KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- What if nothing happens?
If you have to ask the particulars, then your college football offseason hasn't been ruined by 10 times more speculation than fact. If you need a clearer definition, you've been slobbering over erroneous radio reports that Notre Dame has been invited to the Big Ten.
Big Ten Expansion
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Expansion talk has scared the majority of the nation's athletic directors and kept a raft of sports talk shows on the air the past few months. Nothing more, really. The Big Ten supposedly is about to make the biggest hostile takeover since German tanks rolled into Poland.
But look at the tangible evidence, the stuff we can hold in our hands. There is little of it. Since December, we have little more to go on than some disparaging remarks from the Missouri governor, a statement from Missouri's chancellor and lots and lots of want-to from the alumni.
A bunch of us went up to Chicago last month for the Big Ten spring meetings to listen to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany talk about Rust Belt population shift to the Sun Belt. That's a subject that is 30 years old. Maybe we haven't been paying attention. At the end of each public statement about the issue, Delany continues to keep emphasizing the if when it comes to expansion, never the when.
The SEC has become a counterbalance in the expansion issue. It has basically threatened a mega-expansion of its own if the Big Ten becomes too big, too fast.
So what if nothing happens in conference expansion? Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe considered the question Tuesday and rated the chances of his conference staying together.
"Very high," he said at the conclusion of the first day of the Big 12 spring meetings.
Of course, Beebe is not exactly an objective source. He knows his conference could be on the brink of collapse if the Big Ten takes Missouri and Nebraska, as has been speculated. Colorado is a candidate for the Pac-10. Even Kansas AD Lew Perkins hinted Tuesday he might have gotten a call from the Big Ten.
But that's the problem. All this has been mostly conjecture. It's based on the Big Ten's December announcement that will study expansion.
"Is there substance to it?" Beebe said. "I think there are folks talking certainly in case things shift, but nobody knows for sure what everybody else is thinking."
Beebe is a knowledgeable source. He is a lawyer and a former NCAA investigator. He has to know that not much has changed since December in the biggest truth that matters: The only slam-dunk Big Ten expansion involves Texas or Notre Dame. He has to know that by now, both have said no or are leaning that way. Plan B, then, involves trying to decide which combination of one, three or five schools make the most sense for Big Ten expansion.
Beebe didn't sound like an idiot when he concluded that maybe zero is the best number for the Big Ten.
"If we come to a day where there are four, 16-member conferences ... it's going to be a sad day," he said. "It's going to be very difficult to not have a lot more intervention and legal issues attached to those institutions. The pressures will be immense for certain programs to be successful. You'll see a lot more churning of coaches and [pressure on] athletic administrators to be successful. There will be less chances to win conference championships and national championships for certain programs."
Beebe says the "balance" in college athletics is harmonious at this point. Argue about the BCS all you want, but a boatload more schools can play for the championship than before it started. Ask Boise State, which will start the season ranked in the top five. The NCAA did the right thing, at least for the moment, expanding its perfect basketball tournament by only three teams.
Even a single 16-team Big Ten might bring down those unanticipated forces. Sen. Orrin Hatch has his anti-trust issues with the BCS. What would he think of one conference that will have lapped the field in terms of revenue, exposure and power?
"I would assume that's part of their [Big Ten's] evaluation," Beebe said. 'If we do this and ... it disrupts what we have, what are we really going to bring on ourselves?' "
Sure, a UConn would certainly hit the jackpot in the Big Ten but it would seldom, if ever, get to the Rose Bowl. In the Big East (as long as that league stays around), Randy Edsall is one of the brilliant, up-and-coming coaches in the profession. In the Big Ten, he's Bret Bielema Lite. In the Big East, Edsall is competing for a BCS bowl. In the Big Ten, he's lucky to get to the Alamo Bowl.
In the Big East, UConn is somebody. In the Big Ten it is "inventory". That's Delany's term for conference games to be bartered over and sold to the highest bidder.
Missouri, a middling football program for most of its history, doesn't figure to rule the Big Ten. What happens to Nebraska's tradition of championships in a 16-team Big Ten?
For all the Michigan-Ohio State games, there are also going to be a lot of Michigan State-Rutgers matchups. Is any of that enough to keep the Big Ten from offering and candidates from accepting? Probably not. The Chicago Tribune reported earlier this year that the Big Ten expects to double its revenue (currently at $22 million per year) in coming years.
But does the Big Ten want to share that revenue with strangers? Sixteen teams is a lot of mouths to feed. The Big Ten reportedly has hired search and investment firms to vet expansion candidates. What if -- assuming there is no Notre Dame or Texas -- those firms come back with these chilling assessments?:
Syracuse, Rutgers and Connecticut aren't going to deliver the New York market.
Those 2.5 million households in Missouri don't mean squat.
Beebe is counting on it. He's also counting on a windfall from Fox next year when the Big 12's cable partner has an exclusive 30-day negotiating window. ESPN recently doubled the revenue for the ACC -- a league that has been a borderline failure in football since expansion and has damaged its brand in basketball. Fox reportedly finished a very aggressive No. 2 in the bidding. Just think what the Big 12 could get if it keeps everyone in the fold.
Big 12 teams currently make between $7 million-$12 million in the conference's uneven revenue distribution payout. Would $15 million on the top end be enough to keep Nebraska and Missouri to stay? $17 million? The Big 12 might be able to get it.
Or it might not matter at all.
Beebe basically admitted that the meetings will end on Friday without a firm commitment from Missouri or Nebraska -- or Colorado or Kansas or Texas for that matter. Longhorns AD DeLoss Dodds reminded everyone on Tuesday that his school has the most leverage of any in the Big 12.
"We're," Dodds said, "going to be a player in whatever happens."
Just in case you forgot.
Beebe would like to know who is on board by the time the TV negotiations start in April. One huge problem: The Big Ten is saying their expansion study might last another year.
"At what point do we decide whether we can close the plane doors and take off?" he said. "I might be told that the doors have to remain open for a lot longer than I'm comfortable with."
The Big 12 probably could get by with 10 teams. (Suggested new conference name: Pure Prairie League.) There suddenly seems to be a lot of money available, even outside the Big Ten. In the next 12 years, Beebe's is only one of three major conferences that have TV deals to renegotiate. The Pac-10 and Big East are the others.
A Big 12/Pac-10 partnership, already in discussions, seems like a no-brainer. If that occurs, there would be no point in Colorado switching leagues. CU's athletic department is rumored to be upside down financially. It might have to fire and buy out Dan Hawkins in less than a year, then spend $3 million (on the low end) to hire a new staff. That's not counting the $5 million-$7 million it would pay to buy out of the Big 12.
Hey, another reason for nothing to happen.
"Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between hope and projection," the commissioner said.
Beebe hopes his 15-year-old league stays together. The projection is that it won't.