The lull of a college football off-season is filled with coaching changes, recruiting rumors and speculation of a new season still eight months away. I have occupied my imagination by trying to crack the code of conference realignment. Below are the assumptions, hunches and outright wild speculation that lead me to believe college football will soon become four Super Conferences.
First, allow me to establish the board as I see it.
The college athletic conference landscape is currently most influenced by television contracts. Television advertisement during live sporting events is the greatest money-maker for athletic departments and the television industry in general. The money earned from advertisements is dictated by the size of the audience. The more people watching the product the more money that product brings in. The more people subscribing to the channel that carries the program the more money the program earns. The most popular sports bring in the most money.
On average, football is the most popular sport with the most viewers turning in. This makes college football the most influential component on the of college athletics and gives football the tallest athletics chair at the negotiating table. Typically, basketball also turns a profit and sits in the second tallest chair.
Currently, there are six major conferences in college football. The six BSC conferences are the only conferences this article concerns itself with at the moment and not all the BSC conferences are deal with evenly.
The B1G and SEC both have 14 teams and are considered stable conferences with miniscule likelihood of having teams poached by other leagues. The Pac 12 is also a stable conference with 12 current members. The Big 12 is, at this time, a conference of 10 teams and is reasonably stable due to the 13 year Grant of Rights agreement.
The ACC is starting to panic as its instability grows. Maryland, a founding member of the ACC, left the league for the B1G and is challenging the ACC’s $50 million buyout in court. There are rumors that other ACC members (Clemson and Florida State) are unhappy and are interested in leaving the conference as well.
The Big East is a hot mess. Big East members Rutgers, Syracuse and Pittsburgh have left the conference for the B1G, ACC and ACC respectively. Boise State and San Diego State both changed their mind about joining the Big East in favor of remaining in their current non-BCS conferences. The seven non-football playing Catholic universities pulled out of the Big East in December to form their own conference. The Big East’s death rattle is sounding loud and clear.
Meet the players:
The B1G benefits from stability, perennially strong football and basketball programs, ownership of its own television network, and robust academics. The biggest problem for the B1G is the country’s population has been trending south. This means there are fewer player within the B1G footprint to recruit from and fewer television viewers watching and subscribing to the B1G’s product. Ideally, if the B1G is to expand it wants to expand into population rich areas currently outside of its footprint with sizable schools. The B1G is further complicated by lofty academic standards. Viable candidates for B1G invite should be members of the prestigious AAU (Association of American Universities) or a highly respected academic institution like Notre Dame.
The SEC is in excellent bargaining position maintaining the advantages of conference stability, a great television deal, the highest level of competition on the football field, and a growing population in its current footprint including two of the country’s most populated states (Florida and Texas). The SEC is perceived to have lower academic standards than the B1G or ACC despite including schools like Vanderbilt. Some SEC members, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, have indicated they are not interested in adding in-state rivals like Clemson, Georgia Tech and Florida State.
The Big 12 was thought to be the destabilized conference after losing four conference members in a two-year span. Many, myself included, anticipated the conference would be divided up with schools being poached by the other stronger conferences. Thanks to a shiny new 13 year grant–of-rights agreement the Big 12 conference appears to be a hunter and not the hunted in the next round of realignment.
The Pac 12 may have the least advantageous bargaining position of the stable conferences because of its geography.
The ACC is tottering on the edge of the abyss. Losing a conference founding member when Maryland jumped to the B1G revealed how precarious the stability of the ACC is. Conference members Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech has expressed interest in talking about trading conferences. An annual television revue far below the B1G and the SEC may incentivize members to seek greater wealth elsewhere. Fertile recruiting in population rich states outside the current SEC and B1G are high value targets. However, the core schools of the ACC have a long history together and rivalries they would like to retain. The ACC replaced Maryland with the University of Louisville.
The Big East is now a second tier conference and everyone can see that except the Big East.
How to Play:
For purposes of this exercise, assume conferences and universities will act somewhat rationally and in their best interests. To a university, self-preservation is more important than conference membership. Assume that academics and geography do matter. Anticipate that conferences and universities will compromise in order to get most of what they want. Approach decisions as if you ran the university or the conference.
Who Makes the First Move?
The most likely answer is the SEC and the B1G are waiting to see if the courts require Maryland to pay the entire $50 ACC exit fee. Should the result be no exit fee or a substantially reduced exit fee, I believe the ACC becomes an all-you-can-eat-buffet for the other conferences. If the court upholds the entire $50 million exit fee that may slow realignment for a while. If the court rules for Maryland or if the B1G is confident the court will rule for Maryland, I expect the B1G to act first.
