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Big Bang Theories: The Countdown To Super-Conferences (Part 1)

As the power brokers of the college football world steered their sport toward a brave new world featuring a four-team playoff, it was widely believed that most conferences would slow down a bit on the expansion and realignment front.  Instead, the Big Ten craftily nabbed Maryland from the ACC and Rutgers from the Big East last month, setting off yet another wave of changes, long before the new playoff format and revenue split had even been fully fleshed out.

After the Big Ten’s shocking move, it was only a matter of time before more dominoes began to fall.  And with seven Big East basketball schools deciding last week that they would break away from the Big Whatever, we believe the Big Bang is here.  We mean the big, Big Bang, too.  Super-conferences rising.  Small leagues folding or partnering with one another for survival.  A super-division of the richest four or five conferences separating itself along a haves and have-nots border.  Television executives dropping stone dead from exhaustion as they negotiate, renegotiate, and then renogotiate again major TV deals worth billions of dollars.

In other words, we’re on the brink of a full-on, A-1, top-drawer madhouse.

We’ve examined conference expansion at dating back three-plus years now.  We’ve taken a by-the-numbers approach each time because that’s what all this mess has been about — numbers.  Last October we put together a 10-part series on the math of conference expansion/realignment and you can find the final summary to that series here (as well as links to all the other nine parts).

But this latest burst of expansion is an even simpler breakdown.  This time, you can just follow the money.  Schools are looking for new homes because they want to guarantee themselves larger revenue streams.  Many would like to find some stability, too, but the key factor is the cash.

A seat is nice.  A comfy throne is better.

Meanwhile, conferences are trying to cash in on television deals and playoff revenue.  With the Big East on the verge of being adios’ed, it’s already been snipped from the list of major football conferences.  Instead of six big conferences splitting the lion’s share of postseason cash, in the future just five leagues will dominate the playoff era.  And that’s only if the ACC survives.  If it gets picked apart a la the Big East — and money suggests it will be — then there will be but four big-time leagues to horde the majority of playoff cash.

Those four conferences will also dominate the television landscape.  For half a decade, folks have debated whether the SEC got things right by inking huge contracts with CBS and ESPN or whether the Big Ten made the shrewdest move in launching its own TV network.  Turns out, they were both smarter than the rest of the pack.  To make the haul of greenbacks as big as possible, a conference wants both huge, national television contracts and its own network.

So this round of moves comes down to much simpler math than anything we’ve seen before in the expansion/realignment game.  It’s about revenue and it’s about cable households.  Sure, some leagues won’t take schools if they don’t fit a certain academic profile, but now more than ever academics are taking a bigger backseat to cash and television ratings.

With that in mind, this week, we’re going to provide you with some very simple data.  Today, we’ll look at the schools that might be interested in switching conferences.  It’s not hard to figure out which schools would listen to another league’s offer.  Just look at the revenue.

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Alabama Leads The SEC In Athletic Revenue

The good folks at USA Today have put out their latest look at the dollars being spent and brought in by all the NCAA Division I athletic programs across the country.  What they’ve found is that Texas continues to be the richest program in the country (and getting richer)… overall schools are spending more on athletics than they’re making…  and Alabama led the way in Southeastern Conference revenue last year.

The database is wildly interesting, but it’s not quite perfect.  First, only public schools are required to share their expenses and revenues so Vanderbilt and other private schools are not included.  Second, schools fudge numbers, cook books, or any other cliches you can imagine.  There is no definitive number that can be used to compare School X to School Y because the two schools might tally up their numbers in totally different ways.

Having said that, these numbers are about as close as one can get to actually determining the health — or illness — of an athletic department in a given year.

In the chart below, we’ll use USA Today’s data to show you the total revenue, total expenses, and total net profit for each SEC program in 2011.  But remember, Vandy isn’t included and Missouri and Texas A&M were making Big 12 money in all of the years studied:


   Rank    School    Total Revenue 2011    Total Expenses 2011    Total Net Profit 2011
   1    Alabama    124,498,616    105,068,152    19,430,464
   2    Florida    123,514,257    107,157,831    16,356,426
   3    LSU    107,259,352    91,796,925    15,462,427
   4    Arkansas    91,768,112    79,392,988    12,375,124
   5    Georgia    92,341,067    80,759,498    11,581,569
   6    Texas A&M    87,296,532    78,310,805    8,985,727
   7    Miss. State    58,981,769    51,588,743    7,393,026
   8    Tennessee    104,368,992    97,580,406    6,788,586
   9    Auburn    103,982,441    100,497,784    3,484,657
   10    S. Carolina    83,813,226    80,525,711    3,287,515
   11    Ole Miss    49,180,892    47,109,301    2,071,591
   12    Kentucky    84,878,311    82,840,006    2,038,305
   13    Missouri    64,146,530    64,160,358    -13,828


Again, these numbers can be doctored by the schools to appear any way they like.  In several years we’ve seen SEC programs report a net profit of exactly $0 for a year.  Maybe they pulled a Michael Scott and spent their surplus at the last minute, but we think it’s more likely they’re tweaking things as they see fit.


Looking at Missouri’s net athletic profit in 2011 — according to USA Today’s numbers — it’s not to hard to figure out why the school is jumping to the SEC this year.

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