THE NAVY FAN’S GUIDE TO CONFERENCE EXPANSION

The looming cloud of conference expansion is the top story in college sports right now, and undoubtedly will be all summer. It’s no surprise that just about everyone seems to be weighing in on the subject. Well, everyone except for me until now. There’s two reasons for that. One, I have the work ethic of a sloth. Two, this is a very hard subject about which to write, because the news and rumors change so quickly that anything written becomes obsolete after a day or two. By the time I’m done writing this, the Pac 10 will have invited Germany and Japan to join the conference, with plans to invade Poland by Labor Day. A simple report that the Big Ten is looking at expansion options has turned out to be the seed of an impending college athletics armageddon, with conferences and schools maneuvering to put themselves in the best possible position to ride out the tsunami.

It feels like we just went through this little exercise when the ACC declared open season on the Big East in 2005, but that was but a hiccup compared to the seismic shift on the horizon now. When Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Miami defected, it started a domino effect of conferences reshuffling their lineups to make up for the schools they lost. The change was significant, but not overwhelming. This is different. The Big Ten and Pac 10 are reportedly both looking to expand to perhaps as many as 16 teams, and they’re willing to filet the rest of the BCS in the process.

The view from Big 12 headquarters, looking west.

It’s premature to say for certain that either conference will do something that drastic, but it isn’t that hard to imagine. If they do, it will mean a lot more than just another round of musical chairs. Conferences will cease to exist. Rivalries will end. The traditional geographic boundaries of each conference’s footprint will be meaningless. It will be chaos, at least for a while. When the dust settles, college athletics will come out looking completely different.

But different enough for a Navy fan to care?

Absolutely.

As an independent, the Naval Academy’s name is frequently tossed around in expansion scenarios. Independents are sort of like the V7 chord in a IV-V7-I cadence; they’re just dangling out there, and people crave resolution. We’ve been down this road before, though. There are too many reasons why it makes sense for Navy football to remain on its own. Conference realignment talk would fire up from time to time, and Navy fans could sit back with a glass of lemonade and watch the mayhem unfold, knowing that their future was clear even if everyone else’s looked a little more like a scene from The Road Warrior. That might not be the case any longer. NAAA doesn’t have the financial resources of a major-conference powerhouse, and its teams have a very limited pool of recruits from which to draw. Success on the field and in the wallet has always been a bit of a balancing act. It wouldn’t take much to upset that balance, especially when it comes to anything that impacts the bottom line.

In the short-term, the biggest potential impact to Navy is if Notre Dame decides to join the Big Ten. The Notre Dame series is an important revenue generator for NAAA; they get a large guarantee when the game is in South Bend, and get to sell the television rights (and 70,000 tickets) when they host the game. The Army and Notre Dame games are the long poles in the NAAA budget tent. Right now, Notre Dame has the same scheduling flexibility that Navy does as an independent; but if they joined the Big Ten, they’d have at least 8 conference games to fit into their schedule. They could still play Navy every year, but would they want to at that point? The Mids certainly aren’t Notre Dame’s only annual rival. While many of their regular games are already against Big Ten teams, the Irish also play USC and Stanford every year, and have an on again, off again relationship with Boston College. I doubt that Notre Dame would want to play more or less the same schedule every year, so some of these games would have to go– and USC won’t be one of them. On top of that, what about Notre Dame’s goal of a 7-4-1 scheduling philosophy? That’s 7 home games, 4 games at someone else’s place, and one neutral site game. They’d get 4 road games just from the conference schedule… So would they scrap the 7-4-1, or would they look to schedule some creampuffs at home each year like every other major-conference team? I’ve waxed poetic about the Notre Dame series in the past, but sometimes business is business. I’m sure Navy and Notre Dame would still play, but I doubt it would be an annual contest.

