A history Lesson: The case against a 16 team Super-Conference

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 [1]. 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.

Even with Coke bottle glasses, Joe Paterno can see the importance of inviting a member that would be a long term fit for the Big 10.

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.

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9 replies

  1. Good article. You raise very valid points. I found Joe Pa’s comments a couple of weeks ago interesting when he said something along the lines of if you are going to marry someone, make sure they are as in love with you as are you with them. I interpreted that as a direct shot at Notre Dame. As you indicate, the problem with Notre Dame is whether a small, private, Catholic school focused on undergraduate education is compatible with a collection or primarily large, public, state-flagship, research oriented institutions. IMO, the answer is “maybe”.

    Northwestern has demonstrated that a private school can thrive in the Big Ten so long as it has high academic standards and a commitment to research. Notre Dame has the undergraduate education profile and previously had demonstrated a commitment to expanding its research profile during prior Big Ten negotiations.

    The bigger issue are the statements from Jack Swarbuck and ND alumni about its identity being linked to football independence. This is problematic in that it indicates that ND really isn’t interested in joining the Big Ten because of its wanting to be part of the Big Ten; it indicates it would be open to joining the Big Ten only if there were no other viable options. This is a significant difference and indicative of a significant risk of inviting Notre Dame. Fortunately, despite the media frenzy over Notre Dame, the Big Ten’s public statements (primarily from Delaney, Barry Alvarez and Joe Pa) indicate that Notre Dame is not necessarily top of the list and that Notre Dame would need to show a requisite commitment before being accepted.

    Fortunately, there are good candidates that would allow the Big Ten to expand to 14 teams, increase revenue for the Big Ten network and maintain its core identity by adding Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers. All three fit the Big Ten profile of large, state, research universities and all would be thrilled with the possibility of joining the Big Ten and CIC (Missouri has already been publicly lobbying for an invite). While none of these schools have national star power (other than Nebraska for football), all would fit in culturally with the Big Ten.

    This would also allow the Big Ten to fit within two divisions of natural rivals based on time zone, which would also help increase the conference cohesiveness. Also, going to 14 teams would leave open the possibility of Texas and Notre Dame joining in the future.

  2. As a writer and teacher, I appreciate not only your riveting, thought-provoking pieces but also the style and intelligence with which they’re written. In an age of pretty much nothing regarding sports journalism, you take us back to the best of the trade. Thanks for again making football as exciting in print as it is on the field.

  3. Gjlynch, I think that you did identify the three best schools if we assume that Texas is not interested. Texas is clearly the number one choice as they represent large TV markets, an already financially successful athletic department, and they already rank fairly high in R&D grants. If we do not get them (and I believe we will not), then Missouri is probably next best because of the combination of the two media markets and their R&D grants. Nebraska is an interesting case because they are at the top of the R&D expenditure list and we know they have a rabid fan base, but there isn’t one TV market in Nebraska that seriously impacts the Big 10 Network. Rutgers to me is a mixed bag; the State of N.Y. is extrmely high on R&D grants and that’s obviously the #1 market in the country, but I really wonder if enough people care about the Rutgers football team to really get a footbhold into that market.

    It’s amazing to me how many people analyze expansion without ever talking about academic standing and the R&D grants. I will not minimize the value of adding TV markets to the equation, but TV money at this point is in the millions while the R&D grants are in the billions.

    Thanks for your input. It was a well thought out response. Sounds like we are on the same page.

  4. A lot has been written comparing the 16 team WAC to a 16 team Big Ten. I don’t really think the comparison is particularly apt. First, the geographic footprint would be substantially less. Even in the widest expansion the Big Ten would be no where near the WAC covering effectively all the western states. Second, the connections are much stronger than the WAC was. The WAC always has been a bit of a grab bag of random schools. Finally, the money is on a whole different level. Even if a substantially different distribution method replaces (cable) television, if a conference is better now at 16 it seems highly likely that it will be better then.

    I agree that there aren’t many examples for the possibility. Personally, I think the NFL is probably the more realistic.

  5. M,

    Completely agree with you that the money is different (and I said as much in the article). The point of my article is that I have some concern if they grab some schools from the Big East and some from the Big 12 as you could end up with teams from three different regions of the country (depending on which B12 team(s) are chosen and if you consider this team to still be midwest or not).

    You might be right regarding the distribution model (as part of the attractiveness for internet TV would be the sheer number of games a particular site could offer). The key for me here would be the potential decrease in subscriber fees and ultimately revenue for the conference. Right now, everyone who signs up for Direct TV contributes to ESPN whether they like it or not; from the sports junkie to the little old lady that watches reruns on TruTV. I just don’t see the latter going to sports sites, which means that it might be very difficult for a network to retain these dollars if the medium switches to the internet.

