The Big Ten's talk of expansion has made conference realignment the hot topic of the 2010 off-season. It raises the possible creation of 16 team "super-conferences" which would dominate college sports as we now know them and bring with them a high stakes game of "which-teams-land-where." Part three, the final part of this series, takes a look at the potential new members of the SEC and the ACC in the series finale.
Part One of this three part series on conference realignment looked at the big picture from a national perspective, as well as things you can count on when it comes to the SEC and ACC. Here is a link to it:
Part Two focused on how realignment might affect the ACC. Here is a link to it:
In Part One of this series, I dispelled some rumors and set out some things you could count on concerning the SEC and the ACC if realignment occurs. Part Three looks at potential new members for the SEC.
Conference realignment would not be a hot topic if there was not a realistic chance it could happen. Most experts agree that it will depend on what the Big Ten does. If the Big Ten stands pat after acquiring one more team, thereby getting their 12th member, which under NCAA rules qualifies them to have a football championship game between division winners, no further dominoes are likely to fall.
What motivation would the Big Ten have to expand beyond 12 teams, much less the SEC, ACC, and the PAC 10? Follow the money.
Under the Big Ten Network agreement with Comcast, the network is paid .70 per household every month for every household getting more than basic cable in states that are currently home to a Big Ten team. That is why the Big Ten has the biggest payday in America for its conference members. If the Big Ten then added Texas for their 12th team, that alone would add another almost 25 million potential viewers. Should the Big Ten then decide to raid the Big East for four teams that just happen to reside in some of the nation's largest TV markets like New York and New Jersey, it would be a "license to print money."
ESPN knowingly "overpaid" the SEC for their media contract. They did it for two reasons: in order to lock the SEC in for 15 years and prevent the creation of an SEC network like that of the Big Ten, and because of the long term value of having arguably the best football conference in America as your premier attraction has tremendous growth potential.
What ESPN is paying to the SEC makes them the de facto SEC network. There are those who argue that if the SEC expanded, ESPN would not modify the deal to add equal payouts to what the current members get for the new teams added. They cite correctly that the current deal was cut when times were significantly better economically. I stand by my contention that ESPN would make the new deal - especially if they were consulted on which new members would receive an invitation to the conference. Why? Any improvements the SEC makes that significantly improve market share and interest in the SEC product would justify the cost.
The addition of Texas, Texas A&M, North Carolina, and NC State would add the second and tenth largest TV markets in the nation, and would add almost 25 million new eyeballs available to watch the SEC product.
Obviously, if Texas, already one of the nation's most elite teams, chooses to leave the Big 12, the conference they choose instantly becomes a big winner in both the TV market and football panache sweepstakes.
Eliminate Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson from SEC consideration for the reasons stated in Part Two of this series (they don't add new TV markets and would likely be opposed by current SEC member institutions). In terms of adding TV markets that are contiguous to the current member states, the two strongest directions would be west to Texas and/or north to North Carolina.
Should the Texas Longhorns decide to bolt the Big 12 and join the SEC, they likely would bring Texas A&M with them, and some contend Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as well. The likelihood of that happening is slim, but not impossible. For current SEC members, adding those four schools would push Alabama and Auburn over into the SEC East, making the toughest division in college football even more brutal. The new SEC West would also become even more of a "coach killer."
Gamecock fans should send Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution thank you flowers if his proposals become reality. He would send Kentucky and Vanderbilt to the SEC West, and add Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson to the SEC East.
If Texas chose to become part of the Big Ten or the PAC 10, then what? That would close the door to any possibility of the Oklahoma twins, but not necessarily to Texas A&M. The state of Oklahoma is not a huge TV market.
Another possibility affecting both the SEC and the ACC brings a surprising twist: North Carolina has always been the "pig that is more equal than others" in the ACC, and any talk of the Tar Heels leaving the ACC would normally be considered heresy. However, a surprisingly large number of Tar Heel fans on the nation's largest team internet site, InsideCarolina.com, were openly in favor of their team joining the SEC. Some UNC fans would welcome an invitation, period; while others would only consider it if the ACC was clearly going to be severely weakened or killed off by loss of key members. Should they join, NC State would in all likelihood accompany them.
How about Duke? According to figures from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education, Duke ranks first in the ACC in athletic revenue earned, with $67,820,335. That number places them nationally right between the SEC's Kentucky and South Carolina. Duke would bring both basketball and academic credibility with them, but their football program and facilities, as stated before, are far below SEC standards. The Blue Devils would not be expected to be asked, or to accept an invitation if they were asked.
Duke would probably be a better fit for the Big Ten, and one recent proposal would have UNC, Duke, Virginia, and Maryland go to the Big Ten. Were that to happen, NC State to the SEC would again be a strong possibility, and the loss of those five teams would be the death knell for the ACC as a power conference. That scenario could also put the Virginia TV market within reach of the SEC, if they wanted to reach out to Virginia Tech.
