional money Notre Dame receives from the Big East basketball TV contract basically amounts to a rounding error to any school in the Big Ten). What’s interesting to me about the Brey story is that Notre Dame was so close to joining the Big Ten even when it wasn’t in its financial interest to do so at that time (since the NBC contract was the gold standard for college sports in 2003). Now that it is arguably very much in Notre Dame’s financial interest to join the Big Ten, maybe the “Notre Dame will never join a conference” line of thinking isn’t as iron-clad as previously thought.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick even acknowledged that the Big Ten makes substantially more TV money than what the Irish receive from NBC in this Chicago Tribune story from last month.  Look at Swarbrick’s quotes closely in that article.  While that story was widely cited by the national media as Notre Dame supposedly preemptively rejecting the Big Ten, as a fellow attorney, I recognize and respect how carefully parsed Swarbrick’s statements were and that he effectively didn’t say anything at all.  If Notre Dame were to join the Big Ten tomorrow, there is absolutely nothing that Swarbrick said that would’ve been a lie.  Still, Notre Dame depends upon alumni support more than any other BCS school and Sully’s comment on my Big Ten Expansion Index post is indicative of what they’re thinking. I’d still wager that Texas has more of chance of being invited and accepted into the Big Ten than Notre Dame at this point in time.

3. The East Coast Family – I’ve seen a fairly large number of suggestions that the Big Ten ought to go to the 14-school route with a full-on Big East raid of Rutgers, Syracuse and UConn.  The argument is that while none of those schools by themselves can deliver the New York City market, putting all of them together could very well do so plus gain traction in New England on top of that.  It’s a plausible scenario, but I still stand by my stance on the only way that it would be worth it to have a 14-school conference: “… using a historical NBA superstar comparison, if the 12th Big Ten member has to be at least at the level of Kobe Bryant, then the 13th and 14th Big Ten members have to be both Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.”  I’m confident that Texas fans will beat down any cable provider in its home state that doesn’t carry the Big Ten Network on basic cable.  I’d also say the same about a slew of other Big 12 schools, including Nebraska and Missouri.  However, I just don’t have that confidence in any of the Big East schools or even three of them together to deliver their own markets.  The Big Ten would only make a move for sure things and the problem is that the northeastern schools are the least sure moves out there (even if they have the greatest potential number of households).  Once again, the only “plausible” scenario that I see the Big Ten going up to 14 schools is that it absolutely must take Texas A&M in order to get its real target of Texas, in which case a 14th school on top of them is needed to round everything out.  3 additional schools would need to add over $60 million to the conference pot in order to maintain the per school revenue status quo, so it would take 3 blockbuster schools in order to do that.  I believe that the objective of a 14-school Big Ten is to make markets irrelevant – at that point, it’s all about making the Big Ten Network into an ESPN-esque must-have channel in every home in the country.  Otherwise, it’s not worth it to expand to that size.

Others have asked again that I examine some ACC schools, such as Maryland and Boston College.   Those types of schools are definitely enticing from an academic and TV market perspective (and I’d love Miami in particular for a lot of reasons), but I’ll reiterate that I don’t think that the Big Ten is going to be likely to lure anyone from there even with that conference’s own TV issues.   There’s a scene from Wall Street where Bud Fox is livid that Gordon Gekko has decided to break-up Blue Star Airlines (where Fox’s father worked at as a union leader).  Fox asks Gekko, “Why do you need to wreck this company?”  Gekko screams back, “Because it’s WRECKABLE, alright?!”  In terms of college conferences, the Big 12 and Big East are wreckable in a way that the other BCS conferences aren’t at this time, which is why I’ve continued to focus on expansion candidates from those two particular conferences.  The ACC, in contrast, has a collection of academically-minded universities that have similar goals from top to bottom much like the Big Ten and Pac-10.

At one time, I was completely convinced that the Big Ten would look eastward if it ever decided to add a school other than Notre Dame.  However, I’m suspending that thought until the marquee Big 12 schools like Texas are completely off the table.

