I spend a lot of time thinking about realignment.
Too much really, but every once in a while it leads an article I hope that you find really entertaining, interesting, and fun. Hopefully you'll agree that this is one of the fun ones.
As I think about realignment, I think about the possibilities and weigh the merits of various options. Today we are going to talk about some of the more interesting "crazy ideas" that have come to me over the years. Most of these are highly unlikely in that a series of things that are unlikely have to occur before these situations become likely.
So again, this is just for fun.
What if the Big 12 started out with 2 more members?
I am going to start with one that was not one of mine.... It was the discarded 2nd option of the Big 8 schools after securing UT to join them.
The Big 8 schools had run through a series of options. They had hoped to get UT with or without A&M. Second choice was UT, Tech, TAMU, and BYU to complete their 12. When Baylor forced their way in, there was some serious thought of going to 14. But who would they select to be school #14????
Their choice might surprise you...
Likely the political involvement in Texas that created the Big 12 was likely uncomfortable enough that the Big 8 member schools thought..."Lets just stay at 12... lest we get some more unwanted Texas schools thrown at us by the Texas State legislature". (Now this is the only officially acknowledged Big 14. Some reports out of TCU sources ---only --- say there was actually a vote on letting TCU in after the formation of the Big 12. ...One would think with BYU as #13.)
It is interesting to consider what the official Big 14 alignment would have done for the stability of the Big 12.
Colorado's status as a conspicuous geographic outlier came to hurt their competitiveness in the Big 12. When they stopped winning, their leadership and boosters started seeing greener pastures to the west. UNM and BYU in would have erased the outlier status for Colorado. Having another rival football power nearby I think actually would have helped Colorado's efforts to maintain football excellence ("keeping up with the Joneses").
Certainly CU always looked favorably on the academics of the PAC-10, but they passed on the Pac-10 for the Big 12 in the 1990's due to a desire to retain long term rivalries. Would Colorado have been so eagar to leave in such a scenario?
If Colorado stays what does rival Nebraska do? Nebraska's big gripe always had to do with the power imbalance that existed between divisions. While adding BYU would not have really affected the fact that Texas and OU ran the conference, it likely would have moderated the excesses and made Nebraska feel better about things. With two more schools outside of the state of Texas, maybe the Big 12 basketball tournament would have never left Kansas City. That would not have displeased Missouri at all.
The Big 14 would have rivaled the old 16 team Big East as the best basketball conference, and who knows... Perhaps if Nebraska had less of a bug up their butt about UT's control of the conference, Missouri fans would have been more content with the conference ....and DeLoss Dodds perhaps less confrontational with everyone (...yeah...)
Maybe he doesn't fall in love with the idea of flipping all of his conference mates the bird and starting the LHN? Maybe in this more unified scenario, TAMU takes Dodd's offer in to join them in the LHN effort forming a more inclusive network and that ties the Aggies to the conference? Could we have seen a Big 12 that was a predator entering the 2010 realignment window following the moratorium on FBS upgrades. Very possible.
UT would love to have back their #2 rival, Arkansas. Arkansas couldn't ask for a better conference footprint than the Big 14... Imagine an in-division schedule of OU, OSU, UMN, and old SWC foes UT, Tech, Baylor and TAMU with 2 out of division matchups alternating between nearby Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State!
That is a schedule of rivals and teams that would travel well to Fayetteville. Arkansas likely could have built and filled a 100,000 seat stadium with that schedule.
And the Big 14 could have had a great salesman to close that deal. A less ego driven Dodds with a stable strong conference to offer could have brought back that cherished rivalry.
With the collapse of the Big East, Notre Dame was available for a while. A smart offer of 2 football games vs. alternating Big 12 opponents (protecting the national schedule that makes the Irish so valuable) in return for providing a home for Notre Dame's Olympic sports could easily have gotten done. While ND's preference would always be to play their Olympic sports along the rustbelt up to boston way, given the proximity and star power of this conference in both revenue sports and the collapse of the Big East, an opportunity would have been there.
