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With the SEC putting the brakes on Expansion Mania 2011 — at least temporarily — we thought we’d provide you with a Monday morning breakdown of where things currently stand and where we think things are going.
After spending most of Sunday on the phone talking to several contacts across the South, we’ve arrived at the following conclusion: As usual, the rumors are bigger than the realities.
Think back to last summer. How many times were the words “done deal” used to describe six Big 12 schools partnering up with the then Pac-10? How many reports claimed that the Big Ten would definitely move to 16 teams? How sure was Missouri that it would land in the Big Ten? Heck, just this week, how many times have you read that Texas A&M to the SEC was already a completed deal?
The reality is that these types of moves take time. They involve lawyers who have to sift through exit contracts and television pacts. They require both introspection and down-the-line projections from league presidents and boards. Major moves such as these are never as easy as what you, me and the guy at the end of the bar can draw up on a cocktail napkin.
Mix in the fact that every media outlet wants to own a piece of the story. For that reason, some people take chances. All it takes is one writer to say that Louisville might be on the SEC’s expansion list and all over the country, papers, websites and television crawls state: “Louisville is a potential SEC candidate.” When speculation doubles as news, rumors grow.
So below is a simple Q&A explainer aimed at tackling the big issues still at play in the Southeastern Conference. Where we do some pure speculating, we mark it as such. Otherwise, these are the opinions we’ve formulated based on a) our sources inside the SEC and b) our knowledge of how the league and Mike Slive have traditionally done business. (Hint: deliberately, quietly, and — in the end — incredibly successfully.)
So here’s our Monday morning take. And, yes, we know full well that what we post at 2am could be completely outdated by 2pm.
1. So is the Texas A&M saga over… or is there more to come?
That depends on how A&M handles the SEC’s decision to pitch the ball back into the Aggies’ court. As we’ve stated from the start of this, Slive doesn’t want to expand unless he has to and unless he’s making some sure-fire improvements to his league. A&M’s push to exit the Big 12 forced the SEC to move more quickly than it would have liked. So the league’s presidents voted on Sunday to basically table the issue.
Are Aggie officials put off by that or do they understand that this was being done to a) avoid a potential Big 12 lawsuit and b) give A&M and the SEC more time to lure in a 14th member? Our guess: A&M knows the score and is fine with the SEC going into the four corners for a few days.
2. What’s next for Texas A&M?
If the Aggies still desire a move to the SEC, they’ll have to jump through a couple of hoops this week. Later today, A&M’s board of regents will meet with the goal of handing over to the school’s president the power to negotiate the Aggies’ future with various conferences — SEC, Big 12, whoever he likes. It’s a little like Congress giving the President the right to go to war. We expect they’ll grant him the power to explore the school’s options.
On Tuesday, A&M officials will then go before the Texas state legislature. Some Lone Star State politicos want to know a) is a move from the Big 12 really good for Texas A&M and b) will a move by A&M hurt in anyway the remaining Texas schools in the Big 12 (Baylor, Texas and Texas Tech). Already, A&M sources have leaked word that Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe has told the school that his league can survive without them — something he denies having said — and that Houston would make an excellent replacement. The message from A&M is clear: “We’re not hurting anybody, we’re just trying to help ourselves.”
Finally, someone at A&M is probably running through the legalese of multiple contracts to determine just how much money the school will lose in terms of a Big 12 buyout payment. We’ll not get into the details, but the Aggies would face a penalty as large as $30 million. Could they negotiate that down (as happened with the schools that left the Big 12 last year) or would the league be more punitive with the Aggies? Those questions all need to be answered, too.
3. If A&M applies for membership, will the SEC say “yes?”
We’ll discuss the nuances of who asks who a little later, but suffice to say, if A&M withdraws from the Big 12 we would expect the SEC to welcome the school into the league with big hug. As we’ve noted numerous times, A&M has flirted with the SEC dating all the way back to the 1980s when LSU athletic director Joe Dean and A&M AD John David Crow tried to cook up a union.
The SEC wants the Aggies. For the millions of fans that they bring. For the television markets they bring. For the recruiting ground that they bring. For the excellent AAU academic status that they bring. Basically for everything they bring.
But here’s the rub — the SEC also wants a 14th team to go with A&M. That means that right now the Aggies are most definitely chatting behind closed doors with other Big 12 schools to try and find a dance partner. One of those schools is likely Missouri. Texas Tech is also a possibility, though we at MrSEC.com do not believe the SEC would seriously eye the Red Raiders. (No offense to the Techsters, but they just don’t bring anything to the table that A&M wouldn’t already supply. And Lubbock is about accessible as Mars.)
