On September 27, I wrote: ‘The tidal wave of major conference expansion and re-alignment is complete. The “Big Five” conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12 – have reached equilibrium. None are likely to grow within the next ten years.’
Obviously I got that wrong. Way wrong. I don’t feel too badly about that. This move took practically everyone by surprise. (ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski seems to have been one of the few who predicted it.)
Still, I was wrong. It is worth exploring how.
The Four Axioms Revisited
In my last diary, I stated that conference realignment is governed by four axioms: money, football, academics, and geography. Stated more broadly:
- Money. No school willingly changes conferences to make less money. No conference accepts a school if its existing members will lose money.
- Football. No school moves willingly to a weaker football conference. No conference accepts a school that is below the league average in football.
- Academics. No school moves willingly to an academically weaker conference. No conference accepts a school that is drastically weaker academically than the rest of the league.
- Geography. The less sense a move makes geographically, the weaker the contracting parties.
Previously, I said that there’s no wiggle room at all in the first two axioms; there’s a bit of wiggle room in the third and fourth, especially for weaker leagues like the Big East.
I should have been more expansive about the second axiom, football. When a conference adds teams in pairs, it’s the combination that matters, not each school individually. Missouri never would have had a prayer of getting admitted to the SEC on its own, but it did obey the four axioms when you consider that it was part of a package deal with Texas A&M.
Those who criticize the Pac-12's addition of Colorado and Utah may be focusing too heavily on those schools' recent troubles. Historically, Colorado is #21 in all-time wins, ahead of every Pac-12 school except USC. Utah, at #36, is ahead of every Pac-12 school except USC, Cal, and Washington. It may not seem that way now, but for the Pac-12, Colorado and Utah were upgrades in the long term, assuming those schools don't remain long-term losers.
How Jim Delany Made History
This brings me to how Jim Delany made history: he broke the second axiom. No conference has ever voluntarily added two schools, both of whom were much weaker than the league average at football. With its .5283 all-time winning percentage, Maryland ranks ahead of just three Big Ten schools: Illinois, Indiana, and Northwestern. Rutgers, at .5048, ranks ahead of only the Hoosiers and Wildcats. (Neither percentage includes the 2012 season.)
These schools historically have played much weaker schedules than the rest of the Big Ten. Maryland, playing in the weakest of the Big Five leagues, has won the ACC championship in football just once in the last twenty years (2001). They’ve been in the final top-25 just eight times in the past 35 years. The Terps’ only period of comparative dominance was 1974–85, when they won the championship six times in twelve years. Before that, their last championship was in 1955. Against, the Big Ten, Maryland is a combined 4-44-1 all-time, with the majority coming against Penn State (1-29-1), whom the Terps used to play almost every year before the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten.
Rutgers’ history of futility is well known. The Scarlet Knights have finished in the top 25 just once in the last thirty-five years. They’ve never won a Big East championship; they could do so for the first time this season if they win their final two games. Knowing Rutgers, that’s a long shot. They’ve gone to just seven bowl games all-time, all minor ones, and only one before 2005 (in 1978).
Both teams have small stadiums by Big Ten standards. High Point Solutions Stadium in lovely Piscataway, New Jersey, seats 52,454, and Rutgers seldom fills it. They ranked fifth in Big East attendance last year, with an average of 43,761 fans. In basketball, Rutgers hasn’t fielded a winning team in six years. They averaged only a shade over 5,000 fans a game, good for 15th in a sixteen-team league. At Maryland, Byrd Stadium in College Park was expanded to 54,000 in 2008. Last Saturday, a home game against a top-10 Florida State team attracted just 35,000 fans.
You have to figure that recruiting and attendance at the two schools will improve after joining the Big Ten. Nevertheless, without very substantial program upgrades, it is likely that both Maryland and Rutgers will be bottom feeders in the Big Ten for many years to come.
Needless to say, this is quite a contrast from Penn State and Nebraska, who were championship contenders almost immediately upon joining.
Are the Four Axioms Busted?
We’ve learned that Money is King. Practically any deal is possible, if the money is good enough.
But before we abandon the Four Axioms, let’s remember this:
- Until now, no conference has violated the Football axiom by adding teams so far below the league average. The Football axiom is more of a guideline now, and not an inexorable command. But I wouldn’t count on it being violated regularly.
- The Academics and Geography axioms both held: Maryland and Rutgers, both AAU members, are well within the Big Ten academic profile, and both are adjacent to its geographic footprint.
Do Fans Matter Any More?