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick looked to Dodds as something of a mentor. If the deal looked good for ND's national schedule, there is every reason to think Swarbrick would have taken it.
The Texas to Chicagoland bridge could easily have organically happened in the most optimal fashion possible if the Big 12 members had just been bolder ...and Dodds less of an asshat.
It is mind melting to consider how legitimately possible such a timeline could have been. instead, due to shortsightedness and timidity by the founding fathers... And UT holding on to Dodds past his expiration date... We have today's Big 12.
(And to be clear I put almost all of it on Dodds, who effectively controlled the conference from day 1. This is why NO conference should let a school or individual set the agenda.)
Moving on to some of my own pie in the sky fun thoughts...
What if UT reformed the SWC?
One of the main levers UT has to keep The Big 12 together is the threat of grabbing Tech (and/or TCU) and following OU and Kansas out the door --- potentially dropping KSU and OSU out of the power conference ranks.
Lets follow that out. Lets say OU and Kansas bail for the PAC-12 or Big Ten and UT is lead by people who want to punish the Big 8 states (maybe just to make their point, maybe because there is not a ton of value there..) and/or prop up Texas football more.
BYU once recruited a chunk of a conference and bailed on the WAC. I could see UT doing that. UT would need 6 member to take the automatic basketball bid with them, but really UT +2-4 would likely kill the conference. Tech, TCU, Baylor would all follow UT if the Longhorn leadership asked.
West Virginia would be in an unenviable situation. Be cool and stay with OSU, KSU, and ISU and they probably backfill with schools like Memphis, Cincinnati, Temple and UConn to form a bubble- tier "Big East 8" conference. But WVU's leaders' thoughts would be tortured. "What if OSU and KSU get invited because we said no? We are probably on our way back to the American. It's the Louisville situation all over again!" WVU probably would come too if invited.
It really depends on how UT might want to handle the state of Oklahoma. If you want to punish the state, you grab West Virginia and leave OSU twisting in the wind.
If UT is wants to tailor their response to punish OU, then adding OSU only from the Big 8 ranks along with SMU to their cabal makes sense as both potentially weaken OU's recruiting in Oklahoma and DFW.
UT would certainly need another replacement king. BYU is the likely choice.
Kings need their kingdoms to succeed. Adding BYU's former WAC rivals UNM, UTEP, and CSU would help BYU a lot and do a ton to replace the loss of the Big 8 schools in basketball.
SMU, CSU, and BYU are academically solid for the power conference level. Houston, UTEP, and UNM are lower ranked than West Virginia, but at least are National Universities.
Add Houston as a recruiting buffer vs. the SEC and you end up with a Texan friendly footprint --- if something of an ugly conference.
Starting at 10-11 schools would allow the conference to have 9 games and have UT or BYU play several good games (each other, OSU, TCU, Baylor, Houston). Eventually the conference could transition in UTSA as a 12th member.
With UT, BYU, TCU, Baylor, and OSU, the membership is good enough to stay in the power conference ranks if the powers play each other each year. The footprint is ideal to allow the included ankledraggers of the state a chance to finally gain traction. At that point UT could have several teams in-state who might average 45-50K a game. Schools like UTSA, UTEP, and Houston would probably be able to hit those numbers in this conference, joining TCU and Baylor. That would do a lot to consume the media air for TAMU across the state.
UNM and CSU could also hit this level in this conference. With Texas's abundance of 3 star athletes. all three BYU serfs would finally be able to pull the supplemental recruiting that has historically depressed their attendance and prevented their programs from having consistent success. (Given the MWC and WAC footprints and the lack of perceived quality in Conference USA, UNM, UTEP, and CSU have never been able to consistently fill an 85 man roster with 3 star talent. That has always had them at a competitive disadvantage in their conferences. That would not be the case in this conference. They might be average in the conference, but their talent levels should have them entering conference play at 3-0 each year and finishing bowl eligible. That will allow their attendance to rise to the level their measurable suggest they should be at.)
