Since the Big Ten uncorked the bottle holding the conference realignment genie back in November, rumors of more massive changes to come have been spreading across the country. Fans enjoy the “fantasy league” nature of the discussion. People in industries connected to college sports (television, athletic equipment suppliers, agencies holding media rights) simply accept that their world is in for more change. While several of the folks we’ve spoken to in various SEC athletic departments seem to dread the next round of shuffling.
Count us among those who’d like to see the biggest conferences pause, reflect, and observe how the last batch of changes turn out… before changing things once more. Unfortunately it looks as though further changes are unavoidable.
Schools want to make more money and conference swaps can help them do that. Conferences want to either stabilize themselves, guarantee themselves more money, or both. And television networks want more and more content — that means games — with which to fill their program schedules. Add it all up and it certainly appears that the era of the super-conferences is almost here.
Last month, we began a series of breakdowns on realignment and expansion. In Part One we looked at which schools might be looking to switch conferences in order to bolster their bank accounts. In Part Two we examined those 25 “up for grabs” schools to see which ones would probably be on power conferences’ wish lists. In Part Three we looked at the five remaining power conferences and their various options moving forward.
In this, the final part of our series, we try to tie everything together for you. It’s not been easy because many different people are saying many different things these days. That’s the nature of these things, of course. Everyone from an old buddy who works for a major television network to a contact/source who works inside an SEC athletic department wants us to believe he’s got his finger on the pulse of this stuff. We’ve tried to cut through the clutter and deliver what we believe to be some pretty accurate recon of the shifting conference landscape, but it’s far from definitive. This a chess game amongst world class players with billions of dollars at stake. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that sources — especially those at schools — might be willing to float misinformation to cause panic elsewhere.
So what you’re about to see should be taken as our view on this early-January day of where the conferences might move in the coming days, weeks, months and years. It should not be taken as gospel. With the television dollars, threats of litigation, and pure politics involved in these realignment decisions, what’s true at breakfast could be false by dinner.
All that said, we’ve been doing this site for five years. We’ve been seen or heard in just about every state in the union thanks to television and radio outlets turning to us for SEC news and opinion. We’re not interested in throwing all that away just for the sake of a day’s worth of pageviews. If that were our modus operandi, we’d have just tossed out every new rumor we’ve heard when we heard it. We’d get pageviews alright, but we wouldn’t be accurate. And we’d rather be accurate.
Go back through our archives and you’ll find that long before Texas A&M started angling toward the SEC, we made the clear statement that the Aggies would be as good a pull for the league as Texas. On the day A&M announced it would stay in the Big XII back in 2010, we wrote that the Aggies and the SEC were still destined to partner with one another. We were also the first site to mention Missouri as a possible SEC expansion partner way back in 2010 (and we took a lot of guff for throwing out such a “nonsensical” idea, too).
We try to maintain a healthy amount of skepticism when we speak to sources about expansion and realignment. That’s worked out well for us so far. We’ll see if it does this time around.
Why the league would expand: To protect itself from outside raids and guarantee itself a position in the new super-division we see on the horizon. (For those who haven’t been keeping up, we believe it’s only a matter of time before 65-80 FBS schools form a new division within the NCAA football world that plays by its own rules and hands out full-cost-of-tuition scholarships. The schools in the super-division would also make a heckuva lot more money off of television and playoff rights.)
Strongest chatter at the moment: Most sources we’ve spoken to believe the ACC’s days are numbered. The Big Ten, Big XII and SEC are all reportedly lusting after different schools in John Swofford’s league. One founding member (Maryland) left in November. The league’s television dollars aren’t on par with the remaining power conferences. So if the league doesn’t want to go the way of the Big East, ACC presidents had better do one of two things… maybe both.
Who makes sense and why: The ACC needs to land Notre Dame as a full football member. The Irish don’t want to surrender their football independence and they would have other options (Big Ten or Big XII most likely), but if their eyes are on southern recruits and a growing southern population then the ACC would make the most sense. Also, one television executive told us Swofford should try to force a grant of rights agreement on his schools. But the universities hold the ultimate power and there appears to be no interest in signing such a binding pact.
