Conference Realignment: I Call My Shot

With all of the reports and theories running rampant around the sports universe regarding conference realignment, it's extremely hard to sort fact from fiction and the probable from the improbable.  Will Oklahoma leave the Big 12?  Will the Big 12 dissolve?  Will the SEC stay at thirteen teams, or will they immediately expand to fourteen or sixteen?  Each question has an unknown answer, and each answer likely leads to another question with yet another unknown answer like dominoes falling over and over again until it leads to its ultimate end.

But what is that ultimate end?  Is it four separate sixteen team super-conferences?  That seems to be the prevailing thought, but in all of my research (and I've read hundreds of articles) the genesis of this thought seems to go back to an article written by Atlanta Journal Constitution writer, Tony Barnhart back in April 2010.  This is where he essentially broke the news that the Big Ten was looking at expanding to sixteen teams, and the following snippet seemed to light the fires of speculation:

And what does the SEC do if the Big Ten throws down this gauntlet? The conference has its 15-year, $3 billion television contract in place.  Does the SEC have to react to the new marketplace that has been created? The SEC and Big Ten have separated themselves financially from the rest of Division I. If the SEC stood pat would it risk watching the Big Ten with the additional dollars that would come in, pull away from the SEC?

I keep looking and looking online, trying to find the missing link between the point where the Big Ten considered moving to sixteen teams and when the notion of four separate sixteen team super conferences came into being, and I can't find it.  As you know, the Pac-12 didn't make its move into the expansion foray until June 2010.  So, at some point last summer, it became conventional wisdom that the move to super conferences was likely, and more specifically, the move to four sixteen team super conferences was inevitable.

I'm sorry, but...huh?

At some point in this conversation, where people are treating the college football landscape like it's a game of Risk, they forgot that we're dealing, mostly, with publicly funded educational entities that are bound to other institutions by politics, rivalry, and like-minded academic pursuits.  While it's fun to speculate on the ‘inevitable future' of the sport (and every other sport played by these universities as a result) and sort teams out on the basis of popularity and their general proximity to large metropolitan areas (and the televisions that accompany them), it's important to realize that in reality, life doesn't work that way due to a number of variables, and the odds of this perfectly symmetrical future are a lot lower than people want to believe.

I know most of you probably think that I sound like a crazy person.  The Pac-12 is currently flirting with adding four of the current Big 12 members to make the first sixteen team BCS league, and A&M already has one foot across the threshold and into the SEC.  However, what happens from here is far from clear, and most of the ideas being kicked around require outstanding leaps of faith based on assumptions created by columnists, sports journalists, and bloggers who have no more true knowledge into what's going to happen than the average fan.  Like me.

That said I am going to throw my hat into the ring and start making some predictions.  Some may seem bold, and others may seem rather tame.  Regardless, I am going to start tipping over my own dominoes starting with the current Cuban Missile Crisis facing the Big 12, but I'm not going to make my decisions based on the outcome of super conferences, which has no factual basis or logical support.  I'm going to look at every basic assumption and use the premise of Occam's razor, which basically says that simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones.  Therefore, instead of crafting wild and grand theories about the "inevitable" college football landscape from the onset, I'm going to challenge every general hypothesis at each domino fall and the outcome of the analysis will lead me to the subsequent next step until we end at what I believe will be a conclusion that creates some version of stability in the landscape.

Without further ado, let's get started.  I am starting this exercise from where we currently stand on September 4, 2010, and Texas A&M has already withdrawn from the Big 12, but does not currently have an SEC invitation.

 

 

Issue #1: Oklahoma is thinking about leaving the Big 12 and Oklahoma State will go with them.

This seems to be the most likely course of action if you believe newspaper reports coming out of Oklahoma at this point in time.  But is this the most logical course of action?  Does Oklahoma look to leave the Big 12 for greener pastures out west?  What do they stand to gain and lose?

Well, for starters, the Pac-12 recently signed a new ESPN/FOX TV deal worth $3 billion, and the average payout per school will be $20.8 million .   The current Big 12 payout is considerably less than that.  However, concessions were made during the realignment mess last year that guaranteed Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M at least $20 million dollars annually at the expense of everyone else in the conference.  While I personally don't know the hard numbers (and this includes the money from the Pac-12 regional and national network structure that will go into place on top of the ESPN/Fox deal), it seems like at this specific point in time, the money argument goes to the Pac-12 simply because the Big 12's current first-tier rights deal isn't up for renegotiation until 2015, and given the current instability of the conference, it's nearly impossible to say what the Big 12 would stand to gain if they can hold it together for another four years.   Therefore, if we're looking at this from a purely financial standpoint, you have to concede the argument to the Pac-12.  But there is a chance that it won't be all that much given the current inflated value of media rights and what those dollars could look like in 2015, and there is a chance the Big 12 could exceed what the Pac-12 offers.