The New SWC would have a footprint of 40.1M---bigger than today's Big 12. With 10-11 members, great basketball with 7 regular tournament-level team and two football kings along with OSU, Baylor, and TCU, there is little reason to imagine that the payouts would be significantly lower than the current Big 12 payouts. And even if they are, one suspects the schools involved would have no problem taking less money up front as they ramp up.
Putting so many Texas schools into a power conference would do a lot for the state. This would create a situation where SWC schools could have a brand like the SEC brand. This would turn the conference into Texas's conference and would have the potential of creating SEC-like pride --- which annoying as it is, has a national perception value.
It would erode any other conference's ability to mine Texas talent effectively and ideally would create recruiting problems specifically for OU and TAMU. On the flip side, the association could erode the UT if not leveraged properly. The way to sell it is politically.
"TAMU bailed on the Texas schools --- UT pulled as many in as we could. With that in mind, why don't we reorganize the whole PUF fund thing where we keep our share as is as a reward for our service to the state and the rest of the Big 12 publics share an equal share with TAMU? Also...you could cap TAMU's enrollment for a while to push qualified students to Tech and Houston..."
You have to get something out of it for UT!
In this scenario, UT would own about 80% of the air in Texas politics. To not take advantage of that would be foolish.
but that isn't the only direction UT could go if they decided to build a conference from scratch after an OU and KU departure.
Feeling pressured to go one way, UT could push back and form an academic conference to underscore the difference between UT and Texas A&M. (UT would chose academics as the basis of their peer relationships where A&M chose football.)
What if UT formed a "Southern Ivy" Conference?
There was an effort in the late 1950's and early 1960's to form a southern peer to the Ivy league out of football playing schools --- SMU, Rice, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and Duke. The Magnolia Conference never happened, but there is the potential to allow such a conference to form in the future.
UT has always wanted to be in a conference with academic elites where the football and the finances are up to snuff. UT's leadership has always desired that kind of conference, but they do not see a point being a regional outlier to achieve it or surrendering control of the conference to get there.
Should the Big 12 crumble to even less viable of a conference might UT reach a point where playing nerds is more appealing?
There are enough private schools in the region who have quality academics and do well in football to make such a decision viable. And such a conference would likely not have a problem being in the power conference ranks as the other power conferences really value high level academic universities.
For UT such an affiliation would be academically beneficial, but it is very much in line with chosing to join a reformed SWC. That is not something UT would consider today. A decade from now, in a collapsed Big 12? UT might reconsider.
UT being in a conference able to drain the state of it's smarter football players could prove very frustrating for A&M and would likely lead to a lot of cheating to keep Aggie players on the field.
The biggest question for UT is does the school want to throw in it's lot with the privates without a pre-approved escape clause? Baylor in particular has proven quite difficult to escape and appears to have some feelings of entitlement.
UT, BYU, TCU, and Baylor would all be threats to go undefeated each year. Rice and SMU have quality coaches and would recruit a lot better in this conference. Tulane would offer a nice recruiting area.
Denver is modestly competent in basketball and their athletic offerings (lacrosse?) could serve as a good template for a conference seeking to ramp up appearances. They would provide a handy I-AAA (non-football) travel partner for BYU and help BYU with Denver relevance.
One big advantage of this conference would be that they could legitimately target superior academic schools like Vanderbilt or regional outliers of the nerdy nine like Emory or Washington University of St. Louis as potential I-AAA upgrade candidates.
St. Louis University is another great academic school with potential as an Olympic-only member, but is not as academically elite as the others.
Should the league land some combination of WASSL, Vandy, and Emory, it could lay the table for some prominent athletic additions --- Miami and they might have a slim shot at Notre Dame. Being in a conference with 4 of the country's top 20 national universities, backed up by some very strong athletic programs and great recruiting territories could be appealing to those two schools in particular.
What if the Big 8 reformed?
I am not talking about your father's Big 8 (...actually my Big 8 too...Stay off my lawn you pesky kids!) .