4.  Nationwide Conference Fallout – Finally, part of the fun of speculating about what the Big Ten would do in expansion is how the other conferences would respond.  How would the Big 12 react if it loses a school?  What about the Big East?  Will the Pac-10 finally go to 12 schools itself?  How would the non-BCS conferences be affected?

If Notre Dame were to move to the Big Ten, it would probably be the biggest news but also have the least impact on other conferences (at least football-wise).  The Big East would have to replace a basketball member, which would likely come in the form of an all-sports school to finally give its football conference 9 teams.  Current Conference USA members Memphis, East Carolina and Central Florida (UCF) are considered to be the main options for the Big East, which is a whole lot of “meh” for a conference really needs a marquee football member that it probably won’t ever obtain (even though the conference has done pretty well overall since the ACC raid in 2003).  Still, Notre Dame going to the Big Ten doesn’t take away anything from Big East football.  Syracuse or Rutgers going to the Big Ten, though, takes a whole lot away from the Big East.  If the Big East ends up having to add one or more of the aforementioned options from C-USA in that scenario, that’s going to be a significant blow to the conference’s national reputation.  I personally think that the Big East’s automatic BCS bid will be safe if it only loses one school since the states that the conference represents are just too politically and publicly powerful through the media to kick out, but you might see a split from the Catholic basketball schools at that point (which would have massive repurcussions in conference alignment for basketball).

In the event that one or more Big 12 schools leave for the Big Ten, I believe that BYU and Utah would be the consensus top candidates (in that order).  I put BYU ahead of Utah for the simple fact that BYU delivers Utah’s market plus a national fan base with its Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) members (similar to Notre Dame’s hold on Catholics).  BYU’s religious underpinnings wouldn’t concern the Big 12 seeing that it has Baylor as a member and that school only started to allow dancing a few years ago.  (As you’ll see, though, those religious underpinnings will automatically kill BYU’s chances elsewhere.)  A lot of the public seems to think that TCU would get into the Big 12 if there was an open spot, but this is another classic case of people thinking like sports fans as opposed to university presidents.  If there’s one point that I hope everyone that has read my posts understands, it’s that the lack of major TV markets in the Big 12 outside of the state of Texas is specifically what makes that conference vulnerable (and why Missouri and Nebraska would accept a Big Ten invite in a heartbeat and I think Texas and Texas A&M would strongly consider it).  So, TCU provides exactly as much TV value to the Big 12 as Cincinnati and Iowa State would to the Big Ten: none whatsoever.  The Big 12 isn’t going to add yet another Texas school when the conference’s #1 issue is not having enough of a presence outside of Texas.  Thus, the only way that TCU gets into the Big 12 is if BOTH Texas and Texas A&M leave the Big 12 at the same time and the conference decides that it needs TCU to shore up its Texas home base.  Other schools that might be in the mix for the Big 12 are New Mexico (who is very underrated as an expansion candidate in my opinion since it’s a flagship with a good fan base in a growing state) and Boise State (who is very overrated as an expansion candidate since they’re very hot now yet I’m not sure if they bring that much value when they go through an inevitable down period).  In any event, the Mountain West is almost certainly screwed as a conference if the Big 12 loses a school.

The Pac-10 expansion situation is extremely difficult to predict because of this simple fact: any expansion candidate needs unanimous approval from all 10 members in order to receive an invite.  In contrast, the Big Ten needs an 8-3 majority to add a school.  So, the unanimous vote requirement is the key to virtually everything in the Pac-10.  I can’t tell you how many people that I’ve seen suggest that the Pac-10 will eventually invite BYU without understanding why it would neverever happen.  Let’s think about this for a couple of seconds: in order for this to occur, it would require the University of California-Berkeley to vote affirmatively to share money and associate itself with BYU and the LDS.  If that disconnect isn’t obvious to you for some reason, let’s spell it out at a rudimentary level: California liberals have complete disdain for the LDS because of how much money that the church poured into the state to kill all of the gay rights propositions over the past few years.  BYU happens to be the intellectual nerve center of the LDS.  The most liberal institution in the most liberal city in California (if not the entire United States) happens to be the University of California-Berkeley.  You will see riots in Berkeley that would harken back to the 1960s if Cal even considered for a moment to allow BYU to join the Pac-10.  This isn’t even accounting for other ultra-liberal schools in the Pac-10 like UCLA and Oregon.