The SEC is happy where it is; content to celebrate its seven straight National Titles; happy to watch the B1G and ACC wrestle alone in court. The Big 12 is laying in wait for the opportunity to pick off a few quality stray universities from the ACC should some shake free. The ACC should be looking for a way to shore up the weak points in its conference, namely by instituting a Grant of Rights Agreement similar to the Big 12. However, there is not consensus support for that at this time or it would already have happened. Perhaps it is because some members have wandering eyes. The Big East is… never mind.
What Might Happen?
From the B1G’s perspective, the rumors are the conference will add two universities to bring the B1G 16 teams. The conference is expected to invite any two of Virginia, North Carolina, or Georgia Tech. The prize in the ACC is North Carolina. It is a large state flagship university with good academics and athletics. The school is located outside the B1G’s current footprint and B1G Commissioner Jim Delany is an alumnus.
There are some problems the B1G must overcome. North Carolina is not contiguous to any of the current B1G states but would be contiguous if Virginia was brought along. However, geography is not the only issue with North Carolina. UNC is one of four ACC Universities located within the state. North Carolina would prefer to stay with instate rival and current ACC member Duke. On top of all that North Carolina is top dog within the ACC. Would Virginia alone be enough to entice UNC to the B1G? Probably not. Could Georgia Tech entice the Tar Heels to change conferences? Unlikely.
According to the Columbus Dispatch the bow-tied Ohio State AD E Gordon Gee said B1G expansion talks are ongoing. He said,
“there has been ongoing discussion” about expansion and “believes there is movement towards three or four super conferences that are made up of 16-20 teams.”
When a student member of the Athletic Council asked Gee what direction the Big Ten might take, Gee said “there are opportunities to move further south in the [E]ast and possibly a couple of Midwest universities.”
This indicates the B1G is open to the idea of poaching more than up to 6 schools from the ACC. It could also be interested in AAU schools Kansas, Missouri, and its old dancing partner (leave room for the Holy Spirit) Notre Dame. It seems to indicate the B1G is interested in getting a handful of quality schools if it is able.
Why should the B1G limit itself to 16 teams? The B1G has already gone to 14 teams when it added Rutgers and Maryland indicating that in the B1G’s decision-making process it is less interested in a small familiar conference where the universities play each other a lot and more interested in media markets, population centers, and recruiting territory. Why choose between North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia Tech? Why not go after all three? They are all AAU members with great academics and good athletics.
The B1G wouldn’t stop at 17 teams. They would pick up Duke to further persuade North Carolina to join the B1G conference. Duke football is uninspired. On the other hand Duke is a great basketball school, AAU and top 10 academically. That ought to make the B1G academics salivate. This would put the B1G at 18 teams. They could stop there but 18 is an awkward number for a conference and 20 is much more manageable.
Let’s say North Carolina is still not smitten with the move despite the inclusion of four other ACC schools including Duke, their arc nemesis. The B1G should approach Florida State to be their 19th school. HEAR ME OUT! Yes, Florida State is not an AAU school. But, they have improved a great deal academically over the last 10-15 years. They are now a top hundred school, ranked above many current AAU accredited schools. The B1G cashes in some of the goodwill they got from B1G presidents when they invite Duke and they make an exception. Florida State promises to earn entry into the AAU in 10 years or faces some sort of reprimand. Everyone is appeased and the B1G is now represented in the 4th most populated state, Florida.
At this point the B1G cannot lose. They offer Notre Dame, the B1G’s white whale, the last spot in the B1G. Either Notre Dame accepts or they don’t. If Notre Dame turns down the B1G, the B1G scoops up Miami. Miami is a Top 50 school academically. Yes, it is not an AAU school but you could make a similar deal to the one you make with Florida State. Perhaps more importantly now the B1G is the dominant conference in the state of Florida.
Let’s take a step back and see what this accomplishes for the B1G. It gives the conference its pick of 6-7 of the best academic and athletic teams currently in the ACC. It delivers Tobacco Road, Atlanta and Florida to the B1G. The entire east coast would now be subscribers to The B1G Network and recruiting grounds for the conference. The conference maintains its academic stature, adds high quality athletic programs in contiguous states, and manages to flank the SEC.
At the same time, the ACC universities stay in the same conference with the 5-6 other ACC schools that made the transition. They join a more competitive athletic conference, an academically richer conference, and a monetarily richer conference.
If the B1G decides it wants to grab a large chuck of the ACC when it moves the B1G should move quickly. The other conferences won’t sit idly by as the B1G runs the table on the ACC. However, neither the SEC nor the Big 12 can compete with the B1G academically. Also the Big 12 has an inherent geographic disadvantage and the SEC won’t be interested in Georgia Tech or the Florida schools because they are already in the SEC footprint and there is the issue of the SEC’s “gentlemen’s agreement”. (More on that below) Finally, the B1G already has ACC founding member Maryland in its corner as an added incentive to join its conference.
