Feel the ground shifting, college football? It should be shaking under your feet by now. In fact, it might be a good idea to head to the nearest doorway to avoid falling debris.
|Dan Hawkins and the Colorado Buffaloes of the Big 12 are prime candidates to join the Pac-10 Conference. (US Presswire)|
It seems the game, as we know it, is in for another round of expansion earthquakes. With Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott's announcement this week that, "we're looking at [expansion] very seriously," it's clear upheaval is on the horizon again. The Big Ten already is two months into exploring the addition of a 12th team (at least).
It's only been five years since the ACC ripped apart major college athletics when it expanded. But this is bigger. Not since expansion by the SEC and Big 12 in the 90s could the whims of two power conferences impact the sport as much.
Domino effect? By the beginning of the 2011 season, the Big 12 might be looking for two new members. It's still early in the process, but it looks like Missouri (to the Big Ten) and Colorado (to the Pac-10) are prime candidates to leave the Big 12.
"For this round, I think we can expect the Big Ten probably will go to 12 and it sounds like the Pac-10 will go to 12, or at least take a long look at it," said Neal Pilson, a noted sports television consultant and former president of CBS Sports.
That's only the beginning of the process. Such a loss would cause the 14-year-old Big 12 to look for new members from other vulnerable conferences. And so on, and so on down the institutional food chain. When the ACC expanded in 2005, the aftershocks reached all the way down to the Mid-American Conference.
Whatever happens, if the Big Ten and Pac-10 expand and each add championship games, we could officially welcome in the era of the super-conference. Five of the current six BCS leagues would each have 12 teams (at least).
When it all shakes out, the BCS could be a side issue. The real concern would be the consolidation of power and money by a group of elite schools within the BCS.
For now, here's the fallout both short and long-term:
How we got here: The SEC and Big Ten drove the latest round of potential conference expansions with their most recent media deals. In July, the SEC finalized a 15-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN and CBS. The 2½-year-old Big Ten Network was part of a 25-year, $2.8 million deal in partnership with DirecTV and FOX. There is another 10-year deal with ESPN for $1 billion.
No other conference measures up.
It was more than notable that on Monday, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott hired former Big Ten deputy commissioner and Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg as the Pac-10's chief operating officer. Weiberg spent a decade working with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and after eight years with the Big 12, he returned in 2007 to oversee the Big Ten Network start-up.
At the Pac-10, Weiberg will be trying to maximize the Pac-10's TV revenue through a better television package and/or expansion. Having worked for Delany, arguably the most powerful man in college sports, he knows where Big Ten expansion is headed.
"Very rarely does Jim engage in something like this [expansion] without it being significant," Weiberg said. "My take is this is a very serious thing."
The most lucrative deal in college sports history puts the SEC in a dominant position, both financially and athletically. As the TV contracts now stand, annual SEC football doormat Vanderbilt makes $7 million more a year than Big 12 power Texas ($7 million-$10 million).
In a down economy, the have nots have to do something. It is no coincidence that SEC schools have won the last four consecutive BCS title games.
What it means for everyone else: Playing catch up. The Pac-10's TV deals expire after the 2011-2012 season and it will be in negotiations for a new deal within a year. There has been speculation about a possible Pac-10 network (possibly in partnership with the Big 12 and/or ACC) as well as that expanded league featuring a championship game.
The Big 12's deals are staggered. The current $480 million agreement with ABC/ESPN goes through 2016. A separate $78 million deal with FOX goes through 2012. Missouri has been publicly critical of the Big 12's unequal revenue distribution. More ominous for the Big 12, Missouri said it would be receptive to interest from the Big Ten. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Rutgers also remain possibilities for the Big Ten.
This is the latest round of change brought on by the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1984 that allowed individual conferences (and teams) to negotiate TV contracts on their own.
The shuffling essentially began in 1990 when Notre Dame left the old College Football Association to negotiate its own TV deal. Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer discovered a loophole in the NCAA rules that allowed his league to invite Arkansas and South Carolina, expand to 12 teams and stage a championship game beginning in 1992.
That move nudged the Southwest Conference and Big Eight to begin talks in the mid-1990s. Apart, the two leagues could not exist financially. The SWC brand already had been damaged by repeated NCAA problems. The Big Eight took in four SWC schools (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor) to create the Big 12 beginning in 1996.
