Cardinal Rule; Why Stanford May Be the Key to Conference Expansion.

I’ll admit it; the possibility of conference expansion is a full blown obsession for me at this point.  After maligning the Big 10 and the Pac 10 for thoughts of expansion and a conference championship game money grab, I’ve moved through my own twelve step recovery plan that included denial (the Big 10 will stick with tradition), to acceptance (this thing is going to happen) to a fanatical detachment from reality (Texas is joining the Big Ten as part of a 16 team super-conference) to anger (time to beat a dead horse in the form of a little green leprechaun), to a return full circle to plausible deniability (my spell checker says that this is not a word, but I don’t believe her).

Now that the dust has settled, I’ve cleared my head and I’m thinking a bit more rationally.  And I have promised myself that I would write an article that would not be dominated by my obsession with the revenue generated by college football (it’s a personal goal of mine to write an article that does not make reference to the revenue generated by the Big 10 Network last year–wish me luck).

Like all things in life, I think the conference expansion talk is pure gamesmanship by super-wealthy men wooing college institutions like little kids threatening to swap bubble gum cards before racing home for dinner.  Just like the time I gave away my Reggie Jackson card for a can’t miss kid by the name of Dan Pasqua, I worry that one of the commissioners might blink and do something seismically stupid in the name of progre$$ (or at least that’s what keeps me up an extra five minutes at night).  Just like the prisoners’ dilemma, it’s my concern that one of the commissioners might make a terrible decision and screw everything up out of fear that the worst result might stem from somebody else doing it first.

I do believe that the Pac 10 would like to expand, if only because the conference  lacks TV revenue and consistently relevant football programs other than U.S.C.  (does anyone else in the country watch any other Pac 10 team besides the Trojans?).  Because of this, expanding to twelve members and hosting a conference championship game makes too much sense for the Pac 10 to not do it.  I do not believe that Larry Scott was hired simply to maintain the status quo; he has said that his product has been undervalued for years, and he might be right.  But in the end, it may not be his decision, or more aptly put, even the decision of the majority of the university presidents in the Pacific Ten Conference.  It may be one elite university that has only a passing interest in gridiron contests in the first place that will determine if conference expansion happens at all in any of the conferences.

First, some thoughts that I think I think are correct.  The Big 10 will not expand unless they find a program that significantly alters their landscape (that means Rutgers and Syracuse need not apply).  If they expand to just twelve teams, the only schools that make sense are Notre Dame and Texas.  This is so because both of these programs would open up new media markets that would increase the gross revenue enough for the conference as a whole, and sharing the already established wealth with another university that can’t increase the size of the pie likely will not appeal to the present members (I came close to talking about the specifics of Big 10 Network revenue, but I resisted).  While Pittsburgh and Missouri are decent enough schools, the Big 10 already has plenty of decent schools that lack sex appeal (and by sex appeal I mean schools from average to big size TV markets that could significantly contribute to the TV revenue pot).  Notre Dame will pass, because, well,  they are Notre Dame; their shit’s just too damn sweet smelling for the Big 10 Outhouse, or so they would have you believe.  I believe that I have beat this horse to death, but if you have missed it, check out this link.

As for Texas, I never thought that the Big 10 really thought that Texas would ever seriously entertain such a move, and thus never even bothered to offer them (and according to Texas, the Big 10 has not approached them, and yet, they still felt the need to publicly reject this non-offer).  Instead, many believe it was a shrewd move on the Big 10’s part to include Texas in a leaked media report as an opening gambit.  One theory goes something like this; suggest that maybe you would consider inviting three teams from the Big 12 to join your new super conference, say Texas, Texas A&M and pick either Nebraska (better football tradition) or Missouri (probably bigger TV markets, St. Louis & Kansas City).  Such a move would cause a domino effect that would cause the Big 12 to crumble, with teams scrambling for new assignments.  When this happens, Colorado might join the Pac 10.  Needing replacements, the Big 12 could steal a Mountain West team or two, say a school like TCU, weakening if not destroying this conference altogether (some have suggested that the Pac 10, looking to add two teams, might also take either Utah or BYU from the Mountain West, or even Boise State from the WAC).  In other words, complete and total conference chaos.