Your guess as to how likely Notre Dame is to accept a Big Ten invitation– or how likely the Big Ten is to extend that invitation– is as good as mine. For every story you see with Irish AD Jack Swarbrick saying how committed his school is to maintaining independence, you see another saying that he’s in meetings with his Big Ten counterparts. On the surface, Notre Dame seems like a natural fit for the Big Ten, with plain, traditional uniforms, a big old bowl for a stadium, established rivalries with several conference members, and a location smack dab in the middle of the conference’s footprint. Stuff like that is kind of superficial, though. I’ve never felt that Notre Dame and the Big Ten were that perfect of a match. For starters, Notre Dame would be the smallest school in the conference; even smaller than Northwestern, and way smaller than the gigantic flagship state universities that make up the bulk of the Big Ten’s membership. These schools are major research universities that emphasize their graduate programs. Notre Dame, on the other hand, is geared more toward the undergraduate experience. Money might be ahead of academics when it comes to expansion motivation, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive; the Big Ten schools, plus the University of Chicago (an original member of the conference), also form the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. The CIC gives member universities a pool of shared resources to help stretch their six b- b- b- billion dollars in combined research funding. One would think that, with that much money involved, CIC membership would be a factor in Big Ten expansion considerations. That assumes, of course, that CIC membership and Big Ten membership will continue to be linked. Perhaps conventional wisdom no longer applies. The Pac 10 certainly doesn’t have these concerns; they’re reportedly so desperate to grab Texas that they’re willing to let the Longhorns bring half their conference with them.

Like most other major changes in college football over the last 30 years, the driving force behind expansion is television revenue. TV market size used to be one of the most overrated things in college sports; a school like Oklahoma, for example, has a name-brand cachet and following that belies the Norman, Oklahoma TV market. That changed with the advent of conference-owned television networks. The Big Ten, already far and away the leader in conference TV money, is looking to maximize the revenue-generating potential for its network not only in advertising, but in cable subscription fees from metropolitan areas. The Pac 10 will presumably emulate that model by creating a network of their own. Adding half of the Big 12 (the process has already begun) not only grabs the Texas cash juggernaut, but it gives the conference a foothold outside of the Pacific time zone. That allows their network to better tap into east coast viewers, increasing its value. The Big Ten is reportedly about to add Nebraska to its ranks; whether they intend to stop at 12 teams or add more remains to be seen. Either way, the Big 12 appears doomed, and its collapse will undoubtedly start a chain reaction. The SEC is reported to have talked to Texas A&M. The Mountain West held off on its Boise State invitation in the hopes of picking at the scraps of the Big 12 that aren’t consumed by the Pac 10 and Big Ten. If the Big Ten decides to make a push east toward New York, that could decimate the Big East. The ACC might feel compelled to expand into its own 16-team frankenconference just to keep pace, and I doubt the shock waves would end there. To call this “earth-shattering” would be an understatement.

To me, the most interesting part about this whole process is that it isn’t an expansion as much as it is a consolidation. We aren’t talking about anyone new like BYU or Utah being added to the BCS mix; instead, BCS conferences are feeding on each other. It demonstrates where the real power lies in college sports. How irrelevant does all of the Mountain West’s kicking and screaming about BCS inclusion seem now? What we’re seeing is the difference between a BCS-caliber team and a BCS-caliber program. Utah, TCU, and Boise State are examples of the former, but they aren’t even a flicked booger on the radar scope of the latter. Now, very little has been confirmed, and I suppose it’s still possible that the Pac 10 might hold their nose and take Utah as a Plan D if their Big 12 raid fails. Even then, they would be little more than the all-too-necessary filler to ensure that the conference has two-division symmetry. Strangely enough, the demise of the Big 12 might actually open the door for the Mountain West to replace them in the BCS. Unfortunately for them, it would be a Pyrrhic victory.

This consolidation is what should be tingling the spidey sense of not only Navy fans, but anyone else left on the outside looking in– including the Mountain West. In the short-term, the enormous television revenue that will be generated by these new superconferences will be virtually impossible for everyone else to compete with. That’s just the beginning. Mountain West fans might think they’ll be able to keep up thanks to their newfound BCS wealth, but that will only be temporary. The MWC sees the BCS as the ultimate prize, but in reality it is only a stepping stone on the way to the true endgame– the superconferences leaving the NCAA and creating their own organization.