What the ACC should do: The ACC is fighting for its existence. Maryland’s departure was a warning sign. With that in mind, Swofford has to find some way to convince Notre Dame to climb aboard his listing ship. Even it meant allowing Notre Dame to keep their own football deal in place with NBC. Would the current ACC schools be okay with ending the league’s share-and-share-alike revenue distribution policy? For a school like Florida State or Clemson that is rumored to have some interest in the Big XII, would it be more palatable to stay in the ACC and play little brother to Notre Dame… or move to the Big XII and play little brother to Texas? If Notre Dame can’t be had, then a grant of rights agreement becomes much more important. Different lawyers have different views on how ironclad those types of accords really are, but most believe they are at least strong early on when there are more years — and more money — on the table. Such a deal could at least by the ACC more time to save itself. But again, there seems to be no push toward a grant of rights deal.
What we believe will happen: When you see a to-do list as lengthy as the ACC’s it’s cause for concern. Swofford is having to solve a multi-million dollar Rubik’s Cube. If he gets this turn right, it could undo a previous twist he’s already made. For that reason — and because so many of our sources believe Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech have other options — we believe the ACC will wind up as slightly nicer version of the new Big East. If it earns a spot in the new super-division it will do so by a whisker and an eyelash.
Why the league would expand: Television money and a shrinking Midwest population. In recent years Jim Delany has grabbed a mega-brand in Nebraska as well as two schools that provide access to gobs of cable households in Rutgers and Maryland. If the Big Ten could push farther into the South, nab more cable households, and needle the SEC, well, we believe it would… and it will.
Strongest chatter at the moment: As we’ve written since last month, there’s a strong belief that Georgia Tech and Virginia are just waiting to see what Maryland has to pay as an exit fee before they follow the Terps northward. People in the business of media rights deals believe Virginia and Tech are going to move. Sources tell us some ACC coaches are worried those two will leave. And two people we’ve spoken to inside SEC athletic departments have told us they’ve heard and believe those rumors as well. But there’s also a feeling among some that Virginia and North Carolina are the real targets… or that Delany might grab UVA, Tech, UNC and Duke on his way to 18.
Who makes sense and why: Pittsburgh would make perfect sense if the Big Ten believed it needed another metro area for TV purposes (Penn State might not have the juice to block such a move these days). But Delany himself noted in 2010 that population shifts are a part of his league’s thinking. That suggests Virginia, North Carolina, Duke and Georgia Tech are realistic targets for future Big Ten growth. All are AAU institutions, which is so important to that league’s presidents. Finally, while anything’s possible, we’re not buying the chatter that Florida State is on the Big Ten’s wish list. Not one of our sources has suggested that and FSU doesn’t seem to have the academic clout Delany’s league typically desires. That’s doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but you could color us shocked if it did.
What the Big Ten should do: Take a deep breath and wait. As we stated above, the Big Ten is in a position of power. That’s not going to change. Even if the Big XII or the SEC raided the ACC (the SEC would never make the first strike), there would still be some fine southeastern schools left for Delany to grab. The Big Ten should hit the pause button and see how its new roster plays before making further additions.
What we believe will happen: The soon-to-be 14-school Big Ten will eventually become the first super-conference to move past the mythical 16-school barrier. Delany understands the television game as well as anyone and he’ll realize that the bigger his league’s footprint and the more content he has for his Big Ten Network and his other television partners the better. The next move might simply be for two schools, but eventually, we’re guessing the Big Ten jumps beyond 16.
Why the league would expand: Necessity. Bob Bowlsby’s league is going to be making some major bank in the coming years from twin deals with FOX and ESPN. Even better for the schools in the Big XII is the fact that there will only be 10 schools sharing all that loot. But if other leagues start expanding, the Big XII schools might be forced into action. Being a 10-team league in the current universe is fine. Being a 10-team league surrounded by 14-, 16-, or 18-team leagues is not.
Strongest chatter at the moment: The Big XII’s geographic placement is both a positive and a negative. It’s a positive because Bowlsby and crew can grab teams from the North, East, South or West. It’s a negative because no major conference to date has been able to thrive and survive as a continental conference. That said, there’s talk that Brigham Young might be a fit to the West (the Cougars have their own network a la Texas). Florida State and Clemson have been discussed for a long while with several FSU boosters and even trustees saying publicly that they’d be interested in hearing what Bowlsby’s league has to offer. “Florida State and Clemson to the Big XII” gets almost as much talk among people in the college sports industry as “Virginia and Georgia Tech to the Big Ten.” That’s saying something. A source inside an SEC athletic department told us not to rule out Miami as a possibility if the Big XII decides it really wants to open up the state of Florida for recruiting. Other possibilities are out there as well. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have been mentioned as potential Big XII targets. Memphis would kill for a bid. Boise State, too. Louisville battled West Virginia for a bid last year and the big-budgeted Cardinals might be back in play should the ACC collapse. And don’t forget that Texas AD DeLoss Dodds would still like to add Notre Dame in some form or fashion, even as a part-timer.