You can also bet that the SEC is engaged in third-party discussions with a number of schools to the east today. Feelers are being extended as you read this. But the SEC needs any school entering the league to make the first official move. Slive has said he does not want to undercut a rival league. The man is a lawyer by trade. He knows that swiping teams could open the SEC up to a potential lawsuit.
All that said, we think the SEC says “yes” to A&M when the Aggies get their ducks in a row and if the league can find a desirable 14th school to come on board.
4. Will the SEC expand to 16 or stop at 14?
An SEC source told The New York Times yesterday that if A&M is added, the league knows it has to find a 14th team. We take that to mean a 14th team and a 14th team only.
As we discussed earlier, rumors always lean to the big side and tonight half of the Rivals sites in America are claiming that the SEC is aiming for 16 teams. At the risk of having to clean egg off of our faces, we at MrSEC.com disagree.
One of our solid SEC sources has told us that the league would entertain 16 down the road, but working at a fast clip right now… the league likely won’t rush a move all the way to mega-conference status.
Think about it. Why would the SEC completely break the mold unless forced to do so? Adding four teams — as opposed to two — only increases the number of headaches (buyouts, potential lawsuits, time frames, new divisional formats). Larry Scott found out last year how tough it is to get multiple teams on the same page for a major unforced move. And he was dealing with six schools from one league. Imagine trying to piece together four schools from two or more conferences?
In addition, to slice a pie 16 ways, you better have a darn big pie. Could the SEC bring in four schools that would carry so much value that they would propel the league’s television contracts into a whole new dimension? You can bet that’s what SEC presidents will be asking.
Finally, no major conference has come close to fielding 16 teams in football. The last time the SEC expanded, it did so incrementally, from 10 to 12. We think it’s likely that the SEC will do the same this time around, moving from 12 to 14 and leaving a possible move to 16 schools somewhere down the road, if everyone else starts heading in that direction.
5. Which schools are possibilities at this point?
Here’s a wide range of potential partners, from those most likely to approach the SEC to those we view as extreme longshots:
Missouri – The Tigers don’t have many friends in the Big 12 after last summer’s power play. They say they’re committed to the Big 12 these days, but schools are often “committed” to their league right up until the second they leave. If A&M is working to bring someone from the Big 12 with them, Missouri makes a lot of sense (location, TV markets, good academics, good facilities, recruiting in St. Louis, etc). They’re also solid in basketball.
Texas Tech – We’ve stated that this one’s a longshot, but the Red Raiders live in fear that Texas will eventually leave them behind. Tech would probably be more interested in the SEC than vice versa.
Kansas – Another longshot due to their location, but if push came to shove, the Jayhawks would bring some serious basketball cred to the SEC. And they’re also a school that fears a Texas departure.
The other Big 12 schools – Ridiculously long longshots. Oklahoma was interested in the SEC last summer, but now they’re getting paid huge dollars by Fox and ESPN even as the Big 12 is getting smaller and smaller. It’s getting to the point that the Red River Shootout will decide a BCS bid every single year. Outside of those mentioned above, no other Big 12 school would appeal to the SEC.
Florida State – When beatwriters talk, we pay attention. And beatwriters for FSU have said that there is interest among some in the schools’ administration in moving. Their denials have also left more wiggle room than some other schools. In the last week, reports have surfaced of an SEC gentleman’s agreement not to invite any school located in the home state of a current league member. That would keep FSU out even if they came to the SEC and said “let us in.” That said, Florida State is one of the best sports brands in America. They would move the dial in terms of TV dollars.
Clemson – The Tigers would bring very little to the SEC. They aren’t the national brand of FSU. And their football hasn’t been as good as Virginia Tech over the last two decades. Clemson is very similar to many current SEC schools, but from a business standpoint, the SEC gains little from a CU entry. Also, there’s the in-state gentleman’s agreement to think about.
Virginia Tech – The Hokies would be a great fit. They’d bring new TV markets, new recruiting ground in fertile Virginia, and a national name in football. They would also serve as an excellent ROTC bookend to Texas A&M. But Tech’s AD has been pretty clear in voicing his belief that VPI is better suited in the ACC. When you state reasons why the ACC is better than the SEC, that’s not a non-denial denial, that’s just a denial. It could be a smokescreen, but after the political battles Tech waged for decades to get into the ACC, we think they’re a longshot for the SEC. Unfortunately.
Georgia Tech – See: Clemson with better academics. Slim chance.
