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Expounding On Expansion: The Criteria For Selecting Teams

(This is the sixth part in an on-going series examining the possibility of SEC expansion from a business perspective.)

As part of our series on SEC expansion, we’ve told you why the SEC should be working on its plans right now, rather than waiting for the Big Ten to make a move.  We’ve explained what factors have come together to make 2010 the year of change in college sports.  We’ve shot down some unfounded fears about SEC growth. We’ve shown why the league must act boldly, if it’s forced to expand.  And we’ve taken a look at history to show how important academics and politics will be in any SEC expansion.

So now comes the fun stuff.

Everyone, their brother and their brother’s cousin has an idea about which teams the SEC should chase should it decide that expansion is a smart move.  Most of the lists you’ve probably seen could be put together using just two pieces of information — a football standings sheet from last season and an atlas.

But in keeping with our desire to take a more business-like view of the situation, we’re looking at things as an SEC president might.  We’ve done two months of research on everything from dollars to wins to televisions to mileage.  The result is a nine-category rating system that we believe covers just about every type of information that SEC presidents would consider if discussing league expansion.

As we’ve said numerous times, no one wants to see the SEC expand just for expansion’s sake.  If more dollars, more prestige, and more power aren’t attainable through expansion, then research — like ours — should be chucked.

But if the league’s presidents do come to believe that adding teams can help the SEC long-term, the criteria you’re about to see is exactly the type of data they will consider when trying to decide which schools to invite.

The Candidates

For this piece, we attempted to create a list of potential SEC expansion candidates that “fit” in a number of areas.  We have considered only schools currently in BCS conferences, for example.  A jump from mid-major status to the SEC simply seems too steep.  Also, non-BCS teams would be unlikely to produce the kind of positive impact that league presidents would desire.  In the early 1990s, Houston had some discussions with the SEC — along with Texas A&M and Texas — but the Cougars never received the invitation they were hoping for.  We believe schools like Houston would probably be in the same boat now.

We also removed from the conversation schools like North Carolina and Duke.  The four North Carolina schools make up the center and foundation of the ACC.  Carolina and Duke are considered academic jewels.  They also focus on basketball over football.  In our view, it is highly unlikely that those schools would make a move… unless their entire league was in danger of collapsing (like say, a somewhat shaky Big 12 where Texas and Texas A&M reside).

No short-timers were considered, either.  South Florida has a rising football program.  The school is large and it’s located in a large metropolitan area.  But its athletic track record just isn’t long enough at this point.  SEC presidents would be forced to judge USF more on the basis of projections than on past athletic history.

On our list are some schools that would appear to be geographic stretches.  In some cases, the name value alone required consideration.  In others, one school’s desirability might force the SEC to weigh the merits of a package deal with a more distant neighbor.  For example, Missouri would be a geographic fit with the SEC.  If the league believed Missouri to be a prime candidate for expansion, then perhaps an invitation extended to longtime rival Kansas might make the Tigers’ decision a bit easier.  That combination would certainly help the SEC in terms of both academic and basketball reputation.

Not all of the candidates below would really appear on the SEC’s potential wish list, of course.  Some schools would bring more to the table than others.  And some would be more likely to accept an invitation than others.  But for the sake of research, we cast a wide net anyway.

Our list includes the following 18 schools:

Baylor, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Kansas, Louisville, Maryland, Miami, Missouri, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Virginia, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

Before you say, “Aw, the SEC would never consider _________,” read the entirety of this piece and the next.  Then you might understand why a school like Baylor, for example, warrants examination.

The Categories

Here’s a list of what we believe should be taken into consideration by SEC powerbrokers… and why:

1.  Proximity

From former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer to ADs and commissioners across the BCS leagues, most people in the know believe expansion will be fueled by conferences’ desire to grow their geographic footprints.  That kind of growth brings larger populations and more television markets.  However, that doesn’t mean the SEC should simply add Washington, Arizona State and UConn in order to span the nation’s four corners.  While the goal should be growth, that growth has to make some sort of geographic sense.

