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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...CONFERENCE SHUFFLE AND "BIG 64" UPDATE
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Follow the money.”

So said the “Deep Throat” character (eventually discovered to be FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt) played by Hal Holbrook in the classic movie All The President’s Men, based upon the Bob Woodward-Carl Bernstein book of the same name.

And it might as well apply to college sports these days, too.

A little more than two years ago, we penned a piece for TGS website entitled The Big 64. In it, we suggested that the college sports landscape was going to be entering a period of change unlike any it had ever seen before. Indiscriminate conference-jumping, a point in which four distinct football “super conferences” likely consisting of 16 schools each (hence “The Big 64") would emerge forever alter the structure of college sports as we once knew it.

Well, 24 months since that story first appeared, nothing has changed our minds. Wheeling and dealing between conferences and schools has continued almost unabated. Every major conference has undergone change to its membership in the last two years, an unheard-of development in the annals of college sport. In the process, we are also witnessing the slow death of one long-established league as the new order, driven by football and TV revenue, permanently changes the composition of college athletics.

And where it stops, nobody seems to know.

Indeed, we are now getting to the point where geography is almost a secondary consideration for the big conferences, whose desire to claim schools within lucrative TV markets seems to be driving the debate. It is this development that we find most disconcerting as new threats to long-established structure of college sport continue to erode its traditional core.

There is also the matter of pending changes in the BCS system, which is likely to be disassembled after the 2013 season and replaced by a mini-playoff, likely to consist of four teams, perhaps within the current bowl set-up.

Whatever, expect the playoff situation to be a driving force in the ongoing change of college sport, especially if the powers-that-be decide that a four-team, mega-money playoff plan is to be implemented. A current sticking point, mainly driven by the Big Ten, is for only conference champions to be invited to the playoff, whereas the SEC resists that notion for obvious reasons, given that the SEC believes the four best teams, and not necessarily four champs from the current conference alignment, should be invited.

A compromise could involve the ongoing evolution of the “Big 64" concept in which four, sixteen-school super conferences compete, each likely with its own championship game to determine the entrant to the national four-team playoff.

The majority of the current bowl system would be unaffected, but that is a peripheral point in the evolving landscape.

The latest indicator that changes are still very much in the wind involves rumors that Florida State might be interested in bolting from the ACC and perhaps casting its lot with the Big XII, which itself seemed on the critical list not long ago. Regional sources also indicate that should the Seminoles decide to move, the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, is likely to follow FSU wherever it goes.

What caused the fuse to be lit in the Sunshine State has been reported dissatisfaction from FSU (and perhaps Miami as well) at the recently-signed ACC television deal, which involves a healthy bump in revenues for each school but the bulk of which will not be paid until late in the nine-year contract after the “elevator clauses” are triggered.

And if the Seminoles and Hurricanes are indeed going to be “in play” as some insiders believe, we suggest that a bidding war could ensue for the Florida schools. Which means that it would be no surprise if the Big Ten or even the Pac-12 decide to inquire if the Noles and Canes might be interested in their leagues, too.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 as potential landing spots for a couple of Florida schools?

You heard us right. Although a scenario in which FSU and Miami remain in the ACC is still a strong possibility as well.

The college presidents and their athletic departments have long been motivated by the almighty dollar, but in this age of budget cutbacks, sources of revenue are more prized than ever. And big-time football remains a tremendous cash cow for the major gridiron forces. Geography means less than TV sets and ratings these days.

And a playoff systems, which would further prime the revenue pump, is now part of the new equation.

The conferences are making no pretenses anymore about their motivation. It’s survival of the fittest. Schools have abandoned long-standing affiliations to better set themselves to not only survive, but prosper (at least in their minds), in the future. Geography is no longer a primary consideration, either. Consider the Big East, whose football membership now stretches across every continental time zone with the addition of Boise State and San Diego State for the 2013-14 school year. Not to mention expanding into Texas with the additions of SMU and Houston, and deeper into Florida by annexing Central Florida and its presence in the Orlando market.

The Big East obviously thinks that TV sets make a difference. And by adding San Diego, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Orlando markets to the mix, the conference believes it is better-girded for survival.

The Big East could also be wrong, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

We suggest that the real glacial shifts in college conference alignment are still to come, and the potential of Florida State and Miami making moves can alter the composition of the leagues in heretofore unimaginable ways.

They aren’t the only big fish looking for different swimming waters, however. Sources continue to suggest that Texas could be in play, especially if another league is keen to allow the Longhorns to retain their own TV network which they introduced in partnership with ESPN last year. And there is always Notre Dame, whose leverage at maintaining its football independence might be on the wane, but at the same time the ultimate prize on the marketplace should it ever decide to align its gridiron team with a conference.

Where is it all headed? Following is a conference-by-conference review as of mid-May.

