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Big East Realignment: Talking Notre Dame To The ACC

We brought in conference realignment blogger Frank The Tank for a discussion of what the future holds for the Big 12, the Big East and the entire college sports landscape.

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Frank The Tank blogs about conference realignment as well as Chicago sports over at his website. You can follow him on Twitter @frankthetank111.

1) A lot has changed around the CFB landscape since the Big Ten began talking to Nebraska two years ago. Is Notre Dame to the ACC the final domino in the conference re-alignment process or are we likely to see more moves over the next few years?

I'll give the lawyerly answer here: it depends. At the power conference level, my feeling is that the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC are all done with expanding for quite awhile. Outside of Texas, Notre Dame is really the only school that could get the Big Ten to make another move.

The Big Ten doesn't want or need "projects" or "potential", so that precludes them going after a speculative on-the-field play for a school with a good location (e.g. Rutgers). They also need schools that cross a certain academic threshold (e.g. if you're not higher ranked than Nebraska, then you have no chance). The SEC is very much in the same position - there isn't a school outside of Texas or maybe UNC that would attract them at all, and those are two schools that enjoy outsized control and power in their current leagues compared to what they could ever have in the SEC.

The Pac-12 is yet another school that is hemmed in with no attractive expansion option outside of resurrecting its Pac-16 proposal and adding Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Much like the Big Ten, the Pac-12 needs schools that fit academically (e.g. Boise State has no chance) and culturally (e.g. ditto for BYU) and there aren't any Western-based choices until you get to Texas. Finally, the ACC now has Notre Dame (albeit as a partial member) in the fold and was already at 14 football members, so there isn't any further need for expansion unless it gets a Texas-type addition. Having an odd number of members for basketball and Olympic sports is not an issue.

The Big 12 is in a different spot, but I'd wager that they're still more likely to stand pat than expand further (which I'll expand upon in a moment later on). The Big East could cause a larger impact on the non-power leagues since it definitely needs a 14th football member and may consider replacing Notre Dame with a non-football member. As a result, Notre Dame's move has a greater chance of affecting the Mountain Wests and Atlantic-10s of the world than any of the power conferences.

2) One of the hot rumors this summer was the Big 12 raiding the ACC in order to get back to 12 teams. How realistic was that scenario and how secure is the ACC going forward now that Notre Dame is *kind of* in the fold?

I never believed that the Big 12 raiding the ACC was realistic at all. I know that many college sports fans don't believe that academics matter... and they're right to a limited extent. Case in point is the latest academic scandal at UNC (which is an extremely highly-ranked academic institution overall). When it comes to skirting academic rules to get top-tier athletes, everyone from the Big Ten to the ACC to the SEC does it. However, the *perception* that schools and conferences care about academics as *institutions* is important and on that front, that was a massive protection for the ACC that so many football fans underestimated (and continue to underestimate).

The people that ultimately make conference decisions are university presidents (NOT athletic directors or coaches), who are quite literally the most academically snobbish group of people in the entire country. Florida State and Clemson as academic institutions want to be associated with the Dukes of the world. As fans, we can say that it doesn't matter when it comes to the football field or point out counterexamples (e.g. Vanderbilt in the SEC), but the fact of the matter is that no school in the modern era of college football has chosen to leave a clearly academically superior conference.

At the same time, the revenue gap between the ACC and Big 12 has continuously been overstated. The third tier rights issue has been misinterpreted in many ways since Florida State *does* make third tier revenue off of its radio rights and other multimedia platforms. Many Big 12 people were arguing that a school such as Kansas was making a substantial amount in third tier rights while Florida State as making zero, which simply wasn't the case. The thing is that while Texas has been able to fully take advantage of its third tier rights with the Longhorn Network, it really hasn't that big of a selling point to other schools. Even Notre Dame didn't really care when it ultimately had the option of choosing between partial membership offers from the ACC and Big 12.

Even if Florida State could have made some more conference money in the Big 12, it wasn't material enough to completely drop all of its geographic ties and the academic perception advantages of the ACC. Florida State was certainly not in the position of West Virginia, who certainly had every incentive to find any stable home possible regardless of geography. I've seen some observers make a big deal that Florida State objected to the ACC raising its exit fee last week, but I don't see that as an indicator of anything. As an attorney, I hate large exit penalties in contracts as a matter of principle (and I'm sure that Florida State's lawyers believe the same thing), but that doesn't mean that my clients want to walk away from business relationships simply because they oppose such penalties.

Ultimately, the ACC was safe even before the Notre Dame move and they're even safer now since they've taken a school that could have caused a much larger conference realignment earthquake off of the market. Also note that there was one school that I mentioned in connection with every single conference from coast-to-coast in your first question: Texas. Let's just say that I think it's a whole lot more likely that Texas would approach the ACC to ask for a Notre Dame-type independent deal than it would be for any ACC schools to move to the Big 12. To be *very* clear: I'm not saying that Texas wants to move at all (I truly believe that they want to effectively control their own conference as opposed to being an independent, so they have exactly what they want), but Notre Dame has provided the precedent that the ACC is going to be willing to bend for the right school (and Texas is really the only school that compares to Notre Dame in terms of overall financial power).

3) Do you think the Big 12 needs to keep adding schools in order to get a CCG in football? Or does the current 10-member alignment make sense long-term?

