The Business of Conference Expansion: Why Conferences Must Be Careful

Gary BrownCorrespondent IIApril 28, 2010

A goof, a flop, a backfired ploy.

With Coke we tinkered; with coke we toyed.

New Coke came out you said nix, nix.

Old Coke came back, we learned new tricks.

During the 80’s when Coke committed the blunder of attempting to improve their flagship brand, marketing industry trade journal Advertising Age ran the words above as part of a “new” jingle for Coke to the tune of “Coke is It.”

In Atlanta, the people in charge just knew they had a winner with their New Coke. It turned out that fans felt otherwise. They were perfectly happy with their crusty, cold Coca-Cola in a crimson colored can.

As suits at the Big 10 and other major conferences are sitting around thinking it is time to expand their membership, they will be wise to slow down long enough to consider they are not just adding new schools to their conference, but actually undertaking a brand extension.

You see, the major conferences are really nothing more than a bunch of brands with a common governing body that is charged with protecting the value of their collective investment.

Making the wrong decision could damage an individual conference’s brand significantly and has the potential to impact the future of all college athletics in a negative way.

As this round of brand decisions are being made, what should the people calling the shots be thinking about when it comes to protecting their product?

Here are a few thoughts from College Sports Matchups :


Do your current customers want the brand extension?

When it came to expanding their basketball tournament, the NCAA got it right. Fans told them loud and clear they were happy with the status quo, so they slightly tinkered instead of completing redoing the tourney. When it comes to conference expansion it does not seem there has been much discussion on one of the most important elements: Do the fans want it?

The answer is not a simple yes or no. Expansion might mean that traditional rivalries are left by the wayside, or the spread between the top of a conference and the bottom will widen significantly, resulting in a schedule loaded with uninteresting games. If the NCAA does away with the present BCS system the value of the regular season could also be diminished.

Positive impacts from expansion might include a schedule where teams viewed as traditional powers meet more frequently, or the use of mega conferences as a way to drive a playoff format.

Another significant issue might involve which teams are added in an expansion. You can bet fans will find some teams joining their conference more interesting than others.

How do you feel about the possible expansion of the Big 10 and SEC? Click here to vote in our poll at College Sports Matchups.


Know what is being added to the brand and why

It is a better decision to not expand a conference than to bring in schools that don’t make sense. History is full of companies that longed for growth and placed a value above that metric over greater considerations. Conferences should be careful to avoid this trap.

If a conference expands they should be thinking of what value their invited new members bring to the table. If they cannot create a combination that includes some combination of geography, values, and finances, then it would be better to not expand, or at least only extend membership to those schools that can deliver value across the spectrum and not just by being there.


In brand extensions the obvious will usually make more sense than the “out of box” idea

Please understand, there are always situations where thinking has to come from outside a traditional matrix. Changing your views of the world is healthy for companies, conferences and people.

When it comes to brand extensions, the first thoughts should always focus on what makes the most sense, and not what is a reach.

The Big Ten covets Notre Dame, but Notre Dame loves being an independent. If Notre Dame was inclined to join a conference the Big Ten makes the most sense. It might be a reach for the Big Ten to bring in members who only serve the purpose of forcing the hand of the Irish.


Whatever you add will be around for a long time

It took three garage sales to get rid of the Nordic Track cross country exercise machine we bought. It was at the third one where it was finally given away with some worthless item that was sold for pennies.

How many times do you see companies buy something that looks shiny and interesting only to discover it was a mistake? The new toy might be forcing them to take their eye off their core business, or it might not be as simple to turnaround as expected. They wind up owning it for a long time until they decide it is such a drain that it has to go at a bargain price.

If conference expansion occurs, the institutions and conferences that join forces will be married for a long, long time. Unwinding conference membership is not as simple as firing a coach, and not nearly as cheap. Before extending an invitation to a conference, everyone should be sure they want the teams they are inviting today, tomorrow and a decade from now.

So, who should the SEC and Big 10 invite to become a part of their brand?

Tomorrow we will profile the schools that are good and bad buys for each league.