Utah is a little more palatable, but remember that the Pac-10 couldn’t even agree on inviting Texas back in the 1990s (otherwise, the Longhorns would now be members of that West Coast conference).  If a clearly academically and athletically superior Texas couldn’t get a unanimous vote from the Pac-10, I don’t know if Utah would even stand a chance.  Granted, the Pac-10 would probably like a mulligan on Texas and they’d take Colorado, as well, but with the revenue disparity between the Big Ten and Pac-10 so large today, I doubt that Texas would choose the Pac-10 over the Big Ten at this point if it ever left the Big 12.  Also note that having each school play both USC and UCLA annually is critically important for recruiting, ticket selling and TV purposes.  This year’s Pac-10 football champ of Oregon, for example, had most of its players come from Southern California who were hypnotized by all of the green and yellow hues on the Ducks’ uniforms.  This is also the case for virtually every other Pac-10 school.  Therefore, if the Pac-10 were to propose to go up to 12 schools, anyone that has to give up games against USC and/or UCLA in order to play a Utah-level school will automatically vote against expansion, as well (unless you’re talking about another top TV market like Texas).  Academics are also as important to the Pac-10 as the Big Ten, so any candidate that doesn’t have top academic credentials (i.e. Boise State and UNLV) is going to rejected by the likes of Stanford.  With such a high standard to get expansion approved in the Pac-10 and a lack of any obvious expansion candidate on the West Coast, the Pac-10 is probably going to end up standing pat no matter what happens.

I have a ton more thoughts on how other conferences might react, but I’ll save for those for a later date.  Keep those comments coming and I’ll provide more feedback in the near future.

(Image from Population Statistic)

When the NCAA Tournament Becomes Less Fun

chester-frazier-illinois-fighting-illini

There are essentially three types of people that watch the NCAA Tournament. The first set of people consists of the ones that don’t pay attention to college basketball the entire season but then rabidly fill out brackets at work and get engrossed by the tournament. Just like how most Americans don’t watch an iota of swimming or track and field except for two weeks every four years during the Olympics, these people don’t know the existence of college basketball other than for three weeks in March every year. There’s certainly nothing wrong with these short-term basketball watchers (as many of them are some of my best friends and I don’t mind dishing out well-intentioned gambling advice on Selection Sunday that invariably turns out to be wrong), but they are able to approach the NCAA Tournament purely as an entertaining reality television event in the same manner as American Idol and thus aren’t invested in its outcome in an emotional sense (it might be a different story financially).

Then, there’s the second set of people that are fans and alums of schools where simply making the NCAA Tournament is the end goal. These could be teams from tiny conferences whose only time in the national limelight every year is to get smashed by a #1 seed in the first round (for example, despite my continuing interest in studying the locations and conferences of every possible college out there, I have to admit that this year was the first time in my life that I had ever heard of play-in game winner Morehead State) or schools from large conferences that are largely devoid of any basketball success (I’m looking at you, Northwestern). While these fans have some more emotional investment in the tournament than the first set described above, they also can walk away from their respective teams’ losses with the comfort of knowing that they were playing the role of the proverbial Cinderella and thus look back at the tourney experience itself with some fond memories.

