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It may not have been on the agenda, but the subject of conference expansion was very much in the air at last week's BCS meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. When the roughly two dozen athletic directors and conference commissioners broke for lunch on April 21, queuing up at an opulent buffet across from the reflecting pool at the Royal Palms Resort, it was tempting to divide them into two categories: predator and prey.
While Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany may not have been the most powerful man at the meetings—his SEC counterpart, Mike Slive, presides over a formidable empire of his own—Delany was arguably the hungriest, and we're not talking about his appetite for the buffet's superb salmon risotto. It's been four months since the Big Ten fired a shot across the bow of its fellow conferences by announcing in a statement from its presidents that the "timing is right" to explore the possibility of expansion over the "next 12 to 18 months." On the eve of last week's meetings the Chicago Tribune reported that the Big Ten was poised to adopt an "accelerated timetable" and might make up its mind sooner, rather than later.
At the Royal Palms, Delany denied that expansion had been fast-tracked, but he did nothing to dampen speculation that it will eventually happen. Not only might the conference expand, he said, but it might also expand by "more than a single [school]."
Two decades after Penn State became the Big Ten's 11th member and seven years after the ACC raided the Big East, poaching Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech, plans are in the works to dramatically rearrange the landscape of college athletics. In addition to Delany, first-year Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott has made no secret of his interest in expanding his conference.
By announcing their intentions, Delany and Scott have ushered in a period of high anxiety, forcing commissioners and ADs throughout Division I to prepare contingency plans for when the dominoes start falling. Many of the Scottsdale attendees "have known each other for 30 years," Mountain West Conference commish Craig Thompson said. "But now it feels like one of those cocktail parties where everyone's watching whom everyone else is talking to."
The driving force behind the Big Ten's desire to get bigger? Television revenue—from both Delany's baby, the Big Ten Network, and the conference's contract with ABC/ESPN to televise football games. The country's first conference-run national network, the Big Ten Network launched in August 2007 and is already available in 73 million homes. One of the quickest ways to increase that number, thus widening the revenue streams flowing back to the schools, would be to expand the network's footprint in the population-dense tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The Big Ten could accomplish that by peeling off Connecticut, Pitt, Rutgers and Syracuse, or some combination of those four.
Just as potentially lucrative is the renegotiation of the conference's TV contract (a 10-year, $1 billion deal with ABC/ESPN that expires after the 2016 season). Delany's hand should be strengthened by a recent precedent: the NCAA's 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner to broadcast the men's basketball tournament. And if the Big Ten were to belly up to the negotiating table with new members in, say, New York and New Jersey, the conference would be poised to reap a windfall even more eye-popping.
Yet, there was Big East commissioner John Marinatto, in just his ninth month on the job, projecting a kind of serene defiance at last week's BCS meetings. A former seminarian, Marinatto was an associate commissioner for the Big East in 2003, when the ACC staged its raid. Rather than curl up and die, the Big East expanded to 16 schools, transforming itself into, arguably, the nation's toughest hoops conference.
The Big East didn't merely survive, "it thrived," notes Marinatto, who believes it would be a mistake to underestimate the loyalty of the presidents, ADs and coaches "who made it work and have ownership in it."
It might also be a mistake to underestimate the allure of $22 million. That king's ransom is the amount of football TV dough the Big Ten distributes to its members each year. The most generous cut given out by any conference, it comes in at a cool $16 million more than the Big East pays its top schools, a gulf that's only going to grow once the Big Ten expands.