The Big 8 originally sought to add UT because the Big 8 footprint didn't have enough TV sets. A UT addition would have doubled their share of the nation's TV households from 8 % to 16%, bringing them to a number competitive with the SEC, allowing the Big 8 to fend off an anticipated SEC advance on OU.
Just restoring the Big 8 today would do nothing to fix that TV shortage, so that could never happen.
No, I am talking about an improved Big 8, formed from scratch based on today's cutthroat expansion strategy.
Conventional wisdom today says that if the Big 12 fails, OU and Kansas will go to the PAC-12, Big Ten, or the ACC (the last is hugely unlikely). UT will likely do the same although they could rather foolishly try independence, risking destroying their brand.
The thing is...Those are all bad plans if you want financial success, a regional footprint, AND a strong say in a conference. The best plan for those key Big 12 schools is much, much bolder than that.
Rebuild the Big 8.
As I have stated over and over in my articles, realignment decisions are based on what the priniciples decide at the moment when they feel they have to make a decision. Not where their heads are today. Not where their heads will be 10 years from now.
This plan is entirely dependent on how much of a good teammate UT wants to be when the Big 12 GOR comes up...and how sensible their president (and/or AD) are at that point.
Will he (or she!) understand that while UT is nationally significant, it is not truly a national brand? It is one of a small handful of elite dominant regional brands, like Michigan, Ohio State, USC, Penn State, Florida, and arguably Oklahoma and Alabama.
Let's say the Big 12 membership follows conventional wisdom in conference management. They have no good options today if they follow that course. If the Big 12 membership does nothing about the Longhorn Network, OU and KU will be packing their bags and this conference will likely be on the verge of collapse by 2022 or so.
Now imagine our new, ultra-sensible UT athletic director coming in in 2022 and telling his bosses---"We have to change the way we do business to get we want in in a conference." I am talking about the leadership at UT having a very un-UT-like moment of introspection. "Hey...The only reason we lose schools to distant conferences is because other conferences can use "fairness to our conference mates" as a lever to pry neighboring schools away from us."
UT decides to build an all-star conference of state flagship universities. To make it happen, their AD will share their TV and media revenue equally with any conference mates and retask the LHN to be the new conference network.
"That would never work!"
Don't be so certain. I think the big hurdle is the quality of UT's leadership, not the financials. Let's do a little quick and dirty math. (This math will be very quick and dirty --- not the way you would normally painstakingly figure these things out.)
The Math (skippable minutia added for those really interested...).
The Big 12 pulled in $252 Million in TV revenue this year. OU President David Boren is advocating adding Houston +1 and supporting the concept of that addition with what he says is a fact that the network partners will maintain the shares at the $25.2 Million current share rate.
Now that should be interesting to some. Over the years TV viewership numbers suggest UT already provides statewide TV relevance. Tech does too, although at a much lower rate. And TCU, OU, TECH, and OSU all provide strong support in DFW.
The thought is Houston would provide little that the conference doesn't already have. But Boren's statements suggest TV would be fine with Houston as team 11.
I didn't have the breadth of TV viewership numbers at the time and more to the point viewership numbers give an undesired bias as they reflect conferences a team is in, not potential in a better conference. I was looking for what potential might be there.
In 2011, I used game attendance and a couple other measurables as a way very simplistic way to evaluate the loss of value Texas A&M playing DeLoss Dodds and leaving the conference cost the Big 12. The logic was that the fervor in a fan base that drives game attendance, reflects TV viewership to a degree.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany sees in game attendance somewhat like I do..."In-stadium attendance is a strong barometer of interest in a program, support for a program, enthusiasm....[But] you can't televise something with no one in the stands."
I also looked at enrollment and reached some media market conclusions.
For attendance, I totaled the average attendance for each of the state's FBS programs (~483,900). I totaled the Big 12's share (~284,300). It was 58.75% ----almost 60% of the state's game day attending total. That was delivering statewide TV support for the Big 12's TV partners. TAMU contributed ~87,100 to that total. Losing A&M was huge.
I figure that A&M's total was slightly undervalued as they are the rare combination of rabid fans with low expectations. They will watch any conference game if it might have some A&M achieving a bowl game relevance ---really the SEC's wet dream for a conference member.