Finally, there’s the third set of fans and alums that are from schools where the NCAA Tournament is an expectation as opposed to an aspiration and satisfaction doesn’t come unless there’s at least a Final Four appearance and ultimately a national championship banner. While these people may participate in brackets and other gambling pools as much or more than anyone else (I’m looking at myself in the mirror), there’s also a sense of dejection and emptiness when your team loses that is a bit harsher than any other sport because everyone else around you that’s emotionally detached from the situation is still partying up and enjoying the tourney (especially in the first two rounds when games are constantly going on). The best comparable situation is the feeling of watching your favorite football team play the Super Bowl (the main sports event other than the NCAA Tournament that draws in a disproportionate number of non-sports fans) and they are getting killed on the field (or, in my case, Rex Grossman is chucking deep balls into triple coverage) – 99% of America is having a great time downing beer, nachos, and pizza at parties, while you’re part of that 1% that is swearing unmercifully at the television screen and questioning why you ever started watching sports. That’s what it feels like if you’re a fan of a basketball program that’s expected to actually advance in the NCAA Tournament and they end up losing, with the crucial difference being that your favorite NFL team probably doesn’t make the Super Bowl very often (if ever), so that lonely feeling is rarely or never experienced (except for those poor Buffalo Bills fans of the 1990s – how cruel is it for those people to now have the NFL openly nudge that franchise toward Toronto), while a fan of a top tier basketball school has to deal with this type of loss in the midst of a national party nearly every single year.

You have probably figured out that I’m in the third set of NCAA Tournament watchers. When Illinois lost in the 2005 National Championship Game to North Carolina, I couldn’t even watch that season’s “One Shining Moment” montage for several months (and I’m telling you in all seriousness that I hadn’t missed a “One Shining Moment” film since I was cognizant of the existence of the NCAA Tournament as a young child – this was like me ignoring Christmas for a year or not bringing up the John Tesh’s Roundball Rock and the 1990s NBA on NBC intros at every available opportunity on this blog). The pain from that day was so horrid for Illini fans that it was even encapsulated in a Nike Jumpman commercial that’s been running during this year’s tournament.

So, why would anyone be willing to deal with the type of constant dejection that I just described? The reason is that this emotional investment has a pay-off unlike any other in sports when it all goes right. When your team is on the winning end of one of those crazy games or buzzer-beaters and you see your school’s jersey in the “One Shining Moment” montage, it’s a direct connection that doesn’t quite exist to the same extent in other realms. Any person can wake up and decide to cheer for the Bears, Packers, White Sox, or Cubs, but there are only a finite number of people in the world that attended the University of Illinois, so there’s a certain sense of ownership when the Illini come through. I’ve been blessed enough to witness all three of my favorite pro sports teams – the Bears, Bulls, and White Sox – win world championships in my lifetime in dramatic fashion, but there’s only one sporting event that is on both of the DVRs in my house so that I can watch it at any moment on any TV: the 2005 NCAA Tournament Chicago Regional Final. The 15-point comeback by Illinois in the last 4 minutes of that game against Arizona was the most exhilarating experience that I’ve ever had (and probably ever will have) as a sports fan (even more than Michael Jordan’s brilliance in the last 41 seconds of the 1998 NBA Finals, which is a reel that I’ll show my future children over-and-over again as to how a perfect basketball player can take over a game by using explosiveness to drive to the rim to make an easy lay-up, come back down the floor and use defensive intelligence and anticipation to straight-out strip the ball from arguably the greatest power forward in the history of the game, and then dribble right back the other way and nail the iconic jumper in textbook form from the top of the key to win the NBA title – I have broken down those final 41 seconds more than Oliver Stone has watched the Zapruder film, yet it’s still just behind the 2005 Illini comeback as my favorite sports moment) where I honestly didn’t sleep that evening from shaking so much and how excited I was that we had made the Final Four in a way that it would be shown on ESPN Classic in perpetuity.

This year’s Illini squad obviously didn’t have anywhere close to the expectations as the 2005 team that made it to the national title game. In fact, Seth Davis pronounced Western Kentucky as the winner of the first round matchup between them and Illinois before the South Region bracket was even fully announced on Selection Sunday. It didn’t surprise me that Davis would engage in his typical Duke-baggery prognostications, but it REALLY irritated me when essentially every pundit in the country (other than Erin Andrews, who I will say is the only pundit that matters) also picked WKU and its nightmare fuel of a mascot. While it was certainly understandable that this would be a somewhat trendy 12-over-5 upset pick, I felt as if though Illinois was getting slammed for its high profile 33-point clunker against Penn State in February, yet no one was giving the Illini credit for hammering fashionable pick (and eventual Elite Eight participant) Missouri by 26 points (and the game wasn’t even that close – it would have been a 40-point spread if Bruce Weber hadn’t called off the dogs) on a neutral floor in the Braggin’ Rights Game, soundly beating another fashionable pick (and eventual Sweet Sixteen participant) in Purdue both at home and on the road, and finishing in second place in a resurgent (if not quite great) Big Ten. Bruce Weber picked up on this national media swarm, as well, and I thought for sure that Illinois would come in with the “nobody believed in us” card and frothing at the chance to kick Cinderella to the curb.

