The SWC disbanded after the WAC raided their conference ultimately forming college football’s first super-conference.
They say that those who can not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Let’s hope Delaney and the boys were not ditching second period history in the mid-nineties when a confluence of events resulted in the creation of the first NCAA football super-conference, an experiment that lasted all of three seasons.
The year was 1990, just six years after an improbable national championship for Brigham Young University, perhaps the crowning moment for the Western Athletic Conference. The rumbling began that year when Notre Dame bolted the College Football Association television package to cut its own $38 million deal with NBC. Soon after, the Big Ten decided to admit independent Penn State to its ranks, beginning with the 1993 season. It was not long thereafter that Arkansas ended its 76-year affiliation with the Southwest Conference in order to join the wealthier, more powerful Southeastern Conference, and three other major independents, Miami, Florida State and South Carolina, were scrambling to join the Big East, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the SEC, respectively. These events set the table for what would be the first super-conference experiment in college football, and the events as they unfolded provide a valuable history lesson for the Big Ten football conference as it considers expansion going forward.
Even back in 1991 many in the college football ranks predicted the rise of the super-conference. This, from the CNNsi vault:
The age of the superconference is not far off. For years, the major football programs, convinced that they have little in common with lesser NCAA members, have tried and largely failed to get the NCAA to grant them virtual autonomy. Their inability to control their own destinies is what led in 1977 to the formation of the CFA, which includes all the NCAA Division I-A schools except those in the Big Ten and Pac-10. Now, besides Notre Dame, which is almost a super conference unto itself, there are four emerging power groupings: the expanded SEC; the Big East-ACC, a sort of unofficial Eastern cartel; the Big Ten-Pac-10 alliance; and the Big Eight-SWC, a potential Midwestern entity. Of these, the most vulnerable is the developing partnership between the Big Eight and the SWC, which are exploring what SWC commissioner Fred Jacoby calls “more of an alliance than a merger.”
This would happen in just five short years.
In 1992, Fresno State expanded their athletic programs and was granted admission to the WAC bringing the total number of teams in the conference to ten. Then in 1996, the WAC expanded again, this time adding Rice, TCU, and SMU from the Southwest Conference, ultimately forcing the SWC to disband. Not finished yet, the WAC added San Jose State and UNLV from the Big West Conference and Tulsa from the Missouri Valley Conference. The result was a two division four quadrant monster of sixteen teams loosely affiliated in one super conference. The Wal-Mart Athletic conference, as some called it, represented college athletics in bulk: quantity over quality.
This shotgun marriage of sixteen dissimilar programs spanning 9 states and four time zones from Texas to Hawaii probably never really had a chance. From Wikipedia:
Increasingly, this arrangement was not satisfactory to most of the older, pre-1990 members. Five members in particular (Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, Utah and Wyoming) felt that WAC expansion had compromised the athletic and academic excellence of the membership . Additional concerns centered around finances, as the new league stretched from Hawaiʻi to Oklahoma and travel costs became a concern. In 1999, those five schools, along with old line WAC schools New Mexico and San Diego State, as well as newcomer UNLV, would split off and form the Mountain West Conference, depriving the WAC of most of its competitive strength and almost all of its history (in addition to its 4 remaining charter members). Only UTEP and Hawaiʻi would remain from the WAC’s “golden age.”
From this it was clear that two things killed that 16 team WAC: 1) disharmony between the members brought on by differences in the schools, and 2) the eventual and perhaps inevitable fight over the almighty dollar.
Which brings us to talk of the Big 10 possibly expanding to 16 teams. I have seen several different 16 team models proposed on the internet. The two that make the most sense to me are: 1) A big 10- Big 12 conference merger with Texas as the centerpiece; and 2) a New York based model that includes Notre Dame (many articles that I have encountered suggest that ND commands high ratings in New York, and thus would be key to capturing that market).
As for a Big 10-Big 12 merger, I wrote about one expansion whereby the Big 10 would first lure Texas and Texas A&M to their conference, creating instability in the Big 12 that would ultimately culminate with the additions of Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas. Texas would be key in this expansion because they are the number one grossing athletic department in all of college football, ensuring the economic viability of such a move. Missouri would be beneficial because they would bring in both the St. Louis (#21 ranked) and Kansas City (#31 ranked) television markets. Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, are also valuable to an expanded Big 10 Conference, to varying degrees, because of their research and development contracts, as depicted in this graphic. It may be the case, however, that, without Texas, the remaining schools do not make expansion economically viable long term.
Stop me if you heard this one before, but Notre Dame could be the key to Big 10 expansion
From the state famously dubbed the lone star, the major university in Texas has frustrated many in the Big 12 who are unhappy with the unbalanced deal that pays the Longhorns a disproportionate share of the conference’s revenue. Many have wondered if Texas would prefer to start their own Network splitting the proceeds just the one way. Do they really want to hitch their star to the likes of the Northwestern, Purdue, and Indiana wagons of the Big 10? I’m not so sure. And perhaps the University of Texas may be concerned with a long term affiliation with a Big Ten Conference that has consistently seen a population shift away from the region to the southern and western U.S. states. While I like the 16 team Big 10-Big 12 merger discussed above, in part because it involves merging teams from essentially the central time zone of the United States, the key to this move as far as I’m concerned is convincing Texas to come along for the ride. My guess is that they will not.
Another model bandied about the internet can accurately be called the New York model, whereby the Big 10 tries to force it’s way into that TV market by adding Syracuse, Rutgers, and possibly UConn. As discussed above, I believe there is significant skepticism as to whether these three schools alone can deliver the New York Market without the inclusion of a school like Notre Dame (it is not a coincidence that a neutral site game has been scheduled between Notre Dame and Army at the new Yankee Stadium). While a fifth school would be added, maybe Pittsburgh or Missouri, the reality is if Notre Dame is included, the identity of this fifth school probably is not critical to the economic success of the New York Model.
