Big East

The Future of Conference Realignment

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Another week, another round of news in the ever-changing landscape of conference affiliations.  On Wednesday, Creighton University will leave the Missouri Valley Conference to join with the so-called “Catholic Seven” (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Villanova) along with Xavier and Butler to form a basketball super conference retaining the prestigious Big East name.

The Big East is coming to the Midwest (map from

Meanwhile, while the buzz has have died down a little, rumors continue to swirl around North Carolina leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference for the Big Ten.  Adding Tar Heel hoops would be a big boost for the Big Ten, who is already enjoying a banner basketball season.  (Plus, it would set the stage for the addition of a 16th team, making the conference’s “B1G” logo – which has always resembled the number 16 – a visually accurate representation of the league.

As always, these big moves will likely trigger additional moves as the conferences who lose teams look to smaller leagues to fill their vacancies.

The biggest reason behind these moves?


Fox is reportedly lined up to give the new Big East schools a big TV contract.  The Big Ten’s TV deals expire in 2016, and having a stable of big name schools and schools from big TV markets would set up the Big Ten for a very big payday.

For the cash cow sports at these schools (basketball for the Big East, football in the Big Ten), the TV deals will be a tremendous source of revenue.  Unfortunately, for pretty much every other sport at a school, conference realignment is somewhere between a nightmare and a train wreck.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Here is how I see the future of conference realignment playing out:

We will end up with four, 16-team super conferences.  I assume the Big Ten, Pac 12, and SEC will make up three of the four.  The fourth?  Two years ago, I would have bet the house on the ACC over the Big XII, but now it looks like the ACC is the one with the shaky foundation (especially if North Carolina leaves and Florida State continues their on-again/off-again flirtation with the Big XII).

Today, none of these leagues are currently at 16 teams, so they’ll get to that magic number by picking off the pieces from the conferences that don’t survive (Big East and potentially the ACC) as well as taking the upper tier of C-USA, Mountain West, MAC, WAC, and other smaller conference schools.  This leads us to the second prediction:

TV sets trump geography, history, or anything else when it comes to conference expansion.  We’ve already seen this with the Big Ten’s addition of Rutgers and Maryland.  Neither school is particularly close to the Big Ten’s geographic core, nor does either school do much to enhance the football prestige of the conference.  But they were added because they represent entries into large TV markets.   there will likely be some head-scratching choices made.

What does that mean going forward?  Instead of the SEC going after a seemingly natural fit like Georgia Tech or Clemson (good programs, geographically central, great rivalry with an existing SEC school) I would not be surprised to see the SEC expand into MAC or Big East country, pulling a program that lacks the prestige of Tech or Clemson, but one that opens up a new region of viewers.

I know this is starting to sound like a doomsday scenario for a lot of schools and conferences, but here is one of the key predictions:

Schools will belong to multiple conferences.  I really only see the super conference affiliation being in effect for revenue producing sports (i.e. football and men’s basketball).  For them, being in a league with a fat TV contract is a smart move to maximize their potential revenue.

But for the smaller, non-revenue producing sports (i.e. pretty much everything else), realignment is a potential fiscal fiasco.  Look at Creighton:  all of their MVC foes are within 600 miles of their Omaha campus.  In the Big East, Creighton’s soccer, baseball, and other Olympic sports teams will now just one conference opponent (DePaul) within 500 miles of home.  Instead, they will be making multiple trips to the East Coast to play their new Big East rivals.

At some point, college Athletics Directors are going to wonder why they are throwing money away (and pulling student-athletes out of class for days on end) to travel halfway across the country to compete with schools they have little in common with – especially when there are other programs right in their own backyard.

I predict that in addition to the football/men’s hoops affiliation, schools will also belong to smaller, regional conferences for Olympic and other non-revenue sports.  These conferences will greatly resemble the old leagues we grew up with (Big Eight, Pac 10, Southwestern Conference, etc.) where geographical proximity is a primary consideration.

It just makes financial sense:  Schools can dramatically cut travel costs and operating expenses for sports that already lose money.  TV networks don’t get burdened with a bunch of lower end TV rights for volleyball matches, wrestling duals, and gymnastics meets that the average fan does not want to watch.  If there is an audience for SEC baseball or Big East lacrosse games, the smaller leagues can sell those rights independently.

Yes, it may be a little confusing for fans who have always identified their school with a single league to have to familiarize themselves with two different sets of conference rivals, but it sure beats cutting the baseball team because your new conference foes up north don’t play or losing the gymnastics team because it is too expensive to fly them all over the country for meets.

