Conference Expansion: Separating Fact From Fiction

Donald FincherAnalyst IMay 18, 2010

When it comes the recent mass hysteria about conference expansion, there are many more myths than truths circulating about.  This article is designed to set the proverbial record straight on some of these matters. 

These myths run the gamut from some that are directly pertaining to schools in the expansion cross hairs to some about those that would be affect collaterally.

Without further delay...

Television market size

Because of the talk about Rutgers, everyone believes that the market size of the nearest big metro media market is what matters.

Not true!

There are a number of factors, and it affects schools and conferences differently.

Rutgers is attractive to the Big Ten because their limited, but still noteworthy, fan following can be ADDED TO the already large alumni bases of existing Big Ten schools in the New York area. They then parlay the Big Ten Network on to basic cable where the Big Ten gets paid for every basic cable subscriber whether they ever tune in or not.

This has led to people thinking any large market is desirable which has, in turn, led to suppositions that TCU is valuable to a conference (Big 12 or SEC) because the Dallas market, and Miami is valuable to a conference (SEC) because of the Miami/South Florida market.  But if nobody in that market watches them and ESPECIALLY (like in TCU's case) if that team is at best the 4th rated draw in their own market, then the population of the market no longer benefits them.

For example, West Virginia as a state has less population than the Dallas metro area or the South Florida metro area.  However, when West Virginia plays on TV, more people in their viewing area watch them than do people in TCU or Miami's viewing areas.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

If the Big Ten expands, so will the SEC

This is classic bluffing.  Mike Slive has openly said the SEC won't sit idly by and fall behind the Big Ten. The conference leaked rumors that they were talking with some schools last week. 

This is posturing.

The truth is the SEC's TV deal is a completely different animal than the Big Ten's.  The Big Ten is not on basic cable in many places.  Adding markets to get their network on basic cable versus having their network on extended cable (where they only make money on those that have elected a package with the Big Ten network included) is a big incentive for the Big Ten to add markets and by extension, schools.

The SEC is not under that same dynamic.

The SEC package is on ESPN and CBS and already carried nationally.  These deals are only a year into a 15 year deal so they won't renegotiate for some time.  Until then, adding schools would mean feeding more mouths on the same money. 

Only a huge splash like a Texas would absolutely force the networks to rework their contracts.  So if the SEC follows the Big Ten to 16 teams, each member school would effectively be voting on a $5 million dollar per year pay cut. 

That is NOT going to happen.

So why would the SEC bluff?  Because Notre Dame's AD said that a "seismic shift" would be the one thing that would require Notre Dame re-evaluate their decision to join a conference.

Since the SEC is the other big fish in the pond, Slive is trying to peacock his way into making Notre Dame think that the seismic shift is coming.  If Notre Dame could be spooked into joining the Big Ten and doing so sooner rather than later, the Big Ten could conceivably call off the rest of the expansion out of fear of reprisal from the rest of college football nation. 

If it got its top pick, and could stage a championship game, the Big Ten might stop at 12.  Then the SEC would be able to stay as is which is what it would like to do.

Some smaller conferences (specifically the Mountain West) will be proactive and strike first

Everybody is waiting on the best deal they can get.  No school is going to tie their own hands.  Thus, if a better deal might be available, a conference member is not going to vote to expand its conference.

Here's a case in point.  Many are saying that the Mountain West is going to invite Boise State to join this summer.  However, doing so would require that all schools in the conference ink a new deal.  And this new deal would have a revised buyout figure that is almost assuredly higher than the one they operate under now, if for no other reason than inflation.  And the duration of the buyout in terms of time would start over as of the inking of these new contracts. 

If Utah thinks it could be in line to get an offer from the Pac 10, and if the Pac 10 responds to the Big Ten's expansion, Utah won't vote to extend that invitation to Boise because they don't want to tie their own hands with a new contract.

If BYU or TCU thinks they might get asked to a reconstituted Big 12, and if the Big Ten takes a couple of the Big 12's schools, BYU or TCU will not want to tie their hands with a new contract either. 

This is one of the more frustrating misunderstandings among fans in general.

Conferences will issue invitations because of natural or historic rivalries

These are considerations that might break a tie, but will never be the primary consideration. 

This is a business. These are business decisions. 

Natural rivalries might be important to fans.  But fans need to remember that they tend to think like fans and not like CEO's.

Conferences will issue invitations because of a school's recent or historical winning performance

While it's nice to add schools that are perceived as winners, that's not really what this is about. 

The Big Ten is considering Missouri although Missouri has the reputation of being an underachiever.  Missouri, in many years, seems destined to be snake-bit.  Things happen to them that seem to never happen to other teams.  They just have some bad luck.

And Rutgers has the claim to fame that they were a participant in the very first college football game and helped to make the game.  However, they've done very little since then.

Yet, the Big Ten is rumored to want both of these teams.

Every team currently in a BCS conference will somehow end up in a BCS conference

There are a number of schools that stand to possibly lose BIG.  By BIG, I mean that they could go from a BCS conference to a non-automatic qualifier conference. 

Some examples here include some members of the Big East (West Virginia, Cincinnati, South Florida, and Louisville particularly) and some members of the Big 12 (Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas Tech, and Baylor, possibly even Oklahoma and Oklahoma State). 

If Oklahoma doesn't get invited to the SEC, then any merger between the Mountain West and what's left of the Big 12 would be a BCS conference on the strength of Oklahoma. 

However, this reconstituted Big 12 without Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, or Missouri would be a much smaller player and thus this new conference would be a severe downgrade for the Sooners...even if it maintained BCS status.