The BCS? Is that the limit of your vision?

Don’t think it can’t happen. Once upon a time, the NCAA controlled the broadcast rights of its members’ football games. In 1977, the College Football Association was formed. The CFA was a group of 62 major football schools whose initial purpose was to give a unified voice when campaigning for their interests within the NCAA. While the NCAA would split television revenue evenly between its member schools, the CFA wanted its members– the ones actually being shown on TV– to get a greater share. The conflict came to a head in 1981, when NBC offered the CFA a separate $180 million contract for its members’ television rights. At the time, CFA members decided not to cut themselves off from NCAA basketball tournament revenue and remained within the organization. But what if they chose to take NBC’s offer instead? The NCAA knows that BCS schools could leave, which is why they cater to them. Do you think NCAA tournament expansion is about letting in more of the Centenaries and Pepperdines of the world, or squeezing in a few 17-13 Michigans and Georgias? Still, there’s only so much the NCAA can do. If the superconferences split from the NCAA to form their own elite league, they would be free to create a football playoff– worth as much as $900 million per year– and not have to split it with the Mountain West and Conference USA-types that would clamor for automatic bids under the NCAA umbrella. That’s $15 million per school in a 60-team league. Compare that to the $15 million or so per conference that the current BCS generates. That’s plenty of incentive to leave the NCAA.

When that day comes, it will probably mean the end of major college athletics at the Naval Academy. The income just won’t be there to support it. There is interest in programs like Navy and Boise State as long as they are part of college football’s highest level, but as soon as that changes, the interest would disappear. There is a finite amout of money that people will spend on college football, and the additional revenue that the new superleague would generate has to come from somewhere. That somewhere will be from TV networks who will drop their lower-profile broadcast contracts in order to ensure that they can offer enough to avoid being left out of the ratings bonanza that the new league would be sure to generate. There is only so much one can do to be proactive in this situation; if you aren’t part of the club, then you aren’t part of the club.

I’m sure plenty of you are rolling your eyes at all of this doom and gloom, thinking it would never happen. I hope you’re right. As many changes in college sports as there have been over the last 30-40 years, though, is it really that hard to imagine? I don’t think so, and I hope we don’t remember today as the beginning of the end.

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36 Responses

  1. I actually think the Big 12 stays together and the Texas/Oklahoma schools don’t go anywhere. I think just Nebraska to the Big 10 and Colorado to the Pac 10. The Big 12 adds a school from the state of Colorado and TCU.

  2. What are the chances Navy joins a power conference? Zero?

  3. I wouldn’t say there’s no chance, but it has to be unlikely. Even if Navy did make it into some ACC/Big East combo, they’d never have a winning season with a schedule consisting of nothing but BCS teams. And God help the basketball team.

  4. When does the gubermint step in?

    You missed that little eventuality.

  5. Step in to do what? I don’t think they will.

  6. The government will make some rule about conference size or something in the name of saving the quality of the athletic programs at the other schools.

    Maybe they could make the forward pass legal. Oh, wait, they already did that.

    Or how about the obscene amounts of money you’re quoting. How long before somebody in the government says “Wait, why are you guys tax exempt again?”

    Wait till they start taxing “Sports Revenue”

    The schools left out will complain that their academic programs will suffer due to lost revenue, blah, blah.

    NCAA will pull its strings and the government will prevent it from happening. Remember, whatever incentives 60 teams have for breaking away, the NCAA and the other 60 schools have the opposite incentives to keep them in.

    Plus, a 60 team league could easily turn into a 30 team league then a 15 team league then a 7 team league. The same logic works at each stage.

    I personally don’t think it will happen.

  7. Taxing sports revenue would just hasten the divide. Now they’ll NEED to make more money just to make up for what they would lose in taxes. There’s no way the other government intervention you suggest would hold up in court.

