The wheels of conference realignment are turning again. Over the weekend, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) officially extended invitations to Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh. Syracuse and Pitt must pay an exit fee of $5 million to the Big East and they might have to wait as many as 27 months to officially join the ACC. The additions of Syracuse and Pitt bring total number of ACC member schools to 14 – at least for now. For several weeks, Texas A&M has also been trying to officially switch from the Big XII conference to the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The SEC schools’ presidents already agreed to accept Texas A&M on the condition that the nine remaining Big XII schools waive their right to pursue legal action against the SEC and Texas A&M. Several Big XII schools are not willing to do that – specifically Baylor University. The ifs and buts and maybes of this business can get confusing. However, a few things are clear in regard to conference realignment and the current landscape of NCAA Division I athletics – change is coming and media chaos will ensue until everything is settled.
The Big East has seen a lot of change over the years. The conference formed in 1979 with eight members playing men’s basketball. By 1990, several other schools had joined for basketball and other sports, but the conference did not exist in college football. In 1991, the University of Miami, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Rutgers, and Temple joined the conference – immediately making the Big East a respected football conference, in great part due to the strength of Miami’s football program. A few years later, Notre Dame joined as a non-football member; Notre Dame retains football independence. Another decade passed and the ACC decided to invite Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College (an original member) to join its conference instead, and those three schools jumped at the opportunity. The Big East did not wait long to restructure itself. Soon after it lost those three schools, the Big East added the University of Cincinnati, the University of South Florida, the University of Louisville, Marquette University, and DePaul University from Conference USA.
Until Sunday, the Big East consisted of sixteen current members, eight of which played football. Texas Christian University (TCU) is all set to join the Big East on July 1, 2012. TCU would have been the ninth football playing member, and many folks believe that Villanova University will soon jump from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and become the tenth football playing member. Instead, the Big East is scrambling to remain relevant in the college football landscape due to the departures of Syracuse and Pitt. The conference now has only six football playing members – seven once TCU joins – and this does not bode well for its ability to attain a lucrative television contract. The conference also could lose its automatic qualifier status for a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl game. Therefore, the six remaining football playing member schools met Tuesday to discuss their options for the near future. The conference will likely try to add several new football playing schools.
Meanwhile, down in the southwest, members of the Big XII are again majorly involved in the realignment discussions. In the summer of 2010, the conference almost collapsed when the Pac-10 (at the time) added Colorado and pursued five other members of the Big XII. Nebraska also left the conference for the Big Ten. Texas A&M and Oklahoma University reportedly had offers in 2010 to join the SEC. They also were reported to be among the five schools courted by the Pac-10. In the end, only Colorado and Nebraska actually defected from the Big XII, but a new agreement amongst remaining members gave the University of Texas more power.
A year later, not much has changed. The Pac-12 – now Utah and Colorado are part of the mix – again had discussions with Oklahoma and Texas. According to reports, Oklahoma reached out to Pac-12 Commissioner, Larry Scott, to discuss a switch for Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Texas also got in on the conversation; Texas would have liked Texas Tech to tag along in any agreement. The Pac-12 looked like it could become the Pac-16 in the near future. Those discussions hit a road block Tuesday night when Scott said the Pac-12 will remain a 12 team conference for now. Supposedly the University of Texas will not agree to share any revenue from their newly developed Longhorn Network. Of course, the SEC said it would remain a 12 team conference for the time being in late August – and proceeded to conditionally accept Texas A&M about a week later. Only time will tell if the Big XII stays strong.
Another member of the Big XII, the University of Missouri, has been named a possible fourteenth member for the SEC once Texas A&M officially joins. As a result of the discussions between the Pac-12 and SEC and those aforementioned Big XII schools, Baylor University and Iowa State University reached out to the Big East, expressing their interest if the Big XII indeed dissolves. Supposedly, the Big East may also be interested in Kansas University and Kansas State University. Additionally, the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA reportedly may consider a merger of their leagues – and they would also likely accept any Big XII cast-offs in a heartbeat.