The Big 12 became the second conference with a championship game. The first contract, $100 million with ABC and Liberty Media, seems puny by today's standards.
The BCS formed in 1998, further consolidating the earning power of the six power conferences. In subsequent years, the WAC, MAC, Conference USA and ACC added championship games with varying degrees of success. The Mountain West created its own network (The Mtn.) in September of 2006.
Toward the end of his tenure as Big 12 commissioner (1998-2007), Weiberg was a proponent of a Big 12 network, but the subject never got traction within the league.
A network was, "almost overly complicated," to consider but, "strategically for the Big 12, it had value," Weiberg said.
Maybe that's why the Big Ten has the most successful collegiate network. It is in 73 million homes, taking advantage of a "footprint" that includes a quarter of the country's population in the Big Ten region.
"To do a conference network, you really need a success story and you have that with the Big Ten," Pilson said, "which is the most logical conference to start a network given the states they're in and population."
That record SEC deal came together shortly before the economy tanked. Short of a college football playoff (see below), re-positioning itself within the marketplace (expansion, networks, etc.) is the best way for a conference to add value.
However, Pilson warns there is a limit to the rights fees for the 66 schools in the BCS.
"There is a finite number that the networks can pay for college football," Pilson said. "Frankly, television can probably do a nice television package with 30 BCS schools, not 60.
"I think the magic number is probably 30 or 40. The colleges better be careful that they don't get what they're asking for, [which] is complete freedom to make TV deals because TV is basically interested in the big schools. I'm talking about the bigger schools within the big conferences."
How expansion impacts a college football playoff: The Pac-10 and Big Ten are two traditionally conservative leagues tied to the Rose Bowl. The conferences and a bowl are all adamantly opposed to a playoff. With each conference potentially playing a championship game -- a huge step in itself -- it's hard envisioning those conference presidents signing off on a playoff that could expand the season even further.
Short answer: Super conferences are bad for you playoff proponents.
How it will shake out: It's way early but, as mentioned, Missouri to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-10 seem to be the early favorites. Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe already has indicated there wasn't much the conference to do to deter a team from leaving.
That still leaves the Pac-10 with one more team to add, but first, let's eliminate Texas and Notre Dame from the equation. Either school would be a slam dunk for the Big Ten -- if they were interested. But multiple sources say that Notre Dame is committed to its independent status.
Texas was mentioned in the 1990s as a possible Pac-10 addition before the Big 12 was formed. The geographic limitations still exist -- Texas isn't contiguous to any state with a Big Ten or Pac-10 school. Plus, the Big Ten shares its revenue equally. One reason Missouri favors the Big Ten is the Big 12's unbalanced revenue sharing formula. It's also a big reason Texas would favor staying in the Big 12 because as it is on TV more often, Texas makes significantly more than, say, Baylor.
In the Pac-10, Utah, BYU and San Diego State have been mentioned along with Colorado. Both Utah and BYU could deliver the Salt Lake City market. San Diego State is struggling mightily in football but bringing the Pac-10 to the market would create a seamless coverage area for the conference from Seattle to the Mexican border.
Neither Fresno State nor Boise State has the market or earning power of the other four schools to be considered in the Pac-10.
The Big East has been nervous about the loss of any combination of Syracuse/Pittsburgh/Rutgers to the Big Ten. It might be easy to rule out Pittsburgh because the conference already has a presence in Pennsylvania with Penn State. Pilson isn't the only one who says neither Syracuse nor Rutgers deliver the New York market for the Big Ten.
The Big East has financial penalties in place for schools that would leave the conference. However, those are meant more to bolster the existing schools financially than to keep a school from leaving.
That leaves Missouri, in a state that shares a border with Iowa and Illinois, homes of Big Ten schools. In addition, it has been rather public about its academic profile being more of a match for the Big Ten the Big 12. That fact wasn't lost on Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
"I'm not going to say anything bad about the Big 12," Nixon was quoted as saying in December, "but when you compare Oklahoma State to Northwestern, when you compare Texas Tech to Wisconsin, I mean, you begin looking at educational possibilities that are worth looking at."
That comment could add some rancor to the next Big 12 meeting. There are already tremors rippling through the sport. Have your feet firmly planted. Whether it's the meeting room or the sideline, the ground is about to shake.