Conference Expansion: The Impact on College Football

The world of college football is a interesting place. A lot of sports have their share of crazy fans and pageantry, but college football has both a rich history (with many programs dating back to the 1800s), pageantry, and a level of loyalty that is unparalleled for a amateur sport. To see crowds of up to 100,000 (which might exceed the population of the city they’re in), pack into a stadium and cheer for a group of amateur athletes shows a level of dedication that’s somewhat unique to college football. College football gives smaller states and smaller communities a chance to have big time programs. I grew up in Alabama, we didn’t have much else besides college athletics. College football gave us a way to be relevant on a national stage that we lacked otherwise (at least until American Idol came along). Despite the accomplishments of small town teams in smaller states, college football has become big money for the universities. College football in turn has been used to fund entire athletic programs and as the responsibility grows and the money rolls in, the quest for more money continues. It is in this setting that the college football athletic conferences face expansions, realignments, and dissolution.

The Big 10 network has been a success, bringing shared Big 10 revenue up to 22 million per team and the network alone has accounted for 6.5 million per team. The SEC on the strength of some big TV deals, shared just over 17 million amongst their member schools. While the SEC chooses to let member schools have their own packages (such as PPV game), the Big 10’s choice to go with a subscriber based network has given them the incentive to move into new markets. Once the Big 10 started talking expansion, the Pac-10 didn’t want to be left out and started talking expansion as well. Things started getting tricky, as the Big 10 started talking about 16 teams and it started to sound like the apparently strong Big 12 was on the verge of falling apart. I briefly alluded to this before, but this is going to be rather lengthy, however if you made it this far you might want to continue…

The major considerations expansions include TV markets, geographical concerns, prestige of their football program, fan support, total sports revenue, and academics. It is easy to just name the top college football programs off the top of one’s head but it isn’t that simple. All the factors have to be taken into account. For instance, traveling doesn’t matter as much for the football programs, but a lengthy trip to play a volleyball game could really take it’s toll, on fans, on the players, and on the athletic department. I’ve used this map to figure out what schools could match up geographically with a particular conference. Of course, the more money the conference and individual program has the less of a concern this becomes but it does matter. Fan support matters as well, particularly for conferences like the SEC, which pride themselves in their level of dedication to college football. The TV market share is a bit complicated, as it’s not just about large individual markets, or even size of a state’s population, but the enthusiasm of the population. For instance, this Nielsen article shows us that almost 40% of the Birmingham market tuned in to Crimson Tide games. This made the Crimson Tide/Birmingham market much more valuable ratings-wise than the USC/Los Angeles market which had barely more total viewers and only a 6% share of the market. This is the important distinction to make, in a subscriber based environment, USC/Los Angeles is quite valuable, in a ratings based environment the Crimson Tide/Birmingham market is absolutely massive because it represents such a huge market share. So, it can be more lucrative to reach a smaller market if you command a higher percentage, than commanding a smaller percentage of a larger population. This also comes into play when considering expansion into states you already have a footprint in, but don’t command total control of the TV markets.

Keep in mind that I am a huge Alabama fan and like fans of most SEC schools, I also have great respect and admiration for the conference as a whole. So, while I think I might provide insight for college football fans in general, I am biased towards Alabama specifically and the conference as a whole. There are quite a few teams involved in this entire ordeal and the situation is evolving so fast that the situation might have completely changed before I finished writing this. As of right now, Nebraska left for the Big 12, Colorado left for the Pac-10, and Boise State left for the MWC. There are still a lot of programs in play though. If you want, you can read my take on some of the programs potentially in play (or you can read a Texas A&M fan’s take), but I think four programs in particular are of great importance.

Notre Dame: From virtually all perspectives, Notre Dame is the grand slam of additions. They defy regional boundaries, they are strong enough to command their own nationwide NBC deal and get special considerations from the BCS. This obviously means any conference with them in it will get a good TV deal and not be left out of a automatic BCS bid. If any conference ends up with Notre Dame they become the big winners. Notre Dame would make any conference head that added them look like a genius and any major conference that isn’t at least making a run at Notre Dame is making a mistake.

