When the SEC said, "Not right now," to Texas A&M's interest in joining that league, it set off more activity than if the Aggies had been accepted. Schools and conferences across the country continued, or increased their activity, in securing their positions in the conference landscape, leading to widespread speculation on possible moves. What's happened so far, what does it mean, and what might it ultimately take to settle conference affiliation once and for all? Most importantly, how does it affect West Virginia? To answer those questions, we'll look at some individual bits of news to try to assemble the puzzle.
Item: SEC expansion won't include schools within its footprint
Multiple sources have indicated to BlueGoldNews.com that a group of SEC schools has pledged to not support membership for any new schools that compete in markets with current members. Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky are four of those members which will band together in that regard. If true, that would preclude any membership offer to Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson or Louisville, thus limiting, but certainly not stopping, the SEC's expansion options.
That would leave Virginia Tech as the most viable ACC target for the SEC, but the Hokies have publicly stated they are not interested in a conference switch. If the SEC came forward with an actual offer (one that would certainly be under the table, so as to avoid embarrassment if rejected), would Tech's tune change? Reports at this time indicate that it would not.
If the ACC remains solid, that likely keeps the Big East intact, at least in the short term. While many scenarios could lead to some combination of an ACC\Big East merger or takeover, it would all have to start with one of the leagues losing multiple members.
Item: Other ACC departure possibilities exist
Most of the focus on the ACC has been on moves to the SEC, but is that the only direction schools from there might move? One new possibility being mentioned is a move by two of the anchor members of the league to the Big 10. Such a move would be a shocker, but it's apparently not just idle speculation at this point. The Big 10, perhaps trying to fend off any more questions in that direction, said on Friday that it has no plan to actively engage in expansion now or at any time in the foreseeable future, barring a significant shift in the current intercollegiate athletic landscape. That statement, of course, leaves the door open for moves, just as the recent SEC statement did.
While such a scenario, or any one where the ACC breaks up of its own volition, might seem unlikely at this point, the end result would still be the same -- a shakeup for the Big East as well. Almost assuredly, Pitt, Rutgers, Connecticut, Syracuse, West Virginia and Louisville would be viewed as potential replacements, which would set off another wild battle for positioning.
Item: Television's role
Obviously, media giants who hold rights deals with conferences have a big influence. There's an even more important dynamic in play here, though, that will shape future deals and negotiations. The Big East will be the next league to sign a media rights contract with one or more companies, and the league believes it will be competitive with those currently in place with the ACC and SEC. But are those existing deals static? Not if conference membership changes.
While not being trumpeted, it's clear than any realignment or expansion is aimed at generating increased revenue for any league, and the biggest chunk of that would come from media rights. The thing to keep in mind here is that even though many leagues have existing media deals that don't expire for at least four or five years, there's nothing to stop the leagues from entering into renegotiations if membership changes. Clearly, the SEC is more than a bit upset that it's TV deal is no longer the largest in the country, and it wants to regain that status. If it adds schools, it will certainly do so with the number one goal of increasing its take from its media partners.
That, in turn, affects the Big East's current negotiations. How much will the unstable conference landscape affect the amount of money that Fox, NBC\Comcast or ESPN are willing to lay out? Certainly, that deal will include sections that address changes in conference membership, but might those potential changes lead to lower initial offers? This is the most difficult path to predict, but it's clear that will have a huge impact on potential changes. Everything will be done with at least one, and probably both, eyes fixed on the ramifications of media money.
Item: Conferences are talking
In recent days, the commissioners of the Big East, Big XII and ACC have been talking to each other. Obviously, it's about conference realignment, but the substance of those discussions was not revealed. Did the commissioners try to reach an agreement about each standing firm, and not conducting "preemptive raids" on each others' membership? (And could such an agreement be trusted, especially when viewed in light of the ACC's back door raid on the Big East a few years ago?) Or is something bigger afoot?
Clearly, each league commissioner is trying to build a sense of stability with its membership, and discourage flirtation with other leagues. They also face a rising tide of public sentiment that says "attack or die" -- that is, raid others and make yourself strong enough and big enough that no one else will dare attack you. The problem is, there's almost always someone out there with the promise of a sweeter deal, and some school that is willing to listen.
In the end, a two- or three-league alignment in this regard won't cut it. Everyone in the upper echelon of college football has to agree on a realignment plan and a course of action, which leads us to...
Where does it all end?
It's clear, at this point, that schools and leagues are acting only in their own best self-interest. That's understandable, but it is producing a model that's unsustainable. Conferences can't function in the long term while being worried about which schools are leaving, or might threaten to leave if a vote or issue doesn't go their way. Media entities aren't going to want to renegotiate their deals every time one of their league partners has a change membership. And even fans, who are clearly enamored with discussing all of the possibilities of change, will eventually tire of all the drama.
In order to end this, and bring some order and stability to the situation, it's clear that all of the conferences will have to get together and agree on a membership plan. That's a task akin to the cleaning of the Augean Stables, but its the only thing that will stop the endless cycle of realignment talk.
Obviously, there are two big questions (and hundreds of smaller ones) that go with this issue. First, who will lead the effort? NCAA president Mark Emmert is one choice, but he would have to be empowered to do so by the member schools. Right now, he doesn't have the authority or power to do so. An independent third party might be asked to head discussions, but again, it's a case where all of the members would have to agree and support whatever plan and alignment were approved, and would have to agree on the person selected to lead the effort.
We've all put forth our own plan for "super conferences" and many of them are very good. They lead to a playoff for a national championship and align schools in logical manners. The problem, of course, is getting schools to agree on them. Would Penn State agree to be moved back to the Super East conference? Are BYU and Notre Dame going to give up their independent status? Would Texas abandon its role as king of the Big XII serfdom? And in the event of a model where just four superleagues exist, are two of the existing BCS conferences gong to fold their football tents without a fight?
In a day in which battles are fought for the smallest of items, it's hard to imagine the ACC, Big East or Big XII yielding their league names and football existence for the sake of the greater good. Unfortunately, college football isn't like the NFL, where two clearly defined sides existed in its recent dispute. Where just two parties exist, a compromise can usually be reached. In the case of college football however, we're talking about dozens of entities with different agendas. Can they all come together to reach a solution to the realignment question? And if they don't, is the current model, with schools switching alignments quicker than banana republics change leaders, sustainable?
As always, we're interested in your perspective. Share your comments with us on our message boards.