On the other hand, a huge part of what makes Oklahoma successful financially is their outstanding winning tradition and current state of the football program.  In the last twelve years under Bob Stoops, the Sooners have averaged over 10 wins per year, have one national title (2000), and they have won an amazing seven conference titles in twelve years.  They currently hold the number one ranking and are the preseason favorite to win another national title.  It's difficult to believe that any sane person would look to leave a situation where they currently find themselves in the BCS two-thirds of the time.

When David Boren sent shockwaves through the landscape on Friday, he made one specific comment that struck my attention:

"I don't think there's anything that has to be, at all, and everything doesn't have to be done today. I mean, there's nothing that says the conference will collapse at nine," Boren said. "We have a full season to play and we'll have to go through.

"Obviously, I think if we could eventually -- and that doesn't mean in one year, maybe it's going to take two or three years -- if we were to eventually get back to 12, I would feel better about it," Boren said.

So we have a few key variables here regarding Oklahoma looking around.  First, in the short-term, they will make approximately as much money as the schools in the Pac-12, so that's not an immediate concern, and long term financial projections are cloudy given the fact that the biggest part of the Big 12's media rights are up for renegotiation in four years.  Now, that's not to say the Pac-12 couldn't renegotiate their rights given the recent addition, but without knowing the hard numbers, we'll just ballpark and say the difference would most likely be a drop in OU's overall revenue bucket.  Second, they would be going from a conference that they currently dominate, and have a significant amount of influence as an ‘elite' member, to a conference that will split power sixteen different ways with a core of eight teams that have been together since 1964.  Third, if the concern is stability, all OU has to do is commit to the Big 12 with Texas, put their efforts towards true expansion, and they could get back to twelve.  Now, we don't know who those twelve could be, but you can hit that number if you look long enough and put the right deal together.  More importantly, Boren didn't say that expansion had to happen tomorrow, but it had to happen.

Now, using Occam's razor, what is the simplest theory to discern from Boren's comments?  That he plans on leaving a conference that his team has been a part of (going back to Big 6 days) since 1919 for a (currently) small amount of money, reduced influence, and a tougher road to the BCS?  Or was it that he wants to get back to 12 teams and used a public forum to let his conference members know via threatening language that gives them the upper hand and leverage in discussions regarding expansion, revenue distribution, etc.?

I'm going with the latter.  This goes against everything that every beat writer out of Oklahoma has been writing in the past couple of days, but logically, moving to the Pac-12 makes little sense unless you're talking straight dollars and cents in the short term.  If it really is stability OU wants, all they have to do is go out and say that they are firmly committed to the Big 12's survival with the University of Texas, and they are aggressively looking at expansion.  If it's Texas that they're afraid of, UT already has a significant monetary advantage over OU, and it hasn't had an impact on the field.  More money for Texas has simply been just that; it hasn't equated to more wins over Oklahoma. 

In my domino theory, Oklahoma stays because it's bluffing to get what it wants (12 teams, more power), and it will get it because...

Issue #2:  Texas doesn't want to leave the Big 12 and they want it to remain viable        

I'm really not going to spend a lot of time expanding on this.  Texas is currently in a league that they essentially run with a commissioner that does their bidding by proxy.  They currently get a guaranteed amount of money from the conference, and they have the Longhorn Network that will pay them an average of $15 million a year over the twenty year life of the contract.  Aside from Notre Dame and BYU (independents), no one else in the nation has this kind of deal and exposure.  It has the potential to be a windfall for both Texas and ESPN, and Texas has every incentive to keep this deal alive.  While news stories exist that discuss the fact that the LHN is not an impediment to them joining the Pac-12, the Pac-12 is an impediment to Texas' version of the Deathstar.  Giving up on the LHN means giving up on the greatest single competitive advantage UT can have at its disposal.   And they're not going to give the LHN up without a fight.

I'm not even mentioning the issues UT may have with the Texas legislature should they choose to go.

Also, you can use every single argument that I used previous with Oklahoma in regards to conceding power.  And, as we all know, Texas doesn't like conceding power.

So, again, when faced with dumping the LHN, reducing their influence and only increasing the difficulty in their road to the postseason, what do you think the decision will be?

Texas stays and works behind the scenes to give Oklahoma what they want.

Issue #3: What about Missouri?  Aren't they a threat to bolt to the SEC?

Well, yeah, technically they are.  They are a Top 20 state in terms of population, they're smack dab in the middle of two big media markets, and they have recently seen an increase in their football fortunes.  However, what about Missouri screams, "SEC"?

