UPDATE: FedEx released a statement through spokesperson Carla Boyd on Sunday refuting CBSSports.com's report. "While FedEx is supportive of the University of Memphis' efforts to join a BCS conference, recent reports that FedEx is offering financial incentives as part of this initiative are incorrect," the statement read. "FedEx executives have not had any discussions with BCS conference officials regarding conference realignment."
Instead of relying on a powerful football program, a widespread fan base or a strong academic profile to earn an invitation to a more formidable conference, Memphis is taking a slightly more unconventional approach.
The Tigers are offering a bribe.
Multiple sources told CBSSports.com that deep-pocketed FedEx CEO Fred Smith has made it known his company is willing to pay as much as $10 million a year to any BCS conference willing to pluck the Tigers from Conference USA obscurity. Memphis-based FedEx is a major supporter of the university, but the corporation would also benefit from the Tigers joining a more prominent league because the naming rights to the school's arena would increase in value.
The knee-jerk reaction is to be horrified that a corporation is essentially trying to buy Memphis' way to the Big East or SEC, but consider that money is already the driving force in conference realignment anyway. Memphis lacks the football pedigree or top 30 TV market of some of its peers, so the school has lined up a booster willing to pay to make up the difference.
In the wake of a dizzying week in which Nebraska, Colorado and Boise State already switched leagues and numerous other schools positioned themselves to follow suit, Memphis recognizes this is its chance to move up. Former Conference USA rivals Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul and Marquette left the Tigers behind five years ago when they joined the Big East, so Memphis is desperate not to miss its opportunity a second time.
The best chance for Memphis is probably the Big East, which may need to replace a couple of schools if the Big Ten plucks a Rutgers or Pittsburgh in its second wave of expansion in the coming months. Another possibility could be linking up with Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State to form a basketball-heavy Midwestern conference with the Big 12's leftovers.
The lone concern about FedEx's involvement in this process is the precedent it sets.
It's one thing for an elite basketball school like Memphis to attempt to buy its way into a stronger conference, but let's hope a wealthy booster from the likes of Central Florida or East Carolina don't start getting any bright ideas.
Money is already a big enough factor in conference realignment. We don't need this becoming a trend.
- BCS conference