I don't believe that the Big 12 needs to add schools just for the sake of getting a conference championship game. From a pure on-the-field competitive standpoint, a round-robin through the entire 10-team Big 12 can be more difficult than even the divisional format in the SEC. At the same time, much of what caused the arcimony in the 12-team Big 12 was how much the power started to split along North/South divisional lines (and that was even though the North had a power anchor with Nebraska and, even though it now seems like eons ago, Colorado was actually a perennial national title contender for the first half of the Big 12's existence).

My understanding is that Texas and Oklahoma want nothing to do with being in separate divisions, which means that an expanded Big 12 would likely need a similar North/South split that will be even more imbalanced than before. The Iowa States and Kansas States of the world might hate Texas and Oklahoma, but they still want to play the Longhorns and Sooners every year. Is cutting the number of times that they can play UT and OU in half worth adding anyone other than a Florida State-level program? They're likely thinking that the answer is "No" right now.

The most realistic schools that the Big 12 can add that make some sense are Louisville (who the Big 12 looked at heavily last year before expanding with West Virginia) and BYU (which is a school with a national fan base). The issues are that (1) the Louisville/BYU combo probably doesn't add enough financially for the rest of the conference, (2) there's the divisional split issue that I mentioned above and (3) BYU has had stringent TV demands (e.g. a guaranteed number of national appearances) ever since it received its contract with ESPN that the Big 12 (and even the Big East, which we'll get to in a moment) would recoil at. Therefore, I doubt that the Big 12 adds anyone in the near future based on logic (with the caveat that not everything in conference realignment is necessarily logical).

4) The Big East that SMU thought it was joining isn't going to look much like the one they will in 2013. It's always been the weak sister of the BCS conferences in football, but all of a sudden it's looking a lot weaker in basketball as well. What's their outlook in the post BCS world?

The Big East is likely going to occupy the "tweener" position: clearly below the five power conferences and clearly above the formerly-known-as-non-AQ conferences. As dysfunctional as the Big East might be, it will still be a more competitive football league than the Mountain West and Conference USA when Boise State and others such as SMU join (so the geographic outliers of the new-look conference are still better off).

What will be key for the Big East is whether they get a good-to-great TV deal. I've heard everything ranging from ACC-level figures because NBC/Comcast is so desperate for content to very low numbers since ESPN won't bid much (meaning that NBC/Comcast can get the Big East for a bargain basement price). My guess is that it will be somewhere in the middle (matching its on-the-field tweener status.

It's the bowl situation (which we'll talk about further in a moment) that will be a huge blow to the Big East. The top tier bowls didn't like taking Big East schools even when the league had a legit bowl draw like West Virginia. On that front, the Big East probably will be treated on par with how MWC and C-USA used to be treated (and the MWC and C-USA will get treated like how the MAC and Sun Belt used to be treated).

5) The great known unknown of this whole story is the new playoff format. How do you see that affecting conference realignment?

I don't think the playoff itself will affect conference realignment in the future, but conference realignment over the past two years has definitely affected the postseason system overall (and it's really about the top tier bows outside of the semifinals). Chasing non-guaranteed playoff spots is a red herring for college football fans - as we saw with USC this past weekend, even the most talented group of college kids can have a letdown in any given week. No conference (not even the SEC) can depend upon getting a semifinal spot year-in and year-out.

The only thing that matters are what a conference is guaranteed whether your champ is ranked #1 or #15 (which is where my Big Ten might end up being this year). In the cases of the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC, they are guaranteed New Year's Day bowl slots with massive payouts and effectively own half of the semifinal games (since they control 3 of the 6 bowls that will host the playoffs). They will then likely receive disproportionate shares of the revenue from the other 3 "Access Bowls" on top of that.

At the same time, conference realignment has returned the power structure of college football back to where the BCS started in 1998. All AQ teams in 1998 are members of the 5 power conferences today with the exception of Rutgers and Temple (who was so bad that it actually got kicked out of the Big East for a period of time) while TCU and Utah got promoted. Therefore, instead of splitting the college football world into AQ and non-AQ groups, we are now going to refer to "Contract Conferences" and "Non-Contract Conferences". Conference realignment has consolidated even more power among the 5 Contract Conferences than the 6 AQ conferences had under the BCS system. That means that the Contract Conferences can push their way on revenue and access issues even more than before and will have complete control over whether the playoff system ever expands (and my guess is that won't happen for a very long time, if it ever happens at all).

6) At what point does the pursuit of money in CFB make the refusal to pay players untenable? If you're talking about billion+ dollar TV contracts and playing 14-15+ games a season, how are these guys not professionals?

From a personal standpoint, I believe that we crossed the bridge of where colleges need to start paying players a long time ago. The amount of money that is flowing through college football and, to a lesser extent, college basketball is zooming past even Major League Baseball and the NBA. I understand the argument that college football and basketball players are receiving a scholarship (and as someone that is already investing in college funds for my three-year old twins, that's not a small amount of money), but even taking that into account, the return that the power conference schools are receiving off of their backs is enormous.

So, I'm in full support of paying college players because universities are subverting the basic principles of free market economics today when it comes to those student athletes (much less any moral or ethical arguments that many others have made). It's just that this is a central issue that virtually every school is going to refuse to relent upon and the courts seem to agree with them, so I doubt that this will change.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.