Should the Big 12 be threatened, some argued, maybe Texas would seriously have to consider relocating, and the Big 10 would be financially as good as any place for the Longhorns to land.  This might not work because Texas is shrewd enough to realize that they would be the crown jewel in this scenario; reject the overture and the Longhorns could remain right where they are.   There is another way that this perceived pressure could be applied to Texas; maybe the Pac 10 starts the ball rolling by first picking off Colorado.  Should this happen, a jump by Texas could possibly be sold politically as a necessary reactionary move by the Longhorns (hey you can’t blame us, the Big 12 is crumbling!).  Or, still yet another theory, maybe the whole idea was simply advanced to make Notre Dame think that all of this was really possible.

And any or all of this could have happened but for the Stanford Cardinal.  See, if the Pac 10 needs to act first to set the dominoes in motion as described above, then rest assured that the conferences three years from now will look exactly like they do today.   That’s because the Pac 10 decided a long time ago that changing their conference structure by adding or removing a member requires a unanimous vote, which is another way of saying that it isn’t going to happen.  It’s my rule of 3; when more than three people are asked to come to a consensus on something, you might as well forget it.   It was that very same Stanford Cardinal after all that rejected a Texas bid to join the Pac 10 at the end of the eighties (can you imagine how much money not adding the number one grossing college football team in the country has cost the Pac 10?), presumably because of academic concerns, and it’s that same Stanford Cardinal that most likely will block any attempt by the Pac 10 to expand it’s membership further circa 2010.

I mean, when you choose this as your mascot, how much do you care about athletics anyway?

It’s why I chuckle when I hear people suggest that maybe the Pac 10 would add a school like Boise State.  Could you imagine an elite university like Stanford allowing such a third tier school to join their conference?  If you can, then you do not understand all things Stanford (point noise upward and pronounce stan-FERD).  You see, Stanford has approximately $1 million dollars in research grants for each student enrolled at their small private exclusive (read snobby) university, meaning that their football program is truly the equivalent of the community softball league; an activity for a handful of oddball deviants on campus that has little appeal for the rest of the student body.  Stanford could scrap their football program tomorrow and the absence of these games would barely be noticed by the few thousands of student loyalists that even bother to attend them.  And because of the research grants, Stanford would hardly miss the revenue generated from their football program, a paltry sum by comparison.

For Stanford, the decision to expand would almost entirely turn on the quality of the academic institution being considered.  If you want to bring us a Harvard, Yale, or the University of Chicago we’ll listen, but you can go ahead and keep your Colorado  Buffalos or Boise State Broncos Stanford might say.  This is precisely why Mr. Larry Scott has already floated the possibility of challenging the NCAA rule that a conference must have 12 teams to host a championship game; he knows his conference will not have 12 members any time soon.  And if Colorado does not leave the Big 12 for the Pac 10, and the Big 10 does not go after Nebraska or Missouri, then the Big 12 is safe.  That means that not only will Texas not seriously consider leaving, but Notre Dame will not believe for one second that the sky is really falling.  And without such a threat,  Notre Dame’s athletic director Jack Swarbrick will never be able to convince his peeps that forsaking independence is a necessary evil, despite how much money Notre Dame will be leaving on the table.  And it’s my guess that the Big 10 will not seriously entertain expansion from a list of schools that includes Missouri, Nebraska, Syracuse, Rutgers, or Pittsburgh.  Simply put, not enough money in such a move to justify splitting their existing pot a twelfth way.

In other words, while it’s been fun to talk about, the NCAA Bowl Subdivision may look exactly the same three years from now.  If so, we may have the Stanford Cardinal to either blame or thank for it.



Categories: College Football

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11 replies

  1. Hilarious! You make your point sharply and convincingly all the while keeping me in pain from laughter. Great column. Let me know what you hear from Stanford alums.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful blog on this interesting topic. The Pac Ten commissioner would have unanimous suppport now for the addition of Texas and Texas A&M, but there is no motivation financially for Texas to leave the Big 12. I suspect that there are efforts aimed at adding Colorado and one other school – Utah, Missouri, or Nebraska. The last two are looking toward the Big Ten or staying in the Big 12, so Utah is only realistic option. Stanford might be the lone nay in a vote held today, but that won’t prevent the Pac Ten brass from building their case and trying to make it happen. Pac Ten expansion would cause some reshuffling, but the Big 12 will remain an elite conference because Texas and Oklahoma have important financial reasons to stay together.

