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Conference Realignment: What Matters in Realignment? (Post 2)

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In my last post, I discussed a lot of the financial and competitive reasons why teams will move from one conference to another. However, in this post, I plan on discussing what matters to schools and conferences after all of those factors are analyzed and weighed. Just because School X wants to move to Conference Y, it doesn't mean that they can. And just because Conference Y wants School X, it doesn't mean that they'll get them.

There are a lot of talking heads out there (including myself) that put more emphasis on one factor over another. I am going to give my thoughts on what I believe to be the 'Rules of Realignment', and what matters and what doesn't, regardless of what the mainstream media may be telling you.

If you haven't read the first post in this series, please feel free to do so before moving on. I'm starting off where the last post ended.

Click the jump for more.

Point #5: Academics don't matter. Politics do matter. Kind of. Most of the time. More often than not.

When discussing realignment, we always talk about why teams will move, but rarely, when people go on message boards and/or talk radio to discuss widespread conference realignment, do they mention why teams won't move from one conference to another, and when they do, it's about things that don't actually matter all that much.

One of the biggest talking points, recently, regarding the "why not" happens to be academics. And while the academic standing of your conference peers may be of importance to your institution, rarely is it something that's actually a factor when schools decide to move from one conference to another. When ESPN chose to give the ACC $17 million a year for their television rights, they didn't do it so they could broadcast academic triathlons. The Big Ten Network shows academic programming from time to time, but that's not why the conference members get millions every year. They get millions of dollars because people want to see live sporting events, specifically, the 30-plus football games they put on the network every year.

So, when individual schools decide to make that jump, academics may factor into the decision on some level, but they are rarely the deciding factor. The desperation of the situation will be the primary driver of the movements. For Texas A&M and Missouri, the perceived instability of the Big 12, combined with the increased value of the SEC television deal (at that point in time) were the primary catalysts for the move (or so they say). It didn't matter that they were leaving a conference where half of the members were in the AAU (Big 12) for a conference where one-sixth of the members held that coveted distinction (SEC). TCU wanted to join a stable, major football conference, specifically one that made sense for them in terms of geography and historical rivalries. They spurned being in a conference with schools like Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame, Rutgers, and UConn so they could compete, athletically, at the highest levels for the maximum amount of revenue.

When conferences chose to expand, they do take academics into consideration...up to a certain point. When the Pac-12 chose to expand and take Colorado, they took an AAU institution. They tried wooing Texas (AAU institution), but were unsuccessful in bring them over with the rest of their entourage, so they settled on Utah. The Big Ten expanded by taking then AAU member, Nebraska (who has since been voted out of the AAU; they are the only non-AAU member in the Big Ten). The ACC expanded by taking Pitt (AAU member) and Syracuse (withdrew from AAU in May 2011). The SEC took Texas A&M and Missouri (AAU members). The aggressors, by and large, look at academics when expanding.

However, if your conference is facing hard times, you tend to not look at academics as closely you would otherwise. The Big 12 expanded by taking West Virginia, who has the lowest US News and World Report ranking currently in a BCS conference (#164). When the Big East decided to expand and take Boise State, they did so because the quality of their football program was essential in trying to maintain the value of their television deals. They didn't care that Boise State was a junior college as recently as 1965 and doesn't even rank, nationally, in the US News rankings. They needed a football team that could up their value, and Boise moved that meter for them.

Granted, much of this is circumstantial evidence, but the point is simple. Academics matter up until the point where a school or conference feels like their best interests are being threatened by the status quo, and they want to pursue the best options available. At the end of the day, the schools compete on the field, and academics make a nice talking point, but it is by no means a significant roadblock to conference realignment. If a school feels like the association with a stronger athletic conference, especially in football, will benefit them, they will move more often than not if they are not being restrained by something more tangible.

One thing that does matter, but is rarely discussed by fans and the media, is the impact of politics on realignment. There are a lot of different ways to entangle and bind schools together, especially those that share a state. For example, Kansas and Kansas State share the same Board of Regents. That isn't an insurmountable barrier, but it's a significant roadblock that makes things very difficult; it creates the perception that the two schools are a "package deal". While the Oklahoma schools aren't governed by the same Board of Regents, Oklahoma made it perfectly clear that they wouldn't go to another conference without Oklahoma State, and vice versa. Whether or not that was a deal breaker with the Pac-12, we do know that it was widely publicized that they were a "package deal", and in the age of expanding electronic footprints, no one was willing to give up two shares of the revenue pie to get a stranglehold on the lucrative Tulsa and Oklahoma City markets.