The one thing I don’t know is when schools will start breaking their sports out into multiple conferences.  I would not be surprised if it happens in the next few years as university budgets continue to tighten, and athletic departments realize the insanity of driving through the campuses of two former conference rivals to play a school that nobody cares about.

Regardless of what happens, the next few years will continue to be an exciting time of conference upheaval.

Thoughts on B1G Expansion

The University of Maryland will leave the ACC to join the Big Ten in 2014, becoming the league’s 13th member.  Rutgers University is widely expected to leave the Big East for the Big Ten tomorrow.

Why those schools?  There appears to be two main reasons:

1) Shifting population.  Core Big Ten states Michigan and Ohio are losing population.  Maryland and the New Jersey/NYC area are gaining population.  The logic is to position the Big Ten for future growth and success, it needs to have footholds in population centers.

2) Television money.  Sports on TV are one of the few things people will watch live, instead of fast-forwarding through the commercials on their DVR.  This makes airing sporting events (especially football) a lucrative venture.  The Big Ten will be renewing their TV contracts soon, and adding teams in bigger Northeastern markets makes it more likely for the conference to land a huge payday.

2b) Cable subscribers.  Along with getting a big TV contract, the Big Ten also makes money by having people subscribed the Big Ten Network (BTN).  You can argue just how much folks in Washington D.C. or New York City really care about Maryland or Rutgers sports, but if the BTN becomes an addition to more cable companies in those areas, it results in more money for the schools.

There may be other reasons at play, conspiracy or otherwise*, but those are main factors driving the realignment bus, as always.

*I’ve heard the argument that this move is nothing but Boss Delaney sticking it to the ACC for getting Notre Dame to agree to play five game each year against ACC schools, when the Big Ten has been trying in vain to land ND for years and years.  That seems more short-sighted than Delaney is known for, but it is an interesting argument.

The thing one thing missing from this round of Big Ten expansion is the name factor.  When the conference added Penn State in 1993, they were getting a traditional power with a legendary coach.  When the Big Ten added Nebraska in 2010, they got one of the winningest programs in college football history, with one of the nation’s most passionate fan bases.

But what do Maryland and Rutgers bring in terms of football?  Not much.  Since 2000 (through this past weekend), these two teams are a combined 166-149 (53%) with a combined 13 bowl appearances.  None of these 26 squads has finished a season ranked higher than 11 (Maryland, 2001).

The 2000s were one of the worst decades in Nebraska history, but the Cornhuskers are still 112-54 since 2000 (67%) with 10 bowl appearances and two top 10 rankings.  I don’t expect every new member to be on par with Nebraska, but I definitely feel like the Big Ten could have done better.

My opinion of these moves is rather mixed.  Yes, the move will likely benefit Nebraska with more money, increased recruiting opportunities in Maryland and New Jersey, and the likelihood more easy conference victories, but at what cost?  Currently, if I want to watch NU play Illinois, Indiana, or Purdue, it is doable without shelling out for airfare (around 1,200 miles by car, round trip.  But 1,208 miles to College Park, MD or 1,288 miles to Piscataway, NJ?  Each way?  Forget it.

As a football fan, would you rather see Nebraska play Wisconsin or Ohio State every couple years, or once or twice a decade?  Whomever bids on the TV rights will know that for every classic Michigan-Ohio State game, they are also paying for the right to show Indiana-Rutgers, Maryland-Minnesota, and other duds.

Right now, I’m down on the expansion.  The addition of two unremarkable teams won’t help the overall product or brand, and I feel pretty safe in saying that the extra TV revenue won’t make my season tickets any cheaper.

There are some opportunities for a silver lining to come out of this realignment, specifically:

  • The conference finally gets rid of the overly pompous (and confusing) Legends and Leaders division names.  Call it East/West, Central/Eastern, whatever, but don’t insult my intelligence by trying to convince me that either of these new schools is a leader or legendary (unless we’re talking about leading the pack in wearing legendarily ugly uniforms).
  • Maybe Nebraska will get a new “designated cross-over rival”.  When NU joined the Big 10, Penn State was tagged as their inter-divisional rival, meaning they would play every year.  It felt like a forced marriage then, and the PSU sanctions since have all but guaranteed that this “rivalry” won’t really take shape for years.  Hopefully, NU can get a better draw with a team that they have more in common with, and would be a bigger draw for fans.  Wisconsin, I’m looking at you.
  • What dominoes fall next?  Is Delaney done with 14 teams?  Or does he move to 16 by expanding into the Sun Belt?  How does the ripple effect play out in the other conferences?  When is all of this going to be over?

Regardless of how this expansion turns out – good or bad – it is safe to say that this decision will surpass the move to land Nebraska as the one that ultimately defines Jim Delaney’s legacy.

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