The only place to get "info" is on blogs because it's all made up for ad sales. Nobody comments on the SEC basketball stuff. Hence, if you don't write about expansion no ads to sell. All the expansion stuff and my favorite source "Joe who sells athletic shoes in Virginia" is hype. Song and dance. That's it.
Christmas 2012 came and went without Santa delivering any new schools to new conferences. But with talk growing that Boise State might just stay put in the MWC rather than jump to the Big East as it had planned, the expansion/realignment conversation continues.
For the past couple of weeks we’ve been looking at what we believe to be the final countdown to a Big Bang. The kind of Big Bang that leaves us with just four or five power conferences playing in their own super-division at the top of the current Football Bowl Subdivision. The schools making up those leagues and that super-division will be the ones best able to provide full-cost-of-tuition scholarships for their athletes (or at least for their football players).
How this will all work out is anyone’s guess, but we don’t foresee a nice, neat, orderly endgame. Look at the college landscape today. Do the conferences all have an equal number of schools? Do all leagues have the same type of divisional breakdowns or scheduling plans? The answer, of course, is no and we don’t see why separate business entities all trying to grab as much cash as possible will someday agree that there should be four leagues of 16 teams each just because that’s what many fans want.
There’s an idea that each league — in such a four-league, 16-team scenario — could put two or four teams into a playoff and then we’d all have a mini-NFL to watch each December and January. But the NFL is one business. The FBS conferences are separate businesses. And if the four-team playoff that kicks off in 2014 does expand at some point, it’s quite likely each conference will be angling to get as many teams into the mix as possible, not just a limited number of two or four.
In Part 1 of our Big Bang series, we looked at which schools we believe would be willing to move if a better offer came along from a new conference (based on athletic revenue and current conference stability). In our view, there are only about 25 schools that would have any hope of drawing the interest of one of the power leagues.
In Part 2 of our Big Bang series, we broke down those 25 schools according to what they would add to a conference’s stash of cable households as well as a league’s academic reputation (which still matters to some conferences).
In Part 3, we now look at the options available for each of the current five power conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12, and SEC. How can they survive? How can they grow and make more money? Which schools might interest them?
In putting this piece together, we reached out to administrators and athletic department personnel inside the SEC. We spoke with people in the college sports industry who are familiar with media contracts all across the nation (as well as scuttlebutt regarding which leagues are talking to which schools). We even chatted with a contact inside a major athletic equipment supplier who speaks with coaches and ADs on a regular basis, picking up plenty of gossip in the process.
The theories below are our own, but they’ve been shaped by the input of these people who were willing to talk off the record about what they’re hearing and what they believe to be happening. We appreciate their help.
And without further ado, here’s what we see as each conference’s realistic options:
Atlantic Coast Conference
Current Status: Maryland is leaving for the Big Ten while Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville are scheduled to enter the ACC in all sports. Notre Dame is currently scheduled to enter the league as a member in all sports but football. The Irish will schedule five ACC schools per year on the gridiron, but those games will not count in the ACC standings. The league will be a 15-school league — 14 teams in football — if things don’t change. Big if.
Outlook/Goal: The ACC’s outlook is shaky. The Big Ten, Big XII and SEC are all rumored to have interest in multiple ACC members. Example: An ACC source told The Sporting News last month that the SEC has been chasing Duke and North Carolina for “the last three years.” John Swofford’s first goal has to be survival at this point. The league’s schools aren’t believed to have much interest in signing a grant or rights agreement, so the best hope for avoiding the Big East’s fate is to shore up the football foundation of the league. Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways for Swofford’s league to do that. The ACC is the weakest of the five remaining power conferences. Those schools willing to come aboard are most likely in smaller leagues now, meaning they likely won’t meet the demands of the ACC’s biggest football schools.
