Sunday, September 18, 2011

Conference-ocalypse is upon us

I gotta be honest: The ACC wasn't at the top of my list of people/entities most likely to blow up the current college sports structure (although Oklahoma probably would've done it about two days later anyway). But with one domino down ...
Pittsburgh and Syracuse, once flagship programs of the Big East, have been accepted as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, extending the league's current membership to 14 schools, the ACC announced on Sunday morning.
... the rest are falling and chaos is imminent. Commence superconferences.

At some point in the very near future, the Big East and Big 12 will be historical footnotes and the ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Pac-whatever will have some unreasonably large number of teams held together by little other than a conference name. They will each negotiate $100 quadrillion TV deals, require two BCS bids and possibly set some sort of playoff in motion. This will be weird and unsettling and probably not very stable -- whether it'll be good or bad in a general sense is impossible to say, because there are a ton of variables.

And just to be clear, these aren't baseless "internet lulz" assumptions; this is happening, like, right now. From ESPN:

UConn president Susan Herbst is aggressively pursuing membership in the ACC to become the 15th or 16th member institution in the conference, according to a source with direct knowledge of UConn's situation.

According to the source, Herbst was having conversations recently, but in light of Pittsburgh's and Syracuse's defections from the Big East, the talks have accelerated in the last 48 hours.

With three of its four best all-around programs gone and West Virginia reportedly on its way to the SEC, the Big East is done. TCU will bail on its 2012 deal and everyone else will scramble for a suitable home in something other than Conference USA, with South Florida being the most desirable leftover and therefore probably getting the ACC's 16th spot.

From The Austin American-Statesman:

The Pac-12 appears to be working out the final details of a deal that would bring Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to the conference, sources close to the situation told and the American-Statesman on Sunday morning.

Nothing has been accepted or approved yet, but the deal would allow the Longhorns to keep the Longhorn Network. Texas, though, would have to add Pac-12 (soon to be 16) content to the LHN programming.

A high-ranking school administrator at one of the four Big 12 schools said “It’s heating up. We’re trying to move in that direction (of joining the Pac-12).”

When asked about the terms of the agreement, the administrator said, “We can live with it.”

Given the location of the sources, it's safe to say the source/administrator is somebody in the Texas athletic department. The Pac-16 is happening.

The SEC will presumably pick off West Virginia to get to 14, but it's hard to identify any other obviously desirable candidates that will be set adrift in the realignment-created ether. Maybe 14 is enough given the SEC's overall quality and depth (especially once Texas A&M and West Virginia are thrown into the mix).

As for the Big Ten, rumor has it (I can't find a legitimate source, so this could be complete garbage) that Rutgers has already reached out because of the Big East's impending implosion. My reaction probably mirrors Jim Delaney's: meh. Like I said Friday, Rutgers is basically Minnesota East. Missouri seems slightly more attractive, but Rutgers is probably more likely because of the NYC media market (even if nobody there cares about college sports). Neither one excites me a whole lot. Notre Dame, on the other hand ... yeah, that'd be swell.

ND might still be dead set on independence and therefore an end-of-the-rainbow fantasy for the Big Ten, but there are some new factors coming into play here:
  • The massive TV deals everyone else will be getting that might bring in three or four times what Notre Dame is getting annually from NBC (the Big Ten teams are already getting close to double)
  • The potential for a reworked and not-so-inclusive BCS contract when the current one expires in 2014
  • The death of the Big East
The TV thing will have some impact because money money money (money) dollars money, but ND has already turned down a pay raise to retain the national brand image created by independence. The Big East thing, though, creates an unavoidable dilemma: Join the Big Ten/ACC for all sports (and you can be damn sure both of those conferences will demand football as part of the deal) or stay independent in football and doom the rest of your 30-ish teams to irrelevance in Conference USA or something similar. If there's anything the Big Ten can do to back ND into a corner, it'll happen ... and that probably means Rutgers has a back-door deal and Notre Dame has a standing invitation for whenever things get desperate, which will be soon.

