CBSSports.com Senior Writer

If conference expansions come true, college athletics will never be the same

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These uncertain times in college athletics were foretold decades ago.

In 1959, Admiral Tom Hamilton, the incoming commissioner of the Pac-8 Conference, began drawing up plans for what he called the "Airplane Conference." The league of at least 13 schools would have included Notre Dame, the three service academies, the core of what is now the Pac-10 and stretched from coast-to-coast. The name fit: The new league would have flown over the poor(er) saps below. The Airplane Conference would have been the richest, most influential conference in the country.

Commissioner Larry Scott and the Pac-10 could add two members to the conference. (US Presswire)  
Commissioner Larry Scott and the Pac-10 could add two members to the conference. (US Presswire)  
"That's the first instance of the super conference idea," said author Keith Dunnavant, who interviewed the now-deceased Hamilton for his 2004 book, The Fifty Year Seduction. "It could have been a dramatic change. I think they came pretty close."

So what's new 50 years later? Actually, the idea of expansion to super conference idea never went away. It needed the right financial, political, academic and, oh yes, athletic forces to converge again. We seem to be heading, inexorably, to the era of super conferences in college sports. To get there, there may be more conference shifting than ever experienced in the past.

Administrators are on the edge of their expensive club-level seats to see which way the mighty Big Ten shifts its weight. Its December revelation that it is exploring expansion, while not new, seems to be more serious this time. It certainly had a trickle-down effect. That would be the sweat beads running down the necks of ADs and commissioners who basically are circus acts reacting to Big Ten ringmaster/commissioner Jim Delany.

"What we'll do at the end of the day," Delany said, "is what we think is in our own best interest long-term."

That statement is both chilling (at least to some) and perhaps a foreshadowing of the future. In the next few days, CBSSports.com will attempt to sort out the expansion issue -- how we've gotten to this point and where we're going. The consensus is that major college athletics will never be the same.

"I think expansion is coming," Joe Paterno said this week, "In what form? ..."

That's the open-ended question. Any Duke student who has taken Kevin White's MBA sports business class is familiar with compression state economics. It explains why there once used to be many more banks and airlines than there are today. It also explains why those numbers, for economic reasons, have been "compressed."

Shift that philosophy to college conferences that are in the process of becoming bigger -- and more powerful. White should know. He is the athletic director at Duke, a member of the ACC that raided the Big East five years ago to enhance its television profile. White is also the former AD at Notre Dame, a key player in any conference expansion discussion.

When the Big Ten invited Penn State as its 11th team in 1990, the discussions were conducted clandestinely. According to reports, the league this time had identified 15 expansion candidates and hired an investment firm to vet the financial viability of those candidates.

The conference could expand to 12 or to as many as 16 -- and maybe more. Everything is on the table at this point. When the conference musical chair music ends this time, we could end up with four 16-team conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC). The Big Ten already is only one team away from making it four 12-team leagues.

The schools most prominently mentioned for Big Ten expansion are Notre Dame, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers. That suggests that the latest upheaval in college athletics could be the most significant in history. Try to digest this shifting of the ground under the feet of your alma mater: The Big Ten expands by five and goes to 16 teams. That might force the ACC to expand by four, which could force the SEC to do the same and the Big 12 to go beyond 12. All of it is about keeping -- actually expanding -- a conference's financial spot in the marketplace.

"There's never a time not to have conversations," Texas AD DeLoss Dodds said. "But this is certainly a good time to have conversations about anything anybody can think of that is new and innovative ... On this deal, you can let your imaginations run wild."

College football could be at another tipping point in the latest chapter of the survival of the financially fittest. Four 16-team leagues could command top dollar from networks and make its own set of rules. The NCAA has little control over postseason football as it is.

We've been headed to this point essentially for the last quarter century since the NCAA lost control of schools' TV appearances. This could bring us a step closer to what has long been speculated -- ultimately, the nation's most powerful football playing schools breaking away from the NCAA and becoming its own entity.

"I think conferences have come to the conclusion that they have to continue to get bigger, at least to a minimum of 12," said noted TV consultant Neal Pilson, "at least compete with each other in order to position themselves for an increase in their television rights fees. It's going to create a domino effect."

The formation -- and quick profitability of -- Delany's brainchild, the Big Ten Network, has added an unprecedented X factor to the college landscape. When the league released its 288-word expansion statement in December it noted that Delany would present "recommendations for consideration" to the league CEOs. A 12-18-month timetable was mentioned. However, with the 24-hour news cycle, expect frequent leaks and updates. Already, the media was mobilized 2½ months ago to shoot down a baseless report that Pittsburgh was joining the league.

The bottom line: Create an increased desire for the fast-growing network which is available in 73 million homes. Even the addition of one institution to create increase market share for the BTN could rip apart the fabric of amateur athletics that had just been getting used to its look.

"To do a network, you need a success story," Pilson said. "You have that with the Big Ten."

The vast reach of the conference includes approximately a quarter of the nation's population. Its fiercely loyal fan base fill stands, travels to bowl games and donates generously. If the Big Ten makes a significant move, it would go against the ultra-conservative history of the league. This is a conference that in many ways still values the Rose Bowl over a berth in the national championship. But with a network to support and promote ...