There are three cities that have hosted (or are scheduled to host) multiple SEC men’s basketball tournaments in the current 15-year window: Atlanta, Nashville and New Orleans.  We added up the distance from each of the 18 schools in our study to each of these three SEC-friendly cities.  The total distance of each school from those three cities served as our Proximity grade.

2.  TV Markets

Bigger television markets equal high television ratings.  Higher television ratings equal more dollars from television networks.

For each of the 18 schools in our study, we counted the Top 50 television markets that they would bring into the SEC fold.  A massive state school like Texas would add Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio to the SEC’s resume.  Notre Dame would offer a national draw.  On the other hand, schools already in SEC states would offer no new television households.

3.  Population

As we wrote in Part One of our series — and as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany stated last week — the population base near a school has to be considered.  The Big Ten knows that by adding a school like Missouri, it can convert the majority of that state’s 6-million-person population from Big 12 fans to Big Ten fans.  Exposing those new fans to Big Ten schools (via athletics) will increase the odds of Missouri natives heading to Big Ten universities.  That means more students, more alumni, and more donations for the Big Ten.

For the SEC, the mission should be the same.  Schools that can best increase the SEC’s population base should take precedence over those schools located in smaller states.

4.  Academics

In Part Five of our series, we explained the importance that academics will play in expansion.  Presidents care more about scholarship than they do scholarshipS.  Yes, they are after money first and foremost, but when schools like Florida receive more than $550 million in research grants each year, there are big bucks at play on the academic side of things, too.

We used nine criteria (as we’ll break down in a future piece) to gauge the academic reputations of all 66 BCS schools.  In comparing the 18 schools on our candidate list to the 12 schools already in the SEC, we placed each school in one three categories: “Better than the typical SEC school,” “A good fit with SEC schools,” and “Worse than the typical SEC school.”  Obviously, the more a school can help the SEC’s academic reputation, the higher that school scored in our system.

5.  Football and Basketball Success

Success in the two most watched men’s sports helps to build a school’s overall “brand.”  Therefore, schools that have had recent success in football, basketball or both are more likely to draw in fans, viewers and — as a result — television executives.

In the SEC’s case, improving the league’s basketball reputation should be a secondary goal of any expansion move.

For our purposes, we simply tallied up each school’s total number of bowl bids and NCAA tournament bids over the past 10 seasons.

6.  Directors Cup Success

Former SEC commissioner Harvey Schiller has stated that a drawback for Miami during the SEC’s expansion talks 20 years ago was the school’s lack of commitment to its overall athletic program.  Obviously, the more programs a school fields the better.

For that reason, we ranked each of our 18 candidates according to their success in the 2008-2009 Directors Cup race.

7.  Fertile Recruiting Ground

Any expansion should result in the conquering of new territories.  Those territories should be considered as having extra value if they provide a new and fertile recruiting base for the SEC’s existing programs.

We chose to focus on football recruiting.  We ranked our candidates based upon the number of 4- and 5-star football players (according to currently playing within their state borders.

Obviously, candidate schools located inside the current SEC footprint don’t bring much new to the table in terms of recruiting base.

8.  Athletic Spending

Any school joining the SEC should be able to compete on equal footing with the league’s current members.  We used the Department of Education’s most recent records (fiscal year 2008) to rank our candidates from 1 to 18 in total athletic department spending.

All 12 SEC member institutions ranked among the 64 biggest budgets in the nation in ’08.  Only Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State (in that order) ranked outside the nation’s 29 biggest budgets.

For the record, the average total spending for an SEC athletic department in 2008 was $71,501,372.  So the higher the budget, the better a candidates’s score in our system.

9.  Football Stadium Size

Football isn’t the end all, be all in the expansion game, but it is a major, major factor.  Even at a basketball-first school like Kentucky, football is still the biggest breadwinner.

The larger a school’s stadium, the more solid its commitment to football, and the more money it can make from tickets, parking, etc.

So now you know the schools we’ve examined and the standards we’ve used to grade them.

Click right here to see our findings.




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