Great response this week in the mailbag. So many e-mails and questions, in fact, that I’ve decided to split it into two parts. Part I, which will deal with expansion/realignment questions, is today. The rest I’ll handle Saturday.
To the questions …
Do you see conferences going as high as 16 teams? If so, would you foresee a divisional setup, and are there any NCAA barriers to a conference Final Four in football?
– Matt McKinley, King George
We’ll start broad. Do I think we’ll see conferences go as high as 16 teams? Yeah, some conference will probably get there soon. Although I’m not sure exactly why. There is a rush right now to get as big as possible, it seems, with greater money coming in as conferences renegotiate their TV contracts because of new membership. But eventually that’s going to hit the wall. Yes, it’s skyrocketing right now, but like all markets, it will hit its ceiling eventually. In fact, from reports it sounds like the SEC is having trouble getting a significantly bigger deal out of CBS after adding Texas A&M and Missouri last year. And the Big 12 reportedly has a provision in its new contract that wouldn’t increase the payout per team with new membership. That’s good for new potential new members, but it doesn’t give the current members much incentive to get bigger just for the sake of getting bigger. Now, that’s not the only reason to expand. The Big 12 could generate more revenue with a championship game by getting to 12 teams. Obviously league networks are a huge money maker, and being able to be in as many markets as possible make those more valuable. That’s why adding Texas A&M and the populous state of Texas was such a big deal for the SEC.
All that being said, I’m curious why everyone just assumes 16 will work out so well. Fans of symmetry will like the setup. Say there are four power conferences of 16 teams each. Split all of them into two divisions and, voila, you have a de facto eight-team playoff (provided you don’t get sued by some school left out of the power conference party, which I’m sure one of the schools left behind will do).
But problems arise when you get that big. Remember, a 16-team conference is nothing new. The WAC went to 16 teams in 1995. Granted, that league collapsed a few years later over geography as much as anything (it spanned nine states and five time zones), but already we’re seeing that just being at 14 is unwieldy. The SEC is debating how to set up its schedule, trying to maintain traditional cross-division rivalries while allowing teams to play opponents from the other division with greater frequency than once every six years. If an eight-game conference schedule remains and traditional crossover rivalries are kept, that means you’d cycle through the other six non-rivalry teams in the opposite division in six years. That means a Western Division team like Auburn would host a non-rival Eastern Division team like Florida once every 12 years. At some point, it won’t even feel like those teams are in the same league. Is that what any Tigers or Gators fan wants?
The push is to get bigger, it seems, but I don’t know if that necessarily means things are better. Once this skyrocketing TV money levels off, you wonder if a lot of schools are going to look around and wonder why the heck they’re in the situation they’re in as far as conference affiliation.
You, having experience in the SEC. Do you see the SEC expanding to a 16-team group? Do you think that college sports are heading to the Four “Super” Conferences and then a breakaway from the NCAA? I think that since money and TV packages are the big reasons for all of this and it will not stop till all the “chips” are split up and then the cards will be dealt for the future of college sports. I see the NCAA losing power over these four big conferences. If that what it ends up being. As far as VT, I think for them to move forward, they will have to go with the flow of the times that is being set. If it’s the SEC, so be it. I like the ACC, took VT over 50+ years to get back “home” but the ACC might not hold the future for colleges that strive in football.
– Jack L. Ratcliffe, Radford , Va.
This is somewhat related to the last question. Specifically, though, I’ll address the part about the big conferences breaking away from the rest of the NCAA. This seems like it’s been the school of thought forever, but I’m skeptical it ever actually happens.
For starters, you’d have to get the power conferences to agree to do something, which, as we’ve seen with something like the playoff model, is nearly impossible. Second, there’s a lot of administrative things that the NCAA does and already has in place (enforcement being one of them) that would be a real pain to set up separately. And what would school presidents and athletic directors — the ones you’d really have to convince to do this — think about breaking away from something in the NCAA that at least tries to give the impression that it’s about athletics and academics? A pure cash grab by these big schools to break out on their own would seem counter to that notion (I know, hypocrisy in college sports? I’m aghast.)
