The Conference Room is in Use (Part 1)

Recent media reports indicated that representatives from the Big Ten, Pac 12, and the Atlantic Coast Conference met to discuss the possibility of forming some sort of an alliance.

There was a conference room full of Conferences, you might say.

After the recent expansion of the Southeastern Conference to 16 teams with the future addition of the University of Texas and Oklahoma University, shockwaves (especially for the remaining Big 12 Conference schools) have rippled across the college athletics landscape.

Geographically, the new SEC will put some additional travel pressures on athletes playing for the member schools.  Since the state of Oklahoma is just west of Arkansas, though, the addition of OU into the SEC is geographically feasible.  Likewise, the Texas Longhorns (in Austin) play just about two hours west of their former (and soon-to-be-rekindled) rivals from Aggieland in College Station.  Both OU and Texas are nice regional fits to play all major sports within the expanded SEC.

Before doing a lot of wild speculation (which I engage in regularly), let’s first take a closer look at the three leagues who just visited to the conference table, and then we’ll try to figure out what these power brokers may be considering:

The Atlantic Coast Conference (currently with 15 member schools):

Outside of the new bigger and bolder SEC, the Atlantic Coast Conference has been relatively quiet of late.  The ACC’s last few additions to their club have not exactly been smash hits.  In 2013, the league admitted the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University into the ACC fraternity.  In 2014, the University of Louisville was added to the conference.

Like every other major sports conference, it appears that the ACC was primarily attempting to add bigger television markets into the conference as the main rationale to bring those three schools into the fold.

Though Notre Dame also became affiliated with the ACC in 2013, the school’s football program has opted to remain independent.  The Fighting Irish already had a national television contract with NBC through 2025 which pays $15 million annually.  According to a recent study, Notre Dame football (ticket sales, merchandising, media revenues, and the like) generates over $70 million (after expenses) in annual profits for the school, so don’t feel sorry for the Fighting Irish.

The ACC’s other schools have a very lucrative television contract with ABC/ESPN.  Reports indicated that the conference pays their football-playing members about $29 million each in television revenue annually.  When ND’s current television contract with NBC expires in a few years, the bidding war for the Fighting Irish will be quite intense.  Will they stay independent or finally join the ACC in football?  Stay tuned.

Until Clemson’s recent domination in college football over the past decade (with two wins and two losses in the national championship game in the past six years), the ACC has long been considered to be America’s premier men’s basketball league.  Duke and North Carolina have a rich history and many national championships.  Virginia, Wake Forest, North Carolina State and recent conference additions Louisville and Syracuse added even more firepower in ACC basketball.

The Big Ten Conference (currently with 14 member schools):

The Big Ten (whose name doesn’t match the current math) added Penn State as team #11 (1990), Nebraska as #12 in 2011 and then Rutgers (New Jersey) and Maryland (a former ACC member) were invited in 2014 to become the current group of 14 affiliated universities.

Like the ACC, these four recent additions were made to broaden the television market reach for the conference.  Nebraska, while not a large television market itself, had developed a large national following after several decades of football prominence.  Alas, the Huskers have become a fading football dud pretty much after their admission into the Big Ten.

The Big Ten Conference has a big problem in football right now.   Like Clemson’s dominance within the ACC, Ohio State’s King Kong stature works to the detriment of the rest of the league.  The show has been “Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten” for most of the past decade.  The Buckeyes haven’t delivered on the national championship stage nearly as much as Clemson.  They have gone 1-1 in football’s national championship game since 2014 but are nearly always in BCS discussion.  Though Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State have been highly competitive in some years, none of those schools has played for a national championship in football in a long, long, time.

In men’s basketball, the Big Ten has fielded just one national champion in the past 21 years (Michigan State in 2000).   However, the conference has placed six national runner-ups (Michigan twice, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Indiana) during the same period.

Money-wise, each Big Ten Conference member school is raking in well over $40 million per season in TV money from contracts from Fox Sports, ESPN, and CBS.   Despite the lack of any recent significant athletics success from several member institutions (Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue, and Maryland all come to mind), all of the Big Ten Conference schools are doing just fine at the bank.

The Pac-12 Conference (currently with 12 member schools):

The largest athletics conference for the western third of the US has really struggled to stay in the national conversation in athletics for the past few decades.  The conference domination by USC and UCLA in football has faded as the Oregon Ducks have grabbed the headlines for much of the last decade.  Likewise, UCLA’s vice grip on college basketball has generally faded over the past thirty years, too.

The Pac-12 Conference added Utah (Salt Lake City TV market) and the University of Colorado (Denver market) ten years ago in 2011 as the league grew to a dozen member institutions.  Though Utah has been a national contender in football and basketball since joining the Pac-12, the Colorado Buffaloes have been a major disappointment (much like Nebraska’s entrance into the Big Ten).  The Buffs were expected to be a football power, but the results on the field haven’t matched the hype over the past decade.

Worse yet for the Pac-12, the conference has really struggled to step-up into the national conversation in football and basketball.   Only Oregon (2011) has even played in the BCS championship game.  In men’s basketball, only UCLA (this year’s 2021 Final Four – lost in semifinals) and Oregon (2017 Final Four – lost in semifinals) have been relevant in the past decade, too.

Most importantly, the Pac-12 brings five of the top 17 media markets to the table when considering possible conference modifications.  According to a national ratings service, Los Angeles ranks as the #2 television market (UCLA/USC), San Francisco is #6 (Cal and Stanford), Phoenix is #11 (Arizona/Arizona State), Seattle is #13 (Univ. of Washington), and Denver is #17 (Colorado).   You can bet your bottom dollar that any conference realignment will treasure those markets and their favorite college teams.

Now, back to the Conference Table discussion:

So, what do you think these three conferences were discussing this week?

With the likely dissolution of the Big 12 Conference (which is now down to just eight schools after Texas and OU bolted for the SEC a few weeks ago), it’s likely that the three conferences may have discussed (informally, of course) which one of those remaining tasty morsels from the Big 12 might fit best with each of their conferences.

Since the ACC already has 15 members, you could certainly make a good case for West Virginia to fit nicely into the ACC.  The nearby rivalries with Virginia Tech, Virginia and Pitt would make for a great fit.

For the Big Ten Conference, Oklahoma State and Kansas could make natural fits if the Big Ten grew from its current 14 team grouping to 16 schools.

Wouldn’t the three remaining Big 12 Texas teams (Texas Tech, TCU, and Baylor) along with either Kansas State or Iowa State pair nicely with Colorado along with the two Arizona schools if the 12-team Pac-12 decides to add four more teams?

Then again, perhaps these three conferences discussed a way to, in effect, donate their best football teams into a new Super Conference to compete with the 16-team (for now) SEC?  That would be a bold idea, eh?

I think it’s time that we joined the speculation, too!  Let’s do that in our next visit.