A Tale of Two Conferences: Why the Big East and the Big 12 Just Traded Futures.

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A Tale of Two Conferences: Why the Big East and the Big 12 Just Traded Futures.
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Since Texas A&M first melted down over the University of Texas's earnings from the Longhorn Network earlier this year, it has been apparent that there are two unstable "have not" conferences among the ranks of the BCS automatic qualifier conferences.

Although the Big 12 had the higher profile programs, the assumption was that the Big East would consume the remains of the Big 12. 

With apologies to Big East fans, with the talk that the presidents of the nine Big 12 schools may have committed to turn over their media rights to the Big 12 for the next five years, that movement to the Big East no longer seems likely. (Heck, there is even talk in the Houston Chronicle that Texas A&M might wisely have a change of heart on their move to the SEC...)

I am a guy who has followed realignment for decades and I have no ill will towards the Big East.  In fact last July I spent two weeks compiling information for a very detailed three part series (that evolved into 5 parts) on how to save the Big East that touched on their media problems and a host of other issues.

One of my conclusions was that they absolutely needed TCU to help their BCS arguments.  The Big East opened discussions with TCU a few months later and added them last fall.  Unfortunately the Big East was too fractured to do anything else of merit. As I mentioned at the time, agility and speed could be an issue with a conference of that size.

I doubt my conclusions from then could help them now. 

Cut to today

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

 

The Atlantic Coast Conference's raid of the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University was an absolutely brutal raid in how it will likely sever the tendons of the Big East Conference.

Conferences have to have an internal logic to them to have some stability. The Big East 2.0 was a conference based on a shared passion and appreciation for basketball.

With the Atlantic Coast Conference stealing 2 of the 4 basketball elites in the Big East, it does a lot to sever the shared connection that overrode the resentment between the football and basketball halves of the conference.

Pittsburgh was the only Big East football team that was a regular on on Big East Olympic-only member Notre Dame's football schedule. 

That represents a lot of shared interests lost.

Worst still, a third basketball elite, Louisville, is right on the outskirts of the Big 12 and has been mentioned as an Big 12 candidate. 

With the PAC-12 shutting the door on The University of Texas and The University of Oklahoma, the Big 12 once more has the better programs.  They have the better "gravity" in realignment terms.

Schools move to be affiliated with better schools.  There is more safety of status there.  

Especially if the lesser schools are in troubled conferences and the geography is a wash.

Since the last ACC raid, the football Big East has been a collection of schools who want to be in other conferences. With the likely exception of Cincinnati, there probably wasn't a school leadership in that conference that felt it was at the appropriate level for its offerings.

 

The Big 12 may have schools that feel the same, but generally a number of their members are happy with the identity of the other member schools, the geography, the money, and a lot of other aspects of the conference.

The Big East's chances

On the positive side, conferences generally do not hobble other conferences to a point where they cannot rebuild.  It is a little like a game of Jenga --- no one wants to collapse a conference framework.

It may not seem like it, but that is generally standard operating procedure in realignment, and it mirrors what is being leaked from Big 12 circles.

The day after the PAC-12 said no to the four southwestern schools, Oklahoma State's president Burn Hargis rattled off a list of six schools on the conference expansion list

Only one of them was a member of the Big East.

Now there is no guarantee that is a complete list, but in terms of Big East survival it is promising. 

Unfortunately there are a lot of factors working against that desire not to accidentally go too far and kill the Big East.

1) Lame Duck commissioner

Big East Commissioner John Marinatto is under fire and appears to not be respected. Member football schools could work fairly hard to get away from that kind of situation.  (While the same was true in the Big 12, they replaced their commissioner.)

 

2) Kill or be killed mentality between the Big 12 and Big East and the structural complexities in the Big 12 today

The Big East and the Big 12 memberships have both been subjected to talk that one of the conferences will consume the other to remain at the BCS level. 

The idea is out there.

With no security in the Big 12, the smart move for the majority was to expand to 12 with BYU and two of the best Big East schools available. 

That way if the PAC-12 came back for UT, OU, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech, the remaining Big 12 schools would have an 8 member conference with a decent footprint, BCS caliber members, and a beavy of attractive potential replacements in Texas, Oklahoma, and the surrounding region.

Having to join the Big East after a southern four departure would result in an insane commute for athletes and fans at schools like Kansas and Kansas State. 

Schools like Iowa State have no assurance of even landing a Big East invite should the Big 12 collapse.  And there is no Olympic-only member drama in the Big 12. 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There are a lot of reasons for those Big 12 schools to favor the Big 12 over the Big East.