And honestly, almost all of the money is cornered by those big-conference schools anyway in the current setup. They don’t have to break off on their own to keep it that way. It’s not as if New Mexico State is anywhere near Texas in terms of revenue. The current system seems to be working out pretty well for the big conferences as is. I don’t really see the need for a split.
Andy…my question is (as much as I’d LOVE to be in the SEC), do we have any real indications that the SEC has made “official overtures” to VT, or is this very much wishful thinking on the part of those of us who view the SEC as the natural progression of VT athletics?
Official overtures? No. Informal or unofficial ones? I’m sure there have been, although I wouldn’t say Virginia Tech is serious about going anywhere … yet (and informal contact may be something as low-level as a couple of boosters talking). That’s how these things operate, though. Not out in the open for everyone to dissect, but in hushed tones, out of the public eye until it’s past the point of no return. My favorite thing is when teams “apply” for membership to a new conference, a formality that obviously has been agreed to and decided well in advance of a school submitting the necessary paperwork.
I think a couple of things drive all the talk this time of year about conference realignment. First, there’s nothing else to talk about. These spring meetings are turned into huge events now, mostly because the only thing going on this time of year is recruiting and meetings. There’s no real on-field stuff to report so the off-field stuff gets blown up into front page news. Secondly, it’s fun to talk about, manipulating how the college football landscape looks and putting teams like Notre Dame and Florida State and Virginia Tech all in the same conference. That’s why they put it in the video game a couple years ago. (I know I expanded the Big 12 to include 16 teams, split into the Country and Western Divisions.)
But yes, I think a lot of it is wishful thinking on the part of Virginia Tech fans, especially ones who are sick of hearing that the program’s accomplishments are only because it plays in an inferior football conference like the ACC. The SEC is the top football conference in the land right now, and lots of folks would like to see how the Hokies stack up in that field. That’s the competitive nature in people coming out. And it makes for new and interesting thoughts like Alabama or Auburn or Tennessee or Florida coming to Lane Stadium on a regular basis. That’s new and cool and interesting to think about, even if all public indications are that Virginia Tech is pleased with its current situation.
With the proactive nature of the Big 12 linking up with the SEC and the Big 10 and Pac-12 being linked up already, how do you think that plays out for Virginia Tech. I cannot imagine the best outcome can be the ACC and the Big East joining. (frankly we already sort of have that with the way the Orange Bowl works out most times)
Do you think it lays out the future for the ACC in something like trying to get Notre Dame, or would Virginia Tech try to get into another conference behind walls since the administration is so publicly in favor of the ACC?
– James Copeland, Lynchburg
It’s hard to say before the playoff format is finalized. What if, and I know it probably won’t happen, the plus-one model gets pushed through? All of a sudden those Big 10-Pac-12 and SEC-Big 12 games between champions is certainly looking like they will produce the top two teams that will play for the national championship. The SEC is steadfastly against this, so I don’t think it will happen, but it’s variables like that that make it difficult to figure out just how things will play out until the new postseason model is agreed upon. And like you said, a marriage with the Big East every year is not exactly going to have the TV executives lining up with bags of cash.
I think those bowl arrangements between the conferences alone won’t drive realignment, however. Yes, it pushes the notion that four power conferences have emerged, but the real motivation behind realignment is and has always been the money. And schools like Florida State might jump ship if the money is right in another conference. I think that depends less on this bowl arrangement and more on the TV deal each conference negotiates.
What can the ACC do? I don’t really know. Notre Dame isn’t joining a conference until it absolutely has to. I’m convinced of that. And I’m sure whatever playoff model is put in place will give the Irish access to play for the national championship if it is ever that good again (a big if). But like the Big 10 and the Big East before them, I think the ACC and Big 12 are going to find out that Notre Dame will cling to that football independence above all else. Everybody claims that the Irish will need a conference when its TV contract expires in a few years. Well, TV contracts are going for ridiculous sums right now. Who’s to say the Irish don’t come out pretty good with a new contract?