Texas A&M: They are easily overlooked, since they have spent a lot of time in Texas and Oklahoma’s shadow but their importance is quickly rising as expansion talks continue. They could be the key to a conference entering a football crazy state with a population of almost 25 million. This isn’t all Texas A&M has to offer though, they are in or close to the top 20 in things like sports revenue, football attendance, all time wins in football, and the size of their endowment. The fact that they appear willing to break from Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma might make them a stronger consideration in some situations.
Edit: Texas A&M appears willing to stay in the Big 12. They are being promised around $20 million a year and apparently they have caved. I am sad on their behalf and I know a lot of their fans are not happy. The SEC provided a chance for them to get out of the shadow of OU and Texas and make a lot of money while they were at it. Hopefully Texas A&M does all they can to keep their options open and doesn’t forget about the SEC.

Texas: They are fabulously rich by almost any measuring stick. They make more sports revenue than any other program and their endowment is a cool 12 billion. The problem is they don’t seem to play well with others. The Southwest conference fell apart, a big part of the Big 12’s apparent demise is due in part to Texas, and even Texas A&M seems willing to part ways with them. If you consider the (somewhat understandable given how much they make) reluctance to share revenue, Texas actually becomes a lot less valuable. Texas is also the school most likely to be stuck with tag alongs by the Texas legislator.
Edit: We might not know what went on behind closed doors, but Texas is clearly the one that decided to kill their deal with the Pac-10. Was it all because of A&M or did OU have enough reservations to give them pause? Perhaps they simply couldn’t tolerate the idea of the SEC moving into the state of Texas. In either case they have now asserted their dominance over the entire Big 12. If you’re in the Big 12, you’re working for Texas now.

Oklahoma: A program with great prestige, they rely heavily on the Texas market (their entire population is less than four million). This limits their value a great deal in my mind. They are not going to add much to a subscriber based network (probably why I haven’t heard anything about the Big 10 trying to add them). Their 42 conference championships says a whole lot, but their financial value to a conference is debatable. They appear to be a package deal with Texas either way though, and obviously the two combined would bring in a lot of revenue but also make the respective conference’s football schedule much more difficult.
Edit: The clearest winner (if you can call a battered woman who wants to stay with their husband a winner) in all of this, Oklahoma gets to stick with Texas, gets a raise and doesn’t have to go out west to play games. On the flip side, their future is completely tied to Texas.

The main conferences involved in all these goings on have different agendas and priorities. They are not just fighting over the same teams (although of course some are) but they are trying to put themselves in a position to accomplish certain things. Virtually every conference will probably end up having at least minor involvement by the time this is all said and done (so far 5 are involved), but there are a few conferences that appear ready to take action/take further action:

SEC: I hope the SEC doesn’t get overly aggressive. They have a perfect option in Texas A&M but they still seem to be going after Oklahoma. Texas A&M is everything the SEC should want in a team. They are not a elite program right now, but have rivalries with Arkansas and LSU as well as a interesting history with Alabama. They’d fit in without being immediately disruptive. If they do ascend into a true football elite, they will do so as a member of the SEC. Oklahoma on the other hand is a bit redundant, would threaten to keep Texas A&M down in the division (as well as LSU and Auburn), and most importantly could greatly anger Texas. Pacifying Texas is a priority in my mind because if they don’t leave for the Pac-10 and leave A&M behind, the SEC might miss out on a easy chance to move into Texas. So, the trick is to get Texas A&M without angering Texas and making it too political. Beyond Texas A&M there are a lot of options (too many to name). Adding single team in the east, or moving Vanderbilt over to the west and three in the east are all viable options that won’t shake things up too much, assuming the SEC can land Texas A&M.
Edit: I have a suspicion that either the SEC got too greedy or they simply never wanted the Big 12 to break up. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t want a easy path into Texas, but the open flirting with Oklahoma couldn’t have possibly helped the situation. Did it make a difference? We may never know, but threatening the Pac-10 deal in that manner and reminding Oklahoma of their options couldn’t have helped. Texas wasn’t going to stand idly by and let the SEC get Texas A&M and Oklahoma, that’s for sure. I wish Slive had completely focused on A&M and I’ve said that all along. Now we might never know if that would have made a difference. The SEC is a bit of a loser now as the Big 10 still is poised to get stronger and the SEC’s been kept out of the state of Texas. One thing is clear, the SEC could have destroyed the Big 12, a invite to Texas A&M and Missouri would have insured that.

