Expansion FAQs: Clearing the haze around conference realignment
Big Ten could target three to five teams because real value is in TV revenue
Notre Dame would only join conference if doomsday Big East scenario emerged
Exploring the top candidates, ripple effect for other conferences, impact on bowls
With the Big Ten seemingly moving full-steam ahead with its intent to expand by as many as three to five teams, it's come to my attention -- via your tweets and e-mails -- that there's a whole lot of confusion out there about the conference realignment game. While I can't yet tell you which schools are headed where (I'm not sure Jim Delany himself knows that yet), I can at least help clear up any prevailing confusion about the motives and factors driving this apparently impending wave of realignment.
Question: Which teams are most likely to join the Big Ten?
Answer: A Chicago Tribune report stated the league hired an outside investment firm last winter to evaluate the merits of five schools: Notre Dame, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse. However, a source cautioned that those were "the obvious suspects," and that others would merit consideration. It's believed Nebraska would listen to Big Ten overtures. Texas, contrary to early indications, most likely will not. Connecticut has been mentioned as well.
Q: Why would the Big Ten want more than the 12 teams it takes to hold a championship game?
A: If one were to listen solely to the league's coaches -- most notably Penn State's Joe Paterno -- one might think the sole motive behind expansion was to stage a season-ending event like the SEC, Big 12 and ACC do. "Everybody else is playing playoffs on television [in early December]," Paterno said last year. "You never see a Big Ten team mentioned. I think that's a handicap."
But if late-season exposure were the main issue, the Big Ten could follow the lead of the Big East and Pac-10, which don't have 12 teams, either, but have moved meaningful games to the first week of December. And if Delany viewed a title game as a must-have financially, he would have pushed league presidents to adopt one a long time ago. While a championship game would be the most tangible byproduct of expansion, the Big Ten is after a far bigger prize.
Q: And that would be?
A: Television revenue. In the quarter-century since the U.S. Supreme Court freed schools from the shackles of the NCAA's contracts, nearly every major realignment move -- from Penn State joining the Big Ten to Miami joining the ACC -- has been driven by conferences' quests to secure the most desirable possible product for TV networks. More teams = more households = more money in rights fees. The same holds true in this current movement -- but with a modern twist.
In addition to the traditional TV deal where a network pays a league a flat fee to televise its marquee games (like the Big Ten's 10-year, $1 billion deal with ABC/ESPN), the Big Ten is an equity holder (along with Fox) in the Big Ten Network, which became profitable within two years of its inception. The more the network's annual profits increase, the more its members' portfolios grow. Multi-team expansion helps in two ways: A) It provides for more live programming, which elicits more advertising dollars; and B) It can gain substantially more subscribers by adding teams with large national appeal (like, say, Notre Dame) or those in major media markets (like, say, Rutgers).
Q: How much money are we talking?
A: The Big Ten already has the most lucrative television deal in the country, doling out an estimated $20 million-plus per team in 2008. (The conference does not release official numbers.) The SEC, under its new CBS and ESPN deals that began last year, isn't far behind at $15-$17 million, but those two are significantly ahead of everyone else. (The next-highest, the Big 12, pays out $7-$12 million.) The Big Ten can command those dollar figures because its schools' home markets (Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc.) comprise an estimated 25 percent of the nation's television households.
Currently, the Big Ten Network (with an estimated 40 million subscribers) garners a reported 70 cents per subscriber in its eight home states but only 10 cents in the rest of the country. As CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd recently illustrated, adding a team like Missouri, with 2.2 million households statewide, could reap the network an extra $1.3 million per month. And that doesn't even take into account extra ad dollars from additional game broadcasts. Depending on how many teams it adds, the Big Ten could enter a whole other stratosphere financially.
Q: What other factors will the Big Ten consider?
A: Mainly, academics. The decision will ultimately be made not by Delany, but by the school's presidents. All 11 Big Ten schools are members of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 62 preeminent research institutions, and none are ranked lower than 71st in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Potential candidates that share those same attributes: Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers. Nebraska and Missouri are AAU members but with slightly lower rankings (96th and 102nd, respectively). Connecticut (66th) is not.
For these reasons, you can automatically eliminate geographically sensible but academically inferior options like Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia (all "Tier 3" schools).
Q: Would Notre Dame really join the Big Ten this time?