Who makes sense and why: This is a very tough question for three reasons. First, the Big XII doesn’t have to move unless other leagues move first. (Or unless league leaders believe the Big XII’s lack of a conference title game will hurt it in new college football playoff.) Second, Bowlsby’s league won’t be grabbing schools for the purpose of driving up numbers for a conference-owned television network. To make more cash, the Big XII will need to add brand names that will cause ESPN and FOX to re-work their existing deals with the league. Third, no one but Bowlsby and the network execs know what the cut-off line is regarding return on investment. The Big XII could simply go to 12 teams, add a conference title game and stand pat. Or the conference could go to 14. Or 15 (if Notre Dame joined in all sports but football). Or 16 (though we don’t see how a league without its own network could make enough money back to cover the addition of six new schools).
What the Big XII should do: Add two full-time members with major name recognition and try like hell to swipe Notre Dame from the ACC. Eventually, some other conference is going to move and that will force the Big XII into action. If Bowlsby could destabilize the Atlantic Coast Conference by striking first and grabbing a pair of name programs — like Florida State and Clemson — that might be enough to start a full ACC collapse which might put the Irish in play for a part-time membership. If Bowlsby could pull that off the Big 12 would be a 12-school league in football and a 13-school league in all other sports.
What we believe will happen: At some point the Big XII will grow to at least 12 schools. And if other leagues start collecting schools like trading cards, Bowlsby will have to keep up (even though he won’t see the same financial benefit of those other leagues without his own network). If/when the Big Bang comes, here’s guessing the Big XII becomes a 14-school league and then holds (15 if Notre Dame jumps). One other caveat to throw into Big XII’s expansion plans — most of the people we’ve spoken to believe the conference’s grant of rights agreement will indeed prevent schools like Texas or Oklahoma from leaving anytime soon. But would the league tear up the current deal and cut a new one when the new schools joined? Or would those new schools just be rolled into the current agreement? Ask 10 attorneys and you’ll get 10 different answers.
Why the league would expand: To keep up with the Joneses. If other leagues move, the Pac-12 will have to do likewise.
Strongest chatter at the moment: None at the moment. There’s very little gossip out there regarding the Pac-12. We’ve reported already what we’ve heard from a source in the athletic equipment business (think of reps from Nike, Easton, or Under Armour rather than Joe from Foot Locker) — one Pac-12 AD has already met with all of his coaches and told them that the day of the super-conferences is at hand. So don’t expect a commissioner like Larry Scott to be caught napping. If Pac-12 ADs are saying the shift is on, they’ve gotten that word from Scott.
Who makes sense and why: The Pac-12 is trapped in a region that lacks high-profile football powers and high-profile football powers are what drive television contracts. Boise State would provide good football, but little else in terms of “wow” factor. BYU has a solid brand but the school’s television network wouldn’t seem to jive with the Pac-12′s own TV networks. UNLV doesn’t have the academic clout Pac-12 presidents would want, but Arizona State and Washington State aren’t exactly Harvard or Yale, either. Again, the conference’s geographic limitations might force the league to make choices other conferences wouldn’t.
What the Pac-12 should do: Land-locked to the West and rarely on the minds of east o’ the Mississippi media types, Scott will have to roll the dice on some up-and-coming programs. Where better to roll the dice than in Las Vegas? UNLV — as we’ve shown in previous parts of this series — brought in big dollars in athletic revenue in 2011-12. Forget the mobster stereotypes, Vegas is a good-size television market with real potential in athletics. Next, Scott should run back to Texas. He couldn’t snag Texas, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M three years ago, but SMU and Houston would ditch the dying Big East in a nanosecond. Those programs have the capacity for growth, they would stretch the league much farther east, they would open up the Dallas and Houston television markets, and they would allow Pac-12 schools to recruit the Lone Star State. Sexy names? Well, no. But one source inside an SEC athletic department made it clear to us that Houston is a school that’s seen as having big, big potential. Boise State would provide another football name but there’s a risk that the Broncos will take a step back when facing better competition (as Utah has done since joining the Pac-12 two years ago). BYU is likely not a fit due to its TV network and San Diego State probably wouldn’t offer much to a conference that’s already home to four California schools. If we were Scott, Boise State would get a long look for the final spot along with… Hawaii. Yep, a school we didn’t even list among the 25 schools conferences would consider. That’s because travel is a pain, especially for non-revenue sports. But Scott has already targeted Asian markets with the Pac-12 brand and moving closer toward those markets might up the league’s visibility. Hawaii is also a flagship state university. Again, we’d lean toward Boise State, but Scott’s such an outside-the-box thinker that he might spot value in Hawaii. Heck, if not for a 3,500-seat stadium, we wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Scott’s been scouting the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.
