Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Conference Expansion: Don't Speak Too Soon for the Wheel Still it Spins

I have gotten a few comments, e-mails, and confused calls from friends, all along the same lines: why haven't you written anything about the sea changes going on in your favorite sport? There are two reasons. First, when the World Cup is around the corner, everything else takes a back seat for me. El Mundial is my favorite sporting event. It represents one of my earliest sporting memories, sitting in the basement of our house in Pittsburgh in 1982 with my Dad and our neighbor Leonardo watching PBS's coverage of the World Cup. It's one of those rare, we can all get along events that appeals to my natural optimism. It's a proving ground for new stars and a platform for the swan songs of legends. Put it this way: I like basketball and I was only vaguely familiar that Game Six of the Finals was on last night.

The second reason is that the conference expansion was a constantly shifting landscape of rumor. In retrospect, what would the point have been of writing about the Pac 16? It looked like the Pac Ten was going to engulf the Big XII South, but then that didn't happen. It looked like Notre Dame was finally going to join the Big Ten, but then that didn't happen. It looked like Texas A&M was going to make a brave move to independence, but then that didn't happen. Frankly, there was enough bandwidth wasted on scenarios that didn't play out and I didn't feel like I had much to add to the dreaming. Now that we've reached a stopping point, I have a few thoughts. Naturally, I'll start with a claim of victory:

1. College basketball has been killed by the Tournament. In all of the discussions about who was going to end up where, did you notice that Kansas was completely on the sidelines? The Big Ten wasn't interested and the Pac Ten wasn't interested, which left the Jayhawks as bystanders, hoping that other decision-makers would reach conclusions that would be incidentally beneficial. The fact that Kansas - one of the top five college basketball programs, both historically and at current - is an irrelevant property should tell you all you need to know about college hoops. The same was true during ACC expansion. The ACC - the nation's best basketball conference - expanded to add football powers (plus BC, for faulty reasons) and to have a championship game. The objections of the basketball programs in the conference were brushed aside. (In retrospect, those concerns were valid, as the ACC has diluted its identity as a top basketball property, but it hasn't progressed on the gridiron.)

From a revenue perspective, college football is a more valuable property for three reasons: (1) Americans love football; (2) college football has a meaningful regular season because it doesn't kill its product with an expansive playoff; and (3) the programs that generate TV money get to keep that money. The third point is critical here. Generally speaking, the TV money from the Big Dance goes to the NCAA, which then spends the money to maintain its bureaucracy and for other, feel-good goals. The TV money that college football generates goes back to the schools and conferences that are responsible for the eyeballs watching games. If you want to know why college football's stakeholders don't want a big playoff administered by the NCAA, this is the reason. And they're not wrong. Just ask Kansas.

2. Identity Still Matters. Unlike the ACC's attempt to repackage itself as a football power, the Big Ten seems to have a good understanding of its brand: a Midwestern conference that favors tough, physical teams. Adding Nebraska makes perfect sense. Jon Chait made a good point ($) about expansion:

You can put together a conference that looks powerful on paper. But it's a bit like trying to meet women through a computer dating service. A match that looks good on paper might fail in real life for reasons that can't be quantified.

If the lessons of the conference conglomeration fad teach us anything, it's that tradition and history matter. You can't just bring schools together on the basis of creating the most lucrative cable television package and expect them to cohere into a natural fit.


In the short run, the television dollars will be staggering. But in the long run, the television value will follow the actual value. And the actual value of the conference grows out of its cultural cohesion, its history, its collective identity. Every college football fan can tell you what Big Ten Football is, or what SEC football is, or Pac Ten football. Those things have an identity on the field and in their surrounding communities. Trying to build a conference tailored to maximize the value of a television footprint is a short-sighted way to maximize the real value of a conference.

Jim Delany entered the expansion process talking about the Big Ten's demographic issues, namely the fact that people are leaving the Big Ten states in droves. He ended up adding Nebraska. At some point in the process, he recognized that adding a school that fits the Big Ten, both in terms of geography and culture, made more sense than taking a run at the New York City television market. In other words, he avoided the mistake that John Swofford made when he added Boston College.

[Yes, the Big Ten would have been willing to add Texas. They would be fools not to add an athletic and academic behemoth like the one in Austin. However, the Big Ten wasn't willing to make all manner of concessions to Texas such as unequal revenue splits or dragging along its weak, but politically important cousins to make the deal happen.]

From an identity perspective, the Pac 16 was an interesting idea because it would have created two mini-conferences: the old Pac Eight and most of the old SWC with Arizona and Arizona State thrown in as Southwestern friends. Those two divisions would have made sense; the question would have been whether there would have been fighting between the divisions as there was in the Big XII between the former Big Eight teams in the North and the former SWC teams in the South.

3. It's World War I all over again! I started this process thinking that the Big XII was Germany plus the Austro-Hungarian Empire: a collection of ill-fittting allies about to break apart in a number of different directions. I am ending the process thinking that Texas is functioning as France at Versailles, imposing as harsh terms as possible on their neighbors. Texas has gone from a conference in which they were the big fish to the conference in which they are an orca swimming with baby seals. In an era in which quality non-conference games are a dying breed (and Texas certainly isn't a paragon for ballsy scheduling), this is a problem.


Chris said...

I think that it is wrong to say that college basketball has been killed by the tournament. I think the better way to look at it is that conference play has been killed by the tournament or that college basketball is just the tournament, which is still a valuable property.

There is an argument to be made about the NBA and leaving early as hurting College Basketball as well, but when looking at the conference landscape it is clear that the tournament has made that less relevant, thus, there wasnt a place in the discussion re expansion.

Conference expansion was all about generating more revenue. With a reduced NCAA Tournament do you think that you would see the conferences able to negotiate higher rates for conference play?

Anonymous said...

The tournament not only hasn't killed NCAA basketball, it's the only thing saving it. Yes, the egalitarian-ish distribution of tournament revenues makes great hoops/bad football programs like Kansas afterthoughts. But football is more popular than basketball anyway (as you note), and college football would be in dire straights if almost every highly skilled upper classman were absent, and the resulting style of play was the festering Izzo-ball (few possessions, lots of athleticism but very little skill, fouls on every play, etc.) that much of NCAA basketball has become.

M. Ortgage said...

This is all concerning the conference expansion that Don’t Speak Too Soon for the Wheel Still it Spins.