Big 10: They are the hardest conference to get a read on because they can do add pretty much any program they target. Texas and Notre Dame are the only programs that seem to be able to resist them at all, otherwise it seems to just be the matter of getting a official invite from the Big 10. The Big 10 could even stop now, they’re at 12 and have added a big piece, but I expect them to keep the pressure on Notre Dame and Texas. Any future moves from them will probably be based around their ability or inability to add those two teams. A major motivating factor for the Big 10 is their network, so the number of potential subscribers is a major factor.
Edit: The clear winner after it appears the Big 12 will stay together. The Big 10 landed Nebraska and nothing else has really changed for them. They’re still in a position to expand further if they want, but they have little reason to rush.

Pac-10: The Pac-10 is in quite a advantageous position. They already were able to land Colorado, a team that many people saw as a great fit in the Pac-10 and that’s just the opening salvo. It looks like they were going to get Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Texas A&M appears to have decided they (still) want to join the SEC though and this has jeopardized the entire move. If the rest can stick to the plan, I think this can still happen though. I think that’s a good thing as the Big 12 does seem to be dead and keeping the Big 10 out of Texas (and not making football impossibly hard) should be advantageous to the other conferences. Other options for the Pac-10 include Kansas and Utah. USC getting hammered by the NCAA is a small factor here as the Pac-10 could use another contender for the next few years.
Edit: The Pac-10 doesn’t lose as much as one would imagine. They moved into Colorado, they are poised to add Utah and they should be adding a championship game as well. They’ll be earning more money and have a expanded market. Colorado was a good fit all along and the way things played out, they had the perfect chance to make a logical addition. Interestingly enough, the idea of adding Texas/OU/OU St./Texas Tech isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility in the future.

MWC: The Mountain West conference could be the biggest winner. They already picked up Boise State, which at least gives them the appearance of becoming stronger. The amazing thing is they appear positioned to make a play at what’s left of the Big-12, which could include Kansas and Missouri. The mere idea that the MWC could go from adding a low revenue team like Boise State just to try to get AQ status in the BCS, to adding a huge earner like Kansas and potentially becoming a mega-conference is amazing. The Pac-10 could mess this up a bit, by taking either Kansas or stealing away Utah but in either case they’re still not in a bad position.
Edit: It appears as though the MWC will end up losing Utah to the Pac-10 and that might be the end of it. I heard a rumor about BYU and Air Force heading to the Big 12, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Big 12 (even if they are desperate). So, a potential trade of Utah for Boise State is pretty much a wash. However, the MWC is much less likely to reach AQ status if that happens.

Big 12: I thought about it, but I didn’t even write a paragraph about the Big 12 because their fate seemed to be sealed. The SEC flirting with OU made me nervous because no good could come of that (no way Texas was going to let OU escape and no way Texas was joining the SEC) but I hoped nothing would come of it. Now, it seems as though the entire conference has basically sold their soul to Texas. I can understand Baylor, Iowa St., Kansas, and Kansas St. in particular going along because they appeared to be without a home. Missouri is in a bad spot now as the Big 10 hasn’t moved to add them and the SEC hasn’t shown real interest, but Missouri will jump first chance they get. The hard part to understand is how Texas A&M was roped into staying in the Big 12. I know promises were made but realistically speaking if A&M gets as much as the SEC could offer they’re lucky and they won’t be treated as equally as they would in the SEC. I heard talk that the TV deal will be structured so that teams can’t leave. If there is any truth to this, it gives Texas more power as they could take their 4-6 team package and dissolve the Big 12 any time, but they’d be the only team that had the power to do this. Texas A&M and Missouri had better do their do diligence before they sign anything. Finally, the Big 12 still reeks of death. Money has been promised, a conference championship game has been lost, two states are no longer represented. While in a slightly better position than the Big East, the Big 12 still has to be marked, unless there is a clause that won’t let programs leave. In that case they’ve simply relegated themselves to being a second-rate conference.

A lot remains to be seen and this will take some time to evolve. The first step will be the likely collapse of the Big 12 and the likely picking of it’s bones (first the Big 10, Pac-10, and SEC then the MWC, C-USA, and so on). The next stage is likely the Big East, as some conference is likely to cherry pick the conference and leave it in ruins as well. Then you see the same thing all over again as the other conferences pick over their remains. Then you have to look at the ACC to see if they become hunter or hunted. Things will be interesting, that’s for sure.

