“What are you hearing about conference expansion?”
“Any news on Florida State?”
“Would the SEC really prefer North Carolina and Duke over Virginia Tech and NC State?”
“They’re saying on Twitter that an announcement from the Big Ten could come today… you hearing that?”
If you ever wanted an idea of what kinds of emails arrive at the MrSEC.com inbox each day (aside from the obligatory hate mail), now you know. Expansion, expansion, expansion. What are you hearing? When will it happen? Who’ll move where?
Day after day, we get mostly the same questions. Which is fine, I try to answer them all. But on Thursday a fresh query arrived: “Regardless of what some people say about the Big Ten getting ahead of the SEC, don’t you think, too, that Mike Slive knows exactly how to work around Jim Delany?”
That’s a good one. But unfortunately, I don’t share the emailer’s pro-SEC enthusiasm. The reason? When it comes to the next round of conference expansion and realignment, Delany’s sales pitch will have two advantages over Slive’s. From how I look at it, the Big Ten will likely be the “winner” in all this mess. But that depends on how you define “winner,” of course. More on that in a minute. First, those two face cards that Delany currently holds…
Advantage One: The Big Ten has the only successful television network of its kind.
Initially, the Big Ten Network — 51% of which is owned by FOX — struggled to gain cable and satellite carriage when it launched in September of 2007. By the end of 2008, however, more and more cable and satellite providers had picked it up (more than 300 now carry the network), and millions of dollars in subscriber fees were already rolling in. The network turned a profit in its second year.
You might remember that the SEC used the possibility of starting its own TV network as leverage in negotiations with CBS and ESPN in the spring and summer of 2008. Slive and company sufficiently scared those two networks into cutting pair of 15-year contracts that would guarantee the league $3 billion dollars over the life of the deals.
Those contracts were a good thing for the league. They changed the way all leagues did business and nearly every major conference has used the SEC’s jackpot as a benchmark in their own TV negotiations since. But while the SEC has been caught and passed on the money front, the league still gets more national coverage of more games than any other conference. Those are the positives. The negative is that Slive and his television advisers cut their deals before the Big Ten Network exploded. In early-2008, a league-owned network still appeared risky . By 2013, a well-run league-owned network looks like a gold mine. The emphasis is on “well-run.”
To date, copycats conferences and schools haven’t been able to duplicate the Big Ten Network’s success.
ESPN and Texas partnered to create the Longhorn Network which has been an unmitigated disaster. It played a large role in driving multiple schools away from the Big XII conference. It helped bring about the end of Texas’ long, storied rivalry with Texas A&M. It’s still not seen on DirecTV, Dish Network, or Time Warner cable.
While the University of Texas is still pocketing $20 million a year from ESPN as part of its $300 million contract with the four-letter net, everyone from Texas AD DeLoss Dodds to Longhorn football coach Mack Brown has complained about it. (Dodds admitted last year that he still couldn’t watch it at his home and Brown said the channel gives away too much information about his team.)
The Mountain West’s network — a partnership with CBS and Comcast — was referred to as “the mtn” and it actually launched a full year prior to the Big Ten’s channel. But don’t get too excited. It went off the air last June. Raise your hand if you never even knew it existed.
The Pac-12 had a nifty idea to create seven different channels. Six regional channels would focus on two schools apiece (Arizona and Arizona State, Southern Cal and UCLA, California and Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State, Washington and Washington State, Colorado and Utah). The other channel would cover all 12 league schools and would serve as the national channel for the conference.
All seven networks launched last August. The regional channels are available across the Pac-12 footprint, but the league’s national channel is still fighting to gain clearance on mega-satellite provider, DirecTV. The Pac-12 has also had to already deal with a union strike.
Unlike the Big Ten Network and “the mtn” the Pac-12 owns its networks through and through. That means all of the start-up and production costs are on the league and its schools. But once the channels gain a foothold — especially if the national network gains a foothold — all profits will be kept at home.
(In case you’re wondering, BYUtv covers Brigham Young athletics, but that is only one facet of the Mormon network. Because it’s a religious channel rather than a pure sports channel, BYUtv really doesn’t fit our discussion.)
Add it all up and any ACC schools, for the sake of example, would be choosing between a league with an already proven network and a league whose channel is still on the drawing board. In addition, there are no other clear success stories to point to other than BTN.
As far as we know, the SEC must still decide whether it will follow the Pac-12′s plan and create and launch a 100% league-owned network or whether it will go the Longhorn Network route and simply collect a check while ESPN does all the work. (Expect it to be the latter.)
Whatever the league chooses, administrators at other schools will have to be convinced that Slive can mimic the Big Ten’s success when no one else to date has been able to. In a head-to-head battle with the Big Ten, Delany appears to have a decided edge on the TV money front.
Advantage Two: The Big Ten has the most distinguished academic reputation of all the major sports conferences.
