Big Ten Expansion and the New World Order #1

The issue of Big Ten Expansion is fascinating in its complexities. Should the Big Ten expand without simply adding Notre Dame, it will likely trigger full-scale conference realignment in college football. It is quite possible that the makeup of every conference will change as a result. Every conference and football program in the country is aware of this and thus they are thus attempting to either maneuver themselves so as to take advantage of an opportunity or simply survive the impending storm. This, in turn, leads to something of a mind game between schools and conferences, as each conference attempts to outthink the others in order to prosper (or at least remain in existence). And since it’s the offseason and there’s nothing else to do besides rehash old arguments about who will start at QB or what the makeup of our secondary will be, or lament how bad the previous year was and Hockey East referees are, it seems like the time to undertake the enterprise of attempting to decipher this game and speculate on and project the possible results of expansion.

In order to provide an arguably more original take on expansion, I will not begin by simply writing about individual teams that the Big Ten (or SEC or Pac 10) will take, but instead look at conference realignment in more macroscopic terms. Instead of evaluating say, how likely it is that Notre Dame will join the Big Ten, I will look at things such as what the Big Ten hopes to get out of expansion, and how Big Ten expansion could affect other conferences and how they would react. Then, using those ideas of a baseline, I will begin to speculate as to which specific teams will be involved in expansion. This will be accomplished in a series of posts. Today, I will begin by attempting to create a basic foundation of what I believe the motivations of the various conferences are.

So, to start off with, there are only three conferences that will definitely not lose teams, namely the Big Ten, SEC, and Pac 10, all of which may well expand before all is said and done. As these conferences are in the drivers seat, so to speak, any discussion concerning conference expansion and realignment must start with them. So to begin with, we’ll look at the motivations of these three conferences, as well as the restrictions on these conferences regarding expansion.

The Big Ten, SEC, and Pac 10 all occupy different niches geographically (obviously) and financially. By developing the Big Ten Network, the Big Ten’s primary focus became its geographic footprint. The Big Ten Network makes approximately 40% of its revenue from subscriber fees and 60% from advertising. Thus, the Big Ten has two major factors to consider regarding expansion. The first is to expand its footprint and thus increase subscriber-based revenue. The second is to improve the quality of its product by producing more live events and producing games that will have higher ratings (i.e. producing better games) so as to increase advertising revenue (see here for a more in depth look at the Big Ten Network's financial priorities). Meanwhile, the Big Ten has two sources of limitations on expansion. The first and most important is academic, as the Big Ten schools also belong to the prestigious CIC and do research together, and will therefore refuse to consider any subpar institutions regardless of their athletics and the academics of individual schools will be a major consideration as to which schools get invitations. The second restriction is a combination of location and culture, as the Big Ten wants a school in which the surrounding populace will be interested in watching other Big Ten teams and more importantly, a school that is a good fit with its current institutions. This mainly means that they’ll look first at state schools and big research schools first.

The SEC, meanwhile, has hitched themselves to the national networks of ESPN and CBS and currently holds the lion’s share of the national market. Their priority is to maintain, and if possible expand, their share of the national market. Should the Big Ten or Pac 10 expand, it is likely that the new teams will generate new and better games for the conferences, which will lead to more competition with the SEC nationally. This is relatively unimportant in the short term, as the SEC is contracted through most of the decade, but problematic in the long term because they would lose some of the athletic advantages they currently hold to other conferences. Thus, the SEC would have strong reason to expand should the Big Ten or Pac 10 make a move, even though this would further divide their television contract.

Like the Big Ten, the SEC also has limitations on teams they can take in expansion. First of all, they can only take schools from the south, as any other schools would simply not work from a cultural standpoint. Furthermore, they are limited by the problem of having to look to a small selection of teams from the ACC and Big 12. Finally, they are restricted by their low academic profile, which makes it impossible for them to get schools like Texas or North Carolina, whose faculties would block a move (something that Texas has already done). This also prohibits taking schools that really want to stay in the same conference of powerhouse academic institutions, meaning that schools like Texas A&M are probably out of the picture as well.

Finally, we have the Pac 10. The Pac 10 is untouchable by other conferences because of its geography, not its television contracts, which is actually less than the Big 12’s. However, the Pac 10 has multiple ways to woo other teams into the fold. First of all, the Pac 10 is going to renegotiate their contract this summer, which will almost certainly provide a somewhat substantial increase to their television revenue. Second of all, they have only ten teams, which allows them to divide revenue between fewer schools, which means that the money going to every individual school is greater. Thirdly, Pac 10 expansion would almost certainly yield a championship game, which would be worth an extra $10-15 million (this is also true for the Big Ten, but a championship game would not produce as big of an impact to Big Ten revenue as it would be a substantially smaller portion of the Big Ten TV revenue as compared to the Pac 10). Finally, the primary source of viable Pac 10 expansion candidates is the Big 12, which is highly unstable because it employs unequal revenue sharing practices that has led some schools (re: Missouri) to actively attempt to find a new and better home. Because the Big 12 could easily lose a large share of television revenue should any school defect (except for teams like Baylor and Kansas State that nobody wants anyway), and there are so many suitors for Big 12 teams, it is quite possible for the Pac 10 to take advantage of the uncertainty by either inviting a team who dislikes the structure of the Big 12 anyway, such as Colorado, or throwing out lifelines to other members of the Big 12 should an important team leave for the Big Ten and cause the conference to collapse.

Like the Big Ten and SEC, the Pac 10 has non-athletic limitations on expansion. These limitations are more significant in the Pac 10 than they are for any other conference because any school in the Pac 10 can veto a prospective candidate. This is a major problem when you consider that Stanford vetoed Texas (!) after the SWC collapsed and Texas needed a new home (apparently, Stanford and Texas had something of a rivalry at the time and Stanford decided to spite Texas by denying them admission in what was obviously an idiotic move in hindsight). While Texas would almost certainly get easy admission into the Pac 10 today, it does highlight the fact that a team must be a good fit with every member of the Pac 10 in order to get admission. This means that highly conservative schools such as BYU are pretty much automatically ruled out, because it is doubtful that Cal-Berkeley would be willing to associate with them. The same standard applies to tier 3 schools, as Stanford and Cal would almost assuredly veto them too (sorry Boise State). Combined with the problem of only being able to take western schools for geographic reasons, the candidate pool for the Pac 10 becomes heavily restricted.

Now, looking back at these motivations of the three most important conferences, we can see some definite possibilities begin to emerge. For instance, it is quite possible that each of the three conferences will raid the Big 12 of its strongest programs, in which case the remaining teams would have to combine with the strongest programs in the Mountain West (or the Mountain West may make a grab for the strongest survivors of a Big 12 bereft of Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas, which would be kind of ironic in a cosmic sense). If the Big East is raided, the conference could dissolve or attempt to reconstruct itself by inviting the strongest mid-majors. The ACC may even lose teams to the SEC or Big Ten, in which case they would likely grab teams out of the Big East to replace them. There are a wide variety of fascinating possibilities for conference realignment based on a number of factors. Due to their complexity, they will be discussed in the next post, which is arguably anticlimactic, although I don’t really think this post really ever rose to the point where one could expect a climax in any sense…

Moving on, I’ll be able to post more often for the next few weeks as classes are over, so the follow-up to this should be up this week.

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