    The 60-team league wouldn’t whittle down to 7 teams or whatever. You only want to shed schools that don’t add enough of a premium to the overall value of the television package to increase the per-school share. Let’s say 60 schools have a $600 million TV contract. You wouldn’t want to cut a school that would make the contract worth less than $590 million, but you wouldn’t want to add one unless that school would make the contract worth at least $610 million. There is a natural equilibrium.

  8. The blog made it to the countdown:

    http://www.presnapread.com/no-85-army/#more-3155

    in the “enemy’s” write-up.

    This is definitely the next level.

    However, it will probably disrupt the natural equilibrium of the SAC-3 ( Service Academy Conference ).

  9. Why would the max amount for the “best programs” in “the club” be 60 teams? After they go to 60 teams, you don’t think that 30 of those that making the most money would eventually want to shed the 30 that are are just leeching off their success?

    Also, “Hold up in court?” have you not witnessed what the government has gotten their hands into in recent years? Would you have said the government would intervene in GM or AIG a few years ago?

    My point is that if they go too far, they are inviting government intervention. Therefore, they will not go to the extreme that you said might happen.

    The constituents it benefits is dwarfed by the constituents that would cry foul.

  10. I just threw 60 out there as an example.

    Why would you assume that half of a given alignment of teams makes money, while the other half “leeches?” They can all make money.

    And yes, hold up in court. What you suggest basically overturns the Supreme Court’s ruling in NCAA vs. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. The NCAA doesn’t have that kind of control. There are dozens of collegiate athletic associations outside of the NCAA that institutions are free to leave whenever they please. Mandating that these schools would be legally bound to remain in an organization that they chose to join to begin with is insane. There is nothing holding these schools to the NCAA any more than there is anything holding them to their conferences.

    As for what I would have said a few years ago, corporate welfare isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. The amount of money was extreme, but the intervention itself wasn’t.

  11. Yo, and taxes could be made to whatever they want them to be. Tax along sports revenue per student, or tax over XX million per school. The possibilities are endless….

    Your scenario assumes a steady state. I think it will it not be a steady state if it is tried and I think they know that.

    We’ll see what happens.

  12. If you just threw 60 out there as an example, what’s wrong with 120 as an example? Right, cause that is the current one.

    When 60 becomes the current one, you don’t think years down the line we’d be talking about 30?

  13. Rob, you’re getting wrapped up in the number of schools. That’s not the point. It’s about finding the fulcrum where you can generate the most amount of money, and split it between the fewest number of teams. If a playoff could potentially generate $900 million, it probably won’t lose much of that value if the Sun Belt and Conference USA weren’t included, because nobody cares about the Sun Belt and Conference USA. The remaining schools would each make more money, since there would be about the same value, but fewer teams to split it.

    In contrast, if you took the Big Ten and Pac 10 out of a playoff, its value would plummet.

    The goal, then, would be to separate as many teams as you can while still maintaining the overall value of the product. That’s roughly the BCS/non-BCS divide.

  14. When these are our choices:

    “it will probably mean the end of major college athletics at the Naval Academy.”

    or

    “they’d never have a winning season with a schedule consisting of nothing but BCS teams.”

    It’s a bad situation. Part of me really wants Navy to try to go BCS and remain “big time,” but another part of me wouldn’t mind seeing the program even go 1-AA and win national championships.

    But I vote B.

  15. Navy would get crushed in I-AA.

  16. Maybe Fleming is behind the whole thing.

  17. “Navy would get crushed in I-AA.”

    Really? What makes you say that?

  18. The bulk of the Navy football roster is made up of players who only got I-AA offers, but decided to come to Navy to prove they could play I-A ball. If Navy was in I-AA, they wouldn’t get those players anymore.