Possible Moves/Rumored Interests:
* The best bet for the ACC would be for Notre Dame to join the league as an all-sports member including football. Notre Dame is the brand in college football. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, everyone watches ‘em. The problem is Notre Dame’s football contract with NBC. The Irish don’t want to give that away and the ACC is a revenue-sharing league. If it meant adding a brand name like Notre Dame, would schools like Florida State and Clemson give a thumbs-up to allowing the Irish to forge their own unique deal with the league? Doubtful. As for Notre Dame’s desire to maintain its football independence, the breakup of the Big East could give the ACC a tiny bit of leverage. “Sure, we’ll let you in early in all your other sports, but you have to sign on as a full-fledged football member, too.” Sounds good, but a league like the Big XII might be able to offer up a “special” deal to Notre Dame and scuttle any ACC attempts to woo the Irish into a true marriage. More on that in a minute.
* Barring an every-sport deal with Notre Dame, the two schools most often rumored to be potential ACC targets are Cincinnati and Connecticut. Cincinnati would provide a mid-America rival for new member Louisville. UConn would give the ACC more pull in New England and in the New York City area, but current member Boston College has worked against the Huskies joining their league in the past. Indeed, Louisville was given an invitation before Connecticut. While Cincinnati and UConn have both been to BCS bowls in recent years, those schools are better known for their basketball than their football. Would an FSU or Clemson be excited to add either school? Probably not. Would schools like Virginia or Georgia Tech be happy to further water down the league’s academic brand? Probably not. And if a school like Cincinnati got an offer from another conference, it’s likely the UC administration would choose to join the strongest league… which would not be the ACC.
Big Ten Conference
Current Status: Maryland and Rutgers are scheduled to join the conference. The Big Ten — along with the SEC — remains in the strongest position of all the remaining “Big Five” conferences. No league boasts bigger schools and, therefore, bigger fanbases and alumni chapters. No league can match the Big Ten top-to-bottom in terms of academic reputation as all but one Big Ten member (Nebraska) is a member of the AAU, a collection of the continent’s biggest-spending research institutions. When Maryland and Rutgers enter, the Big Ten will feature 14 schools total.
Outlook/Goal: The Big Ten’s outlook is strong. Jim Delany’s league makes money hand over fist and most Big Ten schools have about 50,000 students. With that many grads, interest in the Big Ten will remain high for many years to come. However, as Delany himself has explained, population shifts are making it necessary for his league to try and reach farther south, to where state populations are still growing. The Big Ten wants to guarantee that it remains cash rich by adding cable households for its Big Ten Network and that it maintains it’s academic reputation by adding well-respected schools. (Nebraska was an AAU member, too, when the Big Ten lured them from the Big XII.)
Possible Moves/Rumored Interests:
* It has been rumored for more than a year now that both Georgia Tech and Virginia are on the Big Ten’s radar. Both are AAU schools. Both would provide more television markets and more cable households for the league’s network. Both would help the league extend its brand into the South. That kind of advertising — Big Ten football and basketball games getting more exposure and carrying more weight in Southern markets — should drive more students from the South to the league’s Midwestern schools. More than one source from inside the SEC and another source from inside the college athletics industry has told us that Virginia and Georgia Tech are believed to be done deals to the Big Ten, with the only hold-up being Maryland’s court battle to get out of the ACC. Reportedly, Virginia and Georgia Tech officials want to know the cost of switching leagues before actually doing so. Now, we’re not big on stories of “done deals,” because deals can fall through. Last year, a rumor that Florida State and Clemson were jumping to the Big XII never amounted to anything. So we want to make it clear — very clear — that we’re hearing from multiple sources that they believe Virginia and Georgia Tech will someday soon be the Big Ten’s 15th and 16 schools. That isn’t our view. We’re just passing along what we’ve heard from multiple sources.