The Big 12 replaced them with TCU, at the time averaging ~33,700 per game. (TCU moving to the Big 12 has lead to a fairly predictable attendance increase as FT. Worth locals care about the opposition and TCU gets visiting fans now).
It was a smart move for on the field play and to protect DFW recruiting, but on all the measurable TCU did not replace what A&M brought in TV terms. (IMO, TCU + Houston would come close, but really, there is no replacing A&M. Especially if you start breaking it down by a broadcastable game. What is Tech vs. A&M's ratings vs. Tech vs. Houston in conference. The A&M matchup is stronger.) The conference dropped from having 58.8% to 47.7% of the gameday measurable.
Today that total in state attendance is up since then, but the Big 12 percentage is mostly stable at 47.6%.
Looking at today's enrollments, there are ~361,000 students enrolled at Texas's 12 FBS schools. The Big 12 schools amount to 31.6% of that enrollment total. When A&M was around, that number was close to 44%.
And as I have discussed in other articles the Big 12 does have statewide support but the A&M departure created/increased deficiencies in Houston and East Texas.
Now a lot of this math applies to things like the Big 12 tourney and important football games, not the average game. This is where things get interesting from a strategic standpoint.
The real nut of it is that UT on it's own would deliver the state to a conference, just like TAMU does for the SEC. It is a positive and a negative. Any game featuring UT will have very high viewership in Texas. Any game not, is more questionable. In general, the numbers suggest UT's fans, unlike A&M fans, have better things to do than watch everyone else play and really sometimes won't even watch UT if they are not compelled enough. As any fan would be of that strong of a program, they are a little spoiled.
This is why it benefits UT to have schools that are not as successful but have large fan bases in conference. It sort of covers the one "weakness" of UT as a candidate and allows UT to be seen for it's strengths.
I personally believe UT is a true King ---by far the better athletic program with winning programs and strong support across several sports ---but A&M has more TV value to a conference as a regional outlier, but it is at least apples to smaller apples.
UT delivers 38.5% of the Big 12's in state game day attendance and 45% of it's in state attendance.
If you had a conference that JUST had UT in Texas, I don't think a network would question that UT was delivering statewide attendance. Every UT game would have strong numbers in the Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and DFW DMA.
So what value would they give for that? Well, The LHN when proposed expected 1 tier 3 game a year and offered $15 million minimum annually. What would 7 games a year bring to a conference? $105M to start? More, if you consider that some of those games will be great matchups?
The State of Texas (26.6M) amounts to 70.2% of the total Big 12 footprint (37.9M). Does UT bring 70% of total conference value (=$174.6M)? (I don't think that is out of the realm of possibility.)
What would UT, OU, and KU bring in TV value to a new conference? They have unquestioned statewide followings and strong programs that draw good numbers. Those three states amount to 33.1M or 87.3% of the Big 12's 37.9M. Certainly no one would ever question OU's strength in Oklahoma or KU's in Kansas. Those are tiny states. DFW is often chided as being "southern Oklahoma because OU has a lot of support in the area.
Is it possible that those 3 schools would still merit 87.3% (220M) of the Big 12's $252M annual payout. Again, I think it is entirely possible as we are talking about 2 of the nation's undisputed football kings in a football recruiting hotbed with a basketball king in an elite basketball recruiting region. Every one of their games will be well viewed in their states. These are brands that aren't likely to ever collapse for more than a couple years.
Even if you tamp that down to say 66% of that value, you are still talking about 3 schools who bring at least $145.2 Million to any conference they form. And it would be probably a lot more than that.
The 3 kings can approach say any 3 schools and say, join us and your TV payouts ---strictly based on what we bring to the table --- will start at $24.2M per year plus whatever 1/6 of the value you bring to the table.
So lets see what you could do adding new markets.
You could float the word out there to Colorado & Nebraska --- come on back and you'll be equal partner in a conference with no divisions. As such, you will have access to the best of Texas's recruits.