  19. My concern is that the MWC somehow becomes a BCS level conference with the addition of Boise St and the cast offs from the Big 12 (Mizzou, Kansas, Iowa St, etc). In this scenario AF clearly gains a huge lead in the CINC trophy race and recruiting against Army and Navy. All Service Academies recruit the same kids (I should know as my final 2 schools came down to AF and Navy). the story for the MWC in its current state isn’t compelling enough to wash away the benefits of Annapolis, our current bowl streak, playing ND, etc, but if you add in the possibility of a BCS game and you have an edge that is hard to overcome for Niamat and his coaches. Furthermore the money they might generate far exceeds anything Navy will get from our CBS CSN contract and our independant schedule.

    let’s be careful here….this is more dangerous to the Middies than we might think.

  20. more dangerous than we might think? i just envisioned the end of the football program. how much more dangerous can you get?

  21. it would be great if the big east stays together. that way notre dame doesnt have to find a place for it’s other sports. i want notre dame football to stay independent. this helps with scheduling navy every year

  22. Navy has just as good a chance to go to a BCS game as Air Force does in the MWC even if the MWC is a BCS conference. Navy goes undefeated they get in the BCS plus you control your own schedule. AF is never going to win the MWC. Never.

  23. Mike,
    When do you envision the superconfrences forming? How long does that take generally? This sucks.

  24. It wouldn’t happen before the end of the next BCS contract.

  25. I believe, as Rob does, that the government would get involved if the 40, 50 or X number of schools broke off to form their own league. Furthermore, I think that Navy might be able to make that 60 cutoff. Sure, we’re not Bama Texas or even South Carolina, but I think we are better than Minnesota, Baylor, Iowa St etc… Our disadvantage is that we don’t have the state in our name that the masses swear allegiance to at birth (I’m Texas btw, go Longhorns). However, we do have an allegiance, albeit weaker, due to the affections for the military.

    Finally, I want to disagree with Mike on the point of consistent losing seasons if we joined a BCS conference. We could schedule the OOC cupcakes that most BCS teams play like William & Mary, Coastal South Nebraska and West West Virginia Community…

  26. Reality is going to suck when it catches up with you.

  27. The world didn’t end. The Big 10 and Big 12 switch names, and the Pac 10 is stuck with 11 teams and just texted Colorado “nevermind.”

    Big sports on the Severn will continue on. Eat your heart out Fleming.

  28. What would happen if the Big 10 made offers to ND, Navy, Army and AF?

  29. It would get very cold in a very warm place.

  30. Mike – When I read this earlier today, I failed to notice that it was written a year ago. Even though much of it sounded familiar, I attributed that to the fact that this topic is addressed at least twice a year.
    With regards to my somewhat over the top thought – I would suggest that it would answer a number of the “questions” raised in your piece; ie scheduling with ND, AF, and Army; Big 10 “patsy” opponents; expanded TV market; prestigue additions to the Big 10; academics; pagentry at games. There are some of the reasons they schedule the SA’s now. Just for the record, I hope we are able to remain independent. But if circumstances forces us into a conference, we could do much worse than the Big 10 (or 11 or 16 or whatever it ends up becoming.)

  31. That’s like saying, “I take the Metro now, but the time might come when I need a car. When it does, I could do much worse than a Rolls Royce.”

  32. So if you needed a ride, you would refuse a Rolls Royce?

  33. The point is that the idea of the Big Ten wanting Navy is about as absurd as the idea that there will ever be a Rolls in my driveway. To say that it’s not even worth bringing up would be an understatement.

  34. Overall, I would agree with you – but I have a lottery ticket and the jackpot is now at $177 million. Even if I won, I wouldn’t buy a Rolls but if the Big 10 came calling and I had a vote, I’d have to give them strong consideration – which begs the question:
    IF we have to join a conference, which one would get your vote?

  35. If we had no other choice, the only existing conference I would ever want to see Navy join is the Big East. And even that conference has lost a lot of its appeal now that randoms like USF and Cincinnati are in the conference while Boston College is not.

  36. Way back in my day (’65-’68 seasons) we regularily played east coast teams (Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse) and competed for the Lambert Trophy – best team in the east. I think it was awarded based on sports writer votes.

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