TV money is the biggest factor in the decisions to be made, but it certainly is not the only one. SEC schools share revenue from bowls, television and other income under the league's operating agreement. The paycheck for this past season's BCS championship game where SEC member and No. 1-ranked Alabama defeated No. 2 Texas generated for the two teams in excess of $31 million. And nine other SEC teams went bowling for dollars as well in 2009. The SEC Champion has been crowned the national champion as well for the last four years straight. Conference fratricide, traditional rivalries and geographic realities also have to be considered. Shipping non-revenue teams from Auburn et al to Stillwater, Austin, and College Station would be very expensive, and building rivalries outside of baseball in those sports would be tough.
The addition of teams from the state of North Carolina would make more sense than Texas and Oklahoma from a geographic footprint, TV market, and rivalry standpoint. Most all of the current ACC and SEC teams were once conference mates in the original Southern conference, and have varying degrees of history with each other. The state of North Carolina is the tenth most populous state with just under ten million residents. Should UNC and NCSU be added, Chapel Hill and Raleigh are closer to their new seven SEC East playmates then a number of current SEC West opponents are. UNC had 13 football players on their 2009 roster from the SEC states of TN, GA, FL, and SC. NC State had 18 players on their roster from those states.
If the ACC were raided, one UNC fan said, "I'd let UNC decide whether they wanted to switch or be killed with the rest." If UNC decided to either bolt to the Big Ten or stay put in an emaciated ACC, NC State fans indicated a willingness to get out of their in-state rival's shadow and join the SEC, acknowledging that they would still play the Tar Heels annually.
Tim Hardin, an NC State fan out of Hickory, NC, would be in favor of the Pack making the jump. "I for one would rather have NCSU as an SEC school," he said. "At the end of the day, they are the Top Dawg conference. I don't think it would lessen our reputation for academics. I think it would enhance the quality of the SEC overall. Vandy is doing just fine. I have a lot of pride in our basketball pedigree, but that is losing relevance quickly. I think we can (continue to) be just as successful in basketball, and have plenty of success in football. Maybe not immediately...but think of all the football recruits that would pick the SEC Wolfpack over the any-other conference Big Four schools."
If 16, not 14 teams became the goal, then a surprise pick of East Carolina could join the Wolfpack in cementing Tar Heel state viewers without the Tar Heels.
Like the aforementioned Wolfpack fans in NC who would come to the SEC without UNC, some Texas A&M Aggie fans have told me they wouldn't be heartbroken to join the SEC without Texas. Harvey Schiller, who from 1986-89 was the commissioner of the SEC, recently talked about a deal that had been cut in 1992 for the Longhorns to join the SEC in 1992, but the deal was scuttled by Texas politics because TAMU wouldn't be joining them. It would be ironic if the Aggies ended up being the only Texas team joining the SEC, at the end of the day.
David Sandhop, the publisher of Texas A&M's Scout.com site, Aggie Websider.com, says there are "two factions of people at A&M: Those that are open to going anywhere Texas goes, and those that want A&M to specifically go to the SEC, and then let Texas do what they want to do, even if it means splitting up."
Sandhop makes the case why a Longhorns to the SEC scenario is unlikely. "First of all, I don't think Texas will ever agree to go to the SEC," he said. "They are hung up on 'academic fit' and feel the SEC is beneath them in regard to academics. In the past, they've wanted the Pac-10 so they could rub shoulders with the Cal-Berkleys and Stanfords on the west coast. However, the Pac-10 no longer offers enough TV revenues, and the travel up to Oregon and Washington will be costly and brutal on the student athletes."
Sandhop speculated that "If Texas realigns, I think there's an 80% chance they will go to the Big Ten. Now, the million dollar question is what Texas A&M will do. There will be pressure to follow Texas to the Big Ten. However, there is also another growing faction that wants A&M to broker a deal to the SEC. The travel is less (at least in the SEC west) and the rivalries/culture are a better fit. Trust me; we see an SEC schedule that's a lot sexier than a cold Big Ten road schedule. If you ask anybody whether they'd prefer a trip between the hedges, to Ole Miss, to the Swamp, or a trip to Lansing, Bloomington, or Madison, it would be 99-to-1 for the SEC destinations.
"That's not even mentioning the great TV contract and the dollars they would bring to the table." he said. "We already have a defacto rivalry with LSU, and we are now playing Arkansas in Dallas every year. But most importantly, splitting from Texas gives A&M a chance to market itself differently to recruits, and I think marketing the SEC will be a lot more attractive than selling recruits on the Big Ten. I think it would be a huge opportunity in the long term for A&M."
If UNC, NCSU, and TAMU joined, one more team would be needed to be at 16. Drop UNC or TAMU if the Texas legislators get involved again, and two more additions would still be needed to get to 16. Keep going north and add Virginia and Virginia Tech? Or head south to Florida and pick up South Florida and/or Central Florida?
The first probable domino to fall is likely going to be knocked over by the Big Ten, whose commissioner has said that no public decision will be made before December. But you can be sure that realignment and "which-teams-should-go-where" will be a hot topic all summer long - in conference board rooms, athletic directors' offices, sports radio, and internet forums.