I could have added—but did not—a fifth axiom:
- The Fans. No school or conference makes a voluntary move that alienates its fans.
Jim Delany busted that axiom too. Now, let’s stipulate that fans are a fickle bunch, and there’s no change that everyone likes. Some people still think it was a mistake to add Penn State and Nebraska. But most Big Ten football fans could relate to those moves. Nebraska and Penn State will always be red-letter games on most schedules in the conference. From the schools’ perspective, most Penn State fans long ago realized that football independence was no longer practical for them. Nebraska fans surely miss the old Big Eight rivalries, but the Big 12 had become a Texas/Oklahoma-based league, in which the Cornhuskers were increasingly outsiders.
In contrast, very few Big Ten fans outside of Penn State will look forward to playing Maryland and Rutgers. Many will resent it, as there will be fewer games between historic Big Ten foes, like Michigan and Wisconsin. Reactions of the Maryland fan base have been decidedly mixed, although Terrapin fans are gradually figuring out that this is in their best interests. Only at Rutgers is the move an unvarnished blessing: when the alternative is the Big East, who wouldn’t prefer the Big Ten?
Is Jim Delany Canny or Crazy?
Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated has a good article explaining what the Big Ten stands to gain by adding Maryland and Rutgers. If the Big Ten could get carriage on basic cable in every household in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, it would bring in another $200 million in revenue per year. This is highly unlikely, but Delany doesn’t need anywhere near all of it for Maryland and Rutgers to be cash-flow positive for the conference. And that’s before you consider the Big Ten’s primary television rights deal, which is up in 2017, and will surely be worth a lot more with two new markets in its footprint.
Skeptics will point out that Maryland and Rutgers can’t deliver their television markets, the way Nebraska did. That is true. But the NY–Philly–Washington axis is so heavily populated that it might not matter. If Delany just gets just a decent fraction of it, the conference will make more than it did in Nebraska.
You can fault Delany for many things, but the one thing he surely knows is how to count money. That is pretty much all that he does. If you’re a betting man, you shouldn’t bet against Jim Delany’s ability to turn sports into cash.
None of this is to deny the very real fan anger at what is obviously a money grab with no other benefits. But remember, the money doesn’t just fund private jets for athletic directors. It also funds the rowing team at Michigan and the hockey team at Penn State. If the conference is going to make a move with only one purpose, money, you can at least be fairly confident that Delany got that right.
For a contrary view, check out the bearish analysis from Nate Silver, the New York Times statistical guru who forecasted all 50 states correctly in the presidential race. As good as Silver is in his own sphere of expertise, this was just a one-off blog post. Delany has spent years studying this. My bet is still on Delany.
What Happens Next?
Many message board participants see a push for 16-team conferences. This is wrong. Expansion is about making more money, not fielding some arbitrary number of teams. For the Big Ten to expand again, it’ll need two more schools that:
- Are eager to make a move
- Provide access to substantial markets that the Big Ten isn’t already in
- Are academically and geographically suitable
Currently, the Big Ten pays nearly $25 million per school in media rights, and that could grow to about $43 million per school when the conference negotiates its next media deal in 2017. Hence, the next pair of schools would need to bring in about $90 million per year just to break even, or else they’d dilute the average pay-out. Jim Delany doesn’t do deals to break even. In fact, the next pair probably needs to bring more than 100 million, as there’s clearly no point in making a move if it’s just a push. It needs to be compelling.
The ACC will almost certainly take another school from the wilting Big East, most likely UConn, but possibly Louisville, to get back up to an even number of football schools.
I noted in my last expansion diary that the Big 12 has structural reasons for actively preferring a 10-team league. As Former interim commissioner Chuck Neinas told Fox News, “Let's face it, they're making as much money as for the (Sugar Bowl) as the SEC and as the Pac-12 and Big Ten are making for the Rose Bowl and they only have to share it with 10 teams.”
The SEC does not have the Big Ten’s demographic problem: the south is still growing, and it’s the nation’s dominant football conference. Historically, the SEC does not expand in states where it already has members, and all of the available trophy programs are in those states. Should it choose to expand, the next logical step might be Virginia and Virginia Tech, though it is not clear if those two programs bring enough revenue.
I cannot see a money-making expansion path for the Pac-12. They’d need to make another play for Oklahoma and Texas, which they already tried and failed.
I won’t make the rash statement again that major-conference realignment is done, but the four axioms I introduced in my previous post still hold largely true. The more conferences expand, the harder it is to find logical moves that make money.