Just when you think the conference realignment issue is over for the time being, it rears its ugly head yet again and pulls you right back in. After over a year without any major movement of schools departing one conference for the supposed greener pastures of another, the dominoes have started tumbling all over again.
The latest movement has Maryland and Rutgers opting out of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East Conference, respectively, to jump to the Big Ten. For Maryland, that means severing a conference relationship that has been in place for the past 59 years.
The likely time frame for these changes is 2014, but that could change. This will expand the Big Ten footprint from 12 to 14 member institutions. Nebraska, formerly of the Big 12 Conference, switched leagues to join the Big Ten in July 2011, the same year that the University of Colorado moved from the Big 12 to the Pac-12.
This past week, the University of Louisville, which had been rumored to be interested in becoming a member of the Big 12, joined the realignment movement, announcing that it was joining the Atlantic Coast Conference and dropping its affiliation with the Big East, where Louisville has been a member since 2005. Although the official date for Louisville’s membership transfer has not yet been made official, it is expected to be 2014.
You may recall that when West Virginia announced its decision to leave the Big East for the Big 12, Big East officials threatened to invoke a particular clause in the conference charter that spells out a specified period of time by which a member must notify the conference headquarters of its intention to alter its league affiliation (or incur serious legal and/or financial consequences). We’ll have to wait and see how that plays out for both Louisville and Rutgers.
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby of the Big 12 has repeatedly said that the current conference members are happy with the size of the conference as it is currently, with 10 members, and that there are no plans a present to expand beyond that number. The current league structure allows for a round-robin schedule in football and a double round-robin (home and away) format in basketball. The member schools like the idea of a balanced schedule format in which everybody plays everybody, the commissioner says, which would not be the case if the conference were to expand back to 12 members or beyond.
Despite the Big 12’s public posture embracing the status quo, there has been much speculation over the past year that Louisville and Florida State would be the next members of the Big 12. Now with Louisville apparently no longer a consideration, the social media chatter has ramped up considerably about the prospects for Florida State leaving the ACC for the Big 12.
Geography seemingly is no longer a knockout factor in terms of conference alignments, and as far as Florida State, predominantly a football school although the Seminoles have had some recent success nationally in basketball, is concerned, it is believed that officials of that school would prefer to align FSU’s athletic interests with a prominent football league. And with the University of Florida and the SEC strongly not in favor of having two Florida schools in that conference, the Big 12 or the Big Ten become the next logical choice were Florida State to elect to go elsewhere.
It appears that we haven’t seen the end of conference realignment. Many college football experts have been predicting for several years now that eventually there will be only three or four major conferences when the dust finally settles.
The SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 are already up to or will shortly be at 14 members, the so-called super-sized conferences at the moment, and are very likely to grow that number to 16 before all is said and done. That leaves the Big 12, ACC and the Big East looking up at the Big Three as far as long-term sustainability. The experts believe only one of the latter three will survive to keep playing with the big boys in the super conferences. That’s not to say that other conferences won’t exist. They just won’t be in the same league as the three or four major conferences.
And with football driving the train in this realignment movement, as far and away the most lucrative of all the college sports, you can get a pretty good idea of where all of this is going and why we’re witnessing another seismic shift in the college conference landscape as additional schools scramble not to be left behind when all of the dividing and conquering eventually settles back down in the musical-chair world we know as conference realignment.
If the Big 12 does elect to grow beyond its present size – and right now that appears to be a big “if” – it won’t be by just one, with two being the best bet, which would get the conference back to the original size. If the Big 12 were to consider expanding beyond the magic dozen number, don’t expect it to grow to14, but rather by four more members, which would elevate the Big 12 to parity with what by then is expected to be the other 16-member super conferences.
An agreement in place between the current 10 member institutions that provides reasonable assurance that there will be no further defections or reductions in the size of the Big 12. Buoyed by a new 13-year television contract with Fox and ESPN that will pay out a reported $30 per school by 2014, one of the best deals in college sports, there is absolutely no reason to leave the conference and every reason to keep things as they are or grow, if that is in the conference’s best interest.
“No one has proven to me that larger is better,” Big 12 commissioner Bowlsby said recently. ‘If we had the opportunity geographically or financially for something that clearly moved the needle, we’d be on them.”
In a recent blog for CBS Sports, Dennis Dodd, a sportswriter who used to write for the Kansas City Star, quoted a source close to the Big 12 as saying: “They’re (the Big 12) in great shape. If the TV deal was lousy, if in two or three years their network deal was coming up (then I could see that expansion would be in their best interest). But right now, the Big 12 has hit the lottery.”
The problem is, the number of suitable partners is fast dwindling, which leads me to believe that the Big 12 will eventually stop trying to fool all of us and recognize that it must, at the very least, get back to 12 members if it realistically wants to be part of the same conversation with what will soon be no more than four major college conferences.
Although the smaller the divisor (i.e., the number of schools sharing in the revenue pie) the bigger the individual payout, you can make a strong case that adding two members would still yield a significant income stream for conference members, a figure that would be considerably larger than what existed before or even now.
Florida State could certainly be interested in cutting its losses and securing its economic future along with its strong football tradition becoming part of a nationally recognized football conference such as the Big 12, but it doesn’t appear that same motivation exists in the Big 12…at least, not yet.
Stay tuned. This is far from over.
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