ACC...The league has recently added Syracuse and Pitt, swelling membership to 14 schools, for 2014, but there is suddenly concern regarding Florida State and Miami, with the former rattling its sabers regarding dissatisfaction with the new TV deal, and hinting about a move to the Big XII. There remains sentiment within the conference that the Tobacco Road schools in North Carolina call too many shots within the league, but others suggest that ACC commish John Swofford still has his eyes on 16 members and retains big ideas, and might be holding open two spots for Texas and Notre Dame.

Insiders have told us that the ACC might be the only major conference willing to take both the Fighting Irish and Longhorns and allow them to keep their existing school-specific TV deals (ND with NBC, Texas with ESPN). Remember, conference TV contracts can be renegotiated when the composition of the leagues changes. And if Texas and Notre Dame ever join the ACC fold, we suggest a renegotiated TV package would be enough to keep Florida State and Miami in the fold. Sources also suggest that the hope of eventually luring one or both of those big names has delayed the league from issuing invites to Rutgers and UConn, both of which are rumored to be very interested in bolting the Big East for the ACC if possible.

BIG EAST...Struggling to stay viable as a football conference, the Big East has been rocked by several defections over the past decade (beginning with Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College in 2004 & ‘05), with aforementioned Pitt and Syracuse (to the ACC in 2014) and West Virginia (gone tot he Big XII this year) the latest defectors. Sources say that Louisville and Cincinnati are looking to move as well. The reason is that football is on shaky footing, with the conference’s guaranteed entry into a big-money BCS bowl perhaps compromised by the expected junking of the current BCS format, which could leave the Big East without any big postseason football paydays. Which in turn impacts the conference’s TV contract, the current of which is set to expire after 2013.

Temple will be added to the mix this year; next year, the league adds six schools, two of them football-only (Boise State and San Diego State), with four (SMU, Houston, Memphis, and Central Florida) in for all sports. Navy is also slated to enlist for football only in 2015. Sources say that the pending moves of Boise and SDSU could still be jeopardized by changes in the BCS format and a downgrade of the conference TV contract for the fotoball schools. Similar developments caused TCU to back out of its proposed move to the Big East last fall, when the Horned Frogs instead found a preferred landing spot in the Big XII.

BIG TEN...Still sitting in something of a catbird seat, the Big Ten always carries a big stick because of its big schools, big stadiums, big ticket sales, its own now-profitable TV network, and domination of the midwest marketplace. Indeed, Big Ten schools (which split TV revenue equally) earn more from their TV deals than all counterparts from different leagues. The major recent news, however, is a significant change of heart from the conference and its commissioner Jim Delany regarding the football playoff, as the Big Ten was long the anti-playoff voice, threatening to withdraw completely from the BCS and simply keep up its old Rose Bowl monopoly with the Pac-12 if certain conditions weren’t met by the BCS. Now, however, the league and Delany have seen the light regarding the playoff, though sources say that the league is merely acting in its own self-interest, as Delany believes his ticket-gobbling schools would be more attractive to the big-money bowls and not be limited to just two of them as is the case in the current BCS. The league expanded to 12 schools last year with the addition of Nebraska, and some believe Delany won’t be satisfied until he gets to 14 or 16 members.

Where might the Big Ten look? Sources say the league, which has courted Notre Dame in the past, would always be welcoming to the Irish, although it might not be as amenable to ND or Texas (another rumored target) keeping their own TV deals. Maryland and Rutgers and their proximities to big TV markets have been rumored as possible targets. And if Florida State and Miami are in play, Delany might find it hard to resist making a call.

BIG XII...At various times considered to be on the critical list over the past two years, already losing a quartet of defectors (Nebraska to the Big Ten, Colorado tot he pac-12, and Mizssouri & Texas A&M to the SEC). A complete rupture of the membership has narrowly been avoided twice in the past two years when raids from the Pac-12 almost annexed the old Southern half of the league (minus Baylor) plus Colorado, then aimed at Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State the year after Colorado made the jump. Sources indicate the only thing that stopped the most-recent proposed deal with the Pac-12 a year ago was the conference’s unwillingness to bring along Texas with its Longhorn Network. Texas thus balked and the move was tabled, but could be reignited at any time. Carrying such a big stick within the conference, the Horns have been able to dictate a favorable league-wide TV deal that rewards the bigger-bowl entrants and national TV featured teams more than the others in the league, but not all in the loop are enamored with the deal (and one reason why A&M & Mizzou decided to bolt last year). Answered the defections of A&M & Mizzou by adding TCU and West Virginia for the coming season to keep the membership at ten.

The mating message from Tallahassee, however, adds a new twist to proceedings and suggests the Big XII (which recently hired Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby as its new commissioner) might indeed be around for the long haul, but the thought persists that Texas is still itchy to make another move, and where the Longhorns go (with Oklahoma, and perhaps OSU & Texas Tech to follow), so goes the league as a big-time player. In the meantime, the league is said to still be wooing BYU, with restless Big East members Louisville and Cincinnati also perhaps on the radar. Expect more shuffling in this loop within the next 12 months.