By this point, most of this site’s readers have come to realize that academics do play some role in the conference expansion/realignment game. Sports television money is first, yes, but administrators like to pull in academic grants and donations, too. Land in a better league and a school can expect a boost in both of those areas.
Pure, old-fashioned snobbery is also at play. The administrators making these decisions would rather keep company with other prominent institutions of higher learning than with diploma mills and commuter schools.
Trust me, academics count for something.
As an example, consider how I go car shopping. I always create a list showing the two or three models of cars I’m considering. Then I compare them to one another in a number of categories. Price is big, of course. The vehicles’ gas mileage estimates matter. I’ll also look at the cars’ safety ratings. I’ll see which vehicle is the most environmentally friendly. And so on.
The odds of me finding one car that is better in every one of those categories are slim. So I have to prioritize my categories. Price is often #1, followed by safety ratings. I’ve had three SUVs in a row so gas mileage and environmental friendliness aren’t at the top of my list (though they should be).
When it comes to conference selection, academics would be akin to safety ratings or gas mileage estimates in car shopping. Money issues might rank highest, but academics factor in, too. And the importance of academic prestige depends upon the school that’s shopping for a new conference.
By 2014, the Big Ten is scheduled to include 14 schools. Thirteen of those schools are currently members of the Association of American Universities. (Nebraska was a member when it joined the Big Ten, but it was booted from the big-brained club in 2011.) The Big Ten also has its own academic consortium called the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. The CIC includes the University of Chicago, a former founding member of what is now known as the Big Ten athletic conference. The CIC allows Big Ten schools to share knowledge and information, to work together, and to drive up grant money. According to the CIC’s website, the 13 current members “engage in $8.4 billion in funded research each year.” The total expenditures of the group equal a whopping $33 billion. For comparison, the largest athletic department budgets in the country come in around $100 million (with an M, not a B).
The CIC’s combined libraries feature more books than the schools of the Ivy League. CIC/Big Ten schools receive 12% of the total federal research funds awarded each year. And 12 of the current 13 member schools have endowments larger than a billion dollars.
Simply put, the schools of the Big Ten are among the biggest and best research-oriented universities on the continent.
If Slive and Delany wind up pitching the same schools in the ACC, Slive had better hope geography and travel expenses rank higher on those schools’ lists than academic clout. While the SEC is not the joke it’s often made out to be — the league currently has four AAU schools, one more than the Big XII, just one less than the ACC — it isn’t the Big Ten. Only four SEC schools have endowments larger than $1 billion (Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt). The league’s own SEC Academic Consortium is growing, but it was just launched in 2005. Big Ten schools have been working together in the CIC since 1958.
One league is climbing. The other has already arrived.
So the Big Ten will be the winner in the expansion race?
In terms of grabbing the biggest “name” schools that might move… probably. If asked about television networks, Slive can layout a plan. Delany can pull out a ratings book and a stack of bank statements.
If asked about academics, Slive can point to the many ways in which the SEC has improved and is still improving. Delany can legitimately call the Big Ten the preeminent academic conference among all the major US sports conferences.
Unless proximity, personal relationships or some other hidden factors come into play, the SEC will be fighting an uphill battle if forced to duke it out — pun intended — with the Big Ten for an ACC school or two.
Now, no one should underestimate the cool, strategic mind of the SEC’s commissioner. Slive has been a groundbreaker for more than a decade it’s doubtful that will change. But he’ll have to be at his poker-playing best during the next round of conference realignment because the other guy has a better hand.
Imagine if the Big Ten could expand to 18 or even 20 schools by bringing in AAU institutions with major athletic programs like Duke, Georgia Tech, Kansas, North Carolina, and/or Virginia. Under that scenario Delany’s total roster of schools would include several major football and major basketball brands. His league would likely include three times as many AAU institutions as any other. And the Big Ten would also have a television presence that stretches from west of the Mississippi to New York City and down the Eastern Seaboard.
On all those fronts the Big Ten would be a major winner.
But take heart, SEC fans. The last time I checked 100,000 people don’t show up to witness the administering of a trigonometry test. Rarely do fans take much pleasure in shouting, “We’ve got more TV markets than you!”
Regardless of who the Big Ten adds, the Southeastern Conference will still be located smack dab in the middle of the most fertile recruiting zone in America. Every NFL draft proves that the best athletes are in the Southeast and there are more are moving to the Sun Belt region from the cold Midwest every day. In terms of winning football games, that recruiting advantage is the ultimate trump card.
The Big Ten has the odds in its favor regarding expansion. But the SEC will be very hard to displace from the top of the college football world. Anyone with a Big Ten degree surely knows not to argue that point.
So as we said, if you want figure out who’ll win the realignment war it all comes down to how you define “winner.” If you’re worried about TV money and academic prestige, the winner will probably be the Big Ten. If you’re concerned about winning football games and chanting your league’s name after many a national championship game to come, the winner will likely remain the SEC.
Seeing as you are reading MrSEC.com and not ScholasticAdvantageToday.com, I’ve got a pretty good idea what your definition of winner is.