Conference expansion: maybe there ought to be a law.

I haven’t joined in the rampant speculation about conference expansion that’s engulfed college football blogdom since the Big Ten’s announcement that it would analyze the possibility of adding another school (Texas!Texas!Texas!) to the conference, mainly because nobody speculating has much of a clue about where things might be headed.

What is striking about what’s been posted for the most part, though, is the focus on the business end of what may drive the changes.

Money is the driving force behind decades of incremental change in college sports. Conferences have been changing from the time college men first put on sweaters and kicked around a pig bladder. The evolution has accelerated in the age of television, leading us to a perfect storm of economic factors that could bring about massive realignment across the landscape. It has been foretold for decades, and laid out as manifest destiny as soon as Georgia and Oklahoma won television independence for college sports via the Supreme Court in 1984.

Why is that striking?  Because it’s what gets ignored or brushed over in the push for a football playoff.

Here’s the truth, or at least the closest approximation to it:

If the power conferences – and more importantly, the TV networks — saw value in any teams not currently in the BCS conference power structure, those teams would already be in it. The truth of the matter is that there are no teams outside the current BCS conferences who can add to the money pot. Any realignment scenarios that mention any non-BCS team as a likely candidate are grounded in wishful thinking but not much reality. Oh, perhaps a couple might get in simply to balance divisions or fill a particular regional gap in TV markets, depending on how the dominoes fall. That’s you, Utah and perhaps BYU. That’s you, TCU. That’s probably not you, Boise State. Only if you get lucky with the way things break, UCF. Everybody else? Better just focus on the mirror instead of that pie in the sky…

I’m going to confess that this doesn’t sadden me in the slightest.  In fact, it’s kind of exciting.  If what we wind up with is a concentration of power in a grouping of superconferences, it seems to me that it becomes much easier to design a postseason that makes a majority of college football fans much happier than they are now.

Who says there will even BE a BCS when this reaches its conclusion? Or if there is, it won’t radically change things. Superconferences based on mega television deals only ENHANCE the value of the regular season. Rather than spur playoff push — which could happen certainly, — it might actually strengthen the BCS with fewer conferences requiring automatic bids. The regular-season and conference championship games become even bigger.

It also makes it easier to design a playoff comprised of conference champs only, if the powers that be are so inclined.  Schwing!

The question at that point will be how happy the Orrin Hatches of the world will be watching the Boise States and Utahs get swept into the Dipshit Division with the remnants of the Big East and the Big XII, which look to be the most vulnerable to the (potential) expansion tsunami.  Well, maybe two questions:  could they move fast enough to stop it?

The only thing stopping the inevitable cartel cannibalism has been the fact that college presidents didn’t have the courage to make the moves – to go all in. Oh, and the money. It hasn’t been quite the right time, and the dollars not quite right. But the day may soon arrive when the dollars cannot be ignored, and even the politicians cannot stand in the way. Perhaps the presidents will again explore the options and take the conservative approach of past expansionist periods. A move here, a move there, and we’re done for a while, until the next ripple. Maybe. History says that will be the case. But if they conclude otherwise — and they are certainly going to hear otherwise from the networks and their conference commissioners – then America will be stunned at how quickly the dawn of the superconferences arrives.

My guess is not.


UPDATE: Michael Elkon riffs off my post.  I don’t disagree with what he has to say, except that I think he’s reading my “truth” comment a bit overbroadly.  I doubt any power conference taking on schools will be kicking any out.  That’s why the debate is focused on superconferences comprised of 14 and 16 schools.  The “truth” my post refers to is that the conferences adding on won’t be looking at what Boise State brings to the table from a competition standpoint.  (If they cared about that, you would see Washington State depart the Pac-10.)   It’ll be driven totally by the dollars.  And that’s where the WAC schools and most of the MWC schools fall woefully short.

What the Orrin Hatch-types refuse to accept is that the same mentality drives the decision making behind the D-1 college football postseason.


UPDATE #2: I swear, I wince every time I read one of Andy “Trustbuster” Staples’ attempts to pontificate on economic/legal issues affecting the game.

Today, he advises the BCS schools that they can have it all by following these three simple steps:  (1) create four sixteen-team superconferences; (2) leave the NCAA and form a new governing body; and (3) relinquish their tax-exempted status as non-profits.  This is dumb and it gets even dumber when you read some of his specific comments.


… if you’re in charge of an athletic department that brings in more than $40 million a year in revenue, you don’t appreciate the NCAA’s pesky habit of distributing money you played a larger role earning to programs straining to keep their noses above the poverty line.

Um, the NCAA doesn’t touch D-1 football money, Andy.

And, my favorite part:

Since the CASH would pay taxes, the president couldn’t threaten its tax-exempt status. Since it would produce the same product as the more-established NCAA, it wouldn’t be a monopoly, either. Instead, it would be the NCAA’s direct competitor. If consumers chose to spend more money on the CASH’s product, so be it…

First off, there’s a much bigger stick than tax exemption which the government could wield if it wanted to threaten the schools, and that’s financial aid to universities, which runs in the multi-billions.  Yielding tax exemption doesn’t get these guys home free and it costs them major bucks (which undercuts the point to this exercise, doesn’t it?).  So what’s the use of giving it up?

Second, the “product” isn’t owned by the NCAA.  It’s owned by the conferences.  And any other conference can go out and compete with them right now in a BCS world in exactly the same way that Staples is suggesting for his new paradigm.  So if his example gets the BCS schools out of antitrust jail, why does he believe that they deserve to be locked up in there in the first place?