    The oseismic shift would occur if the Big Ten went to 16 teams. If they add Missouri, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers, and Connecticut, they would control every TV from NY to Kansas City; even Notre Dame would feel that. It is that threat that will lead the Big Ten to what they really want…Notre Dame will join the Big Ten later this year. One thing Notre Dame wants less than joining the Big Ten is to be left out altogether.

    What would become of the Big East? Even less could lead to a fracture of the union between the public football schools and the catholic non-football schools. The Syracuse v. Georgetown rivalry only takes you so far. Two leagues would result: a 12 team BCS conference with good basketball (add Memphis, Central Florida, Army, and Navy), and an 8 team power conference in basketball with the addition of Xavier. The effect on conferences such as the WAC and Conference USA could be devastating.

  3. NM Husky, excellent analysis, thank you for posting. I do think that there absolutely is a financial basis for Texas to leave the Big 12, but it would not be for the Pac 10. Each Big Ten School earned $22 million dollars from the Big 10 Network last year; Texas earned I believe about $12 million with their unbalanced Big 12 deal. Right now, the Pac 10 just doesn’t generate that kind of revenue to entice Texas. I don’t know if you checked it out, but I wrote a good 16 team Big 10 article at this link (http://thepolesposition.com/2010/02/18/2018-big-16-championship-ohio-state-28-texas-24/) which outlines a proposal for Texas, Texas A&M and two other Big 12 schools to join the Big 10. I now think political pressure in the state of Texas will stop this from happening.

    If you look at the Texas and Oklahoma history, it really doesn’t go all that far back. And, in 1989, when Texas was shopping for a conference, they first went to the Pac 10 then the Big 10. In other words, they were willing to leave Oklahoma in a different conference. They can always schedule an annual OOC game, so this is not a deal breaker as far as I’m concerned.

    The only other part of your analysis that I would take issue with is that I do NOT think Utah will ever be offered a spot in the Pac 10. This time, though, I think it would be Cal blocking them. The reasons for this would be political; Utah is a Mormon based state that pumped millions of dollars into California to make sure an anti-gay marriage proposal passed. Cal is as liberal a university as you will find anywhere, and my guess is that their student base would revolt if a Utah school was invited to join the Pac 10.

    Otherwise, your analysis is spot on. Thanks for the comments.

  4. Hi Michael,

    I, like you, have become completely obsessed with conference expansion/realignment. However, I have not read many perspectives that have placed the blame/credit at the feet of my beloved Stanford Cardinal. That made your piece a great deal of fun to read.

    First, no need to lay on the anti-elitist schtick when talking about Stanford. Leave that nonsense to the weenies across the bay. I love Pac10 football and college football in general and am more than open to any changes that will make the game better, especially playoffs. I know I’m not the only Stanford fan to feel this way.

    As for our tepid fan support, it is a lamentable but real fact. We may have close to 15000 students on campus, but half of those are graduate students who tend to stay loyal to their undergraduate institutions. Just the same, we manage to field many excellent sports teams. I believe we’ve won the Director’s Cup for something like 15 straight years and are second to only UCLA in NCAA championships. We care greatly about sports.

    That being said, it is true that we are probably the biggest impediment to change. In some instances that makes me very proud. For example, blocking Boise State. Talk about a one-trick pony. (To be fair, they are excellent at wrestling, but you get my point.) Also, I love the round robin. I think all conferences should use it. Since expansion to 12 will kill the round robin and do very little to add to the conference’s exposure short of adding Texas and Texas A&M, I am glad we are likely to block it.