The Committee on Institutional Cooperation includes all of the present Big 10 members plus the University of Chicago and commands $5.6 billion dollars in government research contracts.
Often mentioned as the number one target of the Big 10, I have written several pieces fairly critical of Notre Dame, read no doubt by many as a secret desire on my part to include them in the new Big 10 Conference. But I now have my doubts that such a union could work, even if Notre Dame was willing to forsake their independence for this new world order (and Jack Swarbrick’s mixed messages have left everyone guessing). For one, the Big 10 has always been a conference of one for all and all for one, a spirit directly at odds with Notre Dame’s history of protecting the interests of numero uno. Should they determine the arrangement is not working, what is to stop Notre Dame from taking the proverbial ball and going home? And on a more practical level, a small Catholic University of just 8,000 students on the outside of the research and development game might balk should the CIC members endeavor to pursue projects at odds with positions adopted by the Catholic church. What would Notre Dame do if the CIC members landed a multi-billion dollar research grant for stem cell research? It was all the Domers could swallow to hire a coach that was purportedly pro-choice. The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that this union might be a bigger mismatch than Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts (I’ll let the reader decide who represents whom in this analogy). Without Notre Dame, I believe it would be difficult to capture the New York market, making such an expansion possibly of marginal economic benefit to the Conference as a whole long term.
These are the two models that I think could potentially work. The risk of a hybrid 16 team expansion (e.g. Syracuse, Rutgers, Missouri, UConn, and Nebraska) is that you begin to assemble the loose affiliation of schools akin to the failed WAC (or is that WACky) experiment. Could the inclusion of a block of schools from different regions of the country strain the tight bond that has existed in the Big 10 since Michigan State was added in 1949? Many were concerned that the inclusion of Penn State could be problematic for just this reason, but their inclusion has been an unqualified success. But would an entire minority block with a different history, culture, and lifestyle, function to accentuate the differences between the various new members and the existing eleven? As a for instance, might Northwestern and Michigan, schools in the upper third of the academic rankings, object to the inclusion of another school ranked outside of the first tier (UConn is presently ranked at #66 by U.S. News and World Report)? What might the rest of the members of the Big 10 think if one or more of the newly added schools fails to increase TV revenue as anticipated? Does the prestigious and lucrative CIC want to share resources and R&D secrets with a university like Kansas that ranks fairly low in R&D expenditures (according to Wikipedia, the CIC members share a $5.6 billion dollar research fund)? Given all of the variables, it may be virtually impossible to accurately assess the long term viability of a block of expansion candidates, which is precisely why the Big Ten must be very careful before admitting a number of dissimilar members to its prestigious alliance.
And what of the money, the other reason many suggested that the 16 team WAC imploded? Much of the speculation of a 16 team Big 10 conference is built upon the assumption that adding members would exponentially increase revenue for the conference as a whole. This most certainly could happen, but this supposition depends upon some key assumptions. The first is that the present revenue streams in college football will continue to increase even in the wake of evidence that other professional sports leagues have showed signs of decreased revenue, in large part because of the strength of the U.S. economy (and yes, I am comparing the NCAA to other professional sports leagues). Facing a new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA for one has claimed that their league lost $400 million dollars in its last year of operation. The question is, can current revenue streams continue to expand forever? One internet poster doesn’t think so, reminding us of the recent crash in the dot.com market and the housing bubble. And while it may be reasonable to conclude that all programs would be affected by a decrease in revenue for the sport to some degree, it is equally reasonable to conclude that programs that generate moderate interest may be disproportionately affected.
One specific concern pointed out by the Pole Position is the likely transition to a TV internet based sports network, if only because of the convenience offered to the customer. One potential casualty could be the subscriber revenues earned as a result of the licensing deals with the present cable and satellite carriers, which presently figures to be approximately $112 million of the Big Ten Network’s total revenue. What’s key is that consumers pay the Big 10 Network these subscriber fees in order to obtain the cable provider’s services generally, and it’s not clear how the Network would be able to capitalize on these subscription fees on an internet based network. What if the advent of the internet actually functions to decrease the revenue for the industry as a whole, much like the music industry was reshaped by the MP3? Could you imagine the fights that might ensue if sixteen are feeding from a trough that once fed just eleven fat cats? Ask Karl Benson, commissioner of the WAC, and he will tell you all about it.
The question becomes, should revenue streams change in ways not anticipated, what might come of a Big Ten super-conference loosely affiliated based solely on projected revenue streams? While the Big Ten has a Network in place that suggests such an expansion would be drastically different from the 1996 WAC model, the failures of that league provides at least a cautionary tale in part because the problems also stemmed from the differences inherent in a collection of 16 different schools from 9 states (some on the internet have suggested that the Big 10 could keep their name because the members would be from 10 different U.S. states). Just last week, Joe Paterno, the elder statesman of the Big 10, was quoted as saying “When you get married, you better marry somebody you love, and that means somebody who appreciates what you want to do. It’s a question of bringing somebody in that can handle the academics, the research … commitment to women’s sports, the commitment to all sports programs. Now, can you find one, two, three, four? I don’t know.” This author suggests that an expansion that involves five teams from multiple regions of the country increases the chances of this type of disharmony exponentially.
Delaney and the Big 10 University Presidents will do themselves well to mind their history before changing the landscape of the oldest and arguably the most successful NCAA football conference of all time, lest history should once again repeat itself.
Categories: College Football