Jim Delany and the Big Ten's Expansion: A Size 12 or 16 Footprint?

Scott WilsonCorrespondent IApril 8, 2010

I am not sold on the foregone conclusion that the Big East will get targeted directly by Big Ten expansion.  Yes, such a move could put pressure on Notre Dame to find a new all-sports home and the Big Ten would be in a prime spot to land them.

The current members of the Big East just are not strong enough to offer up multiple candidates. Pitt is a great fit for membership, academics, and athletics but that is it. Not markets, not additional revenue.

When the Atlantic Coastal Conference expanded in 2004 and 2005 they did not even invite Pitt, West Virginia, or even Rutgers; so why would the Big Ten?

The rumors and posturing going on at the top of the NCAA food chain indicate either "no change" or "seismic change".  I'm sorry, finishing off the Big East as a football conference isn't exactly "seismic," certainly significant, but not "seismic."  Killing off the Big East football conference would not result in any other major conference changes.

Seismic change among NCAA Division I-FBS conferences would mean either the Big Ten goes after Big 12 or ACC programs.  The Big 12 offering, outside of Texas, will neither meet the university president's academic resume, nor bring large enough revenue potential due to small markets.  If you could take Nebraska's fan loyalty and football prestige, add in Kansas' basketball, throw in Colorado's academics and TV market, and place them close enough to the current footprint then it might make sense to add multiple Big 12 teams (alongside ho-hum Missouri).  Too many fantasy scenarios there to be feasible.

That leaves the ACC programs.

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For academics, markets, and overall sports programs the Big Ten cannot do any better than Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke.  UNC, Duke, and Virginia were all opposed to the recent ACC expansion and consider themselves academic superiors in the same mold as the Big Ten members.  Virginia had to have their arm twisted by the former Governor to go along with the plan so that the Hokies didn't get left in what was feared to be a Big East wasteland.  Maryland would certainly come along if those three schools were all leaving the ACC.

All of those four schools pride themselves academically, as well as having great all-around athletic programs, but none of them would leave by themselves.  It would be a packaged deal, and a tremendous package is what Jim Delany and the Big Ten would get.  The four programs would collectively RAISE the academic profile of the Big Ten considerably.

Duke is the reigning men's basketball champion, one of the biggest names in college hoops, and a school that placed 17th in the last NACDA Director's Cup.  While their football program has known better days, they would provide a peer for current Big Ten member Northwestern.  Academically, the Blue Devils rank either 10th (US News and World Report) or 23rd (Academic Ranking of World Universities—US).  They command an endowment of $4.4 billion (would rank them fourth in the Big Ten), are AAU members, and have a top-ranked library with over six million volumes.

Virginia is one of the nation's most prestigious academic public universities, and fields a great overall athletic department that ranked eighth in the NACDA Director's Cup.  The Cavaliers draw 50,000 fans for football and over 10,000 for basketball games.  The AAU member school presides over a $3.6 billion endowment, and rank 24th (USNWR) and 51st (ARWU) academically.  Their library exceeds 5.5 million volumes and they are in the nation's top schools for annual research, especially from their medical school.

North Carolina is one of the premiere basketball programs in the nation and was recently named by Forbes magazine as the most valuable basketball program in the NCAA.  Their football team draws 57,000 fans per game, and the Tar Heels hoops team brings in 21,000 per game. The entire athletic department ranked second behind Stanford in the NACDA Director's Cup.  Academically, UNC owns a $2.4 billion endowment, ranked 28th (USNWR) and 30th (ARWU) while their library has over 6.5 million volumes, and it conducted over $700 million in research in 2009.

While Maryland doesn't rank nearly as high in any of those metrics as the above schools, it still is a strong university.  Ranked 53 (USNWR) and 28th (ARWU), the Terrapins own a $600 million endowment, they are also AAU members.  With the 28th ranked athletic department according to NACDA Director's Cup, they draw over 17,000 to basketball games and a respectable 45,000 for football.

