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.
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?
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.
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.