Not much.  They aren't a cultural fit, they aren't an academic fit (too good), and Missouri has long made flirtatious gestures towards the Big Ten, so you know that they would prefer to have some form of flexibility in the event Jim Delany wants to go bigger.  Given the fact that Missouri is highly competitive in all sports in the Big 12, and the revenue they will receive from the Big 12 after first tier rights go up for bid in 2015 will most likely exceed what they would get from the SEC (who's rights aren't up again until 2025), and on top of that, they would split that money 14 ways in the SEC as opposed to (at worst) twelve teams in the Big 12, you can see that moving to the SEC is not financially lucrative for Missouri.

The only reason for Missouri to go to the SEC would be for short term monetary gain and stability.  But, again, should Oklahoma and Texas commit to staying in the Big 12, the stability would be there.  The money will be there in a couple of years as well.  Missouri's Chancellor, Brady Deaton, is currently in charge of the Big 12 Expansion Committee, so Mizzou will have influence on the direction of the future of this conference.

Given the fact that the Big Ten has currently shut down expansion plans, and Mizzou isn't a school that a conference is going to go out of their way to make room for, the only place they could begin negotiations would be the Big East, and all things considered, an unstable Big 12 is still preferable to a stable Big East.  Sure, the Big East is currently looking to renegotiate their rights in 2012, and there is potential for a lucrative deal there, a rebuilt Big 12 anchored by the current nine is still going to bring in more dollars and the opportunity to maintain existing rivalries.

Unless the Big 12 collapses, and in this domino theory it won't, Missouri will stand pat because of long term revenue generation, less football competition, and maintaining bonds that have been in place for nearly one hundred years (more in some instances).

This begs the question...

Issue #4: Where does the SEC go for #14?

Not so fast, my friend.  Who is to say that A&M is even going to get an invite from the SEC?  If what Chip Brown says is true, and folks in the Big 12 and the Texas legislature are so hopping mad about how the last couple weeks have gone down that they may sue the SEC for torturous interference, my guess is that they'll be a lot more hesitant to pull in A&M.

If what Chip Brown says isn't true, and let's be honest, that happens a lot because, as we know, stuff is "fluid", A&M will need a partner in the SEC very quickly.  I know that there have been several reports out there that say a thirteen member SEC may be around for a couple of years, but I highly doubt the members of the West division would be really happy about having another conference game on their plate while the members on the East side can schedule a big money game or a patsy to help with their overall record with that extra conference game they don't have to play.  You need symmetry, and you'd need it immediately. 

To act fast, you have to target schools that can move quickly and without many restrictions.  That means you're looking for schools that don't have significant ties to other universities in states with active legislatures that get involved in conference affiliation matters (i.e. Virgina).  Therefore, you want a ‘one-state, one-team' sort of deal.  Or you will want to try and find a school from a state in your existing footprint where the legislature would be more than happy to rubber stamp the move from their inferior conference into yours.

Given the infamous "gentleman's agreement" regarding SEC expansion that says no new schools will come from existing member states, you're looking at a pretty small pool of applicants.  Obviously, as mentioned before, Virginia Tech, while being a very attractive looking candidate, has some legislative issues to deal with, and they've also made it perfectly clear that they want to stay in the ACC.

So, if the gentleman's agreement stays in place, and the SEC looks to expand its footprint, you're looking at either Missouri or West Virginia.  As I've outlined why I think Missouri stays in the Big 12, I think you're looking at WVU as #14.  They are in an inferior conference, they don't have a ‘baggage school', and they are a perennial Top 25 football team that also has a very good basketball program that can help elevate the profile in both sports.  While expanding into West Virginia may not seem like the most ideal position, it gets the SEC into markets as far north as Pittsburgh. 

WVU fits nearly every profile necessary to become an SEC school, and Mike Slive doesn't have to worry about the bad PR that would come from destroying the Big 12 (since OU and Texas stay), and he won't have to raid the ACC for another team, thereby minimizing fallout.

So, now that the Big East has officially been raided, it's open season on the Big East like it has been open season on the Big 12.

Issue #5: After the Big 12 stays together, and the SEC plucks West Virginia, what happens next?

All of that smoke out there on Oranglebloods.com prior to OU's public statements regarding Pitt ultimately start to make sense as they become the primary target for expansion.  Given that Jim Delany has said the Big Ten isn't interested in expansion at this point in time (more on that later), and Pitt has just lost their main Big East rival, they may be more receptive to an overture from the Big 12.  

After the Big East loses their tent pole football program in WVU, media rights demand in their future negotiations will most likely go down, making any and all schools in the Big East up for grabs.  Pitt becomes target #1, and if it looks like the Big East is going down, and there are no rooms at the inn for them in the Big Ten or ACC, they become much more interested in what the Big 12 has to say.  The same goes for Louisville as well.  Both teams bring excellent pros to the Big 12:

Pittsburgh: Strong academic institution (AAU Member) in a major media market that plays in a professional stadium in football.  They are a big time basketball program that would bring pop to the Big 12 in addition to their traditionally strong and historic football program.