Despite Oklahoma's talk of fixing what is wrong with the conference internally first and expansion not being important right now, given the athletic caliber of Big East schools like Louisville and West Virginia, it would be crazy for the Big 12 have nots to not strongly consider the conference poaching at least two schools from the Big East... if the Big 12 seemed unstable.

 

The surrendering of media rights idea makes the conference look a lot more stable.  It creates more options for the Big 12.

Additonally, there are two factors for the Big 12 that work for the Big East at least in terms of numbers --- the loyalty and greed factors.

For schools like Baylor it was less than a month ago when the shoe was on the other foot and some reports emerged here and there that had the Bear leadership thinking the Big East might consider taking the Bears.  There could be a deep desire by the bottom of the Big 12 to not fatally kill the Big East for that reason.

As far as the greed factor goes, ESPN has a contract with both the SEC and the Big 12.  If A&M joins the SEC, it puts ESPN in an awkward situation with regards to the Big 12 legally

It is likely ESPN will ensure the Big 12 gets all of their TV money to divide as the members see fit to keep ESPN out of legal issues.

Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Now laying over that status is the fact the conference has started a progression towards equal revenue sharing.  In attempting to further destabilize the conference (or save the conference --- depending on how altruistic one sees DeLoss Dodd's actions), UT suggested that the conference should share first tier (essentially broadcast) TV money equally. (The Big 12 members already share their second tier or cable money equally.)

Now this benevolent gesture means essentially nothing to UT as the Longhorns are already up $15 million a year oven their conference mates due to the Longhorn Network. 

 

It would have meant a loss of up to $5 Million each annually to OU and Texas A&M.  For this fairly obvious reason, many question why UT would suggest that particular change in policy at the exact time when the rest of the conference was trying to lure OU back to the fold.

The paycuts out of UT, OU, and A&M's first tier TV shares would be split up (potentially along with A&M's full share) with the other schools.

Why would UT push for this?  Well it would seem to push down on the scale for UT's expansion preferences --- one school or none.

If there is no expansion, OU takes a very small hit based on UT's actions.  If there is a only one school, OU's loss is a bit larger but still tolerable.

Now if the Big 12 chooses to expand to 12 schools there is no guarantee ESPN or Fox will increase the money enough to soften the loss per share. OU and the other Big 12 schools might have to take a noticeable short term loss.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

This suggests that in spite of the fairly glaring logic for the lesser Big 12 to vote to add BYU, Louisville, and West Virginia, you may see the Big 12 add only a single school.

3) The TCU long play

The school that is being mentioned a lot today is TCU.  The logic behind adding them is not plainly apparent.  

UT, OU, and Texas Tech have larger Dallas/Fort Worth fan bases. Even Oklahoma State may have a larger fan base in Dallas/Fort Worth.

 

UT had expressed no interest in another Texas school and reportedly OU specifically had been out on adding TCU, a school based in one of their best recruiting territories.

A month ago I would have speculated that TCU had less than a 5% chance of getting in.  It is apparently a different story today. 

What has changed?  While there are reports out that BYU may have had some second thoughts about joining the Big 12 over the drama, that still doesn't explain TCU potentially leapfrogging the other candidates.

I can think of two things that are likely driving this thought. 

The Big 12 has member schools in states with a total of 41 million residents. That is a tiny footprint for a BCS conference. 

The State of Texas amounts to 25 of those 41 million residents.  The loss of roughly 1/3 of the conference's Texas viewership (A&M fans) is a big loss.

The Networks may have made it known with the loss of Texas A&M they want another Texas school. The networks may feel small school TCU with its strong, competitive team will generate curiosity and pull big city viewers at a much better rate than Houston would. One article suggested the networks see TCU as an acceptable replacement (despite a far, far smaller fan base than A&M).

Now if the addition of TCU makes ESPN's contract with the conference manageable until it's completion, it makes sense to do from ESPN's perspective.  Could ESPN in the short term bump up their payments a tiny bit to help ease OU's losses in return for TCU's admission? This kind of horse trading could make sense.

And then there is also the flip side.  TCU is the best BCS measurable the Big East owns. If the Big 12 poaches TCU, it would be an irreplaceable loss in the current evaluation period for the Big East.  On the BCS website it implies that the BCS can re-write their criteria following the 2013-14 season.

If the Big 12 wanted to weaken the Big East's claim to BCS status, adding TCU would do it. 