I don’t think Virginia Tech makes any kind of move unless it has to. And it really only would have to if something seismic happened and the ACC collapsed. With 14 teams, I see that as being far-fetched. Right now, it doesn’t appear as though the Big 12 expansion is as imminent as many online reporters have been saying in the last few weeks. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but I it seems like the brakes have been put on Florida State and Clemson going anywhere as of now (then again, at the pace that things happen now, who knows in three weeks?). If they stay, the ACC is still viable.
What set the ACC teams off looking at Big 12, SEC and such was the long contract with only $17M in renewal. In addition to the $17M the length of the terms was too long and we lost all 3rd tier rights. Hell, I’m sales and I could of negotiated that deal. FSU and Clemson needed to be consulted prior to any such contract. Of course all members should have been, but the fans feel blindsided and shorted. Now comes the talk of where to go and how much money they can make. My only statement is: Improve your teams, set higher standards academically and personally for your teams and you will be rewarded. Yes as a VT fan I want a national trophy, but what I want day-in and day-out is for Frank to graduate men, fight hard every day to win, and retire when the time is right for YOU. Leave us Shane to learn from Bud and make VT his long-term home with such a strong value base to build on. Alabama can keep their glass football if the way they do business is just that …………… business.
– Jim Day, Charlotte, N.C.
I think the ACC’s TV contract is getting far too much of the blame for this whole situation. Florida State and Clemson certainly had representatives who knew what was going on in the negotiation process. It’s not as though that was done in the dark. Everyone talks about how the ACC deal is backloaded, but nobody points out that other deals in other conferences are probably backloaded as well (which is the industry standard). And the 15-year deal, while long, provides look-ins at the 5- and 10-year marks to adjust the value based on the market, the league’s success, etc. That could provide additional value to keep up with other conferences. As for third-tier rights, that might be the most misunderstood thing in this whole process. Only the very worst games every year fall outside of the first- and second-tier rights. As Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel pointed out, the only game Florida State retained third-tier rights to last year was Charleston Southern. It’s not as though teams are selling those off for mega-millions. And only the elite programs in the country with enormous fan bases (Texas) can think about starting and maintaining a network on its own. So I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as everyone makes it out to be.
You’re right about the way the ACC can improve its lot, though. It can get better. It can win some BCS games (or whatever they might be called in the future). Make yourself relevant on the field in a national sense and the TV executives who broadcast games will take notice, with negotiating opportunities after five and 10 years. That means Miami has to pull itself up again. It means Florida State has to finally come through on all of that recruiting talent. It means Virginia Tech has to beat some top-notch non-conference opponents more often. It means Clemson can’t go 20 years between ACC titles. It means Georgia Tech needs to get over the hump when it matters. And it means teams like North Carolina, Virginia. N.C. State and Maryland, schools that really don’t have a reason not to succeed in football, need to be more consistently competitive.
I wanted to get your thoughts regarding ACC expansion. Most of the recent discussions have been regarding teams leaving the ACC. Personally, I think the ACC is in a great position, looking at the long term. College football needs a conference on the East coast. You have the West Coast (PAC 12), Midwest (Big 10), Southwest (Big 12), and Southeast (SEC). How could the East Coast not be represented? The ACC takes up the whole Atlantic coast, which consists of most of the population, am I not right? What are your thoughts, or have you heard any rumblings, regarding the ACC expanding again?
I’d think Notre Dame and Penn State would be excellent additions (even though ND isn’t on the east coast). If not those two, what about ND and UCONN, or PSU and UCONN? How happy is Penn State with their Big 10 association for their sports teams? I know awhile back JoePa wanted Penn State in an East Coast conference. If the ACC could add those two, it would obviously be huge, perhaps good for Penn St and ND, as well. Thoughts?
