Conference Realignment: Wild Wild Whispers

A Wild, Wild Whisper
by Bob Epling
The Campus Game
June 12, 2010

There’s a wild, wild whisper blowing in the wind …
(Lady Antebellum – American Honey)

This is the second of a series of columns on the current state of big-time college football. Part Two examines potential conference expansion and realignment, and the factors driving these significant changes. Part One provided an introduction to and explanation of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

Those wild, wild whispers about conference expansion and realignment in college athletics have now become a roaring reality.

The Big Ten, accelerating an expansion schedule first publicized by conference commissioner Jim Delany in December, will soon formally accept Nebraska’s application to join.

The Pac-10 yesterday announced the admission of Colorado into the league.

The reeling Big 12 Conference, jilted league to both the Cornhuskers and the Buffaloes, will in all likelihood soon lose four or five other members to the plunderers from the Pacific Coast.

The institutions left behind and those conferences not yet directly involved in the tumult warily wait and watch, some seeking to strengthen their current circumstances, others simply hoping for a safe, soft landing spot.

The topic of conference expansion has dominated newspapers and online publications for the past couple of weeks. This article seeks to summarize the current status of conference realignment, and identify the main reasons for these changes. A future column will take up the mostly unexplored question of what impact these seismic realignments will have on college football bowls.

Here is a recap of the current realignment status.

The Big Ten may or may not stop with the addition of Nebraska (it seems likely the conference will add two to four more members). Among the schools considered to be primary Delany targets are Notre Dame, Maryland, Rutgers, Syracuse, and possibly Pitt and Missouri.

Out West, Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott seems intent on expanding to sixteen teams by adding nearly the entire Big 12 South to the league rolls. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas Tech reportedly favor accepting invitations, while Texas A&M seems to be wavering slightly between joining them or trekking east to the Southeastern Conference. I expect the Aggies to stick with their conference colleagues and flee west.

The Big 12 might not be dead, but life support may be in order and the electricity plug could be pulled next week should the exodus to the Pac-10 occur. Remaining members Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri could be scrambling to find a new home or might be part of an effort to keep the league together by luring new schools. Should the latter happen, expect schools such as TCU, SMU, Louisville, Memphis, and others to be mentioned.

Notre Dame, probably the Big Ten’s top target, is clinging to its long-held football independence but the Irish have to be sweating on behalf of all the other sports on campus. Those teams need the structure of a league to thrive … should the Big Ten pillage the Big East, ND could be forced into accepting an invitation to protect all the sports other than football. Ironic and unenviable.

The SEC, typically a proactive bunch, had been on the sidelines until reports this week that Texas A&M might be open to an invitation (Texas obviously would be accepted with open arms but the Longhorns are apparently averse to the idea). Should the Aggies shun their Big 12 South brethren and move to the SEC, the conference would likely look to the ACC to even out its membership (Virginia Tech?). If the Aggies do the expected and go west, I believe the SEC will wait before making major moves … unless these new super-conferences are granted two automatic BCS bowl bids (a topic to be addressed in the next article in this series).

What is driving this expansion and realignment?

1) Finances: Unsurprisingly, money plays the predominant role. Only two sports generate money in most college athletic programs – football and men’s basketball, with football far and away the primary breadwinner. College presidents and athletic directors are constantly seeking new revenue streams; if a super-sized conference increases the budget significantly expect them to join. Similarly, institutions must weigh the financial boon versus potential new costs. Texas A&M is not awash in money like the University of Texas, so a trip for the women’s volleyball team to Pullman, Washington, probably seems mighty costly to the Aggies.

2) Academics: I had a coversation today with Bob Epling (no relation but a great guy with a heckuva name). Mr. Epling is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, and former President of the Orange Bowl Committee. He addressed many of the factors I am listing here, and emphasized that too often fans overlook the academic influence in this process (especially considering that college presidents are the main decision makers – not athletic directors). For example, the Big Ten already had twelve member schools even before admitting Nebraska … the University of Chicago is also a Big Ten member, even though the former school of Amos Alonzo Stagg does not compete in athletics. Similary, the Big Ten seeks new members that share commonalities in academic pursuits (all schools in the league are members of the Association of American Universities – AAU). One reason Texas seems intent on going to the Pac-10 instead of the SEC is because the Longhorn administration probably sees broader benefits from being associated with Stanford, Cal, USC, etc.

3) Personality Dynamics: Every one of these conference moves includes its own dynamics. One reason the Big 12 appears to have disintegrated so quickly is because of internal tension between the Texas teams (specifically Texas) and the Big 12 North schools (especially Nebraska). Tom Osborne, Cornhusker AD, is about as steady a guy as you’ll find in college sports, but even he has occasionally expressed frustration at the southern slant of the league. Remember the Big 12 is (was?) less than two decades old, and it is a somewhat unwieldy alliance of the old Southwest Conference and the Big Eight. It was never a good fit. Another example – former Alabama coach Gene Stallings is a trustee at his alma mater Texas A&M, and some media reports indicated he is one of the biggest advocates of exploring options with the SEC before jumping into the Pac-10.

4)Television Contracts: This could just as easily be cited as part of #1, but the huge television contracts garnered by the Big Ten (through subscription fees paid to the Big Ten Network), the SEC (through recent 15 year deals with CBS and ESPN), and even the ACC (through recent contracts with ABC and ESPN) have helped move the expansion train. The Pac-10 and the Big 12 would be negotiating new contracts soon and want to leverage their assets as much as possible to gain maximum dollars.

5) Marketing Footprint: Fans think about expansion differently than college presidents, athletic directors, and league commissioners. While the SEC might be even stronger from a competitive standpoint by inviting Florida State, Miami, or Clemson into the fold, what do those teams do to drive revenue? The University of Florida already provides an entry into the lucrative and populous Sunshine State, and the U of South Carolina does the same for the Palmetto State. Other than making the football divisions even stronger, what else would those schools add to the league’s footprint? That’s why Texas A&M and Virginia Tech make more sense. Each brings a new territory … more viewers, more recruits, new markets. The Big Ten does not care near so much about geography as about a marketing footprint. Thus, Rutgers and Maryland are popular expansion targets (to bring New York City and Washington DC into the league’s footprint).

Finally, what impact will all these moves have on bowls?

As a traditonalist, an historian, and a lover of college football bowl games large and small, that is a question on my mind.

Please visit again for Part Three of this series to read about the anticipated effects of college conference realignment on the grand old bowl games.

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