The College Football Realignment Maelstrom

A Descent into the MaelstromBy Chuck Burton

Publisher/Managing Editor

College Sports Journal

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — The first instinct many people have when a hurricane is headed their way is denial.

 

Though there were plenty of signs in retrospect that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would hit landfall again and gain strength over the Gulf of Mexico, many, many state and federal government officials, and Lousiana, Alabama, and Mississippi residents chose to deny the reality that it would make landfall and cause the damage and destruction that it did.

 

Katrina fits the definition of a maelstrom — made famous by Edgar Allen Poe’s early short story dedicated to one — and so does the wave of realignment that has swept across Division I athletics.

 

And the maelstrom — or “realignment-a-geddon”, as I like to call it — is passing through all of Division I athletics, leaving broken and destroyed conferences in its wake.

 

If you’re even a casual follower of Division I athletics, you know a lot has gone on.

 Let’s start at the top echelons of the BCS.

 

Nebraska is now in the Big Ten, which is at 12 schools and will now form divisions and play a championship game.

 

As a result, one of the best BCS rivalries of all, Michigan and Ohio State, will no longer play on Rivalry Week.

 

Missouri and Texas A&M are now in the Southeastern Conference, which is at 14 schools and extends their stranglehold over the football-crazy region from Texas to Georgia to Florida.

 

With the changes, teams in the Eastern Division might only play a team from the Western Division twice in the span of 12 years.

 

Colorado and Utah are now in the (newly renamed) Pac 12, which extends their footprint into the Mountain time zone.

 

They can now host a championship game and have created a web of television networks — Pac 12 Enterprises — to generate money for their “entertainment properties”, i.e. sporting events.

 

But fans of the Colorado Buffaloes that want to see a mere two road conference games in the states of Washington and California would need to drive more than 4,000 miles round-trip to do so.

 

The Big 12, rumored to be on its death bed two years ago, lost four schools, but regained two schools in the form of TCU and West Virginia.

 

With this realignment, at least five rivalries numbering over 90 meetings will no longer occur on a regular basis. And that doesn’t even include Nebraska/Oklahoma, once one of the most bitterly heated rivalries in the country.

 

One of their replacements, West Virginia, is more than 1,000 miles away from the Texas-based schools that form the heart of the league’s membership.

 

Syracuse and Pitt joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, putting its membership at 14 teams and improving its already-formidable RPI in basketball.

 

Compared to West Virginia’s and Colorado’s travel concerns, Pitt’s mere 500 miles from the North Carolina-based schools doesn’t seem quite as bad, unless you’re a Panther fan that wants to consider catching a road game and isn’t up to driving the 1,000 miles round-trip.

 

And that doesn’t even count the Big East, which seems to have had more lineups than NBC’s prime time schedule, and other non-BCS conferences like the Mountain West and Conference USA.

 

What seems to be driving all this change?

 

At the level of the Big Ten or Pac 12, it’s easy to see that the end game involves TV viewership and the addition of programs that promise to remain huge moneymakers for their athletics properties.

 

According to the NCAA’s EADA reports, Nebraska’s athletics revenues alone topped $90 million in the 2010-2011 school year, and the athletics department made a profit of $5 million.  In the same time period, for Colorado, the revenue numbers were $60 million and the Buffaloes made a profit as well.

 

The Big Ten’s TV network has been a cash generator for athletics departments thus far, and when Pac-12 Enterprises launches in August, a wholly-owned division of their conference, the sums of money promise to potentially be even more staggering.

 

The Big Ten Network is a consortium between the Big Ten and Fox, with the Big Ten owning 51% of the network.

 

At the highest levels of the BCS, the conferences are adding schools that are similar institutionally to themselves. Say what you want about Missouri and Texas A&M, they are very similar to the schools they are joining in the Big 12.

 

Despite the obvious issues for fans — the break-up of century-old rivals, the requirement of frequent-flyer miles to attend sporting events — one at least can understand that the amounts of money that could be generated in the top FBS conferences are substantial. The Big Ten, Pac 12, SEC, ACC and even the Big 12 will make more money after this latest round of expansion.

 

But it’s as if the momentum of the big programs at the top of the money-making has moved all the other programs down below — programs that will not share in the same financial windfall as the big boys.