    I hate the 12-team format for a few reasons. First, it will likely result in a regression to 8 conference games. I like watching games against hated and familiar foes. Trading a conference game for a non-conference game would be a downgrade of my fan experience. Second, many of the proposed divisional alignments do not allow Stanford to keep all 3 of the rivals I care about most – Cal, UCLA, and USC – as yearly opponents. The Pacific Northwest schools will block a north/south division for fear of losing ground on CA recruiting and the ACC-style zipper will not allow all four CA schools to stay together. I do not think there is a good way to align a 12-team league here out west.

    But if we must expand to stay relevant, the only type of expansion that gets me excited is the idea of a Pac-16. Really, it would be a return to the Pac8 in the west division, and the addition of an east division with the AZ schools and 6 newcomers. Texas and Texas A&M must be among the 6 new schools for this to work. The AZ schools must be given a lucrative recruiting market to target to compensate for their reduced exposure in CA. Of course, for the Stanford brass to sign off on 6 schools would mean that they can’t be Boise-esque in their academic reputation. That means no Texas Tech. I am thinking that in addition to the 2 Texas schools, we can invite Utah*, BYU*, Colorado and Nebraska. See this USC fan website to see how they measure up:

    http://www.tributetotroy.com/expansion.php

    I have no idea if the Texas schools would find it worth their while to grab 2 BigXII North schools, 2 MWC schools and 2 Pac10 schools to form an eastern division. I think it would make for great TV, though, both regionally and nationally. And it would preserve, for the most part, our tradition of rivalry pairings. What do you think?

    * Politically, I think the Utah schools may be a hard sell after Prop 8 in CA, but I think we may get over that when we realize how awesomely heated that will make inter-divisional games against those schools.

  5. Robber Baron, thanks for the well reasoned post. I am a huge ASU and tOSU fans, and you will find that I regularly take shots at both of those schools for various reasons. Life is too short to take oneself (and their school) too seriously. When I was applying to law school, Stanford was at the top of my list (I did not earn an LSAT score high enough to qualify, so I did not go through with this application, but honestly, I’m not bitter about this). I visited Stanford once and loved the school. I felt an “air of superiority” in the attitude of some of the students I ran into there, but in truth, I actually appreciated this. Academically, Stanford simply is a better school, and students and alums have earned the right to be a bit cocky about this. Take my comments as more and tongue and cheek humor if you will.

    I don’t know if you saw my other reply to NM Husky below, but I think there is no way that Texas would consider going to the Pac 10. As things stand right now, the Pac 10’s TV revenue is simply too low for the Longhorns to even consider jumping ship and moving to the Pac 10. Also, because Texas is in the central timezone, games in California would not make much sense for Texas, they could not show these in prime time back in the home state.

    I wrote a piece entitled 2018 Big 16 Championship (link: http://thepolesposition.com/2010/02/18/2018-big-16-championship-ohio-state-28-texas-24/) in which I make an argument for a 16 team Big 10 featuring Texas, Texas A&M and other Big 12 schools. I have since backed off the idea that Texas would join the Big 10 for political reasons, but I do believe that one day we will see 16 team superconferences, if only because consolidating the conferences will make more money for all involved. My guess is that Texas stays put and creates a Longhorn’s TV network where they split their TV revenue 1 way.

    Finally, as an ASU fan, I have argued that the Pac 10’s round robin is the best way to determine a conference champ in college football. I absolutely despise the CCG format, especially in a 12 team conference format. The Big 12’s CCG has often pitted the third or fourth best team in the conference against the best team, creating an artificial winner take all one game CCG that cheapens the whole thing as far as I’m concerned. (if interested, see the following link which details this point completely at: http://thepolesposition.com/2010/02/10/the-big-14-and-the-pac-12-conference-expansion-it-just-makes-%C2%A2ents/).

    Again, thanks for your feedback, I appreciate it.

  6. I have a feeling that behind the scenes, Big 10 expansion will come down to academics more than athletics. For quality academic institutions, the revenue generated by athletics is a drop in the bucket. Even for Mizzou, which by many accounts is not academically competitive with the bulk of Big 10 schools, pulls in a paltry $35 million in revenues based on all of its athletics. To put that in context, the university grabs roughly $34 million from “other student fees,” $33.5 million in recovery from indirect costs on grants, and $23 million from campus dining services. Contrast that with the over $173 million in revenue from grants and contracts, $260 million in tuition, or the $700 million in combined revenue from University Physicians and Hospitals.