All of this news is highly speculative, but it is clear that all of these schools are actively engaged in conversations about their future paths. Conference realignment talks are heating up again. Syracuse and Pitt are the first official dominoes to fall this time around. Now the Big East must decide on a future course of action to ensure that it remains a relevant conference in college football – the collegiate sport that generates the most revenue. The Big XII is also at a crossroads because Texas A&M has one foot out the door and no one else in the conference is exactly happy with the current state of affairs. Some big moves will be made in the remainder of the 2011-2012 academic year, but the threat of legal action can slow down the process. Therefore, the media will keep spinning the rumor mills to create chaos in this ever-changing landscape.
On the 4th of July each year, Americans celebrate our independence from the tyrannical rule of the British Empire. On the 1st of July, this year, Nebraska and Colorado can celebrate their independence from a league in which the University of Texas has basically become a tyrannical ruler. The American colonists of the 18th century fought because they were being taxed without representation in the British Parliament. Similarly, Nebraska and Colorado fought to leave the Big XII – where their voices were drowned out by the Texas-centric conference. July 1st also marked the official date of transition from the Mountain West Conference (MWC) to the Pac-12 for Utah. Boise State has jumped from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) to the MWC. Meanwhile, BYU officially left the MWC to become independent in football; all other sports at BYU will compete in the West Coast Conference. Next year, TCU will officially join the Big East, even though no other football playing member of that conference is located west of Kentucky. Clearly, the next few years will be exciting and full of new matchups. Yet, the next few years will also be extremely important to the future of conference realignment and expansion.
The Big East will have nine member schools that participate in football once TCU joins next summer, but 17 in many other sports now, including basketball. The conference is looking to add a tenth member that participates in football. Villanova might get the call up to the big league in football; they already are a member of the conference in other sports. The Pac-12 (formerly the Pac-10) made a huge push to get to 16 teams last summer. Larry Scott, the commissioner of the conference, tried to woo the majority of what used to be the Big XII South division. He had already added Colorado last summer when he extended offers to Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. If those schools accepted the invitation to the “Pac-16,” it would have been the death of the Big XII. Only Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor, and Iowa State would have remained. There were rumors that the Big East might be willing to add Kansas and Kansas State since they have good basketball programs – fitting with a conference that has a much better reputation in basketball than football. In the end, Texas put its foot down and decided to save a 10-member form of the Big XII.
Texas won big last summer. Dan Beebe and the remaining northern Big XII schools made concessions that allow Texas to create their own television network, without sharing its profits. There will be plenty of profits, too, because the deal is worth a reported $300 million over the next twenty years. ESPN is a partner with Texas in this new network. Therefore, Texas has been given free reign over the new Big XII. Nebraska and Colorado were glad to get out of there before Texas was given any more power.
The question going forward is whether or not the Big XII will survive. The nine schools, in addition to Texas, might have agreed to stay put for now. It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t jump at an invitation from the SEC or Big Ten, or even the Pac-12, now that they see the strength of those conferences’ television rights deals. Those conferences share revenue more equally than the new-look Big XII. The Big East might be able to make an interesting offer to a school like Kansas as well. Adding the Jayhawks basketball program could allow the Big East to get an even better television rights deal, especially for basketball coverage.
Overall, July 1st marked the official beginning of huge changes in NCAA’s so-called “power conferences.” Now, all we can do as fans is wait and see what else unfolds in the next five to ten years. Money will be the ultimate motivator behind most future conference realignments or expansions. Thus, it is important to track the television rights deals that these conferences can ink in the next few years. If the major professional sports like the NFL and NBA can’t work out their differences, NCAA conferences might be able to get even better television rights deals. Regardless of the professional sports’ labor struggles, though, the conference realignments that have taken place so far in the NCAA have captured our attention. In the coming years, it’s reasonable to expect more realignment and more expansion.