 

The Big East, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt and WAC seem to have the same enthusiasm for expansion, with none of the same sense or revenue streams.

 

Let’s start with the Big East.

 

The Big East has some lucrative television contracts with ESPN, ABC and CBS for various sports, but mostly college basketball.

 

The league has laid out plans to start its own network in the mold of Pac-12 properties, but admit that it’s at least a couple of years off as it won’t come to fruition until current network contracts run out.

 

But in the meantime the Big East will have lost two of its charter members, Pitt and Syracuse, that are formidable draws in both attendance and TV viewership.  And West Virginia, which has been one of their most consistent programs as well, is also gone.

 

To replace those heavy hitters, the Big East had to expand with, well, warm bodies that have FBS football rather than like-minded institutions.

 

Boise State and San Diego State might have a lot to offer the right conference, but they have little to do institutionally with Villanova and Connecticut.

 

As a result, the Big East will be competing with only seven members next year from the remnants of 2011 football season (Pitt, Syracuse, UConn, Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida, and Rutgers).

 

And in the 2013 football season, only five of those will remain. The resulting conference, with Temple, Navy, Memphis, Houston, Boise State, and San Diego State, will literally cover all four corners of the country and all domestic time zones.

 

If you thought it was going to be tough to be a Colorado Buffaloes fan, try being a Boise State Bronco die-hard, with possible road trips to Florida, San Diego and Maryland all in the same season.

 

While a member of the Pac 12 might be able to justify such a schedule with the promise of riches in terms of potential TV revenue, the Big East has no such promise until its contracts expire — and the Big East that takes the field when that happens will be a very different conference than the one that used to have Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia.

 

“The hopes of the Big East people are to get somewhere up in the teens (of millions),” Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson said recently.  “Not the $20 million that the Big 12 is getting or the $22 or $24 million that the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 got in their new deal, but the time is right.”

 

The trouble is even that number is seriously in doubt.

 

In football, all the Big East has to offer is access to a precious BCS slot in terms of post-season bowls — and if the powers-that-be institute a playoff, as seems likely, the mere concept of BCS “slots” probably won’t even exist in a few year’s time.

 

Without it, will that make for an attractive TV schedule in a few years? Are cable providers going to fork over lots of money for San Diego State/Rutgers and Boise State/Central Florida matchups?

 

Meanwhile, the Big East initially encouraged Villanova to look into a move to FBS in order to stabilize its football membership, going as far as paying them $1 million dollars as a “good faith gesture” to “upgrade their facilities” and study the move.

 

But after running hot about such a move for months and conference commissioner John Marinatto demanding that their timeline be moved up, other Big East athletic directors started to downplay Villanova’s plans to play in PPL Park in Chester, PA, almost an hour from the Main Line.

 

Nowadays, the talk of Villanova moving to the FBS seems all but dead, as confirmed by comments David Coulson of the College Sports Journal reported from head coach Andy Talley a few weeks ago.

 

All this upheaval has ultimately caused Marinatto to be reportedly voted out as conference commissioner of the Big East this Sunday, in a move that reportedly surprised some Big East athletic directors, according to an Associated Press report.

 

You could call him the first, and probably not the last, victim of the Maelstrom.

 

*****

 

Then there are the complete have-nots in this entire process.

 

In an era where TV revenue is seen as a money cow for BCS conferences, it’s telling that the Mountain West’s dedicated TV network for their sports programming. The Mtn., will be going dark later this month.

 

Part of the reason could be that it’s largest and biggest revenue-producing member, BYU, left the conference to go independent, at least partially because Brigham Young already has its own dedicated TV network.

 

Before this round of expansion, the Mountain West was seen around the as “what the WAC should have been.”

 

Founded after the WAC expanded to 16 schools, the Mountain West was born after eight of those schools split off from the WAC over expansion.

 

Over time, the Mountain West was content to cherry-pick the WAC schools that had grown disenchanted with the conference.

 

But Utah’s and BYU’s departure, as well as Boise State’s bid to go to the Big East in football, has caused a crisis within the ranks of that conference.

 

Aside from the loss of their dedicated TV network, Utah’s and BYU’s departures meant that the Mountain West did not sponsor the minimum number of sports in order to qualify as an FBS conference.