– Kirk, Mechanicsville
The East Coast has a ton of people, but it’s about market penetration. Massachusetts has over 6 million people, but not too many care about Boston College. They all pay attention to pro teams like the Patriots, Celtic and Red Sox. Alabama has a little under 5 million people, and I can guarantee you from my time down there that every single one of them has a stake in college football, be it Auburn or Alabama. And it’s like that across the SEC. Even a place like Mississippi probably has as many college football fans than somewhere like North Carolina, where it’s mostly an afterthought and a prelude to basketball season.
As I mentioned before, I think the ACC is likely to stay viable as a football conference, but I don’t know where it would expand again. Notre Dame is a pipe dream. Penn State isn’t leaving the Big 10 ever because teams don’t leave the Big 10. That’s as stable and as profitable of a conference as you’re going to get. Beyond that, there aren’t really any attractive candidates.
You mentioned UConn. Well, the ACC would just be repeating what it did by adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse, two schools that are better at basketball right now than football. If you thought those ticked off the FSU trustees, just imagine trying to add UConn to the fold. And honestly, other than Notre Dame, there aren’t any schools out there that would move the TV needle too much. Louisville? Rutgers? Cincinnati? None of them would add enough value to a conference to make up for having to split the revenue pot by another share or two. So I just don’t see expanding again as a logical option for the ACC. It wouldn’t solve its current issues.
Instead of everyone talking about switching conferences, the ACC has one sure way that it can make itself involved in the championship picture and stop the conversations about the “softness” of ACC football. If the ACC would go out of its way, Boise State style, to play the “perceived” top teams from the Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten, and SEC as one or two of their non-conference games, it would force the issue when the championship game discussion comes up. You may have to play road games until the conference gets more credibility, but if you play and beat a USC or Oregon, then it’s hard to argue that one of them belongs in the Final Four rather than the ACC champion. Instead many of the schedules include also-rans from the major conferences, a Big East BCS game, and 2 games with a directional school or 1-AA school. The ACC may have to be Boise State until it gets the victories such that teams want to play us.
Andy, why doesn’t anyone ever talk about VT to the Big Ten, if they expand. The academic levels are the same and if you add Pitt/Syracuse, Maryland and Virginia Tech, you bring good academics and new TV markets for the Big Ten Network.
– Jerome Fowlkes
The ACC actually does an OK job of scheduling out of conference games against big-time opponents, but it doesn’t necessarily win a whole lot of them. That’s the problem. Just look at this year for example: Miami plays Notre Dame, Clemson plays Auburn, Florida State plays Florida, Georgia Tech plays Georgia, Virginia plays Penn State and TCU, Maryland plays West Virginia and both Wake Forest and Boston College play Notre Dame. I know Virginia Tech’s schedule lacks that big-time opponent this season, but the Hokies are scheduled to play Alabama, Ohio State and Wisconsin in future years and have had USC, LSU, Nebraska, Bama and Boise State in the past. Like I mentioned before, though, the league has to win a lot of these games to turn perception around. Scheduling these games and losing just adds to the notion that the ACC is a lesser conference.
As for the Big Ten expanding, nobody talks about it because it probably won’t happen. I know everyone is in a rush to expand the Big Ten to 16 teams, but you know who’s not? The Big Ten. The league has expanded twice in the last 20 years, adding Penn State and Nebraska, two all-time football programs. That tells you that commissioner Jim Delany does things judiciously. He’s not chasing schools like Missouri or Pittsburgh or Syracuse or Utah or Colorado just for the sake of getting bigger. And given the value of the Big Ten Network now and the revenue advantage his teams have, I don’t see the league expanding unless Notre Dame wants to join, which has always been and remains a longshot. My guess is the Big Ten is pleased with 12 teams, enjoying its big TV contract, its new league title game and lucrative Rose Bowl tie-in, watching other conferences have to scramble to scratch together enough dough to keep up. No need to get bigger if that’s the case.