Politicians can also make it difficult for one school to leave a conference and create a potentially lesser situation for a conference rival as well. When Texas A&M started their march towards the SEC, they were told that they could move only if the Big 12 were able to survive. When Texas and Oklahoma started flirting with the Pac-12 after A&M notified the conference of their departure, lawmakers in Texas started getting upset because they wouldn't have given their approval in the first place if they had known the domino effect could leave schools like Tech and Baylor in a worse place should they choose to head to the Pac-12 without either of them.

Political posturing is not a unique circumstance, but what made the A&M defection so surprising was that it was the first time a school that fit their profile (public school in a BCS Automatic Qualifier conference with other in-state member schools) was able to make the jump. Since the ACC first raided the Big East in 2003, every other school that has moved from one current BCS Automatic Qualifier conference to another has met the following criteria:

  • Private School (Miami, TCU, Boston College, Syracuse)
  • Public School with no other BCS AQ schools in its state (West Virginia, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska)
  • Public School in a state with another BCS AQ member in a higher revenue conference (Pitt)
  • Mid-majors (Utah)

In all of the examples above, these universities were able to make the move because no obvious harm would come to other public schools should their affiliation change. Marshall would still be Marshall if WVU went to the Big 12, Colorado State was still going to be in the Mountain West if Colorado moved to the Pac-12, and it would have been foolish for Pitt to stay in the Big East when Penn State was raking in cash from the Big Ten; moving to the ACC was nothing but a positive for Pitt, and any politician would have seen that logic.

However, as we know, Baylor was looking at a potential free-fall in conference membership should the Big 12 dissolve, and Ken Starr fought back with the threat of lawsuits. It wasn't until the Big 12 looked to be stable, and Baylor (and other member schools willing to join the lawsuit) promised to end threats of litigation with the SEC, that Texas A&M was approved. The reason the Pac-10 was on the verge of adding the entire Big 12 South in 2010 was because of all of the political entanglements that existed between the Texas and Oklahoma schools. Virginia Tech is a member of the ACC right now because Virginia lobbied hard for their admittance in 2003.

This is significant because when looking at the conference realignment landscape, you have to realize that most things that people think are important (i.e. academics) really aren't, and things that are important (i.e. politics and litigation) are rarely discussed or taken into consideration. Schools can't simply be moved from one conference to another like people move furniture around in their living room. With all of the money involved, and the fact that the majority of players are publicly funded universities, politicians and other influential people will get involved to try and protect the interests of any other school that may be harmed by realignment.

Schools have to fit a certain profile when it comes to conference realignment, and you have to factor those things into the equation when selecting or discussing schools you believe will join a conference. The Big 12, or any other conference looking to expand, will generally behave like water flowing downstream; they will follow the path of least resistance. Now, this isn't always true, especially if there is a big fish out there that can provide value (i.e. Texas A&M, Florida State), but when looking to create a round number, like conference member number twelve or fourteen, there is a very significant chance a conference will make a choice that will cause them the least amount of headache. That's why Utah is a member of the Pac-12 (instead of Texas, Oklahoma, etc.) and Missouri is a member of the SEC (instead of the more obvious Virginia Tech). It's also why the Big 12 will seek out "easy" targets for the twelfth member should Florida State choose to leave the ACC and explore their options.

Point #6: 12 > 14 > 16

I don't want to spend a lot of time expanding on this point, and I feel like I shouldn't have to spend much time explaining why twelve teams is better than fourteen, and fourteen is better than sixteen. But, because the nation is currently brainwashed into thinking sixteen teams in a conference is both desirable and inevitable, I feel like I need to discuss this.

The first thing everyone needs to know is that twelve is the ideal number for a conference in terms of revenue generation (provided you have twelve quality members). When a conference attains twelve conference members, the NCAA allows the conference to have a thirteenth game (i.e. Conference Championship Game) that conferences can use to generate revenue (especially through television rights). By adding Nebraska, the Big Ten was able to begin playing a championship game that was worth $145 million over the course of six years. So, not only did the Big Ten get a revenue boost from adding a program with national appeal like Nebraska, but each member school got a $2 million increase by adding a twelfth member on top of that. Based on the current economic model, twelve teams is the optimal number for content, revenue generation, and ease of scheduling.

