June 07, 2010
As the "who," "when" and "how" of expansion fever becomes more clear, the fundamental "why?" is easily lost in the fray. The short answer is easy: Obviously, money is why. The Big Ten wants Notre Dame because the Irish's national audience adds more eyeballs and basic cable tiers all over the country for the Big Ten Network. Ditto Texas, which adds top-10 markets in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. The Pac-10, imaging a similar network in its future, wants the Longhorns for the same reason.
The other presumptive targets, though, may not be such sure bets. As CNBC's sports business guru Darrell Rovell pointed out Monday, new additions will only add value if they can not only account for its own share of the television revenue to maintain the status quo — in the Big Ten's case, and possibly the Pac-10's if it follows suit on the network, that's about $20 million per team — but to add value to that number to make it a profitable addition. Beyond Texas and Notre Dame, the other alleged candidates for the Big Ten, Nebraska and Missouri, will have a much tougher time generating that extra value. Rutgers may have a shot, if it can deliver enough eyeballs in the coveted New York television market. In the Pac-10, as valuable as Texas is by itself, the Longhorns (and, to a lesser extent, Oklahoma and Texas A&M) will apparently have to be worth the extra baggage they're lugging along from the Big 12 South, too.
In Rovell's opinion, the super conference concept doesn't necessarily add up, and he's not the only one who thinks so:
TV revenues might double if a Pac-10 network succeeds, but if there are 16 teams involved, no one is doubling their money. Right now, TV revenue for the Pac-10 is around $100 million a year. Let’s say a new network deal after the 2011-12 season and a new network of their own adds up to $200 million in TV revenue a year.
Assuming equal splits of all 16 teams, original Pac-10 teams would only be making $2.5 million more than what they have now. And don’t forget the UCLA softball, and all its other non-generating sports, might have to travel to Texas now.
"It doesn’t make sense to add teams that don’t have incremental revenue opportunities," said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, now a TV consultant.
With this partly in mind, Pilson doesn’t think the Big 10 or the Pac-10 will add more than one or two teams.
Plus, Pilson adds, "if any conference expands to more than 12, I think they are going to run into a hailstorm of criticism and condemnation that will surely earn them a trip to Washington D.C. and to some possible lawsuits."
Rovell's solution is an unequal split of shares in the networks, based either on projected profitability ("Texas gets a full share, Colorado gets a 75 percent share, Texas Tech gets a 70 percent share and so on") or a proportional commission after the numbers come in.
Still, of all the reasons to oppose the 16-team mega-conference — not the least of which is the naked greed combined with the sense that it's not a real conference at all, at least as we've known them in college football for 100 years — the unprecedented, death-defying novelty of the venture remains the most convincing. The only conference to date that's attempted to meld existing blocks with no historical ties into an entity of that size is the old WAC, which essentially went belly-up and cleaved into two separate leagues again in less than two years in the mid-90s. Six months ago, the concept of anything larger than a dozen teams still hadn't crossed anyone's mind outside of the odd board room. (When the Big Ten and Pac-10 first announced expansion plans over the winter the assumption was that each was looking for one or two teams to get to 12, a la the other major conferences, and take the oh-so-bold step of instituting a conference championship game. It wasn't until well into the spring that rumors of a 14- or 16-team plan began circulating, and maybe not until last week that anyone outside of those board rooms started to really take them seriously.)
At the end of the timeline, whenever it is and whatever it ultimately looks like, that's likely to be the big-picture takeaway for the majority of casual fans who haven't followed every backroom twist and turn: The sheer experiment of it. Beyond the posturing and politics, there's still the basic question, "Can a 16-team conference actually work?" After they're hailed for their poker faces, the bigwigs who actually bring the super conference to life will still have to show their new lineups the money.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.