And for everybody not fortunate enough to find a spot in a superconference ... man, I dunno. Sucks to be you. Louisville and Kansas and TCU and Baylor and Cincinnati all have some meaningful history (in football or basketball) but bring so little to the table in football right now that I just don't see how they land in a big-time conference when the music stops, and that's sad. My first thought was that maybe the BCS-conference leftovers along with Notre Dame and TCU and whoever else could come up with something like a better version of Conference USA, but of that group (other than Notre Dame, obviously), what athletic department makes enough money to ship all its teams all over the country? Most of those schools lose money now, and that's with the benefit of the rivalries and conference TV deals they'll be losing. In the long run, the WAC and Mountain West and Conference USA will probably be the beneficiaries and end up in the ballpark of 16 teams themselves.

So ... that's where we're at. In summary:

Like I said earlier, whether or not this is a good thing for college sports (which is a pretty vague term) in the long term is both unknown and unknowable. Further commercialization + loss of tradition and rivalries = bad. Increase in meaningful games + some sort of non-BCS playoff = good. Further divide between legitimate D-I teams and D-I hangers-on (the MAC and Sun Belt bottom feeders, basically) = good for some but bad for some. Any combination of those things = I have no idea.

Of the 637,488 things that will be written in print and on the interwebs in the next week, most of them will make a lot of dumb assumptions and include a bunch of witty, single-sentence lines about the old days and playoffs and terrifying change blah blah blah. Example from Greg Hansen at the Arizona Daily Star (to be fair, his column makes some good points -- this isn't one of them):
The practicalities of an expanded Pac-14 (or 16) do not work for the greater good. How much class time would a women's tennis team from Washington miss while traveling 2,216 miles for a showdown with the women's tennis team from Texas?
What's the difference between a flight from Seattle to Tucson and a flight from Seattle to Austin? An hour? Maybe 90 minutes? If you're already flying, the difference in both time and cost is negligible. TCU joining the Big East was stupid in basically every way; Texas joining the Pac-12 (or West Virginia joining the SEC or Mizzou joining the Big Ten) isn't. And aren't we past the point of "THINK OF THE CHILDREN" outrage? The NCAA tournament lasts almost a month. Oklahoma State and Tulsa played til almost 3:30 a.m. (!!!) last night. Etcetera. A slight increase in travel time for Washington's tennis team does not fall into the category of "practicalities that don't work for the greater good."

The real losers (IMO) are the mid-tier schools that'll be either (a) doomed to competitive irrelevance* in absurdly difficult conferences or (b) left out of the mix altogether and doomed to national irrelevance, which is even worse. Maybe the money makes it a worthwhile/fair trade for the schools in Group A; I dunno. I'll ask somebody at Arizona State when I get a chance, although the answer will be some sort of conference-approved fluff about the betterment of all.

I have no idea who the winners are other than the people who see the biggest cut of the TV money -- any other tangible benefits are too indirect and too far in the future to include in any sort of cost-benefit analysis. Structurally, conceptually, geographically and in every other way I can think of, massive superconferences that basically consist of two regular-sized conferences held together by a name are dumb (they're also inherently unstable -- just ask the WAC). I really don't care to see Michigan's schedule lose Wisconsin and Penn State every other year and gain Rutgers and Missouri just so the Big Ten can make X additional advertising dollars via the New York market. Washington fans are probably saying the same thing about the idea of playing in L.A. once every four years in exchange for some extra trips to Lubbock (woo). Alabama will play Florida like twice a decade. These things aren't good for the fans and the product on the field, and putting finances before the product is a good way to make sure both become problems in the future.

And really, that's the one definite takeaway from all this ridiculousness: Everybody involved cares more about making as much money as possible RIGHT NOW than finding something that's smart/stable in the long term (like maintaining rivalries and the logical geographical alignment that keeps casual fans engaged). The future? Whatev. They'll cross that gold-plated bridge when they get to it.

*Buried in the Austin American-Statesman's Pac-16 story are a couple grafs about the proposed arrangement: four pods with four teams each. This idea popped up back when the Big Ten was talking about expanding last offseason, and I love it. Group all the teams within geographic regions together so they play every year, then rotate everybody else. It's fair and ensures as little time as possible in between meetings while making it not totally impossible for the schools other than Texas, Oklahoma, USC and Oregon to actually play for a conference title occasionally. Any superconference with 16 teams should have pods, if only because that would allow me to hate the entire concept incrementally less.


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