Once a conference passes twelve teams, there is no "booster" for revenue. For example, even if the Big 12 were to add two new members (Florida State and Clemson, for example), those two members were simply worth the current $20 million estimated cut, and the conference and its members got a deal on a Big 12 title game similar to the Big Ten, the member schools would make $22 million a year. What this means is that if you get to a payout worth $22 million per team in the Big 12 after expansion, every team that comes in needs to be worth at least that much, annually, by being in your conference to overcome diminishing returns. That is incredibly difficult. As the SEC is learning, the addition of decent schools in large states do not necessarily mean value added to Tier 1 and Tier 2 TV deals. Unless one of the teams added is going to be on your Tier 1 broadcasts regularly, and they bring tremendous value (i.e. Texas, Ohio State, Florida, etc.), the Tier 1 partners will still be showing the same games that they were before. Where expanding to fourteen teams may become profitable is when your conference is willing to start its own TV network, and those additional teams will increase the value of said network, there is little to no profit involved with expanding beyond twelve members. If you can have a very profitable Tier 1 and Tier 2 deal with a conference network for twelve members, you're in the sweet spot for revenue generation. There is little to no incentive to move forward unless you can get someone really worth grabbing, and with the Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12 locked down with Grant of Rights agreements, and the SEC being an impenetrable fortress of cult like solidarity, you have to find teams in the ACC and Big East worth an increased split, and to be honest, there may be one or two schools, maximum, that will provide the necessary revenue to make them worth the $20 million a year the Big 12 is currently set to make prior to a championship game.

Of course, Notre Dame would be worth the money to expand past twelve, but that's a given. Therefore, any conference that currently sits at twelve or more teams has no real incentive to expand beyond that unless Notre Dame is in the mix. Only then would it make sense to move past a twelve team configuration.

By now, I'm sure some are asking, "Well, what about sixteen teams? The media keeps saying that this is where we're going; isn't this inevitable?"

First of all, if someone can find the first source that predicted the four, sixteen-team super-conferences as being inevitable, I'd love to see it. I've literally spent hours and hours trying to find that, and the closest thing I ever found was an article written by Tony Barnhart that I referenced in my realignment article last fall. Nowhere has anyone of any real power or influence (i.e. not a mainstream media member) said that this was inevitable. Mike Slive responded to a reporter's question regarding how easy it would be for him to get to sixteen teams, but it wasn't in the context of a plan. It was simply a comment. He never said it was his intention to go there. The notion that college football was gravitating towards four symmetrical super-conferences (and an eight-team playoff) was simply an idea that caught fire during the first round of realignment in 2010, and it became conventional wisdom that everyone glommed onto as gospel.

Secondly, the idea of four, sixteen-team super-conferences is Stupid. Yes, I said, "Stupid," with a capital "S". For starters, the one conference that actually tried this, the WAC, is now about to close up shop, so we have at least one empirical example that this is a bad model. One can make the argument that using the WAC, circa 1996, to a super-conference in today's world is like comparing apples and oranges, but the fact of the matter is that there is an example of complete and total failure, and the reasons it failed are not limited to the fact that no one cares about WAC football. There were teams in major markets and teams with national fan bases that experienced significant success down the road (TCU, BYU, and Utah) that couldn't make this fly. Ultimately, the issues with scheduling (i.e. rotating pods) and its impact on rivalry games, combined with the fact that the revenue pie needed to be split sixteen ways, ultimately forced the league to split in half.

Beyond the fact that the WAC was a massive failure and that may scare people away, another main roadblock is the fact that the NCAA doesn't allow a 14th semi-final game(s) so that the winners of four pods could play in a mini-playoff. If the conference couldn't have a mini-playoff, the only options are for two permanent divisions, or create rotating divisions based on pod alignment, but that creates absolutely no rivalries or continuity. And, to be clear, pods would have to happen because there's no other way to realistically have a sixteen-team conference. If you had two eight team divisions, you would rarely play teams from the other division. You would essentially have two conferences, and again, that's why the WAC split up into two different divisions in the first place.

In addition to all of the logistical problems and empirical evidence, and most importantly, the super-conferences wouldn't work because there aren't sixty-four teams in the country worth the sort of value that would eclipse the power of diminishing returns. As stated earlier, if the Big 12 makes $22 million per school after they move to twelve teams, aside from Notre Dame, what other teams out there are worth that sort of money? Louisville? Cincinnati? Virginia Tech? No, no, and no. Even if one or two of those teams are worth that money, the next two won't be. And if the Big 12 hoards teams of value, what does that do to the Big Ten? Would they eclipse their already impressive revenues with Maryland and Pitt? What about with Virginia? No, they wouldn't. And, even more problematically, what does the Pac-12 do? Add Colorado State? BYU? FRESNO?!?!?! The university presidents at Stanford and Cal would spit on you and slap you in the face for even suggesting such nonsense.