    Distilling those numbers from here (http://mubudget.missouri.edu/presentations.php) by the way.

    I’m not implying that athletics don’t play a valuable role in attracting students or prying money from the wallets of nostalgic alums. I also understand that a juicy TV contract is a quick way to add cash with nothing but a change in conference affiliation and a new schedule. But we’re talking about an order of magnitude difference in importance.

    If the Big 10 is serious about expansion for the sake of adding a championship game, then they should grab a 12th school that fits their academic profile and move on. That 12th school doesn’t have to promise the New York television market to be successful, it just has to cover what it doesn’t already add by the additional revenue generated by a conference championship game (and continued exposure late in the season).

    On the other hand, if the Big 10 is really trying to build a super conference by risking some of the chips it’s earned in recent profitability, each new school will still ultimately have to bring more to the table than any 12th team would. Maybe that’s possible, maybe when you control all the teams you can write whatever TV contract you like, but in the shorter term adding only a 12th team with the right credentials makes sense.

  7. throwingoranges, you are correct when you say that revenue from TV is not the biggest source. However, I’m a little confused about the other sources of revenue that you listed (e.g. dining services). I’m not sure how that even plays into conference expansion as that money wouldn’t be shared.

    The real prize in my mind is the money generated from research and develop. Government contracts run in the billions of dollars. I wrote an article where I suggested a 16 team super-conference including Texas would command about $8 billion dollars in R & D contracts (and they would have about a quarter of the total Senators from the various states in this alliance). And since there is a sharing of information amongst the CIC members (present Big 10 plus University of Chicago), resources would be pooled increasing the pie for everyone. See http://thepolesposition.com/2010/02/18/2018-big-16-championship-ohio-state-28-texas-24/ for full details.

    It’s Why I think Texas is the homerun here and why I think they would never consider the SEC and probably not the Pac 10. WHile there are some schools that do better in R & D dollars than the Big 10 schools like Stanford, as a conference, no one collectively is a better fit completely when considering sports, academics, and R & D grants than the Big 10.

    Thanks for the comments!

  8. Hi. My (obviously opaque) point was that the contribution of athletics-based revenues to a particular university are on par with things like dining services (i.e., not exactly lucrative), and that academics-based revenues are a much bigger deal (consistent with your point). If the Big 11 chooses to expand by just one team, academic fit should trump all of the other factors. Yes, that favors Texas, but it also favors Stanford, Yale, and Oxford. Looking a little closer to home for the Big 11, it makes Pitt, or maybe Missouri, a bit more viable as well. A 12th team brings with it a championship game and minimizes the dilution of resources to existing members. A 14-team or 16-team conferences must produce exponential growth to similarly benefit the existing members because they bring greater dilution as well.

  9. Throwing oranges, check out my new piece if you haven’t seen it yet at (http://thepolesposition.com/2010/04/22/a-history-lesson-the-case-against-a-16-team-super-conference/) where I go into detail analyzing the various rankings of the schools in terms of both academic standing and revenue generated from research and development (schools that are not big players in R&D need not apply because the CIC shares both revenue and secrets with its members). I do agree with you that any decision the Big 10 makes will take into consideration a wide array of factors to encompass all of these things. I also think that the incoming universities will need to show a strong desire to be part of the conference, which is why ND’s recent comments about joining because they felt forced to do so may not cut it.

    Thanks for the feedback. It appears we are on the same page.

  10. We’ve seen remarks to the effect that Colorado and Missouri have modest academic reputations.

    Not true. Both Colorado and Missouri are member institutions of the Association of American Universities. This group of 63 research universities includes Stanford, Duke, Caltech, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Chicago and Yale. Also members of the AAU: Rutgers, Syracuse, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa State, Texas and Texas A&M.

    (Among the schools not in the AAU: Notre Dame.)

    Three major athletic conferences hold AAU membership as a priority: the Pac-10, the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast.

    A full list of AAU member schools may be viewed here:
    http://www.aau.edu/about/article.aspx?id=5476

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