Then when the Big East has again stabilized (and likely is not a part of the BCS or on their way out of the BCS AQ ranks), the Big 12 might be more free to poach Louisville and (if they are still around) West Virginia to take into negotiating the new Big 12 ESPN contract around mid-decade.

Admittedly, it is fairly convoluted, but it does make some sense of TCU's seemingly improved candidacy odds, it addresses OU's money and the desires of the networks, and protecting the long term position of the small schools.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

4) The perception that the basketball schools are working against the football schools in the Big East.

Getting back to the Big East specifically, there is a perception that the Big East basketball schools tried to ram Villanova down the throats of the stronger football schools.  If that is how schools like West Virginia and Louisville feel, it will likely not take more than a single offer from another BCS conference to land those two schools.

There is also a question of how much value the basketball schools feel is inherent in being affiliated with a BCS football conference. The addition of TCU was absolutely needed by the football membership to help their BCS measureables, but it does seem like the basketball schools tied the hands of the football schools beyond that.

 

If the basketball schools see this as an opportunity to seize control of the conference, you could see the Big East rebuilt with schools that have great basketball resumes but who will not allow the conference to maintain BCS AQ on the field measureables long term.  Memphis comes to mind.

5) When conferences falter, their schools tend to panic.

West Virginia just lost their rival and has no idea what the future holds.  UCONN is worried about being totally isolated from the rest of the FBS world.  The Big East has a lot of schools that are looking for stability first, not to save the Big East.

If the Big 12 were to take one or two members from the conference in the next few weeks, only five or six football playing members would remain. That would only make the desire to escape more pronounced.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

6) 16 makes more sense for the ACC than 14 or 12.

Against the background of that kind of panic, the now 14 member ACC is facing an impending raid from the SEC. 

It seems likely to be delayed a year as Texas A&M leaves the Big 12, but the ACC knows it is coming.

If the SEC just lands A&M in the west, it is possible that the SEC will just take one member from the ACC (for now).  In that instance you might see the ACC only add Rutgers or UConn.

 

Unfortunately it is far more likely that the SEC chooses to try add two schools in the west (perhaps one being West Virginia if Missouri declines).  If a goal of 16 members should be the SEC's decision, it really forces the ACC to expand. 

In TV terms, if the ACC's new TV contract allows for some renegotiation based on expansion (as it was negotiated recently in this period of upheaval, it probably does), the ACC would likely try to do whatever they can to upgrade their TV payouts to try to protect themselves from the SEC. 

Destabilizing the Big East enough to add Notre Dame as an Olympic sports only member might be a smart idea, as would adding UCONN and Rutgers.  

The ACC has a number of national brands in football (Virginia Tech, Florida State, Miami) and in basketball (Duke, North Carolina, Pitt, Syracuse).  Taking action to secure a presence in the immensely valuable New York City DMA and the surrounding northeastern metro areas in which to sell their national brands makes sense. It can only help the ACC payouts. 

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Additionally pairing Notre Dame and UT as Olympic only members is still a potential solution as well (regardless of whatever UT athletic director DeLoss Dodds is saying today).

If the ACC can get their payouts high enough, they have a shot at turning away an SEC raid.  

The ACC is much more academically prestigious conference and most of their schools care about their academic reputation. Plus the ACC offers an easier path to the national title game.

 

And finally, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida are rumoured to have a pact to work together to block Georgia Tech, Clemson, or Florida State, respectively.  This could end up limiting the SEC's ACC candidates.

It seems fairly likely that if an SEC raid was coming, the ACC might expand to 16 ahead of it and try to secure the best TV terms possible.

And even if they do not pull off blocking the SEC, in an environment where all the elite BCS conferences are going to 16 schools, it seems unlikely the ACC would be eager to be the 12 member junior partner of the BCS AQ ranks.  14 members would read better than 12. And UCONN and Rutgers make financial and geographic sense.

7) No long term TV deal to protect them.

Finally the Big East is still in the process of negotiating a long term TV deal. 

Baylor could threaten to sue in no small part because the Big 12 has existing long term, big TV deals and because the membership of the Big 12 took the unusual step of making a 10 year commitment to each other. 

The Big East has nothing like that, so they are the most vulnerable BCS AQ conference out there.  The Big East leadership dragged their feet too much in expansion and too much in negotiations with the networks.

That is a lot to overcome.

To my way of thinking it is a lot more to overcome than the Big 12 members have in their path.

I think the Big East needs some new goals and strategies.  I will address this in a Bleacher Report editorial next week.

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