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Generally speaking, my take on all the offseason conference expansion talk has been to enjoy the baseless speculation game (“Gee, wouldn’t it be neat if . . .”) but otherwise to agree with Year2’s position that a bigger Big Ten doesn’t necessarily obligate the SEC to enlarge. I thought that . . . until Senator Blutarsky directed me to this:
For every BTN subscriber in the eight-state footprint of the Big Ten, the league gets 70 to 80 cents a month. For every subscriber outside the footprint it is about 10 cents. So guess what happens if the Big Ten starts adding states like Nebraska, Missouri and New Jersey to their footprint? Not only do the subscriptions increase but the income the Big Ten gets from those subscriptions goes up as much as eight-fold in that state.
I question whether a sixteen- or even fourteen-team conference really is viable as a self-contained entity; twelve-team leagues split into two six-team divisions playing eight-game conference schedules appear to be optimal, and the evidence for pushing the envelope successfully past that point is scant, if it exists at all. Like extending the distance between bases from 90 feet to 95, the jump from twelve to fourteen might be consequential out of all proportion to its numerical slightness.
That said, the Big Ten has positioned itself shrewdly for its threatened forthcoming growth spurt, whether expansion requires Midwestern graphic artists to reconfigure the conference logo to hide a 12, a 14, or a 16 within the lettering. The risk of imperial overreach is worth running because the burgeoning Big Ten would be more geographically contiguous than the sprawling WAC of yesteryear and the addition of new teams would expand the pie before dividing it up into more slices.
The model may or may not be sustainable, but it’s been designed about as well as it could have been, provided that the powers that be see fit to add the media markets that would be brought in by Missouri, Rutgers, or monomaniacal Nebraska rather than opt either for the redundancy of Pitt or the spent volcano of Notre Dame. (For all the eyelash-batting being directed toward South Bend, the Fighting Irish add nothing geographically and offer no room for improvement. Missouri and Rutgers at least have the potential to be sleeping giants, but the Golden Domers provide no 21st-century upside. Jim Delany says he wants “to look forward to 2020 and 2030” when considering expansion. Well, by 2030, Lou Holtz will be dead, and Urban Meyer, a Roman Catholic who turned down his onetime “dream job” to go to Florida, will be retired. Notre Dame’s maximum potential lies in the past, not the future.)
The problem is that Big Ten expansion may cause Big Ten Network revenue to skyrocket, forcing the SEC to expand in the hope of keeping up financially . . . and the Southeastern Conference has fewer options than the Big Ten when it comes to adding member institutions that make sense culturally, geographically, and financially.
Take, as a not altogether random example, Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were members of the conference for many years, and they play in the heart of SEC country. The Golden Tornado would make good sense geographically, but adding the Ramblin’ Wreck to the lineup would make no sense economically.
Atlanta is the site of the season-opening kickoff classic, the SEC championship game, and the Chick-fil-A Bowl. It also is approximately an hour’s drive from the campus of an existing SEC institution. The Engineers would add no market the league does not already control. As much as I would love to see the Bulldogs face the Country Gentlemen every year as SEC East rivals, Clemson similarly brings little to the table from a financial standpoint.
Even the addition of Florida State likely would not add sufficiently to the conference’s coffers to justify splitting the take with an additional two or four schools. The problem is that SEC expansion into areas already covered by the league’s footprint would bring in no new markets, and ESPN already broke the bank to buy the broadcast rights under the existing television contract. More money is unlikely to be forthcoming from the Worldwide Leader merely because existing SEC in-state rivalry games suddenly acquired conference implications.
If bringing in the logical cultural and geographic fits would not work financially, the only option would seem to be to do what the Big Ten hopes to do: conquer more territory and capture more markets. The problem is that none of the viable options on that front would easily be integrated into the Southeastern Conference.
Miami (Florida) would bring Miami, Fla.—maybe—but the Hurricanes bear little resemblance to the rest of the league and are farther away on the map than you might think. There are arguments for swiping an ACC school from North Carolina or Virginia, but the Cavaliers, the Tar Heels, or the Wolfpack would experience a bit of culture shock, the Blue Devils or the Demon Deacons even more so. West Virginia and Virginia Tech would fit in better than most, but they represent geographically non-contiguous and economically dubious options.
Realistically, the SEC cannot look toward the ocean closest to us; to our east lie the two most moribund automatically-qualifying BCS conferences, and poaching from them—or, at least, poaching from them alone—would not well serve our long-term interests. For that, we must go west, young man.
Our best bet is for the Big Ten to snag Missouri and Nebraska, the Pac-10 to grab Colorado, and the Big 12 to split apart like the Soviet Union. It is good for us that Texas may consider the SEC an option, after all, because the Longhorns make absolutely perfect sense financially (both immediately and in the long term), very good sense geographically, and fairly good sense culturally. (Yeah, the Texas exes are probably closer to the older alumni in the Grove at Oxford than they are like the fans you’d find arrayed along the St. John’s River at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, but at least they like barbecue and speak without a funny accent.)
The Big Ten has positioned itself quite well. The SEC has positioned itself well, but not as well as you might think. (In retrospect, the decision to invite Arkansas into the league was a boneheaded move, but maybe we can make it work after the fact by using the renewal of the rivalry between the Longhorns and the Razorbacks as an added incentive to entice Texas into the fold.) The day may be approaching, and soon, when Mike Slive is called upon to unfurl the map of the college football world and begin carving it up like Woodrow Wilson in Paris.
Here is hoping the current commissioner does that far more deftly and wisely than the former president did when setting the conditions for the next century’s worth of European wars. If expansion is thrust upon us, we must make the right decisions for the right reasons. My heart looks eastward to the renewal of old rivalries with opponents who are more like us than not, but, like Salvatore Tessio’s decision to betray Michael Corleone, this is business, and my head tells me our first priority is to shore up our western flank. Whatever concessions must be made in order to make it happen—taking Texas A&M, even taking Texas Tech, if need be—the SEC must persuade Texas to join its ranks.
If, after the dust is settled, the Big Ten and the SEC both have swelled to fourteen or sixteen teams, then the goal of football fans in Austin must be to spend the first weekend in December in Atlanta. If the first comes to pass but not the second, we will have been outmaneuvered by the Midwesterners, and, suddenly, the fear of losing Sunshine State bowl games to Big Ten teams will be the least of our worries.