Just when we thought things could settle down for a little while among the five power conferences and their conference expansion dreams, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby had this to say on Wednesday (via CBS Sports):
“We could be proactive [in conference alignment], I think,”
Simple phrasing that could potentially mean nothing. Or could potentially mean the next dominoes start falling on January 28 and 29 when the league meets in Dallas. Personally (and yes, I understand there’s some bias), I don’t see them adding a team from the ACC. Based on the current legal battle around Maryland‘s $50 million exit fee, the soon-to-be-renegotiated-again TV contract, conference television network talks and four incoming new members, it becomes more difficult to create a compelling case for any school to exit. Further, Bowlsby himself at least hints at an unconventional add, should they decide to expand:
“Look at Maryland and Rutgers. They don’t bring programs that are of the ilk of the others in the Big Ten. The philosophy clearly is: ‘As members of the Big Ten we can grow them.’“
There’s two ways to look at that statement. First: they’re willing to take a flyer on a developing program (Connecticut, Cincinnati?) and allow them to reach their full potential within the constructs of the Big 12. For the ACC, this is obviously the ideal situation for the time being — it keeps its best schools in the fold, which at this point, is the most important goal. But for the long-term, the league loses its top two expansion candidates, should the Big Ten pick off a few more schools (not impossible at all).
The other way you can look at this statement is the one that worries ACC supporters right now. Clemson and Florida State surely don’t need to be “developed” into major programs by joining the Big 12. But neither is necessarily the “ilk” of the current Big 12 schools either. You can make similar statements about nearly every other school in the conference, save maybe Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh (solely based on their respective rivalries with West Virginia). Additionally, it’s an unknown which schools are on the conference’s rumored “quality” expansion list. This short list, supposedly built into their television contract, is supposed to enact automatic increases in per-school payouts when schools are added. I’d assume those names include Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Miami and Notre Dame, with BYU as another possibility.
So will the Big 12 expand? Is this the “end of the ACC” that we keep hearing about over and over these past 12 months or so? I’m still tempted to say no, but when you see pieces like Warchant’s “What can be done to save the ACC?” you just can’t tell anymore (no offense to the guys over there, of course). The demands to keep FSU in the fold mostly center around an unequal revenue-sharing plan (which I’m against in theory), and an incentive system that rewards teams on performance. According to the piece,
“There is simply no financial incentive for schools like Wake Forest, Boston College or Duke to pump additional of money into the football programs under the ACC’s current financial structure.”
It goes on to bemoan the exit fee hike, the joint statement of solidarity (fair criticism) and the conference’s insistence on keeping its top teams in the fold. But it also brings to a light an interesting concept: performance incentives. The article calls for rewards for both television viewership and on-field wins, which would conveniently skew the spoils in the Seminoles’ favor. But what if we simply rewarded schools based on victories? In that scenario, Florida State still takes home a good portion of cash above the rest, but they’re joined by the many other schools who have also succeeded since the 2004 expansion (including the “slackers” Wake Forest and Boston College). The issue I see here only comes when a team like Duke consistently fails to receive a performance bonus. After awhile, they have no chance to compete. So while in theory, they could take that as a call to action to improve the program, it can’t necessarily work like that. If a program’s buried, and looks out-manned in a sport, they drop it or move down a level (see the I-A/I-AA split in 1978).
In part, this also assumes that the ACC’s top programs (like FSU) can do better elsewhere. As our own Hokie Mark broke down over on ACCFootballRx, it’s hard to make that case. While crunching the numbers from Forbes’ “Most Valuable Conferences in College Sports” piece that appeared on Wednesday, it ends up that there’s only a $1.8 million per-year advantage for a school to be in the Big 12 versus the ACC. In fact, under current payouts, ACC schools are even earning $5 million more per year than their SEC pals. Those numbers will change dramatically for the SEC, but they will for the ACC too once they renegotiate (assumed, given the additions of Louisville and Notre Dame). And then they’ll go up for the ACC again once they launch their own network (which they very well should). The Big 12 has no such luxury, and won’t because of the Longhorn Network.
Update (1/18): Bryan from the excellent Pitt blog Cardiac Hill brings up another great point via Twitter. On top of a hefty exit fee for ACC teams leaving for the Big 12, those schools don’t even get to collect full television rights for several years. As explained on The Smoking Musket back in March of 2012, West Virginia doesn’t take home a full share of conference television revenue until 2015. So if FSU left, they’d be saddled with $50 million in exit fees, and then would have to wait around until 2018 just to collect full payouts. And even then, they still wouldn’t break even for seven or eight years.
Thanks for the additional tip, Bryan! If anyone’s interested in Pitt or conference realignment, be sure to give him a follow: @FeartheStache
This isn’t an ironclad statement saying that Big 12 expansion won’t happen. Or that it won’t happen at the expense of the ACC. But when looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see there are a lot more reasons to stick around that conference than anyone’s really letting on to amidst all the realignment buzz.