Alas, the national media turned out to be correct on this one, although I firmly believe that it was because Illinois played its worst game of the season (outside of the aforementioned Penn State game) as opposed to Western Kentucky’s play (which was spotty other than two separate two-minute spurts where they couldn’t miss from the three-point arc). I thought that we would miss the presence of Chester Frazier to a certain extent, but the way that we were able to handle a run-and-gun Michigan team (another trendy pick at the beginning of the tournament that was able to win its first round game) a week prior to that on a neutral floor in the Big Ten Tournament gave me a bit more confidence that we could at least get through the first round without him. (I must say that Frazier turned into one of my favorite Illini players of all-time and wish that he could get a fifth year of eligibility.  He endured such unfair criticism and catcalls last season from the Assembly Hall home crowd when he was thrust into a role he should never have been in when the Eric Gordon situation went down, yet he didn’t complain and came right back to solidify himself as the heart and soul of this team this season.  By the end, Illini fans couldn’t imagine this team without his leadership and defensive intensity as he played through.  While Frazier will never be in the discussion as one the best Illinois players in history from a pure talent standpoint, he may very well be the toughest.)  Of course, this is why I write this blog for free as opposed to being paid as a coach that supposedly knows what the hell he is talking about. After I was ready to swear off the team when it was down 17 points with four minutes left to go, Illinois charged back to within a possession provide me with some thoughts that this could be another 2005-like comeback that would live on in Illini history. However, it was the old “too little, too late” story, where the Hilltoppers hung on to win a sloppy game. As most others in the bar where I was watching the game were merrily finishing up their drinks and wings after a marathon opening day of the NCAA Tournament, TK, the other Illini fans in attendance, and I sat around wondering how this team could have come out so flat after talking about all week how they weren’t being respected.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that back in October, I didn’t think Illinois would even get a sniff of the NIT this season, much less the NCAA Tournament. So, logic should have put me and the rest of Illini Nation into the second set of fans this year, where we should have been just happy to be invited to the dance. However, while Illini fans were pretty realistic for the most part about the limitations of this year’s team, there’s a residual bad taste in the collective mouth for having ended the season on a downswing. At the same time, I’m not sure if there’s any fan base in the country that has a dying need to win the National Championship more than us. Illinois is almost always at or near the top of discussions of “the best programs that have never won the National Championship”, which is a dubious distinction that we want erased as soon as possible. We came about as close as you can get to the pinnacle without having actually reached it in 2005, so every entry in the NCAA Tournament that doesn’t end up at that pinnacle is another opportunity lost.

Still, the beauty of college sports is that players don’t get signed to 10-year $200 million contracts unless they attend Florida State or UConn. New blood turns into new hope, where Bruce Weber appears to have reversed his prior recruiting issues and secured elite classes for the next couple of years. At the same time, current sophomores Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale showed a great deal of improvement this season and will all be returning, and hopefully Alex Legion will be able to live up to his hype once he’s able to spend a full season with the team.  All of this means that expectations in Champaign are going to be ramped up more than ever when Midnight Madness comes around in October, which in turn leads to even greater scrutiny next March. We just ask that there will be one year in our lifetimes where we actually get to celebrate on the first Monday in April.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