CONFERENCE USA...Trying to stay afloat, CUSA continues to actively maneuver, countering losses of some of its flagship programs from Houston, SMU, and Memphis with the recent additions of UNC-Charlotte (which will begin playing football in 2015), Florida International and North Texas from the Sun Belt, and La Tech and UT San Antonio from the WAC, the latter four all beginning with football in the 2013 season.

A proposed merger with the Mountain West has been tabled, likely to instead evolve into more of an affiliation with the possibility that a new joint TV contract that will likely add three to four times the current revenue per school, but still be more than $10 million less than schools from the major conferences. CUSA seems to be surviving, at least for the foreseeable future.

MOUNTAIN WEST...Much like CUSA, the MWC has been forced into scramble mode to offset recent defections of Utah, BYU, TCU, and, supposedly for next year, Boise State and San Diego State. Although the merger with CUSA has been tabled, an affiliation and potential collective TV deal with the league has changed the media dynamics, with the long-suffering The Mtn. TV network (owned mostly by CBS, which was losing upwards of $2 million per year with the venture), has been scrapped, effective at the end of June.

Sources say the league would welcome back Big East football-bound Boise (which is slated to send its other teams to the WAC) and San Diego State (which is slated to send its other teams to the Big West) if neither gets the TV riches it expects from its new affiliation. In the meantime, the MWC has decimated the WAC by annexing Nevada and Fresno State for the upcoming 2012 season, and Utah State and San Jose State the following year, with Hawaii along for football only (the Warriors will align with the Big West for other sports) beginning this fall. Overtures from remaining WAC members New Mexico State and Idaho have been rejected by the league.

PAC-12...Sources believe that the Pac, which changed its tune and became an aggressive player in the conference reshuffle after hiring forward-looking commissioner Larry Scott, is not done wheeling and dealing despite some reports that the loop is satisfied with its current 12-team alignment. The raids on the Big XII and Texas (twice over the past two years) could happen again at any time and suggest that the Pac is hardly done looking at future expansion.

Having already made a pitch for schools in the midwest, the loop would at least consider a Hail Mary pass at the Florida schoolsm which might be in play, and a package to include FSU and Miami, along with say Oklahoma and Texas, cannot be dismissed. Remember, Scott has proven to be an outside-the-box thinker in the past. Of course, the league has also shied away from Texas because of resistance to its Longhorn network, which was the deal-breaker in last year’s negotiations. Whenever Notre Dame decides it wants to get involved in the conference football shuffle, the Pac would probably be willing to lend an ear, although much like the problems with Texas, it’s doubtful the Pac would invite the Fighting Irish if the Domers insisted their NBC TV deal stays in force.

SEC...Long desirous of a true national playoff, the SEC and commish Mike Slive are now on the cusp, although the current impasse with the Big Ten regarding conference champs-only remains a roadblock. The additions of Texas A&M and Missouri, which on the surface didn’t seem necessary, have allowed the league to re-open the negotiations on its TV deals, which figure to demand absolute top dollar in any restructured deals with CBS and ESPN.

The SEC could still be looking to add two more schools to get to the magic 16, but Texas and Notre Dame remain unlikely candidates as long as they insist on maintaining their separate TV deals. Would probably at least inquire about potential availability of Florida State and Miami. Clemson has also long been mentioned as a possible SEC target, but the Tigers have some deep and long-standing ties with the ACC, and do not bring the sort of TV bump that the league would desire. Standing at the ready at a potential future collapse of the Big XII, as room would probably be made for Oklahoma if the Sooners ever were on the marketplace.

SUN BELT...The Belt looks to be low-level survivor in the conference wars, a nice landing spot for schools at the bottom end of the football food chain.

Whereas loops such as the WAC have been forced into scramble mode, the Belt has had no trouble adding schools, adding the Atlanta market with Georgia State and its fledgling football program, as well as San Marcos-based Texas State, to fill the football gaps left by the pending departures of Florida International and North Texas to CUSA.

WAC...This appears to be the casualty loop, its membership decimated beyond the upcoming 2012-13 school year, with Utah State, San Jose State (both to the Mountain West), and recent additions Texas State (to the Sun Belt) and UT-San Antonio (to CUSA) all set to bail after the 2012-13 school year. Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii have already departed for the Mountain West (with the Warriors to be playing their non-football sports in the Big West).

Remaining football sides New Mexico State and Idaho (both rejected for membership by the Mountain West) face dim prospects; NMSU might have to enlist with the Sun Belt, where it was once a member, to maintain its football program. The Sun Belt might be Idaho’s only option, too, although regional sources would not be surprised to see the Vandals drop back to the FCS level and join up with the school’s long-ago affiliation, the Big Sky Conference. The loop, which recently added Denver and Seattle U as basketball-only members, is also tentatively slated to host all of Boise State’s non-football sports. But this is becoming a dead-end option for Boise, which might be forced to join up with the Big Sky (its long ago home) for its non-football sports if the WAC dissolves.

As always, stay tuned...


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