What we already know: The college sports landscape has been shifting and quaking for three years and there’s little reason to believe things will solidify in the future.
What we already know: Schools and conferences are marrying for the money. Cash rules the day and travel and rivalries mean little.
What we already know: Athletics are taking a back seat to cable households. Wins and losses have been trumped by television reach.
What we don’t know: How the many moves made in recent months will play out over the next five, 10 or 20 years.
While final results are far from in, the recent marriage of West Virginia to the Big XII can already be viewed as a canary in the coal mine, appropriately enough. It’s a case study for the potential buyer’s remorse that may set in for several leagues and several schools in the future.
In the fall of 2011, West Virginia University let the ACC and the SEC know of its interest in league-hopping. The Big East was collapsing — think of just how much that conference has changed in 18 months — and the Mountaineers didn’t want to get caught without a chair when the music stopped.
The ACC had already added Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. That league passed on the Mountaineers.
The SEC had already invited Texas A&M and was already playing footsie with Missouri. WVU tried flirt its way into the mix, but its advances were met with a “thanks, but no thanks.”
At that point, West Virginia began chatting with the Big XII, a league that was then down to nine schools. TCU had already been picked to replace the departing Aggies. The Mountaineers appeared to be the top choice to replace the Tigers.
But just when it looked like the Mountaineers were a lock for the Big XII, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and University of Oklahoma president David Boren tried to sneak Louisville through the door ahead of West Virginia. They were unsuccessful in their efforts. Ultimately, WVU joined the Big XII and Louisville wound up cutting a deal to replace Maryland in the ACC when the Terrapins leave for the Big Ten.
Follow all that?
Well just one season into the WVU/Big XII partnership, some are already saying the league missed the boat by not going ahead and adding the Cardinals, too. Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman wrote the following over the weekend:
“Louisville was a no-risk addition. Adding Louisville didn’t mean the Big 12 had to commit to a 12-school format, but it would have positioned the conference to more easily expand, if that became the goal. Maybe best of all, Louisville would have been a morale boost to a beleaguered conference.
Yes, each Big 12 school would have taken a slightly lower television payout. Whatever value the ‘Ville added would have been a little low to offset the extra mouth to feed. But think of the pragmatic benefits Louisville would have provided.
Especially this time of year. Another heavyweight in March Madness. Kansas’ shoulders are getting tired, carrying the rest of the conference the way the Jayhawks have in recent years.”
Make no mistake, Louisville has become a big-time all-around program. Its football and men’s basketball coaches are among the highest-paid in the nation. Its athletic revenue ranks in the nation’s top 20. In fact, the case can be made that Louisville might have been a better overall fit than West Virginia if the Big XII had truly capped its membership at 10. It’s not a long walk to get from “should have invited them too” to “should have invited them instead.”
Certainly, Louisville would have been closer to the existing Big XII footprint than West Virginia. And travel is an issue that WVU officials were already bringing up less than a year after joining the league. According to The Times West Virginian in late-February:
“’We have asked that when reasonable they give us a two-game stay over on the road,’” (WVU athletic director Oliver) Luck revealed.
Twice this past season WVU was scheduled to go out on the road, play a Saturday game, fly home on Sunday, practice Monday and fly out again on Tuesday for a Wednesday game.
League rules do not allow them to stay on the road during that time, so they use up most of two days traveling.
Rather than doing that, they would prefer to play a Saturday-Big Monday on the road with a Sunday stay over, which would cut back on taking the long trip to and from Morgantown.”
West Virginia officials knew that travel would be a concern in their new home. But faced with the prospect of finding themselves homeless, Luck and company eagerly accepted the Big XII’s invitation despite the long trips to spots like Manhattan, Kansas and Lubbock, Texas. How could they not?
But how long will it take for West Virginia to tire of the travel issues and look once more for a new conference home? How many travel concessions will the Big XII make for WVU before other member schools start suggesting — for example — that any school traveling more than X miles be allowed to spend an extra night on the road?
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