The Linear Regression of Big Ten Basketball

Wisconsin Northwestern Basketball

The regular readers of this blog know that I’m the consummate Big Ten guy.  On the football side, I’ve been quick to point out that the Big Ten’s recent problems in BCS bowl games are more due to having to play USC and SEC teams on their respective home turfs than anything about the quality of the conference overall.  However, there’s only so much that I can defend the state of Big Ten basketball.  Somehow, the conference enters into the week of the Big Ten Tournament with a legitimate chance to send 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament since each of its 5 bubble teams have solid numbers and key victories on paper.  (Northwestern still has an outside chance for a potential 9th Big Ten bid, but put itself on death’s door with a loss in a winnable game at Ohio State yesterday.)  While this could indicate to the naked eye that the conference has strong depth overall, it’s masking the fact that the level of play is simply not up to snuff compared to the Big East and ACC.  Michigan State has the only reasonable chance of making the Final Four out of the Big Ten this year.  Purdue and Illinois might get to the Sweet Sixteen if everything falls into place.  Everyone else, though, has been the beneficiary of beating each other up as good-but-not-great teams that make the RPI and other computer numbers seem strong even though anyone that has been watching the games would know otherwise.  The Illinois-Penn State game in Champaign on February 19th, with a 39-33 final score in favor of the Nittany Lions, was the single worst sporting event involved people purported to be upper level athletes I have ever witnessed in my entire lifetime.  (I’ll spare you any comments on the choke job the Illini performed in the second tilt between those two teams in State College last week in order to avoid beating my computer with the house-full of bricks put up by Illinois in the last 5 minutes of that game.)  That game wasn’t the mark of two good defensive teams.  Instead, it was the result of two horrific offenses.

In fact, Loren Tate wrote a column a couple of weeks ago indicating the difficulty that the Big Ten has had in attracting top-level recruits.  This is not a suprise whatsoever, as better athletes these days seem to enjoy playing in systems that emphasize running offensive schemes that would make Mike D’Antoni quiver in delight.  Conferences usually adapt to the styles of play of the teams that have had the most consistent success.  In the ACC, that means that schools have emulated Duke and UNC, which run extremely fast-paced offenses.  The same has occurred in the Big East, where teams have loaded up to keep pace with UConn.  It’s no wonder that those two conferences have been filling up the top ten all season since the styles of play in those leagues are being dictated by teams that are perennially Final Four contenders.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s style of play seems to have been dictated by Wisconsin, with its emphasis on using nearly all of the shot clock on offense.  Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa, and Minnesota also have emloy deliberate offensive sets, which means that nearly half of the conference is in slow-down mode.  Certainly, it has been admirable that Bo Ryan has been able to produce a consistently winning program while using middle tier recruits from places like Waukesha and Eau Claire.  However, this isn’t a great trend for the conference overall since Wisconsin is the classic “always-very-competitive-but-rarely-great” type of team that attains a gaudy regular season record and then gets rolled over by a superior athletic team in the NCAA Tournament.  Today’s superstar high school players might not have cared 10 or 20 years ago about this (i.e. the old saying that Dean Smith was the only person that could hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points per game), but it’s evident that they certainly do today.  As Tate points out in his column, not a single one of the 24 of this year’s McDonald’s All-Americans will attend a Big Ten school.  In contrast, North Carolina will enroll 4 alone, while Duke adds 2.  While some college basketball fans may scoff at how the McDonald’s All-Americans are chosen or say that they don’t really matter, history says otherwise.  The last Big Ten team that made it to the national championship game was the 2007 Ohio State team that boasted 4 McDonald’s All-Americans (Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, and Ivan Harris).  The 2005 Illini team had Dee Brown as a McDonald’s All-American along with Deron Williams and Luther Head being top-rated recruits.

I’m not arguing against the old adage that defense wins championships.  Clearly, a team needs to be a solid defensive team in order to win the national championship.  However, at the college level, it appears that having a great offense and a good defense is the winning combination (while an NBA team is better off with a great defense and a good offense).  At the same time, athletic ability means more in terms of winning at the very top level of basketball compared to any other sport.  As a result, the Big Ten’s relevance is going to depend upon attracting the best athletes over the long term.  Hopefully, the highly-rated recruiting classes anticipated to be coming in for Illinois and Ohio State over the next couple of years (along with the jack-up-threes-at-will John Beilein sets at Michigan) will turn the Big Ten away from the Wisconsin-style of play and into a league that has more open court offenses that will be more attractive to the nation’s top-level players.

(Image from USA Today)