Now that may not look appealing today to those schools, but Nebraska fans have serious case of buyer's remorse. They lost all of their rivals, a ton of their alumni live in another conference's footprint, and 'Husker fans do not know if the Cornhuskers can pull the kind of supplemental recruiting to compete for national titles anymore.
It is fantastic to be in the Big Ten academically and to be in a stable and equitable conference, but if the cost of that is to permanently be known as the worst academic school in the conference (they are the only Big Ten school not in the AAU and they are unlikely to gain re-admission.) and not ever be able to compete for national titles, is that OK?
That may be more than Cornhusker fans bargained for. It is very possible that a decade of 3 to 5 loss seasons could have that fan base in particular thinking like the Aggies (ie. lets ignore academics for a second and make a football move.)
Keep in mind that NOTHING you can do athletically is more valuable to a school than winning an FBS national title. It ramps up booster donations to a ridiculous level.
Colorado has not been able to harness their alumni living in the southwest into a competitive football team. It seems a little like the resurgence of the Arizona schools under two quality coaches and the addition of Utah has just junked Colorado's plans.
It doesn't seem unlikely that CU may average 3 wins a year for the next decade. This is another school where some degree of buyer's remorse is very possible. CU wanted to be in the PAC-10. I don't know if their plan included Utah.
In ten years, Nebraska and Colorado might be pretty receptive if UT is willing to leave it's voting block behind.
If they are in, BYU certainly would conform to get in.
Missouri took the SEC invitation because the Big Ten passed on them and the SEC seemed more stable. They have had a great start in the SEC, but it looks like Florida is back, Georgia is pretty tough and Tennessee appears close to becoming what they were. And the SEC west is loaded. If Missouri is going 6-6 each year and the money is fairly similar, they very well might chose to come back to their rivals in a much better academic conference.
Arkansas produces top 25 recruiting classes and is last in their division in that regard. A move to the new Big 8 could regularly have them on DFW TV and help restore their DFW recruiting. 2-3 more out of state blue chippers each year could have Arkansas joining UT and OU in the magical top 12 recruiting classes where national title winners usually come from.
(Admittedly more than the others that might be a step too far. Arkansas's fanbase is generationally divided. Older fans look back wistfully at times to the SWC days. Younger fans have drank the SEC kool-aid. They have turned into another Mississippi/Miss. State/Kentucky, happy to cheer "SEC!" and cash the checks. 10 years from now is another 10 years of students who are fans of the success of the SEC more than of their school....Unlikely, but it is still in the realm of possible.)
Interestingly enough, if the conference can pry off Arkansas and Missouri, it kills any momentum of SEC movement east and permanently drives stakes in the ground for a central power conference.
Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas would give the new Big 8 a conference footprint of 51.2M. Nothing special. Still far less than the 4th place power conference, the Pac-12, at 66M...but this would be split between 8 schools.
Even if the revenue stayed at current Big 12 levels ($252M), an 1/8th share amounts to $31.5M, and that is first and second tier rights only. It won't stay at $252 though. Every school in the conference has a very strong statewide followings and the footprint population is 35% bigger. It would not be all too surprising given the quality of the membership if the payouts mirrored that. 35% more equals a total of $340M annually, yielding shares valued at $42.5 M per school.
Consider that is legitimately an 8 member conference with 3-6 football kings (UT, OU, NU, and maybe BYU, Arkansas, and Colorado). With a 7 game schedule, that opens the door for 5 games of out of conference play. Most of these teams could go 4-1 or 5-0 out of conference. That would stifle the damage of playing in a really tough single division conference.
(The 5 game "preseason" would allow Big 8 schools to continue historic rivalries with OSU, KSU, and ISU as well as UT and Ark to play Tech, TCU, Baylor and a school like Arkansas to tailor a really ideal schedule for them ---SMU(recruiting), Tech(rival), OSU (nearby big draw), KSU (good draw), Memphis(recruiting) ?)
Does this require a combination of variables that are highly unlikely? Yes. Is it financially inconceivable? Not at all.