Filed under BCS/Playoffs, College Football, It's Not Easy Being A Mid-Major, It's Just Bidness

16 responses to “Conference expansion: maybe there ought to be a law.

  1. Dog in Fla

    “manifest destiny”

    Love it and so does Ari Fleisher’s intern…

    and btw it could even be a good name for the new offense Tommy’s installing at Texas Tech.


  2. JasonC

    For conferences that have big deals like the SEC and Big Televen, how does that work for teams coming and going, regarding the money. If Arkansas did go to the new Big 12, they give up the ESPN money, right? If Clemson stepped in to replace Arkansas, they get the money, right?


  3. NM

    SEC adds Texas, Oklahoma, Clemson, Virginia Tech. Signs new TWO billion dollar TV deal. WIN.


  4. sUGArdaddy

    I just don’t understand why it’s so complicated. The Big 11 snags Mizzou, which already has a natural rivalry with Illinois and is close in proximity. Then the Big 12 adds TCU, which is a strong program and has Texas rivalries built in and gives the Big 12 a Dallas market even more than it already has. The Pac 10 adds BYU and Utah. That gives us 5 really strong conferences and great conf. championship games.

    The kicker there is the Big East, which only has 8 football teams, but they can’t add more because they have 8 basketball teams, too, which makes them a 16 team league in B-ball. If I was them, I’d add some football schools like Memphis, LA Tech, and other CUSA teams. Then, steal a few more A-10 teams for B-ball and have 2-12 team leagues/divisions for B-ball. You wouldn’t get to play every team in the league, but that’s normal in football and baseball. The top 8 in each league go to the conference tourney. That would certainly help their position for football.

    However, Boise St. is simply left out in the cold. They offer nothing to any conference other than football, and unlike sustained runs of excellence in multiple sports, and especially football, when Chris Petersen finally leaves for bluer patures, that program will sink.


    • If conference expansion really does take place, I think the Big XII and the Big East both get plowed under. The lower parts of both conferences are very, very weak.

      When the dust settles, you may very well be looking at four 16-team superconferences in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-10.


      • sUGArdaddy

        You may be right, but the Big 12 is pretty strong up top, and we can’t just look at it through football eyes. Oklahoma, UT, and KU are perennial B-ball powers. UT is a baseball power. Nebraska is a volleyball power. Iowa St. owns wrestling. They’re stronger than the ACC accross the all-sports board. But you may be right. 16 team conferences would be hard to work in football. You’d play 7 teams in your division and 1, maybe 2, teams from the other division and go YEARS w/o playing teams from the other division.

        But…if it happened, I think I’d vote for our 4 additional teams to be South Florida (because I want them stealing UF recruits), Memphis (it’s an SEC town and would greatly help us in B-ball), Louisville (same as Memphis and already has a bitter rivalry w/ UK), and maybe Southern Miss or LA Tech. I don’t want Clemson because I want them to forever WANT to be in the SEC but we just keep looking at them like the ugly girl at the dance. East Carolina would be an option, too, I suppose.


        • Like it or not, non-revenue generating sports are unlikely to be a very relevant consideration in the Age of Expansion. Money rules, brother.

          As for the regular season schedules, what I think you’d see is something more akin to a 7-3-2 breakdown in a sixteen-team conference. You’d need to have the total number of conference games add up to an even amount to make sure that the home and away schedules balanced. That will have the added benefit of lowering the demand for cupcake games, which will lower the asking price as a result.

          Think about how the playoffs would work. The four conferences would have their championship games. Then you’d pair the winners off in national semifinals: Pac-10 vs. Big Ten (or whatever they’d be called then) and ACC vs. SCC. Then you get your national championship game, all nice and neat. And valuable…


          • sUGArdaddy

            That could be really great. There are 66 BCS teams + ND right now. 4 16-team conf. would be 64 teams, so we really only have to get rid of 2 teams. The problem is where do the TCU’s of the world fit in. Maybe nowhere. But there’s going to be an argument, there. I think I’d be in favor of something like that. It would certainly be a lot of fun and the regular season would mean everything. However…it would still diminish the non-conf. games. But maybe those would go by the wayside. There are so few left. FSU/UF, Tech/UGA, Clem/fake USC. The SEC might solve them all. FSU, Clemson, Tech, & Miami all join the SEC. Problem solved.

            There’d have to be someway to involve ND in there, realistically, or this deal ain’t never going down. And who would be the last 2 teams out? Baylor? Wazzu? Vandy? UConn?

            The problem is that I’m sure you and I and some friends could figure it out over a bucket of wings and fries, but I don’t trust the powers that be as far as I could throw them.


  5. Best way I knew to get this into your eager hands!
    For the record, I am not comparing basketball tourneys and football tourneys.


    • Key passage:

      Regular-season games are still going to decide everything about the NCAA tournament — who gets what seed, who makes it in to the 96-team field, which team gets a bye (assuming byes exist), which team plays where, and, as it always has, which teams eventually progress to the Sweet 16. It’ll have all the features the current regular season has. You’ll barely notice the difference…

      That’s ’cause the horse is already out of the barn. 🙂


  6. Mayor of Dawgtown

    It seems to me that Staples’ 2 columns are pretty inconsistent. In the first he rails against the BSC and calls it an illegal playoff regime that that he says violates the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts. The second advocates exactly the same type of system only with the deck chairs rearranged more to his liking. I make no comment on the merit of his plan competition-wise. Rather, it is the hypocrisy of denouncing the one while advocating the other that is off-putting. This guy will literally write anything to fill up space.


  7. Mickey Terry Hubert

    sUGArdaddy needs a blog. That dude knows what’s up. I’ll get some wings and fries and talk conference expansions all day long, bro.