What about the other universities and conferences?
The SEC is content to stay at 14 for the moment. However, when the ACC is destroyed by the B1G the SEC will be positioned to hand pick what it wants from the wreckage. The SEC will take an interest in North Carolina State and Virginia Tech. Both are larger universities that expand the SEC’s national footprint. This puts the SEC at 16 teams and the SEC may choose to stop there but they won’t.
With chaos comes opportunity. When the B1G moves south there is added pressure for the SEC to move into northeastern recruiting territory. A collegiate keeping up with the Joneses. The dissolution of the ACC frees up Pitt which is near new SEC member Virginia Tech. The SEC also invites Cincinnati to the SEC. The SEC is now in the 6th and 7th most populated states in the country Ohio and Pennsylvania. The SEC would have opportunity to make significant gains within the state of Pennsylvania while the other state school Penn State is subjected to sanctions until 2020. Now the SEC finds itself at 18 teams. They offer Syracuse and Boston College to shore up the northeast and to round out the conference at 20 teams. All six schools North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Pitt, Syracuse, and Boston College accept the invitations because when the SEC knocks on your door you don’t turn them away.
The SEC could look to the west but since adding Texas A&M and Missouri there are not many population centers to the west which would be worth adding. Sure the SEC could make a pass at the Oklahoma schools, the Kansas schools, or attempt to gain more ground in Texas, but there is very little upside when the television rights would be retained by the Big 12 for almost a decade and a half. The SEC is better off grabbing what they can in the northeast.
The SEC is aware of the B1G’s schemes of northern aggression and may act defensively to protect its Florida interest, creating a trench, by absorbing Georgia Tech, Florida State, and Clemson in into the SEC. This may run afoul of the aforementioned “gentlemen’s agreement” in the SEC. This agreement basically means the SEC won’t pursue universities that are already in the SEC’s footprint because it would dilute those schools recruiting power within their respective states.
The SEC requires 3/4ths approval to join the conference. The SEC is currently at 14 teams. That means if Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina stick together and object to the inclusion of other universities within their states they only need one more school to join them (Texas A&M?) to block a schools entry into the SEC.
However, those three school may not be able to convince another school to vote with them or may decide that keeping the B1G out of their recruiting territory is more important than being the only SEC school in the state. Florida State, Clemson, and/or Georgia Tech would all be welcome additions to the SEC and would retain the SEC’s southern culture.
The Big 12 is less desirable to the ACC schools than the SEC and B1G based upon geography alone. The Big 12 did position itself to create an eastern faction with the addition of West Virginia in 2012. The Big 12 cleans up what is left of the ACC. The invite Clemson, Wake Forrest, Louisville, Memphis, Central Florida and maybe Tulane and create and eastern division. Perhaps the Big 12 invites other schools. If Florida State and/or Miami are available they get invites. If the SEC does shore up the northeast those schools get invitations as well.
If Notre Dame doesn’t accept the invite from the B1G, the Big 12 offers Notre Dame arrangement to what they currently have with the ACC. Notre Dame will play 5-7 Big 12 teams each year and become a pseudo-member of the Big 12. Notre Dame will also be allowed to start its own television network similar to the Longhorn Network. I think Notre Dame is much more likely to accept this deal than any deal with the B1G. The Big 12 becomes a 16-team league with Notre Dame as a partial member.
The Pac 12 doesn’t have many opportunities to expand on the west coast. Perhaps they stay at 12. Perhaps they pick up some smaller schools like Boise State and UNLV and hope they grow into larger universities. Maybe the Pac 12 can land BYU if the Cougars are put in a position where they are forced to be a part of a league to enter into a 4-team playoff. However, maybe in this case BYU chooses to associate with the Big 12 to get a similar deal to the Notre Dame deal described above.
The Pac 12 could attempt to persuade Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma to join them again and make a Pac 16. However, they will run into the same problem with television rights that don’t make those schools seem as attractive. The Pac 12 could approach a couple of Texas schools like SMU and Houston solely to gain access to Texas recruiting but I don’t see that happening due to the distance and the Pac 12’s high academic standards.
The above is my take on how the puzzle pieces fit together. I hope you enjoyed my take on things and I’d love to hear how everyone else sees conference realignment shaking out. Maybe you think the B1G returns to 12 teams or the Pac 12 expands into Canada. Perhaps the Big 12 and the Pac 12 create a partnership. I’m looking forward to hearing from you in the comments below.
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