* But even if those schools do move at some point, that does not mean that the Big Ten will slam the brakes on expansion. As we’ve discussed in previous pieces, leagues are making money off of their brand names and their content. The more good games to sell (content), the more television money to be made. For that reason, we firmly believe the rumblings we’ve heard about the Big Ten having an interest in Duke and North Carolina. Currently, the Big Ten’s schools are all located in contiguous states. If Georgia Tech is a target for the Big Ten and if form holds, the league will need to somehow connect the state of Virginia to the state of Georgia. We don’t expect an SEC school — Vanderbilt — to be on the Big Ten’s list of invitees, so that leaves the state of North Carolina as the other option. It just so happens that the crown jewels of the ACC in terms of name brands are located in the Tarheel State. While the Big Ten is rumored to be eyeballing Virginia and Georgia Tech, don’t be surprised if Delany and company don’t attempt to add four more schools, all from the ACC — Virginia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Duke. All are AAU members. The addition of all four would bring the league’s total number of schools to 18 and greatly increase the Big Ten’s area of influence. The Big Ten Network would stretch from Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota all the way into New York and then down the Eastern seaboard and into the SEC’s biggest natural TV market: Atlanta. In addition, the more ACC schools the Big Ten goes after at once, the easier the sell might be for each school as it exits its old conference. The administrators and fans of Virginia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Duke might be more likely to move if they knew they’d still be seeing plenty of familiar faces in their new home. And Maryland would already be waiting for them.
Big XII Conference
Current Status: The Big XII is currently stable thanks to its long-discussed grant of media rights agreement. Bob Bowlsby’s conference currently features just 10 teams and does not stage a conference championship game in football. However, with new television contracts set to kick in, the Big XII’s schools will all begin to pull in massive revenue as the conference’s pie will only have to be split among 10 schools. At least for now.
Outlook/Goal: The Big XII is a unique beast. Most believe the grant of rights deal inked by the league’s schools will act as the world’s largest pair of handcuffs, binding those institutions together for more than a decade. All contracts are made to be broken, but the people we’ve spoken to believe this one is ironclad. If School X up and leaves, its media rights — meaning its TV revenue — will remain with the Big XII. Even if that were the beginning point for a negotiated exit fee the price for a school to leave may be so steep that no one would dare try it. That said, the league still allows its members to own/operate their own television channels, like Texas’ Longhorn Network (which is technically owned by ESPN, but UT is still paid an enormous sum for its content). That means that while league revenue will grow and be split more equitably among member institutions, there’s still a means for schools like Texas and Oklahoma to make beaucoups more cash than some of their smaller conference brethren. That’s not the way to build one big happy family.
Possible Moves/Rumored Interests:
* The Big XII has more options on the table than just about any other conference. That’s in part due to the league’s location smack in the middle of the country. The Big XII could move north, south, east or west. The league could sit still with 10 teams, rake in big television dollars, and give its teams an easier path to college football’s soon-to-come playoff. Or it could expand by two teams. Or three. Or Eight. Or more. The Big XII could do just about anything at this point.
* Word leaked out in the past year that Big XII officials had been told flat out by television executives that the only school the league could add that would drive up media rights fees would be Notre Dame. So let’s start with the Irish. As mentioned above, the ACC must be looking at Notre Dame right now as its best chance for survival. Grab the school now as a full-fledged member (finding a way to work around that NBC football contract) and other ACC schools contemplating an exit might just be convinced to hang around. Like the Big Ten, Notre Dame wanted to expand its brand to the South. The same population shifts that Delany’s league face are issues for the Irish as well. The ACC offered the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. The Big XII offered, basically, Texas. When Pittsburgh joins, 11 ACC schools will rank among the top 100 schools in America in research spending. The Big XII has just two of the top 100 research spenders (Texas and Iowa State). But if Notre Dame feels its arm is being twisted by the ACC, it could still probably move to the Big XII and maintain independence in football.
