Today I am going to write a bit of an exercise.
On December 5th, 2012, Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee met with the Ohio
State Athletic Council. Gee reported that expansion discussions in the Big 10
were "ongoing" and that he “believes there is movement towards three or four
super conferences that are made up of 16-20 teams.”
"THREE to Four
superconferences"...is the the interesting bit.
The idea of the better FBS
programs settling into four 16 team superconferences is familiar (if despised)
idea to most college football fans at this point.
To hear the
number three is disturbingly unfamiliar. To hear a key member of the Big 10
braintrust say it and mention 20 team conferences, even more so.
The Big 10 conference owns their own TV network. They seem able and willing
to take on any number of schools and make it work in their business model. They
also seem to be able to squeeze more value out of their schools. Unlike other
conferences, they seem less consumed by debates of the merits of "x
additional schools vs. profit" arguments. They can really add who they want.
Gee went on to say that for the Big 10 “there are opportunities to move
further south in the east and possibly a couple of Midwest
It seemed like the Big Ten was preparing to eat the best parts of
Now since then ESPN has essentially bumped up the ACC's per team payouts by what looks like about $7 Million per school to start (if you include the ACC channel money). That was enough motivation to convince the ACC schools to sign a "grant of rights" agreement to the ACC (...which means to ESPN as the media company has a contract for most of the ACC schools' first, second, and third tier media rights).
So disaster averted, right? No UNC in the Big 10, no FSU in the SEC and no Clemson in the Big 12.
But it still raises the question, "What exactly was Gee talking about in saying three 20 team super
conferences?" It is difficult for a fan to imagine, but Gee was talking about it as a legitimate possibility. So how could it happen?
This is my best shot to answer the question.
Realignment starts at the top.
The SEC, Big 10, and PAC-12 are not going anywhere. If you want to talk
about three contract conferences, those are the three.
The most lucrative and prestigious FBS conference is the Big 10. They have the biggest TV deal as half owners of their own network. Their academic reputations are only rivaled by the ACC among FBS conferences and their annual research money totals blow away all other FBS conferences. (Annual research dollars can dwarf the top athletic budgets. As FBS conferences go, The Pac-12's and ACC's research totals are quite a bit ahead of the rest of the pack too.)
Every school in the Big 10 besides Nebraska is a member of the prestigious 62 member Association of American Universities. This fraternity of elite, heavy research schools are major power brokers in academic circles.
The past expansion of the Big 10 seems based on fighting to retain their position of influence. The Big 10 is based in states where populations are shrinking and money is leaving or has left the state. These states will continue to lose congressional seats and legislative power as their populations move to other states. These factors could erode the size and quality of their student bodies and over time damage the perceptions of their schools.
While it is great for the Big 10 that they landed schools that give them access to New York City and Washington DC, population growth is occurring in the sunbelt. States like Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida would bring large, growing populations and access to more politicians and top students.
The eviction of Nebraska from the AAU also has to have the Big 10 concerned. There are a lot of top research schools that would be welcomed by many AAU members, but there is also a large faction in the AAU that believes part of the appeal of the AAU is it's selectivity. This could mean further trimming of members to "create space". Indiana is a school considered a bit of a bubble school in the AAU.
The Big 10 draws a lot of their prestige from the fact that all of their members were AAU members. Now one of their members is no longer a member and further is the only AAU member to ever be voted out. And now the Big 10 may be looking at potentially another eviction coming soon. Such an action could do a lot to paint this as a correction --- a removal of undeserving Big 10 schools. That narrative is one that could take a life of it's own and become very damaging to the Big 10 schools.
With that in mind it makes a lot of sense of the Big 10's myopia for AAU members only among their candidate schools.
It takes a 2/3's vote to evict a school from the AAU. Nebraska was voted out by 44 of the AAU's 62 members. Nebraska needed 21 votes to block their dismissal. They had 18 votes. Aside from Nebraska, the Big 10 at the time had 12 AAU votes (including The University of Chicago).
The new Big 10 with Rutgers, Maryland, and associate Big 10 member The Johns Hopkins University seems to have possible access to 3 more AAU votes. But on the flip side, such a coalition may look to the other AAU members like the Big 10 is cornering the vote --- in that instance the Big 10 may need to get 20 to 21 votes on their own.
So let's think about how they may have thought to get from 14 to 20.
Adding AAU ACC schools Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, and Georgia Tech to get to 18 could have answered a lot of these problems for the Big Ten. The Big 10 appeared to be targeting FSU as their preferred Florida candidate. (In my opinion, Miami would be a better Big Ten candidate than FSU, but probably were downgraded due to the spectre lingering over that program due to pending NCAA infractions. Miami is also considered a school on the cusp of AAU invitation, they are northeastern in character fitting in much better with the Big Ten, and would offer both a nationally recognized sports brand and access to Florida's large population of students and athletes.)
The assumption may have been that the last spot would be for UT or ND, but I think the last spot may have been earmarked for a more local school.
With the Big Ten owning a major stake in the elite academic schools in the south and the main market in SEC territory (Atlanta = Georgia Tech), the addition of Vanderbilt may have been possible.
Tradition is huge in the SEC, but Vanderbilt has always been ridiculed for not seeing football as a win at all cost sport. Additionally as an AAU school, they would understand the benefits of Big 10 enrollment. They are a much better school than the other options.
If Vandy held to tradition and stayed in the SEC, AAU Pitt, AAU Missouri or non-AAU Miami or non-AAU Oklahoma could have fit the bill nicely. If the goal was to get every power conference to 20, the best choice instead of Vanderbilt would probably be Miami.
(I should note that Oklahoma and UT were strongly considered by the Big Ten and the conference has always wanted to have Notre Dame in their conference. UT is not likely joining any conference where they cannot bring a number of votes with them. I think the Big Ten's actions suggest they thought it was preferrable to bring in UNC, Duke, Virginia, and Georgia Tech instead of UT, OU, and a friend or two.
I think the predatory stance against the ACC suggests that the Big Ten has moved to an anti-ND position.)
I think there is enough out there suggesting that the Big Ten was probably receptive to the idea of 3
superconferences as, for a number of reasons, it makes sense for the Big Ten to
go to 20 members.
Why would they not want the SEC and Pac-12 to do the
same? In theory that would gave the power conferences much greater control over the playoffs and that revenue. In part 2, I will follow up on the actions the other two power conferences may have taken if the ACC had not finally agreed to grant their rights to the ACC (re:ESPN).