We may be at a point where there is a several-year “cease fire” with respect to conference realignment. The leading blog on conference realignment, Frank the Tank, certainly thinks that it plausible. With all conferences other than the SEC signing Grant of Rights agreements, there is solidarity across the major conferences. The cost of adding schools will simply be too great to justify a return on investment. One question that must be posed, however, is whether we will see conference “de-alignment,” that is–a conference parting ways with a parasitic school. It has happened only once in recent years–with the Big East and Temple. Will it happen again? With revenue such a central part of the conference alignment reality, the Confidential thinks it is inevitable. Part I will discuss the conference landscape. Part II will look at the targets for de-alignment.
Part II: The Targets for De-Alignment
The Weakest Schools
Assume that, someday, conferences may have to look inward to increase revenue. In other words, that going from 14 to 12 schools is a better way to increase revenue per school than going from 14 to 16 schools. Who are the schools in each conference that would be most nervous?
Let’s start with our own backyard–the ACC. One has to think Wake Forest is the easy target here. Being the 4th school in a state in one conference may work for the Pac-12 with USC, UCLA, Cal, and Stanford, but Wake Forest is a far cry from any of those schools. The bottom line is that Wake Forest contributes very little to the ACC in terms of finances, away-game attendance, football success, or basketball success. Look at it this way–if the ACC dissolved, where would Wake Forest go?
The next most vulnerable conference is the Big XII. Here, one has to look to Iowa State. While they add the Iowa “market,” that market is not particularly lucrative. While Iowa State may be better at football than Kansas, Kansas is a basketball blue blood. There is really no comparison here. Iowa State just has not performed on the field well enough to make anyone think that they do anything other than “take.”
The Pac-12 is a strong conference, but it is not quite as strong as the Big 10 and SEC. Here, Washington State wins going away. When is the last time that Wazzou was relevant academically or athletically?
The SEC gets tougher. Vanderbilt used to be a football punching bag, but they have outstanding academics and good basketball. Kentucky football struggles, but they are a basketball elite. If the SEC had to lose one school, it would probably be Mississippi State–the second school in a low-revenue state.
The B1G is easy. Purdue. See Part I. Purdue basketball is good, but they are second fiddle in Indiana across-the-board.
While it is not tough to come up with the weakest school in most conferences, it gets a lot harder to find a second-weakest school. And given that odd-numbered schools do not work for conferences, next to tradition, that might be the most important thing favoring the status quo.
In our ACC, who else does not carry its own weight? Boston College has been dreadful recently, but adds the Boston market. Moreover, they have been to more conference title game appearances than Miami.
But what about swapping schools? It certainly does get more compelling when discussing an outsider school that increases value. Who has more value to the Big 10–Purdue or Georgia Tech? From 1909 to 2009, the easy answer was Purdue. In the era of conference networks? Not so sure. And if UNLV were to improve its football product and academics, one could see it catching up with and passing Washington State. Adding UNLV alone might not generate increased revenue, but swapping it for Washington State might.
Who has more value to the SEC and an SEC Network—Mississippi State or North Carolina State? Frankly, the SEC doing that–allowing the ACC to then get rid of Wake Forest, could benefit both conferences.
Your response will be… the conferences would never ever do that. Tradition is far too important.
The Confidential’s response is… huh? Tradition did not stop the end of Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri, or Pitt-WVU. It did not stop Nebraska from leaving Oklahoma, or Maryland from leaving the ACC. It did not stop founding members of the Big East in Syracuse and Boston College from choosing the ACC. And if this was all orchestrated by ESPN and/or Fox, then the concern about tradition is even more illusory. AND if conference networks start wielding more power, isn’t it more likely that financial issues will become paramount. What if TV revenue starts decreasing someday? These “business decisions” may go from “leaving for greener pastures” to “getting rid of the weeds.”
Frankly, an argument could be made that the Conferences–all armed with networks someday–could benefit by deliberately re-organize the landscape for the mutual benefit of all. Suppose ESPN sat down with the SEC and ACC and said this… we cannot get maximum value for the SEC in North Carolina and Virginia. We cannot create an ACC Network unless there are a few more states. We suggest this… “NC State and Virginia Tech to the SEC (adding two markets) and Vanderbilt and Mississippi State to the ACC (adding two markets to the footprint and being a somewhat offsetting academic arrangement). Doing this will allow us to bundle the SEC and ACC Network across the entire region from Texas to Maine.” And that is with just two conferences working together.
Is this any worse than a system where Iowa State and Wake Forest have no options outside of their current conference? Not saying this is likely, who knows where TV revenue is taking the college sports landscape. Just remember a few things. Princeton has as many football championships as Alabama and Texas, combined. And 50 years ago, the Sweet Sixteen in basketball included NYU, St. Joseph’s, Bowling Green, Loyola of Chicago, Oklahoma City, and San Francisco.