* Grabbing Notre Dame from the ACC might be part of a greater plan by Bowlsby and company. If the Irish can be had, the ACC remains unstable. Therefore, grabbing Notre Dame might make stealing Florida State, Clemson or Miami easier. And if the Big XII swipes FSU, Clemson or Miami from the ACC, it will be able to offer Notre Dame greater exposure in both Texas and Florida. While FSU and Clemson would provide two new states for the Big XII, making off with Florida State and Miami would give the Big XII more presence in the Sunshine State than the SEC currently has with Florida. For those who’ll say that hasn’t helped the ACC, the Big XII plays a better brand of football and has a better product to sell to Floridians. Our initial thought when this idea was floated to us by a single theorist who works with a number of schools across the nation was: Wouldn’t Miami’s NCAA issues drive other leagues away? His response: The Big East and the ACC both chased The U and landed it despite it’s reputation for being a scofflaw. Our response: Good point.
* Now, if the Big XII chose to grow in a different direction — or chose to grow beyond the schools already mentioned — there are a number of possibilities. Pittsburgh could provide a natural rival for West Virginia and stretch the league into Pennsylvania (for recruiting and TV market purposes). Boise State has a strong football brand. UNLV has a large athletic budget for a school currently living outside the power conferences.
* If, however, there’s a school to the West that bears watching, it’s Brigham Young. BYU is currently an independent in football and it has its own network (BYUtv) that is available to some 60 million cable and satellite households nationwide. Meanwhile, the Big XII is the “we can make it work” league. The conference already looks the other way regarding Texas’ Longhorn Network, so what’s another private channel? And while there might be a culture clash between BYU and some other Big XII members, Bowlsby’s conference is already a hodge-podge of schools from the old Southwest Conference, the old Big 8 conference, the Big East, and the Mountain West Conference. While a league like the SEC features 14 schools with — for the most part — similar cultures, the Big XII’s schools welcome the children of rednecks, liberals, farmers, and miners. The Mormons might find a better fit in the Heinz 57-style Big XII than in any other conference.
Current Status: Larry Scott’s league currently has 12 members with no further expansion on the horizon. At least not from what we hear.
Outlook/Goal: Scott made a major power play two summers back by trying to land six Big XII schools: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado. In the end the Pac-12 stole Colorado and added Utah. While the Pac-12 is stable having recently launched seven new league-owned networks and inked deals with ESPN and FOX worth $225 million a year, its location remains an issue. The league tried to expand into the Midwest and has hosted a football media day event in New York City in an effort to raise awareness in the Central and Eastern time zones. The Big Ten wants to expand south in order to keep up with population shifts. The Pac-12 wants to expand east in order to stay on the radar in America’s largest media hubs.
Possible Moves/Rumored Interests:
* Silence. There are few rumors, few leaks suggesting that Scott and company are on the verge of any major move. That’s worrisome as Scott might be the biggest visionary commissioner inside a power conference today. The man tried to raid another league for half its members and came closer than anyone would have guessed to making it happen. He’s currently pushing his product into Asian markets in the hopes of increasing merchandising sales and, perhaps someday, signing a broadcast deal with an overseas company. As noted in previous pieces, we know that at least one Pac-12 athletic director has told all of his coaches in a closed-door meeting that the age of super-conferences is already upon us. If Scott is plotting a move, he’ll probably try to aim big…
* But he might hit small. That’s what happened the last time, of course, and the Pac-12 still faces the same limitations due to geography. While many Western states are growing population-wise, there just aren’t as many major football programs in that portion of the country. The league’s options are limited (barring a major surprise move into the Midwest). Schools in the Pac-12 region include Boise State, BYU, San Diego State, and UNLV. Any other school is a long reach geographically or a long shot to gain an invite. Those mentioned might be long shots, too, unless Scott feels his league must expand just to keep up with everyone else. Boise State won’t wow the presidents at schools like Stanford and Cal. BYU’s network might be a problem in the Pac-12. With four Pac-12 schools already in California, adding San Diego State won’t move the needle much. UNLV makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways, but again, would Pac-12 pointy-heads be pleased with the addition of a school in — egads! — Las Vegas?