Louisville: The football stadium has expanded seating to 58,000, and the new basketball facility is top notch.  Louisville has been to both a Final Four and a BCS bowl in the last few years, so they are a big time athletic program looking for a bigger stage in football. 

Now, the drawback for both schools would ultimately be, "Why would we want to drag our basketball programs out of the Big East and into the Big 12?"  Well, yes, it would be a bit of a downgrade, overall, but if you moved those two schools to round out the North, you'd have a division consisting of Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State, Pitt, and Louisville.  I'm sorry, but that's just sick right there.

Both of these schools have been mentioned in regards to Big 12 expansion, so it would not be a surprise if either or both of them were targeted.  They simply make the most sense.

So, if this came true, and logically, it is plausible in our scenario...

Issue #6: Where does the Big 12 go for number twelve?

Let's presume that the nine remaining schools in the Big 12 have stayed together and they have secured commitments from Pitt and Louisville.  Where does the Big 12 go for the final member?

There are two members in this scenario that really make sense: TCU and BYU.  TCU, which would now seriously question a move to the Big East, could be on the table.  However, the Big 12 has already stated that they don't want to duplicate the footprint.  The problem, though, is that BYU seems to really want to stay independent, and they don't necessarily want to break their non-football ties to the WCC.  BYU is the slam dunk choice to join, but at this point, their desire for independence seems stronger than their desire to be in a BCS AQ conference.  That means TCU most likely becomes the strongest candidate on the board due to their proximity to the conference, ease of addition, and recent national prominence.  Therefore, I would say TCU gets the nod.

Adding Pitt, Louisville, and TCU may not be the same as Nebraska, Texas A&M, and Colorado, but it replaces a missing Texas school and rounds out the south, and it gets the North into brand new media markets and massively upgrades the basketball profile.

Now that the SEC has been rounded out, the Big 12 is stable, and the Big East is raided, what happens next?

Issue #7: Big East Expansion

This is where, admittedly, I'm moving into more prediction than logic.

The Big East will need to react and do so quickly before their media negotiations come up in 2015.  The most likely candidates will all come from Conference USA, and frankly, they will need to take the best programs available to help maintain AQ status.  To minimize travel issues, they'll need to take as many schools in large cities as possible.  Therefore, I think this is who they'd take:

  • Houston
  • East Carolina
  • Memphis
  • UCF (Orlando)
  • SMU (Dallas)

That would replace the four schools that were missing.  East Carolina doesn't fit that large city mold, but they have the highest attendance of any team on this list, and they bring a successful mid-major program into the mix.

Would this be enough to maintain AQ status?  It's hard to say.  But there is a good chance they'll be able to stay afloat and get a decent media contract by adding all of those schools in large media markets.

At this point, the landscape would be stabilized with the SEC as the only school exceeding twelve members.  The Big East would ultimately get to ten members hoping quantity in excess of what they have would help them maintain AQ status.

***

If you've stuck with me thus far, I know that you're thinking, "Uh, where is the Big Ten in all of this mess and why aren't they expanding to more teams?" 

Well, that's because it's always been somewhat unspoken that the one school the Big Ten really covets is Notre Dame, and the only way they're going to get them is by waiting them out and hoping their fortunes drop to the point where NBC (or some other network) doesn't want to renegotiate their rights at a competitive rate.  It's at this point Jim Delany could ride in like a white knight and offer the Big Ten Network.  However, until that time comes, the Big Ten has limited bullets in the chamber, and they aren't going to waste them on any school that doesn't help them get Notre Dame.   Notre Dame's rights go up for bid again in 2015, so until then, the odds of the Big Ten making a move are probably very slim.

Also, you may have noticed that I didn't mention the SEC going to sixteen teams.  Well, Mike Slive has never said he wants to go to sixteen teams.  He said he can.  He never said wants.  If you have a TV deal with limited negotiation windows in the next fourteen years, do you really want to expand to sixteen and make the pieces of your revenue pie smaller?  Especially if the Big 12 solidifies and the ACC continues to show solidarity? That would mean your pool of applicants goes way down, and whoever you gain most likely wouldn't overcome the tipping point value needed to create value for the conference as a whole.

So, in summation, I think the Big 12 stays together and ultimately expands to twelve, the SEC goes to fourteen, the Big East gets raided, BYU stays right where they are, and the Big Ten does nothing until 2015, and at that point, they're going to take a sledgehammer to the Big East to try and force Notre Dame out.

Call me crazy, but this seems every bit as plausible as any super-conference scenario that I've seen.

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