 

The NCAA requires FBS leagues to sponsor at least eight women’s sports and six men’s sports, with at least six member schools competing in each sport.

 

That meant that the Mountain West couldn’t be choosy about whom they expanded with. The league needed schools with men’s track, baseball and women’s swimming, simply to remain in the FBS.

 

Both these huge red flags are seemingly going unheeded by schools from the embattled WAC, whom the Mountain West are openly courting to keep their own FBS conference alive.

 

That’s because they fear the end of their own situation and don’t want to be left holding the bag.

 

With the departure of Texas State, Texas-San Antonio and Louisiana Tech to the Sun Belt this week, coupled with the move of Utah State and and San Jose State to the Mountain West, the WAC was suddenly left with only two members that play football —Idaho and New Mexico State.

 

It’s prompted some to carve the WAC’s tombstone as an FBS conference, and possibly an athletic conference – and have some people opining that the Vandals and Aggies should join the Big Sky and Southland conferences, respectively, and compete at the FCS level in football instead.

 

But anyone who sees the Mountain West’s raid of the WAC as some sort of sign of health of that conference is sorely mistaken.

 

In a supposed era where TV revenues are supposed to balance the books, the Mountain West is losing a TV contract and still barely sponsors enough sports to remain a conference in the NCAA’s eyes.

 

How can the conference be seen as anything but a placeholder for any school that chooses to join?

 

After all, the conference in 2013 will basically comprise former WAC members, minus the phenomenally successful BYU and Utah programs.

 

Three more placeholder FBS conferences without a realistic chance at BCS revenues are the Mid-American Conference, the Sun Belt and Conference USA.

 

None of these conferences have their own dedicated TV network, and thus do not have the same TV revenues that the Big Ten and Pac 12 will have this coming year.

 

Furthermore, their TV contracts involve a mixture of ESPN, CBS, and Fox broadcasts, and the sums of money involved are minuscule.

 

For example, per Iliana Limon of the Orlando Sentinel, Conference USA renegotiated its TV deal in the early part of 2011.  Fox would spend $7 million annually for rights to their football games, while CBS spends $7 million annually for their basketball properties.

 

The lack of a revenue is a major reason why Memphis, far and away Conference USA’s best basketball school over the past decade, jumped to the Big East in the last round of expansion.

 

“In Conference USA right now we’re getting about $2 million a year and that’s a ballpark figure,” Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson said recently. “The Big East right now, the full playing members like Louisville and Cincinnati, are getting somewhere between $8 and $10 million per year.”

 

For teams looking to jump to FCS from the FCS, that $2 million, which includes both football and basketball, sounds like a lot of money until you consider that additional scholarship money, conference fees, travel costs and other headaches easily eat up the extra money, and then some.

 

And with the latest round of expansion of Conference USA of five schools — North Texas, Florida International, Texas-San Antonio, Texas State, and Louisiana Tech, to replace the four schools that left — that slice becomes even smaller.

 

Furthermore, if a sixth school joins up, such as Middle Tennessee State or Old Dominion, the share will be even smaller yet.

 

Unlike Conference USA, the MAC and Sun Belt have not disclosed the financial details of their TV deals with the public, but it seems logical to say that it’s certainly less than the $2 million per school that Conference USA doles out to its member schools.

 

Without world-beating basketball money, without dedicated TV network cash, less access to the BCS, and a large-team, superconference footprint, you have to wonder how these conferences will be able to survive.

 

*****

 

At the highest levels of BCS football, realignment may make sense at a level of revenue generation.

 

While fans can moan about how hard it is to travel to see their teams, those same fans can pay their cable companies to televise those games, and the conferences will get rich as a result.

 

But once you start looking at the Big East and the conferences without a share of the big money, it’s a real head-scratcher as to why they are expanding at such a large pace.

 

The financial justification simply is not there, and doesn’t seem likely to ever be there.

 

A maelstrom leaves a wake of destruction in its path, just like Hurricane Katrina, or the Maelstrom mentioned in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story.

 

In the realignment maelstrom, it might be bloated, large FBS conferences without a share of playoff money that might be the ones, like the WAC, that ultimately get wrecked.

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