Finally, and maybe even the most significant issue involved with the whole mess that is the sixteen team super-conference is the threat to the tax exempt status of these athletic programs. If we're looking at moving to a model where a third of the FBS schools hoard all of the money and have all of the access, those teams that are left behind will act, through political and legal means, to stop it however they can. From an article written by Pete Thamel last fall, during the 2011 round of realignment, some lawmakers are already up in arms and are ready to start looking into the business of college athletics:

While no one has formally approached Congress yet, the congressman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the situation was "spinning out of control."

"I think the situation is rising to a level where getting Congress engaged may be unavoidable," he said. He added: "Congress has the nexus to engage. These are tax-exempt organizations now making billions off of unpaid athletes. When it's a regional league, it seems to make sense. When you're taking schools practically from coast to coast and putting them in big-profit revenue leagues, we may be at a point where the N.C.A.A. has lost its ability to create a fair system for all to play in."

College football realignment may seem like a big, fun game for most of us, and carving these schools up may seem like it's not difficult, but these conferences and schools are walking a very fine line. All they have to do is upset the wrong politicians and the government may step in and start knocking the whole system down. Pushing the envelope is one thing, but if super-conferences and complete consolidation were the end game, the light at the end of the tunnel would be a train driven by the United States government.

So, in summation, the ideal number for conference members is twelve, fourteen works if the conference can find the members that add the proper amount of value, and sixteen teams isn't going to happen unless the conference has a death wish.

Point #7: Conferences are like cockroaches; they're really hard to kill

A couple of years ago, when Nebraska and Colorado left, everyone assumed that the Big 12 was going to die. Then, when Missouri and Texas A&M left, everyone was sure of it. The Big 12, however, stole a couple of Big East schools and moved forward.

One year later, the Big 12 is most likely going to poach schools from another current BCS AQ conference and has a television contract worthy of the other elite conferences.

The Big East wasn't supposed to survive the defections of Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech in 2003. Then it wasn't supposed to survive the losses of West Virginia, TCU (before they even played a down), Pitt and Syracuse. As of today, the Big East still stands. It's disgusting, but it still stands.

The Big East survived by raiding the Mountain West, who survived by raiding the WAC, who died because they're at the lowest end of the food chain.

What is the moral of the story? Unless you're at the bottom of the food chain, you're most likely going to survive and move forward with a few scars.

We've already mentioned why teams essentially move: money and access. Therefore, it shouldn't surprise anyone that when a conference gets raided, it goes to a lesser conference to replenish its ranks using the same bait other schools left them for. It's much easier for conferences to stay together and rebuild by pulling in teams from lesser conferences than it is to move into a different conference.

Also, when conferences raid, they rarely, if ever, cross the tipping point where the conference they are taking members from will dissolve. A lot of this is for legal reasons, as we saw with Baylor and the SEC. Because all it takes is one slip up and your conference could be on the losing end of a lawsuit that's in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

Again, this doesn't apply for conferences at the bottom of the food chain, which have little to no power or influence, but as you rise up through the ranks, the potential for conference dissolution does become a consideration when the television deals for these conferences are in the multi-billion dollar range.

Point #8: The rules for realignment

If you've stuck with me through all of this, I'm going to summarize these points as I start to move into the reflection and prediction phase. These are rules that will be strongly considered when going forward and used as a template to see what teams will qualify for expansion:

1. Money is the most important factor; conference revenue (or lack thereof) will drive decisions

2. Realignment is also about envy; a school will move if they are at a competitive disadvantage with a rival

3. Access to the playoff is critical; four conferences have cornered the market

4. Academics are of minor importance

5. Politics are of major importance

6. Twelve teams are ideal, fourteen makes sense given the mix and circumstances, sixteen is not feasible in the current environment

7. Conferences will survive by raiding lesser conferences

Hopefully, you've found this to be helpful in understanding the conference realignment moves of the past two years. As we journey into this brave, new world, use this as a guide in understanding why teams have done what they've done and will do what they do.

Up Next: My reflection of my predictions made last fall, and I will take what I laid out here to discuss where I went right and where I went wrong.