North Carolina State – NCSU has had decent athletics over the years. They would also expand the SEC’s geographic footprint. They would bring in a Top 30 television market in Raleigh. Academically, the SEC’s presidents would be pleased as well. Currently, there’s a lot of smoke swirling around the Wolfpack, but we just don’t see how the school could break up The Research Triangle and end a hundred years of history with next door neighbors UNC and Duke. A grab for NCSU would prove what we’ve been saying all along — that leagues are looking at much more than just football power — but we have a hard time giving this one much of a chance.
Maryland and Virginia – Both would bring new ground, new television markets and excellent academics. But they’re longshots. We don’t see them leaving the ACC.
North Carolina and Duke – There were rumors last year that Slive might fancy grabbing the top two Carolina schools, but again, we can’t see those universities leaving the ACC. If you’re the SEC, they’d do wonders for the league’s academic reputation as well as its basketball brand, but these schools belong in the longshot category.
Miami – Won’t happen. The Canes are an urban school in a pro sports town with so-so fan support. The SEC is made up mostly of rural schools where fans care only about their hometown team’s football program. (That’s another reason Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, and Florida State would all make great additions.)
The other ACC schools – No Wake Forest, no Boston College.
Louisville and Cincinnati and Houston – Urban schools with average academics. Louisville has solid athletics and great facilities. Cincinnati brings new ground, a good TV market and opens up the state of Ohio for recruiting. Houston once received some discussion as an SEC candidate along with A&M in the late-80s. But none of those three schools fit the SEC’s profile. (Plus there’s the in-state agreement in the Cardinals’ case.)
West Virginia – The Mountaineers would push the league north into the Pittsburgh television market. Their basketball and football programs often rank in the Top 20. And they definitely fit the SEC’s one-horse-town profile, too. One more thing — their fans would rival LSU’s in terms of Saturday night rowdiness. But West Virginia is a small state with a small population. The school’s academic reputation wouldn’t cause SEC presidents to jump for joy, either. We believe WVU would be interested in joining the SEC because the Big East is far from solid. We also think they’d fit right in athletically. But this one ranks just above a longshot in our book.
The other Big East schools – South Florida is Cincinnati or Louisville to the south. Pittsburgh might be an interesting choice if paired with West Virginia, but that’s a definite longshot at best. We don’t see anyone else from that conference on the SEC’s radar.
6. Is there really an agreement not to explore schools located in current SEC states?
We would find it surprising if such a rule exists because we heard nothing of this last summer. We have been told by one SEC source that it’s more likely several schools might band together to vote down an in-state interloper in a show of solidarity. (Example: Georgia, Kentucky, Carolina and Florida — all schools with strong in-state rivals — would team up to vote down Florida State. It takes nine votes to approve a team’s membership application.)
Slive and the SEC are usually very forward thinking. And forward thinkers don’t limit their options. If the SEC has handcuffed itself, then we find that disappointing. Even if there’s only one school in the SEC’s current footprint worth nabbing.
When it comes to expansion — as much as fans may hate it — good football and a close proximity to the rest of the league aren’t the driving factors. Leagues want to grow outward, not inward. But Florida State is a big enough national brand that the Seminoles would a) further help the league’s tremendous football status and b) seriously drive up television revenue. FSU is a national draw, pure and simple.
If the SEC has an agreement in place to bar Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Memphis, UAB and Sewanee from entering, so be it. But if the league would refuse a phone call from the folks in Tallahassee, its presidents are not considering the big picture.
7. Who should the SEC pursue?
Did we say pursue? We meant to say “who should the SEC hope applies for membership.” To “pursue” a school could open Slive and crew up to the litigation.
Now this just an opinion, but of the schools mentioned above, we obviously think Texas A&M, Florida State and Virginia Tech would be A-list additions. Missouri brings enough to be considered a B+. (In terms of TV markets, academics, athletics and overall population, the Tigers today would be a better “get” than either Arkansas or South Carolina were when they entered the league in 1992… which shows you how the goals for expansion have changed as television dollars have increased.)
For name value, we’d also consider West Virginia to be a B-level addition. NC State does not float our boat — mainly because we that school moving — but Wolfpack officials would certainly be worthy of a phone call (placed by a third party, of course). Other than those schools, we’re talking about longshots and additions that really wouldn’t add very much to the SEC’s resume.
In our view, the SEC’s choices are rather limited. But if anyone’s going to pull a surprise in the expansion game, Slive’s the man to do it.
