The Drivers of Conference Realignment

Patrick McDermott

Television is still the driver, it appears. The Nebraska move was driven to bring the Husker brand into the Big Ten; Maryland and Rutgers were added to bring the Big Ten brand into new markets.

When the Big Ten relaunched conference realignment just prior to Thanksgiving, people were questioning the wisdom in adding Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten. Yes, Maryland's stadium is only about 11 miles from Capitol Hill and Washington, DC. Yes, Rutgers' stadium is 30 miles from Manhattan. But really... Maryland football? Rutgers football? Why?

Last week, Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez conceded that these moves were made, in part, to stabilize Penn State's membership in the league. It's an argument that's even more puzzling to me, because my perception is mostly, "where the hell would Penn State go anyway?" With the Nittany Lions about ready to being four years of reduced scholarship numbers, the future of Penn State football has a huge cloud surrounding it. Will Bill O'Brien wait out the NCAA sanctions? Will Penn State rebound like Miami (like in 2000-01) or like SMU (mostly irrelevant since Pony Express days)? Sure, I suppose the ACC or Big East might be interested, but since Penn State already granted all of their media rights to the Big Ten, it's hard to fathom why the ACC or Big East would be interested? Like everything, it could be negotiated, but that likely destroys any and all benefit of adding Penn State.

Was Penn State thinking of leaving the Big Ten? It's a curious idea, but if Alvarez is acknowledging it, there might be more substance than I originally thought. Certainly there were those in the Penn State community who wanted Penn State to withdraw in the fallout of the Sandusky sanctions, but I never gave that much credence.

Nevertheless, adding Rutgers and Maryland certainly solidifies the Big Ten on the Atlantic Coast. Penn State is no longer the most eastern member of the league. Would the next expansion try to solidify Nebraska on the west? Never say never, but that's not something I would ever expect, except possibly for Kansas. Kansas brings good academics and top-notch basketball to the Big Ten. Of course, Kansas has a football problem, and that's the biggest issue for KU.

How is that different than Maryland and Rutgers? Here's the difference: the Kansas City metro area isn't going to drive much in terms of revenue. Look at the poor Kansas City Royals, where ownership regularly liquidates any and all talent as soon as they spot a deal that makes financial sense, even if it means that the baseball product continues to wallow in obscurity. But how the heck does Rutgers sell the New York City market? How does Maryland sell the Maryland market?

They don't, by themselves. It's a fact that Maryland versus North Carolina State doesn't move the dial much in Washington, DC. It's a fact that Rutgers vs. UConn doesn't get people's attention in New York. But that's not what the Big Ten is acquiring.

It's the opposite of the Nebraska acquisition. The Big Ten now goes into New York and sells people on annual games featuring Rutgers playing teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. At least one game, maybe two. Likewise in Washington, DC: Maryland will be bringing at least one of those teams to College Park every year for a football game. Yes, maybe lots of people say, "meh, Rutgers versus Louisville; who cares" today. When it's "Hmmm...Michigan is coming to play Rutgers? Maybe I should check that out." Bigger name opponents should spike interest by itself.

While the Big Ten wasn't going to turn down the Omaha markets for the Big Ten, the Omaha television market wasn't compelling enough to sell the Big Ten on Nebraska. What drove that was bringing a team like Nebraska into their existing markets and increasing the value of the Big Ten throughout the nation. But there don't appear to be any more Nebraska's left available in conference expansion.

Except maybe Florida State. Yes, it's a geographic disaster. There's no bussing teams between the traditional Big Ten markets to Florida. But it solidifies the Big Ten's football resume and also delivers a sizable television - and recruiting - market.

If the Big Ten and SEC decide to expand from 14 members, it seems a natural that future conference members will come from the ACC. The Big East is now way too diluted, as the ACC keeps raiding the Big East for it's own replacements. The Big XII now has the same "grant of rights" arrangements that the Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC uses. Those teams are likely off the market as well.

What it comes down to is whether any of the remaining ACC schools have any desirability to the Big Ten - and that's a desirability question that works both ways. Certainly schools like North Carolina would be desirable from a basketball standpoint, but are they willing to bolt their kingdom (the ACC) for a bigger conference that they wouldn't have as much control over? That's why Texas stayed in the Big XII and rebuffed the interest of the Big Ten and Pac-12.Television is still the driver, it appears. The Nebraska move was driven to bring the Husker brand into the Big Ten; Maryland and Rutgers were added to bring the Big Ten brand into new markets.

And that's the question that will need to be answered when any discussions about 16 team conferences pop up again. And they will; it's not a question of if, but when. That could be days, weeks, or months away. Maybe even a few years.

And the Big Ten probably doesn't truly know what the next move is going to be. That's part of the reason they are surveying fans about their thoughts about expansion. They want to know more about what's important: traditional rivalries, geographics, or even the division names. (Yes, they want to know what you think of this Legends and Leaders crap.)

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