Kansas won't be left out because of their basketball team

According to Forbes (or Fortune, can't remember which), there are about 18 athletic departments in the entire country that are in the black.  Of those, all of them have decent to strong football teams and all are in major conferences. 

Basketball just doesn't drive the bus.  If a team on the outside looking in brings good basketball on top of football, it's seen as a plus.  But basketball alone is not going to get anyone any invitations to join a conference unless perhaps it's the ACC. 

However, Kansas is nowhere near the ACC, the Big Ten hasn't discussed them at all and they are not on the target list of either the SEC or Pac 10.

Oklahoma won't get left out because of their history, size, and financial status

Regardless of what OU fans think, their are some odds stacked against them. 

The Big Ten has expressed no interest in them for academic and distance reasons.  The SEC is looking mostly eastward with the exception of Texas and Texas A&M, if at all. 

As I mentioned, the SEC's TV deal doesn't renegotiate until 14 years from now.  Until then, adding more schools means more mouths being fed by the same money.  So they may not even expand if the Big Ten does. 

Texas would cause ESPN to have to come back to the table.  There would be no way around it.  The same cannot be said of OU because OU is a smaller state than many already represented in the SEC's footprint so it's not the frame breaking change that would require renegotiation. 

OU would also come with the baggage of being a package deal with Okie State because T Boone Pickens can and will buy enough state legislators to tie them together similar to Texas A&M with Texas.  He will not allow Okie State to fall so significantly behind OU.  So the SEC would not just be inviting OU but Okie State too and probably will not want both.

Finally, schools like Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, South Carolina will vote for Texas to come beat them every year because of the prestige and size of Texas and the foray into the hotbed of college football's best recruiting state. 

These schools will not vote to be pummelled by Oklahoma every year without those same rewards.  They already get pummeled by everyone else in the conference.  Inviting a team to join requires unanimous consent in most conferences.  Thus, Oklahoma is not in control of their destiny. 

Mississippi State and others are in control of OU's destiny - at least so far as it pertains to trying to escape the Big 12 implosion by coming to the SEC.  And if these schools have to decide between the pair of Texas/Texas A&M or Oklahoma/Oklahoma State, I think it's fairly obvious who it will be. 

And it won't be all four.

Iowa State is (or should be) a Big Ten expansion target

This is a variation of the natural rivalries and/or geographic sense argument.  It just isn't so.

Iowa isn't a big market.  Yet, what market share it does represent is more than captured by having the Hawkeyes.

Iowa State adds nearly nothing. 

The other schools aren't worried about Iowa having a natural rival.  If the people I know in Iowa are right, Iowa doesn't consider them that now.  What would make one think that would change?  They'll always be second fiddle in a small, rural state.

BYU is a Pac 10 target

BYU is a religious school.  And not just any religion, but one of the more strict ones. It is also one of those religions that is most looked down upon by elitist academia.

The west coast schools are known for being unabashedly liberal and anti-religious.

The Pac 10 turned away Texas a few years ago because they were going to be paired with Texas A&M which has military leanings (undesirable to academic types).

The Pac 10 has a unanimous consent rule where any school can put the veto on an expansion target.  There is NO WAY that BYU would not get vetoed by at least one and probably even the majority of Pac 10 member schools.

There is a movement afoot in the Big East to force Notre Dame all in or all out

Notre Dame currently enjoys membership in the Big East for all sports besides football.  This "have your cake and eat it too" scenario infuriates many in the Big East.

They rightly feel like if Notre Dame didn't have a home for their other sports in the Big East, they would probably go to the Big Ten where they would have to accept the fact that they'd be a football member too.  If the conference forced them out, they would join the Big Ten on their own and the Big Ten would stop looking at raiding the Big East. 

Besides, the Big East football schools share their bowl tie-in's with Notre Dame even though Notre Dame doesn't play football in the conference and more than one school has gotten a lower bowl than they otherwise would have because of it.

The problem with this scenario of forcing Notre Dame out, and why it would never happen has everything to do with the fact that there are 16 schools in the Big East with 8 of them playing football and 8 of them not playing football. 

These primarily basketball schools are also mostly Catholic, and like Notre Dame, in the conference. 

Presumably, these schools are why Notre Dame was negotiated in the way they were to start with.  Also, Notre Dame would never vote itself out. 

The schools that the Big Ten is looking at inviting want to be invited.  So these schools (Rutgers, Syracuse, Pitt, UConn) won't be voting for anything that reduces their shot at an invitation. 

That leaves a small minority of schools that truly want this to happen.  On a side note, kudos to Randy Edsall for taking a stand for their removal on principle even though UConn is one of the schools that is being considered for Big Ten inclusion.

X School will decide to join Y conference when the dominoes fall

Schools don't get to make that choice.  Many "trolls" on Boise State's message boards mockingly tell their fans that their school should "join a real conference." 

The problem with this argument, whether it's being made during normal times or during these very fluid times, is that schools don't get to make these decisions. 

The conferences, specifically the most vulnerable teams in the conferences, have that power to decide if a team gets invited or not. 

There are many articles talking about schools like they are board game pieces of some table game where they say "we'll move X school to Y conference because of natural rivals and because they fit geographically." 

There are three maddeningly inaccurate points in that one sentence alone...all three of which have now been addressed in this article.

There are a few more myths floating around out there but I can't think of them right at this moment.  This was designed to just get people thinking the way conference commissioners are going to be thinking so they can stop being so frustrating to the rest of BR's readers with their short-sightedness. 

If this article prevents even one more vastly uninformed piece from showing up on the site, it will have served its purpose.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.