Here are some links that cover various expansion related issues:
Musical Chairs: Sorting Out The College Conference Realignment
In this zero-sum game, Slive and the SEC need Oklahoma
Is C-USA Serious About Expansion? Yes.
Daily Dawg 13June (several links with commentary)
Major Changes For The Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-10 (potential Pac-10 alignment)

Finally, thanks to Tidefans for being a great place to discuss football and stay updated on this issue. You can check out their official thread about conference expansion here.

Edit: It appears as though the Big 12 has bought more time and the conference has been saved. I’ve added additional information to specific portions of my original post. They are clearly marked as edits and are in italics. For further analysis, you can read what Jess at Tidefans had to say on the issue.

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  1. RAB83
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:47 am Permalink

    KrAzY3, the only thing I would add is that something happened behind closed doors that we don’t know. There were hints from a blog post on the ESPN site that people above the conference commissioner level got together to put together the TV deal (if it really exists) that held the Big XII together. Certainly, the hapless Big XII Commissioner (and Deloss Dodds lapdog) Beebe wasn’t able to put a deal together on his own.

    Everyone goes to bed Sunday night thinking four Big XII schools are headed west and A&M is heading to the SEC. Inside sources reported that the A&M Board of Regents was 6-3 in favor of the SEC with Gene Stallings leading the charge. A&M AD Dollar Bill Byrne has been quoted on the downside of having student athletes (think minor sports and basketball) travel from the Northwest back to College Station at 5:00 a.m. on a Monday and having to attend 8:00 a.m. classes, indicating dissatisfaction with the Pac 10 move.

    All of a sudden, a huge TV deal materializes out of thin air. Texas stops California Dreaming and pledges allegiance to the conference they denigrated 24 hours earlier. Everyone else starts falling in line, but we Aggies still held hope for the SEC. Then, we hear A&M caves for a situation that can’t be better financially than the SEC other than the tribute A&M would have to pay to get out of the Big XII. If one factors in the added ticket sales from SEC fans traveling to Kyle Field, the merchandise sales, and the increase in donations from pumped up, excited Former Students (A&M doesn’t have “ex-Aggies.” We’re all Aggies. It’s just some of us are students and some are former students), then the revenue is closer to a wash.

    So why infuriate all of Aggieland if the revenue is a wash? Even worse from A&M’s standpoint is Texas is likely (no matter what is promised) to get an even greater share of the revenue, plus get to form their own TV network (and now it appears OU is doing the same)? Sure, the Big XII was offering a better financial deal for A&M, but a much better deal for Texas. Competitively, this is losing ground.

    Occam’s Razor suggests something else came into play that we don’t know about. Maybe we will one day. This entire episode stinks to high heaven.

    Contrary to the spinmeisters in Austin’s play, A&M was not seeking the SEC to escape Texas. That was just a bonus. Yes, the SEC would allow A&M to differentiate itself from its in-state rivals. However, the driving factor was A&M was seeking the best opportunity to pursue excellence, which lay with the SEC. This is why A&M was talking with the SEC when the SWC was falling apart, before the Big XII formed. A lot of us thought it was a mistake to pass up an opportunity to join the SEC then. Most of us think it today. A&M fits the SEC like a glove. We’re an SEC school at heart. Maybe one day we’ll be one in fact.

    If at first you don’t SECede, try, try again.

  2. Posted June 16, 2010 at 2:43 am Permalink

    Here’s a link to the ESPN story: Source: Influential group saved Big 12

    I don’t think A&M’s motivation to leave was to escape Texas as well, the SEC is just a better fit for them. I truly hope the chance presents itself again (without Texas and Oklahoma, those guys can go express their love for each other some other place).

    As far as things we may never know, perhaps some of it comes from the fact that 16 team conferences would pave the road for a breakaway from the NCAA. While not necessarily likely, a main component of doing that is somewhat equitable distribution of the top teams between at least four conferences. A&M to the SEC and 16 in the Pac-10 would both form a foundation for something like that. The Big 10 also appeared on the path to 16 as well and the ACC appeared in a likely position to snatch up the remains of the Big East. In either case some people didn’t want the Pac-10 and SEC to get stronger and it’s true that we might never completely figure this one out.

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