Expansion Update, Just When You Thought it Was Over
Chris “The Dude” Lambert | June 11, 2013 | Morgantown, WV
Just when you thought is was over, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the waters of college football it returns. Silly us, thinking realignment was over, it’s never safe to go back in the water — Once the sharks taste the blood (money) they can’t help but come back from more.
The great white shark we know as college football expansion (or realignment) never really went away – it just decided to submerge and began the hunt anew.
The two biggest sharks in the water – the Big Ten and the SEC – are stuck with an unwieldy number of conference members and they’re hungry for easier scheduling and television inventory for their conference networks, and both are quietly on the hunt, cruising just below the surface hoping to remind undetected before they strike.
The question is when and where?
When is by far the more difficult aspect of ongoing realignment to pin down and no one who is a fan of realignment will like the answer: the Big 12 (thankfully) and the ACC (regrettably) are safe – for now – protected by a grant of rights no one wants to challenge in court.
But (Cue the theme from Jaws) sharks are patient critters. They can just swim and coast unseen hidden by vast depths and wait until just that right moment to strike. The right moment may come if ESPN declines to invest in an ACC television network. It may come in year seven of the Big 12 grant of rights when Texas can afford to walk (thanks to the LHN) or it may come when the Big 12’s grant of rights expires.
And when it does come we can expect movement.
I’ve said from the beginning that it was going to be either the Big 12 or ACC that survives and everything I hear from the Big Ten and SEC makes me very afraid for the long-term future of the Big 12.
Texas and Oklahoma are valuable commodities. Kansas is too and their academics fit right into the Big Ten’s academic model. Right now its Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri that top the Big Ten’s wish list. They could take any two of those schools or even all four.
If that happens then Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Kansas State are likely to move over to the SEC if the ACC is secured by a profitable conference network (which I doubt).
My sources tell me that that the Big Ten has already had discussions with the four schools mentioned above, but don’t let that stroke your expansion fires.
I had a nice long sit down with my friend at WVU and explained to me that schools talk to conferences – or to be more specific athletic directors talk to conference commissioners (in most cases) all the time. The talks are informal and not very substantive – until they are… then its backchannel all the way.
My friend at WVU tells me almost all schools have long-range plans and contingency plans just in case and they like to keep the lines of communication open.
So when you read what I write next don’t jump to any conclusions…
WVU has been in contact with the SEC for months. The talks are more than informal but less than formal, if you catch my drift.
WVU is very happy in the Big 12. We are finally in a conference where, geography aside, we belong.
But WVU understands how attractive Texas and Oklahoma are to the Big Ten. WVU understands that ESPN has been told by Disney to play hardball with rights fees and keep spending down and that means the Longhorn’s beloved network will most likely not be an ESPN product when its time to renew.
And that means Texas will most likely make more money in the Big Ten.
WVU fans need not worry. WVU has been promised a spot in the SEC if the Big 12 folds somewhere down the line and the Mountaineers deserve it.
WVU was the SEC’s second choice when it chose Arkansas and it was the second choice when it chose Missouri. WVU had the support among SEC schools but not the television sets. The next time the SEC expands WVU has a spot if it wants it.
WVU is, by culture an SEC school, and the SEC schools and fans know it. Most in the SEC favored WVU over Missouri and but for the lack of a large media footprint (WVU doesn’t get any credit for the Pittsburgh or Washington D.C. markets) was the choice.
The ACC you ask? What about FSU and Clemson or the valued North Carolina and Virginia markets? The thought is the next round of expansion will use a different valuation model based on national appeal and pay-per-view access to conference games.
Of course the one wildcard in all this is ESPN’s desire to launch an ACC network. According to my sources at ESPN the ACC’s grant of rights was a proactive move on the part of Swofford to assuage ESPN’s fears and make a conference network more likely. The problem is that ESPN’s parent company, Disney, sent word that loses incurred by the LHN and the huge invest in the SEC network and NFL broadcast rights means that ESPN can’t afford to invest in an ACC network.
ESPN and the ACC are studying the possibility of a network and ESPN and the ACC are both slow-playing the decision until after the grant of rights takes effect.
My source at ESPN tells me an investment in the ACC is unlikely and he is unaware of any provision in the grant of rights that would release FSU, Clemson or VPI from the agreement if ESPN doesn’t bite. He expects ESPN and the ACC to drag this out far beyond the date the grant of rights takes effect.
What this means, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, is that the ACC survives and the Big 12 eventually succumbs to the market forces.
I hope I’m wrong.
Sometimes, I’m asked to sit on information to let it percolate. A few months ago I learned that the Big Ten was in heated talks with Missouri and the SEC had contacted WVU about replacing the Tigers in the SEC. I sat on that information partly because I was asked to wait and partly because I’ve learned my lesson.
WVU and the Big 12 have a travel problem. It seems that Texas and a few other schools way out west didn’t like traveling to Morgantown as much as WVU hated those long trips to Texas. An informal deal was worked out between the SEC and Big 12 where WVU would have been allowed to leave if Missouri left the SEC for the Big Ten and BYU agreed to replace WVU and play some games on Sundays (mostly basketball and non-revenue sports). BYU will never agree to play on Sundays and the deal feel through – actually it was never close. Missouri isn’t the Big Ten’s only option and they want the best bang for their network and in that regard Texas trumps Missouri every time.
What I’m certain is that the Big Ten is talking to Missouri and a few Big 12 schools and the SEC and WVU are talking again—just in case the shark decides to strike.
Don’t get excited. Nothing is going to happen tomorrow or next year. It may never happen as expansion deals and discussions are as ethereal as UNC jock courses taught by phantom instructors.
On a personal note this is the end of the Spin Zone. Sometimes great ideas just don’t work out. Demands on my time make it difficult to continue and I’m faced with the reality that I’ve spent far too much time dedicated to these events and I’ve witnessed the struggle to break news and be the first to report developments change people for the worse and I don’t want to be one of those people.
So I’m done. I can’t say I won’t continue to follow expansion or talk to my contacts but you will have no shortage of information from many different sources.
As you follow expansion remember that details that are true when you go to bed can, and are far more likely to be, false in the morning. None of us like it but nothing can be counted on until the press conference – and even then the conference can be canceled (See WVU’s first invitation to the Big 12 for proof),
Remember this is always about money with a heavy dose of ego involved. Use the information that comes your way as entertainment to get you through the off season but never, ever, accept anything as gospel.
It’s been a long and weird journey… thanks for sharing it with me.