8. You keep talking about academics, why?
Because college presidents will be making these decisions. Look no further than the SEC’s top administrators overruling their football coaches on the issue of oversigning this spring for proof that the Pointy Heads have a different set of values than the Jocks.
As we’ve previously noted, we were recently told by someone who served in the Penn State athletic department that the Nittany Lions’ move to the Big Ten 20 years ago was driven first and foremost by a desire to upgrade the school’s academic reputation. Other BCS-level administrators have told us similar stories.
Still don’t believe us? Think back over that last 30 or so years and name for us one school that has moved from a conference with a great academic reputation to one with a lesser academic reputation. You can’t. The Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC don’t lose schools. They gain them.
When discussing possible ACC-to-SEC moves you must keep that in mind. Some group of trustees and a president are going to have to say, “We’re going from a league with a great academic reputation to a league that has just two schools in the prestigious Association of American Universities.” We’re not saying that can’t happen — especially with big money on the table — but most academicians aren’t going to flip-flop conference affiliations based solely on bowl game opportunities.
Academics, athletics, TV market size, population, athletic facilities, geographic location, new recruiting opportunities, politics and the possibility of lawsuits will all play a role in who ultimately joins the SEC.
9. What’s with all the lawsuit talk?
There’s been a lot of movement in the last few years and so far no league has buried another under a massive lawsuit. That could change thanks to growing television contracts. Right now, there’s more money to fight over. As a result, there’s already talk of the Big 12 filing a billion dollar lawsuit against the SEC if A&M moves east, undercutting the Big 12′s ESPN contract in the process. And, yes, we said “billion” with a B.
That’s one reason the SEC slowed things down on Sunday. It needs to be crystal clear that A&M is acting on its own to find a new home. If there is proof that the SEC coaxed A&M away from their current conference, Slive’s crew could be held liable.
So while there are probably all kinds of phone calls being made between SEC reps and those from Big 12 and ACC schools right now, when all’s said and done any school entering the SEC will have to withdraw from its current league and ask for an SEC invitation before Slive will actually extend one.
10. Isn’t this expansion talk just further proof that college football is out of whack?
Talk about low-hanging fruit. Because the NCAA just held a “let’s fix sports” retreat, half the columnists in America are pointing to Texas A&M’s flirtation with the SEC as a sign that college football is a dirty business. At MrSEC.com, we have no clue why one school’s decision to explore its options is somehow being tied to a rules retreat.
The fact of the matter is schools have been moving around for a hundred years. Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee no longer play in the Southern Conference. Tulane, Georgia Tech and Sewanee no longer play in the SEC. The Pac-8 begat the Pac-10 which begat the Pac-12. Penn State and Nebraska joined the Big Ten. The ACC has grown. The Big East has grown, shrunk and grown again. And good luck tracing the yo-yo-like history of the WAC.
There is more money to be made now than at any point in the history of intercollegiate athletics. It only makes sense that schools would take good looks at their future financial opportunities. Anyone saying that this new wave of expansion talk is somehow a sign of the Apocalypse is just looking to fill space on his website. Schools move and conferences expand and contract. It’s happened for years.
11. What’s your best bet as to what will happen with the SEC?
Pencil this in as pure speculation, but the official MrSEC.com feeling is that the SEC will add Texas A&M and one other school. That should be no surprise because we’ve said for two years that eventually the Southeastern Conference and the Aggies would partner up.
Having said that, we wouldn’t be surprised if that partnership were announced in two weeks… or two years. In our view, it all depends on who the SEC hears from regarding Open Slot #14. If the schools phoning the league offices in Birmingham would bring real value to the league, then this goes down sooner rather than later. But if the SEC finds that the strongest brands are taking a wait-and-see approach — the kind of approach the SEC itself usually favors — then we might still be talking about this stuff next summer.
As for who that 14th team will be, we’ll guess either Missouri or Florida State. The FSU situation depends on whether or not they’re truly interested in leaving the ACC as well as the SEC’s supposed “no in-state” schools agreement.
Missouri would clearly be the fallback option of the two, but as we noted above, the Tigers make up for their lack of a super strong brand name with many other strengths.
12. Okay, so if you were declared king of the SEC, what would you do?
Speaking for myself, I would grab Texas A&M and Florida State and call it a day. FSU officials might need some cajoling, but I’d give ‘em my best sales pitch. And whatever convincing University of Florida president Bernie Machen would need in order to okay the Seminoles… I’d provide it.
A&M and FSU are the two best options available in terms of long-term benefit to the league’s coffers and reputation. To heck with any gentleman’s agreement.