What we believe will happen: We suspect the Pac-12 will eventually go to 16. Scott tried it once before because he thought he could get incredible value with brands like Oklahoma, Texas and A&M. Now he’ll probably have to make the leap to 16 just to keep his league on somewhat of a level playing field with the power conferences to his east.
Why the league would expand: Television money. The SEC is the biggest brand in college football today and being the biggest brand in college football means — in this day and age — that you’re also the biggest brand in all of college sports. Mike Slive wouldn’t want to ruin that with risky moves. He can be patient. He can be finicky. And he can let the game come to him. As usual.
Strongest chatter at the moment: Talk to people around the SEC and you’ll hear that Slive would love to snag either North Carolina and Duke or North Carolina and Virginia. One move would bring two massive sports brands into the SEC and improve the league’s basketball reputation immediately. The other move would allow the SEC to put down markers in two more states. Virginia Tech always gets a mention when SEC expansion is kicked around and we’ve had multiple people tell us that they believe the Hokies will one day land in the Southeastern Conference.
Who makes sense and why: We’ve already named them. North Carolina and Duke are major names and the SEC already has one private school in Vanderbilt, so adding Duke would not be a problem. That pair of schools would allow the SEC to claim every cable household in the state. Virginia and Virginia Tech would do the same in their state, plus they’d push the league into the major media market of Washington, DC. Tech’s culture would be a perfect fit for the Southeastern Conference. NC State is often mentioned by fans as a potential partner, but the Wolfpack — according to a media rights expert — can’t bring to the table what the Tar Heels and Blue Devils do. Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Clemson make sense in terms of proximity. FSU is also a top-natch brand (despite what Florida fans will tell you). But none of those four schools add television value for the in-development SEC Network. If the league gets defensive about other leagues trying to put down roots in the South then, sure, those schools might get a look. But when was the last time Slive made a defensive move?
What the SEC should do: Absolutely nothing. The league is well-positioned. Slive should smoke a cigar and sip his Blanton’s bourbon until another move becomes necessary. In a perfect world, everyone would tap the brakes on this expansion-mania and see how 2013, 2014, and 2015 play out before rushing into any more major decisions. Sadly, we don’t believe the relative peace we’ve enjoyed since November — hey, a whole month! — will last. Not one person we’ve spoken to in any sports-related field believes this respite is anything other than the quiet before the storm.
What we believe will happen: Whatever the Big Ten does, the SEC will likely also do. If that means going past 16 schools in order to provide as much television content as possible, we bet Slive would do it. Now, we’ve been told since A&M and Missouri joined the league that conference leaders aren’t eager to rush another round of expansion. But Slive always has a plan. And an ACC source told Matt Hayes of The Sporting News that the SEC has been wooing UNC and Duke for “the last three years.” If locked into a duel with the Big Ten for UNC and Duke, would the SEC be willing to take NC State to make the move more appealing to Duke and UNC? Yes, we believe so. The SEC would own the state of North Carolina and it would grab two national brands in the process. According to a network executive, if a Virginia school could be hooked as well, the overall revenue boom might make up for the seemingly wasted addition of a third Carolina school. But we believe this much to be true — if the Big Ten stands pat, the SEC will likely stand pat, too. If the Big Ten moves to 16 schools, the SEC will likely follow. If the Big Ten balloons to 18, well, then we’re not so sure. It’s hard to picture Slive allowing Delany’s league to make more cash than the SEC, but just as the Big Ten has an AAU requirement, the SEC has a bit of cultural requirement. With the exception of Vanderbilt, most SEC schools are large, public universities located in rural settings or small cities where the schools’ athletics rule the local scene. Finding four such schools that also provide television value might not be easy.