For reference, the lowest ranked Big Ten school from USNWR is Iowa, Michigan State, and Indiana, tied at 71st. In the ARWU it is Iowa at 63rd.  The school with the lowest endowment is Iowa with $770 million.  Indiana ranked the lowest in the NACDA Director's Cup at 55th.

So, academically we know that the current Big Ten school presidents and chancellors would be thrilled to accept this grouping.  That can't be said for any Big 12 candidate except for the logistically-challenged Texas Longhorns and equally distant Texas A&M Aggies.

The presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten and the Council of Presidents/Chancellors will consider the academic criteria as the primary basis for their decision before they consider athletics and athletically-related revenue growth.  There is no point in making compromises on this issue, academics research among the CIC members dwarf what the Big Ten makes in TV contracts and bowl distributions.

However, TV markets do matter once the academic hurdle has been passed.

UNC and Duke are the two biggest programs in the state of North Carolina, which contains several very large metro areas that deliver over 3.4 million TV households (Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Greensboro, and Greenville).

Virginia is located in a state with an average population, but several large metro areas as well in Richmond, Norfolk, and Roanoke leading the way.  The 1.9 million TV households in the state are not all locked into watching Cavaliers sports, as they share that with Virginia Tech and others, but Blacksburg is far from the major population centers.

One of the bigger carrots that the University of Virginia can help deliver is Washington D.C. and its 2.3 million TV households.  Combined with the addition of Maryland, the college sports market in our nations capitol would be open to Big Ten sports.  Along with Baltimore's 1.1 million TV households, the Terrapins more than pull their weight when it comes to access to markets.

The combined market size of these schools would be 8.7 million TV households, with a much greater market penetration for cable carriers and ratings than any options from Big East members or non-Texas Big 12 targets.

This would improve an already-strong basketball conference in a time that could see the postseason tournament (and paydays) create more access to the bigger conferences.  The lackluster Big Ten baseball league would at least be relevant with an elite program like Virginia and another top-notch squad like North Carolina.

Bringing elite academic credentials, significant television markets, and very solid overall athletic programs (while also not threatening the Wolverines, Buckeyes, and Nittany Lions football dominance), these four founding fathers of the ACC would be the feathers in Delaney's cap in his master expansion plan, right? 

But wait, it gets better!

Now, the ACC is significantly weaker but still an extremely valuable conference that has solid basketball programs but retains the best football playing members in Florida State, Miami, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech.  Those schools know that football and football alone is their meal ticket. 

Academics are important but not at the expense of good football at those schools.  Needing to expand with at least four more teams will force the remaining ACC members to caste covetous looks at the still vulnerable Big East lineup.

West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers, Connecticut, and Louisville would all be great matches with the Seminoles, Hurricanes, Yellow Jackets, Tigers, Demon Deacons, Wolfpack, Hokies, and Eagles.  In fact, many of those teams have been in conferences together over the years so there is built-in rivalries ready to re-emerge.  If a 16-team super-conference is something they desire then South Florida, Cincinnati, and East Carolina would all be solid and probable candidates to review.

Such a conference would actually GAIN in prestige in football without losing any of their basketball power as well.  While Duke and North Carolina are certainly irreplaceable, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, UConn, and Louisville more than make up for the total loss. Market-wise the ACC actually gains strength as well because the footprint isn't so centered on the State of North Carolina, but more diverse and includes a bigger northeast presence.

Expanding into Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina would add close nine million TV households that are not currently in the Big Ten Network fold.  Currently the Big Ten directly covers over 26 million TV households, for an average of about 2.5 million per school.  The four members of the expansion plan would average 2.2 million per school, so they are certainly comparable in this criteria.  The same cannot be said for Nebraska (700,000 or Kansas (approx 1.1 million).  Missouri, while having a large TV market (2.5 million approx), is diluted by the fact that major cable carriers already have added the Big Ten Network on expanded-basic cable in St. Louis.

So, these schools pass the academic test, the athletics test, and the markets test.  Those are "home-run" candidates for the Big Ten all by themselves. Now, an even bigger motivation for the Big Ten to tip over these big dominoes is to get the biggest domino of them all to fall...

Notre Dame.