Current Status: Mike Slive’s league just added Missouri and Texas A&M and is currently home to 14 schools. Florida president Bernie Machen and others — including Slive — have admitted that there have been “digestion” problems with regards to scheduling for a 14-team league. Our sources across the SEC have told us that most everyone in the league would prefer to see how the latest additions play out before rushing to add more schools to the conference. Yet there’s still that ACC source who told The Sporting News that the SEC has been angling for Duke and North Carolina for three years.
Outlook/Goal: Like the Big Ten, the SEC is dealing from a position of strength. Based in a region where professional sports really didn’t take root until the 1960s, the SEC’s schools can claim the most passionate, loyal fans in all America. The league also rules the college football world at the moment having won six BCS titles in a row with a seventh on the table should Alabama beat Notre Dame a week from Monday. Slive also brokered a pair of television contracts with CBS and ESPN that raised the bar for all other leagues, brought in an enormous new revenue stream for his schools, and gave his conference national exposure for almost every football game it plays. In addition, the league is expected to launch its own SEC Network — at least one network — in 2014. If there’s a goal for the SEC moving forward it’s to guarantee its position at the head of the college athletics table (alongside the Big Ten) while not diluting its current brand and product. In addition, the league’s presidents definitely want to add schools with high-end academic reputations. They’re tired of having people with ties to other conferences suggest that the SEC is inferior academically.
Possible Moves/Rumored Interests:
* If forced to move quickly and if given two wishes, most of the people we’ve spoken with believe Slive would add Duke and North Carolina. Such a move would open up the markets and households of the Tarheel State to the league’s broadcast partners and its own network. Those schools would thrill the league’s presidents yet they would not frighten SEC football coaches. They would also increase the SEC’s basketball reputation. Ah, but would UNC and Duke opt to move to the SEC — lower travel costs, more natural rivals — over the Big Ten — a better academic reputation, a strong academic consortium, possibly a few familiar faces from the ACC?
* Virginia Tech has denied interest in moving to the SEC in the past, but if left behind in a weakened ACC the Hokies’ top brass might re-think things. Tech is a natural fit for the Southeastern Conference as it would be yet another football-first school based in what amounts to a one-horse town where local businesses see their fortunes rise and fall depending on the results of VPI’s last game. Virginia Tech’s Corps of Cadets would also provide a perfect bookend to Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets.
* North Carolina State has been tied to the SEC as well as it’s believed that North Carolina and Duke are more tied together than UNC and NCSU. But we’ve been told my more than one source that an easier pull would be taking all three Research Triangle schools together. Toss in Virginia Tech and the SEC could offer what the Big Ten might offer — an open door for a group of rivals who might like to travel together. Such a large-scale move to 18 would require knowledge that adding four schools (three from the same state) would generate far more revenue for the league via additional content, additional big name brands, better basketball, and complete and total dominance of the North Carolina college sports market.
* Another possibility that has often been discussed is the option of adding schools from within the league’s current footprint. We’ve been told there is nothing in writing that would lock schools like Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech or Louisville out, but in a world driven by television revenue, what does adding a school in a state currently occupied really add to the SEC’s coffers? We’ve long stated that Florida State would make sense as the Seminoles are a major, major national brand. But the only thing likely to open the SEC door to FSU is word from the league’s television partners that the Seminoles would seriously drive up revenue for everyone. That’s because no one we’ve spoken to believes Slive will add schools for defensive purposes if/when his league expands again. So while leagues like the Big XII and Big Ten might like to increase their reach into current SEC states, there’s no belief that Slive would attempt to block them from doing so. As long as the SEC is increasing its revenues and staying at or near the top of the food chain, schools located in areas already claimed by the conference probably won’t be getting invitations.
In our next piece, we’ll set aside the rumors and scuttlebutt being passed along by others and tell you exactly what we believe each conference should do as the Big Bang nears.