Friday, June 4, 2010

Expansion Rumors: Is this the beginning or much ado about nothing?

Most people, myself included, love rumors and speculation and endless possibilities. We love the idea of "What if?" more than what actually happens. It's why where Lebron will end up this summer is getting more attention than the NBA playoffs. It's why SOME people were disappointed with the ending of Lost (and let me just say I'm one of them, and justifiably so. Through 4 seasons the writers had some great ideas and asked some mind-bending sci-fi questions. In season 6 their explanation proved they had no answers for any of it and came up with a story arc that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Island or any of it's crazy sci-fi properties. It was a huge cop-out, but I'll admit, I still really enjoyed the first five seasons. The sixth? Not so much).

Still, it shows that despite some incredible ideas and directions that something could go, usually it doesn't. NBA free agency is another example. In one form or another the NBA offseason is filled with crazy trade rumors and speculation and usually...nothing happens. This year? More of the same I think. Oh sure, somebody like Amare Stoudermire or Joe Johnson could change teams, and perhaps Chris Bosh too. But in the end, I think you'll see Bronbron stay in Cleveland, Wade stay in Miami, and Dirk Diggler stay in Dallas. Maybe Bosh joins DWade in Miami or maybe he gets shipped to the Lakers. Maybe. But because professional athletes overwhelming care more about money than anything else, I think the big boys will stay with their current teams because they can get the most money.

Which brings us to all of the conference expansion rumors that have been swirling since December when Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez and others in the Big Ten starting floating the idea that the conference was thinking expansion again. Don't get me wrong, I'm as intrigued by this stuff as anyone else, especially because as a Gophers fan, whatever happens will impact their teams.

But while I guess a 16 team Big Ten, or the latest rumor of a 16 team Pac 10, is possible, I'd say minor changes are much more likely than major ones. College football is the Old Boys Club of Old Boys Clubs, and none of them are exactly huge risk takers. They are protecting their wealth and status at all costs with a convoluted BCS system that makes less sense, and would probably make them less money, than a playoff. But they still cling to it because it's safe and because they remain in control.

I don't think the parameters of expansion are much different. Yes, the Big Ten has been risk takers, as starting the Big 10 Network was an incredibly bold move that has paid off ridiculously well. So now they're trying to strike while the iron is hot much like, say, Google looking to buy up competitors. It's a shrewd move, and if done correctly, will be another masterstroke from Jim Delaney.

But make no mistake, for EVERYONE involved three things matter over all else- protecting their wallets, their prestige and their control over both. As they've proven with the BCS, the men and women running NCAA schools and college football don't give a damn about competition, they care about making money and whatever you and I as fans will pay to see it, that's what they're going to charge us. While as fans I would love expansion to be about making the Big Ten stronger on the field, remember these are also the same people who helped usher in a 12th regular season game that EVERYBODY uses to schedule a crappy opponent so they can make money and pad their win totals so they can make more bowl games.

As for prestige, I'm talking about their academic standing and the image of the conference. For the Big 12 and SEC this isn't such a big deal, but for the Big Ten and Pac 10, this is a HUGE deal. If you want to join either of these conferences, you're going to not only need to add a lot of value (i.e. new revenue) but also academic standing. This is the part so many people seem to overlook. The Big Ten is the Ivy League of the Midwest, and the school presidents, who have to answer to faculty and donors as well as athletic boosters, are not going to let academics slip in the name of more money. Even more so with the Pac 10 for one simple reason: unless they change this at their meetings coming up, to get accepted into the Pac 10 ALL 10 SCHOOLS MUST APPROVE. The Big Ten I believe needs 8 of 11 votes, but in the Pac 10, if one school doesn't like you, you're not getting in. And there's one school in that conference who really, really, REALLY values academics, and that is Stanford. The Cardinal are NOT going to have their academic standing, and those of the conference they're in, slide in favor of more money. With all of the research, grants, and donors they have, Stanford prints money with or without athletics. So while more money from a new TV deal would be nice, it's not going to come at the cost of what they consider to be a lesser academic school.

Finally, the schools are going to do whatever possible to maintain control over both their revenues and their academic standing. It's why even though both Notre Dame and Texas would make more money by joining the Big Ten, they both won't unless something forces them to because they can still make a lot of money by themselves.

Which bring us to the past Thursday when ran a story-at the same time the Big 12 meetings were about to begin- saying the Pac 10 was going to extend invites to six Big 12 schools: Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Colorado, and Texas Tech.

Is there validity to it? Perhaps, as the article states, both the Pac 10 and some of the schools named aren't exactly denying it. And I know where this takes some people: a 16 team Pac 10, then a 16 team Big Ten adding Nebraska, Mizzou, Rutgers, and one of Syracuse/UConn/Pitt which forces Notre Dame to join and escape the collapsing Big East. While I guess this scenario is possible, I'd say it's more likely Lebron signs with the Timberwolves than this actually playing out.

For one thing- there's not a chance in hell Stanford ever lets Texas Tech into the Pac 10. Ever. Never ever. Not happening. I could be wrong, but even if the Longhorns say they'll join the conference by the Texas Legislature demands Tech goes with them, from everything I've heard and read Stanford values their academics to the point they'd put the kibosh on that. But maybe not.

Bottom line is that everybody involved has been in "wait-and-see" mode. Nobody wants to make the first move. So does this mean the Pac 10 invite rumor is the conference making the first move? Or are they just testing the waters to see what happens and who reacts? I'm guessing it's more of the latter, but then again they see the writing on the wall. They understand completely that's there's only so much TV money to go around and only so many networks that will pay it. Their TV contracts and bowl alliances suck, and they're all coming up for renegotiation, so the time is NOW to build as attractive a package as possible.

So I'm sure their aim is definitely Texas. Creating a cable sports network that would be on basic packages in California and Texas would be huge. Adding the states of Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and possibly Colorado, Oklahoma, and even Utah, would vault them right into third in the college football power structure behind the Big Ten and SEC. Again, all 10 Pac 10 schools need to be in agreement which is why I'm really doubtful they would offer Texas Tech.

Still, in a game that so far has everyone involved in "wait-and-see" mode, it'll be interesting to see if the Pac 10 is simply firing a shot across the bow to see how people react- or if this really is a shot to the heart of the Big 12 that will get this whole expansion process rolling.

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