Rights, Realignment and More

Even with the school year over, and only a couple of sports still active, it's been a busy week on the sports scene at WVU. From TV rights to job hunts to continuing conference realignment, there's something for everyone to consider, even in the "off" season.

Item: Will the Big 12 stay at 10 teams, or expand?

While "expand or die" seems to be the mantra covering college athletics (read: football) in general, the conferences at the top of the heap are running out of options for expansion, unless they raid each other. With the Big East looking more and more like Conference USA or the Metro Conference, and with a number of the member schools unconcerned with football questions, there are really only five leagues at the top of the heap: the SEC, The Big 10, the Big 12, the ACC and the Pac 12. Those are the conferences that can realistically expand and get solid members, but how many viable candidates are left?

For the Big 12, Louisville, BYU and perhaps Rutgers would be the choices from lower tier leagues, but there are positives and negatives associated with all of them. Other than those schools, then, the Big 12 (and realistically, any of the other four power conferences) would have to raid one of their fellow members in order to get viable additions. For the Big 12, there's simply too much smoke to believe that the league wouldn't be happy to add either Florida State or Clemson, which would rock the ACC's football power level. Is the Big 12 willing to do that? Would that be the first step to a four-conference, 16-teams-per-league football super division? Or will the pending changes to the BCS structure keep the "Big Five" leagues happy with the status quo for now? And how will Notre Dame fit into the picture?

If the BCS hadn't made changes, there was little doubt that the six leagues with automatic BCS bids would have seen less fewer movements from this point on, as their inclusion in the BCS conversation and payouts would have been assured. Now, however, with automatic bids apparently going by the wayside, the scramble may be starting anew. The Big 12 isn't going to be chasing UTSA or Tulsa as a potential league addition, so it has two basic directions it can follow:

1)Go after BYU, Notre Dame, Louisville or Rutgers – none of which wold raise the ire of its power brethren, or,

2)Make bids for teams such as Florida State in one of the other big leagues. This choice could kick off a whole new round of restructuring, and might, at some point in the future, result in another contraction of power conferences. For those that don't think that could happen, remember that just a few short months ago, the Big 12's obituary was being written by many across the country. It would only take one big raid (FSU and Clemson to the Big 12, Oklahoma and Texas to the Pac 12 for example), to result in another seismic shift in the conference power structure. Of course, with the Big 12 reportedly committing to a 13-year grant of its Tier 1 and Tier 2 rights to the league, it's much less likely that the Big 12 will fracture in the near future. Still, as we have seen countless times during this process, contracts are made to be broken.

Item: Oliver Luck to Stanford?

A simple reading of Luck's comments when asked about his candidacy for the Big 12 Commissioner vs. those of his interest or candidacy as Stanford's athletic director certainly gives cause for concern. "No" vs. "No comment" provides plenty of room for speculation, but it's clear that he's not going to say anything else about the matter unless he accepts the job.

Looking back on Luck's wooing to West Virginia, remember that a couple of years prior to taking the job, he noted in at least one interview that he was happy in Houston with his current job and didn't predict a move. Of course, things change (children grow up, more money is offered, etc.) and it's obvious that they did in that case. Using that to predict that Luck would return to Stanford, however, is a stretch. Certainly he has a ton of ties there. If he decided to take the job, there's no way that he should be blamed or criticized in any way. There are things, however, that would tend to keep him at WVU, including a high-school aged son that just went through one move, and the sense that there's still a lot of work to be done, such as those TV rights and an increase in West Virginia's overall winning percentage in sports. Is that enough to keep him in Morgantown? Only he knows for sure, but you just can't ignore the fact that he's now said "no comment" to the Stanford speculation on at least two occasions.

Item: The fate of MSN and West Virginia's Tier 3 broadcast rights

WVU will soon be releasing an RFP (Request For Proposals) for its Tier 3 broadcast rights, which would include athletic events not covered by the Big 12's existing contracts. Those will, for the most part, be sports other than football and men's basketball, but could also include radio, signage and advertising at sporting events. West Virginia is one of the dwindling number of schools to produce their own radio coverage and handle their advertising sales "in-house", and it was clear from the outset of Luck's tenure that he wanted to look at entities such as Learfield Sports and IMG College, which together own some piece of broadcast rights for no fewer than 130 schools. In fact, this move would likely have come much earlier in Luck's tenure had the issue of conference affiliation not been a priority.

The view from here is that WVU will go an external vendor, even though Luck said there is no mandate to award any or all of WVU's Tier 3 rights as a result of this bid process, unless it can be clearly demonstrated that MSN and the in-house production services will make more money for the school.

Big 12 schools have followed two different paths so far in working with their Tier 3 rights. Texas, of course, developed the Longhorn Network, while Oklahoma has forged an agreement with Fox Sports that guarantees the Sooners no fewer than 1,000 hours of programming on during the upcoming school year. Texas Tech is in the middle of determining its path, but from the outside the view is that the Red Raiders will follow the Oklahoma model. West Virginia would be wise to keep an eye on the results of that deal, although it might be hindered somewhat by the fact that the former Fox Sports Pittsburgh is now an affiliate of Root Sports, and thus somewhat limited in its distribution reach. WVU could also choose an online model, where it streams or broadcasts games via the web for a fee. No matter the model, however, it looks as if momentum is building for a change in the way West Virginia bundles and distributes its Tier 3 games.


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