The Big East football conference would now cease to exist.  Notre Dame could certainly remain in the non-football Big East alignment with the small private Catholic universities.  However, the loss of the elite flagship schools would also severely damage the television contract and prestige of the surviving conference and impair Notre Dame's value to remain.

With the current Big Ten membership plus Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke the Fighting Irish would certainly be the icing on the cake for Jim Delany.  The Irish can deliver more of the coveted NYC TV market than any other program, in addition to strong ratings in nearly every relevant market for the Big Ten Network.

The Irish would now be joining a conference that is much more than "just a Midwestern" conference. This would be a truly national power conference for a national team.  The offer this time around would be a last chance final offer for the Irish.

If Jack Swarbrick or Reverend Jenkins decide to remain independent at that juncture, then it would truly be permanent.  That would require some serious discussion and soul-searching for the Irish head honchos.  Many analysts have misrepresented Notre Dame's TV contract as the information is not public knowledge...credible sources have stated $15 million a year from NBC rather than the $9 million based on popular perception.  The gap between potential Big Ten revenues and the status quo would become even bigger however, with the loss of the Big East basketball money.

Putting the pressure on Notre Dame is all the Big Ten could do at this point.  If the Irish decide to decline, then the Big Ten would have to move on and get that 16th member.  The finalists to fill that spot could be Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers, Nebraska, or Missouri.  None of them are home-run candidates but any of them would fit on many levels, especially Pitt or Syracuse.

Such a move would put pressure on the Pac-10 to raise the prestige of their league and could force the elite Pac-10 members (Stanford, Cal, UCLA, USC, and Washington) to make the hard choices necessary for them to remain as an elite conference.  Hints coming from administrators indicate that some type of merger with members of the Big 12 could be on the horizon.

Washington Athletic Director Steve Woodward dropped this buzz-worthy quote when asked about potential Pac-10 expansion: ""It could be two, four or a merger of Big 12. ... There's a theory that at the end of the day there's only going to be four super conferences. Now that it's going to look like, God only knows."

The Big 12 conference finds itself in similar constraints.  Several of the Big 12 members feel that the current membership holds the conference back either academically or athletically.  Texas and Colorado were close to joining the Pac-10 prior to the Big 12 taking shape as they both wanted to be associated with a higher profile academic conference.  The Governor of Missouri has publicly lobbied the Big Ten so that his flagship school can stop being linked with Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado have all had different challenges that have the same solution: leave the weaker programs behind.

If the Big 12 and Pac-10 flagship schools can all unite, they can form a national power-house conference that would dominate academically, athletically, and financially by capturing the largest TV markets west of the Mississippi.

A 16-team western super-conference that has divisions based on the former conference alignments could be the solution to all of the members' needs.

Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Colorado would be key components in one division.  Choosing the remaining member would be a tough choice between Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, and possibly Utah or even BYU.

USC, UCLA, Stanford, California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona would be the anchors of the other division.  With a final choice between Arizona State (most likely), Oregon State, and Washington State to reach their eighth member; it certainly would not come easy.

These actions would create much more balanced conferences in like-minded peer institutions that are academically and athletically aligned.  Stanford would no longer be "burdened" with an association with Washington State, but would gain a greater cooperation with top-tier research schools like Texas, Texas A&M, and Colorado.

While all of these scenarios are extremely aggressive, do not discount the possibility of such epic and seismic changes to the landscape of college sports.  The Darwinian evolution of college conferences mean that all bets are off.  Over the course of the last fifty years, tradition has consistently been overcome by large financial gains in conference alignments, this one won't be any different.

The ACC expansion failed.  It did not deliver the $12 to $14 million in championship game money, nor did it help the ACC to place multiple teams into the BCS games.  While the league saw an significant bump in their original TV carriage contracts they are meeting with lackluster response during their renewal process.  Duke and UNC were firm anti-expansion voices throughout that process, and Virginia was politically forced to approve it.  None of them wanted to water down their league academically, and now they would have the chance to truly be in a league that "fits" on all levels.

Don't bet on Jim Delany settling for a "satisfactory" solution when there are "elite" options available.

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