Thursday, June 10, 2010

Nebraska Leaves Big 12: The Fallout

On Friday, Nebraska will announce that it has accepted an invitation to join the Big Ten.

This single splash will sink a conference, rattle an independent, and drown a few schools from the world of championship college football all together. This is the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, and the analogy fits better than you might think.

At the turn of the century, Europe was entangled in a spider web of treaties and alliances. The rulers at the time thought a system of agreements to fight for one another would keep each nation at peace with its enemies, but the sword cut both ways. Once any nation was at war, each nation was.

College athletics, too, is organized by a multitude of treaties and alliances, but we usually just call them TV contracts and conferences. Each team feels a level of economic and social standing relative to the conference in which they belong, and each team looks out for ever other team in their conference. There are powerhouses and weaklings in each conference, but their bargaining power and their strength come from their solidarity. Economically, the NCAA conferences operate like cartels. There are a (relatively) small number of firms and they make a homogenous product (college athletics). As long as no one breaks rank, a higher price can be set for the whole conference than for the individual teams alone. When a firm leaves one cartel for another, each organization much re-evaluate their situation entirely.

So why did Nebraska break rank? Money.
Why did the Big Ten want to expand from eleven teams to twelve? Money (and a championship game).

First, Nebraska: The Big Ten distributed $20 million to each member institution in 2009. The Big 12 distributes between $7-12 million a year. Nebraska will realize a $10 million dollar raise by joining the Big Ten.

Second, The Big Ten: With an even number of teams (twelve), the Big Ten can now split into two division of six and play a championship game at the end of football season. (Hurray!) The Big Ten also stands to gain from selling the Big Ten Network to millions of Cornhuskers fans. (Vertical integration! Double hurray!)

Money is the driving force behind this reorganization, and The Big Ten Network is the source of that money. The Big 12 could never launch a similar network of its own because the television markets couldn't support one. The conference is Austin, Boulder and ten small towns; a viable television network needs more than that. (Dallas, Denver, Houston, and Kansas City are not fully Big 12 cities.) The Big Ten has Cleveland, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis. (The Pac-10 has LA, Oakland, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Seattle. They also have the SoCal Network to build on.)

So what happens now?

Nebraska will join the eleven teams currently in the Big Ten, and the corpse of the Big 12 will begin to rot.

The healthiest organs will be transplanted to a new host. Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Colorado will graphted onto the Pac-10 to form a sixteen-team super-conference with the original Pac-8 comprising the West and Arizona, Arizona State and the zombie Big 12 making up the East. (Just like Frankenstein’s Monster, this new conference lacks a name, identity, and sense of self.)

What this new conference lacks in character it will make up in revenue. The newly minted Pac-16 will launch a network of its own, and early guesses put the average take for each school in the $20 million range. If this new conference holds a few years (or maybe before then), other conferences will feel pressure to size up as well.

Ultimately, we could see college football (and thereby all of college athletics) reorganized into four sixteen-team super-conferences:

The Pac-16:
West: Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington St.
East: Arizona, Arizona St., Colorado, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St.

The Big Ten:
Current: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin
New: Missouri?, Rutgers? Pittsburg?, Kansas?

The Big Ten has already contacted Missouri and Rutgers. Pittsburg and Kansas fit geographically and athletically, but many others could jump in (K-State, Ohio, Iowa State, etc.)

The SEC:
Current: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi St., South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt
New:  Virginia Tech?, Clemson?, Florida St.?, Miami?

The SEC would love to add Va. Tech, but there is concern that adding Clemson, Florida St., or Miami would only “cut more slices from the same pie.”

The Atlantic Conference:
Boston College, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Duke, East Carolina, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, South Florida, Syracuse, UCF, Virginia, Wake Forest, and West Virginia

If the SEC expands, the ACC and the Big East (once looted) would make natural partners. I added East Carolina and UCF from Conference USA, but Memphis and several others would fill the gap just as well.

Where does that leave the Mountain West? Conference USA? The WAC? The Sun Belt? The Mid-American? What about the conference orphans? Baylor? Iowa State? Kansas State?
Long story short, they’re in trouble. Even if they unite and the best of them form a fifth super-conference, they won’t especially matter. While these conference and these teams play Division I football on paper, they don’t in practice. Utah, TCU, Hawaii, and Boise State are excellent football programs. However, their market share is small. The bowl games they’re placed in don’t make TV networks much money. These teams may be as good as any, but America would rather watch a five-loss Notre Dame team play any day of the week.

Speaking of Notre Dame, how will all of this affect them?

If the four super-conferences above begin to take shape, Notre Dame will be hard pressed to join one of them.

Notre Dame, an independent, is the 2nd most valuable college football program. Every conference (both real and imaginary) would love to have them. Notre Dame has a massive fan base, generous alumni, and a large endowment, but none of that will matter if their football team can’t schedule competitive opponents.

Let’s imagine what a schedule will look like for Texas Tech, a team in a sixteen-team conference:

Out of twelve regular season games:
One is a IIA warm-up or a 1A chump (pseudo-preseason)
Seven are Pac-16 East division games
Four are Pac-16 West division games

Even if we cut the preseason game, there’s only one spot for inter-conference play. Good teams rarely schedule tough inter-conference opponents as it is. The BCS gives them no incentive to do so. Six teams in each of the four super-conference would have to play Notre Dame every other year for them to have a full schedule of “quality opponents”. A few smaller schools might take a game as a money grab (and USC or Miami might even schedule them for rivalry’s sake), but Notre Dame’s days of putting together a championship schedule would be over. Notre Dame still wouldn’t be forced to join a conference, but how long would fans tolerate playing small schools and service academies? Boise State and Utah would be thrilled, but I can’t see fans, recruits, or the BCS sharing their exuberance.

We all know how the First World War ended: the sore-feelings and economic ramifications simply laid the groundwork for the next world war. Let’s hope that when college football reorganizes, it gets it right the first time.

I’m gonna miss you, Big 12. I love you.

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