A: Only under a doomsday scenario in which the Big East -- home to the Irish's other sports teams -- crumbles. AD Jack Swarbrick said recently that, "our highest priority is maintaining football independence;" however, at a New York restaurant in March, he said to a group of reporters, "You each could invent a scenario that would force our hand." The most viable scenario is one where the Big East -- having already rebuilt itself following the ACC's 2003 purge of three schools -- gets gutted beyond the point of repair, forcing the Irish to find a new home. The question is whether the Big Ten is really serious about an East Coast takeover or merely throwing out the possibility to coerce Notre Dame into joining.
Note that the Catholic school's decision to reject the Big Ten's last invitation in 1999 had mostly to do with its reluctance to join the "secular" Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an academic consortium of the Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago. That sentiment remains very much alive on campus today (at least judging by a recent T-shirt design). One oft-listed factor that's largely a fallacy, however: the NBC contract. At this point, Indiana and Purdue pocket more money from the Big Ten's TV deals than Notre Dame does from NBC ($15 million annually).
Q: Will the Pac-10 expand, too?
A: Like the Big Ten, the Pac-10 began exploring expansion last winter for much the same reason -- to better position itself for upcoming television negotiations. The most viable candidates were believed to be Colorado, Utah and BYU. However, there's been little-to-no news since then, with sources telling Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News that it's unlikely any of the schools in question would generate a significant per-team revenue increase.
The one school the Pac-10 would really like (and has tried before to get) is Texas, but much like with the Big East and Notre Dame, the Big 12 would have to endure significant damage for the Longhorns to consider such a drastic move.
Q: What will the ripple effect be on other conferences?
A: If you believe longtime, former Syracuse AD Jake Crouthamel, among others, the Big East will implode, the remaining BCS leagues will consolidate into four 16-team superconferecnes and together they'll ditch the NCAA. Also, the world's oceans will be drained and the sun relocated. In reality, the "superconference" concept has been floating around for nearly 20 years and has yet to come to fruition, and there remain doubt that the Big Ten will actually go as high as 16 -- mainly because there aren't five obvious and attractive candidates out there. At some point, the league has to weigh the potential dilution of its product.
It's true, though, that the Big East could be in serious danger if the Big Ten poaches several of its teams. There are a couple of logical replacements out there (UCF? Memphis?), but not many. It's also possible that the ACC, which sources say is not getting the kind of reception it hoped for in its current TV renegotiations (ESPN intentionally overpaid to retain the SEC and thereby set an unrealistic bar for other leagues), could step in to take some of the leftovers. The Big 12 could survive losing Missouri and/or Colorado, though its reconfigured league might look more like the old Southwest Conference (hello, TCU) than the Big 8. And the SEC just began new 15-year TV contracts. It's good for now.
Q: How will expansion affect the BCS? Will it cause a playoff?
A: The hypothesized "superconference" model assumes that the symmetrical four-conference, 64-team landscape would lend itself to a playoff. Whether you believe that day to be coming or not, it stands to reason that a consolidation of power would only further allow the current BCS powers to retain the status quo. The main source of pro-playoff pressure right now is coming from political figures advocating for outsiders like the Mountain West and Boise State. With conference consolidation, many of the elite non-BCS programs would be absorbed by the establishment, thus quieting their uproar.
The more pertinent issue would be BCS governance -- specifically, would the Big East lose its automatic qualifying berth, and if so, would another league (most likely the Mountain West) step in to replace it? Or would the BCS simply go with five AQ bids? There's a formula in place to evaluate the leagues' 2008-11 performances for a possible shuffling in 2012, and that happens to be the earliest a reconfigured Big Ten could go into effect due to the Big East's "loyalty clause," which requires departing schools to give 27 months' notice.
Q: So what do you think will happen?
A: Delany insisted Wednesday that the Big Ten's timetable hasn't changed since December (when it laid out a 12-to-18 month process), but my thought process certainly has. Back then, I said of expansion: "I'll believe it when I see it," but it's become clear over the past several months in talking with parties across college sports that the Big Ten is dead serious about adding multiple teams. Consider it one last shot across the bow from perennial power broker Delany.
Still, I just can't imagine the Big Ten solely adding a bunch of middle-of-the-road programs, no matter how many cable homes they'd provide. Making such a drastic move would require some grander payoff. Surely Delany has something up his sleeve, some crown jewel in his sights that will make expansion worthwhile. If it's not Notre Dame, then I'm going to stick with my original guess from December: Nebraska. The school has never truly gotten along with the Texas contingent since the SWC-Big 8 merger and would stand to possibly double its annual TV revenue by joining the Big Ten.
Were the Big Ten to package the nationally revered Huskers with Missouri and one of the New York-area teams, it might as well start printing money. But that's just one man's guess -- the first of probably many to follow between now and July 1.
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