"It really has jumped out to me when we go out recruiting in December ...," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. "You can almost guarantee a parent no matter where they are in the country, that he or she is going to have an opportunity to watch their son not only on Saturday but on replays during the week."

Expansion could force staunchly independent Notre Dame into conference membership. The Pac-10 is looking to maximize its earning power and could add two members. The two most mentioned candidates are Colorado and Utah. The Big East, a possible Big Ten target, could be gutted for the second time in five years.

There isn't much of a template to work off of if airplane conferences take off: The Big East sponsors a powerful 16-team league in basketball. However, a 16-team WAC collapsed, leading to eight schools breaking away and forming the Mountain West in 1999.

All of it continues a quarter-century shakeout in football's free market economy. Until 1984, the NCAA was in charge of television appearances, parceling them out to rights holders with the philosophy that less is better. When major schools filed an anti-trust suit and won a Supreme Court decision that year, suddenly the sport was deregulated. Schools were able to market themselves to the networks. Initially payouts declined because of a glut of product on the market. However, deregulation was eventually a good thing and the sport boomed as cable and the networks spread the word: We really, really like college football.

"You absolutely connect everything back to the Supreme Court decision," Dunnavant said. "It was the firing of the gun to start the race. It created the tension between freedom and money. We've seen one domino fall right after the other."

It started with the College Football Association that emerged as the negotiating arm for the top football-playing schools in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. The CFA collapsed after Notre Dame signed its deal with NBC and the SEC expanded in the early 1990s. Further consolidation led to, for better or worse, the BCS in 1998.

By 2006 and the debut of his network, Delany realized another truth -- college athletics were undervalued. Love it or hate it, the BCS may have led that realization. At least in part, the BCS has led to unprecedented interest in the game. Attendance records were shattered, ratings soared.

"I really believed college sports was more valuable than it was being given credit for," Delany said.

That belief gave rise to the BTN. The network is in a 51-percent partnership with News Corp, the parent of FOX Broadcasting. The network debuted 3½ years ago, was profitable by late 2008 and currently contributes at least $4 million in revenue per school per year -- almost 20 percent of each Big Ten school's annual $22 million revenue check.

The SEC and Big Ten have basically locked up 50 percent of the population within their combined footprints (roughly states where their schools are located). The rush is on, then, to divide and profit from the other 50 percent. In a down economy. The Big 12, Pac-10, ACC and Big East, among the remaining major conferences, are busily trying to figure out where their futures lie. In the case of the Big East, perhaps, that football future is most uncertain.

"It was [previously] a back burner issue," Delany said of expansion. "We felt it was the right time to look at it. [We knew] that would cause a certain amount of turmoil but we thought it was better to get it out there."

The SEC and Big Ten got lucky as well as rich in their latest deals. Both were finalized before the economy tanked. The SEC has just embarked on a 15-year, $3 billion deal with CBS and ESPN that, the cable giant tells us, will ensure that at least one conference event will be on its media properties each day for the length of the contract.

Part of this particular arms race is about ego -- Delany and the Big Ten staying ahead of Mike Slive and SEC. The Big Ten reportedly pays out $22 million per school in football revenue per year. The SEC number is $17 million. The completion of the SEC deal in July followed the start of the BTN in 2006.

"If the Big Ten went to 16, the SEC wouldn't be far behind," said Tom Hansen, former Pac-10 commissioner. "It's all driven by football TV income."

Now the question is, what's left to divide? The ACC already has shown its aggressive side, all but ripping apart the Big East to expand to 12 teams. The Big 12 is waiting on the sidelines to see if the domino effect hits it. The Pac-10 is exploring expansion to 12 and staging a conference championship game. Launching its own network either by itself or with the Big 12 (and possibly the ACC) as a partner is also a Pac-10 possibility.

More than the Big Ten, there is a feeling that Pac-10 has left money on the table over the years -- In part because of its conservative leanings, in part because of its time zone. Being out West makes it hard for a large part of the population to see games outside the Pac-10 region. Or care about seeing them when West Coast night games start at 10 p.m. ET.

So how much expansion is enough? Some administrators believe that chasing the buck much beyond a 12-team model might be unwise. Texas and Texas A&M had an offer on the table to join the Pac-10 in the mid-90s. Those names have come up again in the latest round of speculation. Especially in Texas, college football is a political animal, too. It is widely known that one wouldn't come without the other. It doesn't hurt that Texas governor Rick Perry is an Aggie.

In the end, Texas and Notre Dame are the only expansion slam dunks for some lucky conference(s). Dodds has reiterated Texas' commitment to the Big 12. His athletic department, along with Ohio State's, are the top two revenue producers in college athletics. The Longhorns seem to be comfortable in their natural region while Notre Dame hasn't been as committal to its independent status as in the past.

We've come a long way, then, from the early days when like-minded football-playing institutions formed into conferences. Those combination of schools were usually within a few hundred miles of each other. More than a 100 years ago it made sense for Mechanical and Agricultural College of Alabama to play the new football team across the state in Tuscaloosa. You know that game now as Auburn-Alabama, the Iron Bowl, one of the bedrocks of the SEC and a college football staple.

Regional conferences have morphed into national networks and we might never look back. But heed these words of caution before we take off into a true age of Airplane Conferences.

"You [still] need to have the ability to drive to each other's campus," one former major-college athletic director said, "and really hate each other."


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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