    Thank you for your comments, I appreciate the feedback. Hope you enjoyed the post.

  6. Oh, and I need to correct one of my comments written above: obviously Rutgers is in New Jersey and NOT New York. I have read that despite this, many people in New York actually are alums and still follow the school, meaning that the New York TV market might still be in play (though this tends to support my assertion that Rutgers might not really play a huge role in capturing this market). However, my post above is flat wrong to the extent that it suggests Rutgers is a huge player in the R&D game, as the graphic clearly demonstrates that the whole State of New Jersey ranks fairly low on R&D expenditures. Hope this clears things up for anyone who has reviewed the comments.

  7. I think that the academic portion of the argument is being overhyped. And don’t say it’s not getting enough attention because it’s getting attention everywhere… I hear about academics more than I hear about football. So, believe me, people are paying attention to it. But CIC membership (which is de facto membership in the Big Ten, except for Chicago, which probably brings in the most research money) and membership in other research cooperative organizations is not directly related to Big Ten membership. So, yes, there’s billions of dollars involved here, but the alternative argument is the presumption that inviting schools with enormous research dollars has a direct effect on them getting increased research funding. So, what, you’re saying is this…

    Federal grant coordinator (FGC) #1: “So, Michigan’s medical school has this ground-breaking technology that may save the lives of millions. We should consider funding it.”

    FGC #2: “Yeah, and they’re members of that CIC, which is pretty good for them too.”

    FGC #3: “But they invited UConn to join the Big Ten, and they suck. Let’s give the grant to someone else.”

    The CIC and other research institutions are cooperative relationships. But they don’t get each other anything in addition based on those relationships. Michigan and Minnesota are competing with each other, and with Duke and Harvard and whoever else for that research funding. But when you consider that the Big Ten is basically picking among other highly respected institutions… well, it kinda balances out. Adding Rutgers no more harms the Big Ten, CIC, or other reputation, than having Indiana in the Big Ten does. They’re state schools, big research institutions with solid to good academic reputations. So, when the candidates only exist of these types of schools, all things being equal…

    THIS IS ABOUT FOOTBALL, AND FOOTBALL MONEY. And the fact is that Missouri and other schools will bring about improvements in their revenue with added subscribers. True, you can’t expand revenue indefinitely, but the primary restriction on Big Ten revenue flow is that the BTN doesn’t command a lot of viewers outside of the Midwest. To that argument, adding UConn, Rutgers, Missouri, Nebraska are solid arguments. Notre Dame and Pittsburgh would fit too.

    And it is Texas that helps me drive my point home. The fact is that the Big XII is a modern construction that was created solely for the purposes of football. That’s it. The Big XII parties formed out of the destroyed SWC and Big 8, and out of necessity. It wasn’t a thoughtful cooperation of respected universities that saw a common academic purpose and mission. The Big Ten has had decades of cross-branding its academic and athletic excellence. And to some sense, they have, but they’re still a football conference. But the Big XII is JUST a football conference.

    I went to a Big Ten school, but Texas doesn’t need Big Ten affiliation to prove its academic mettle. They’ve got a stellar reputation if they are in the Big XII, Big Ten, SEC, or even go solo. Being associated with Big Ten schools, simply out of an academic argument, minimizes the power and leverage that Texas has, and how much financial clout its athletic department has. That being said, I think that Texas would, if they wanted to move, rather join the SEC more than the Big Ten.

    The fact is that even though the BTN does bring home more cash ($5M more a year now), the current SEC deal allows member schools with much more room to negotiate potentially lucrative deals outside of it. When you consider the added value it means to have games nationally televised on the ESPN networks, including at least 8 televised appearances for every school, and that a large part of the country does not even get the Big Ten network, there is enormous value there. Also, when considering that the current SEC deal allows schools to control archival rights to games, coaches shows, not to mention showing games from a plethora of other sports, Texas could potentially join the SEC AND form a “Big Texas Network.” Would the Big Ten allow that? I doubt it. That’s why Texas won’t join the Big Ten. It’s a deal they can’t back out of. It’s a partnership that could not be ended. It’s that it would be selling its soul for a share of that $22M and would lose any leverage that it once had, including the current potential it has to make even more than the Big Ten. That’s why the Texas and Oklahoma schools are a natural fit for the SEC… because of exposure, visibility, big money, and a measure of independence.

    But let’s face it, in the end, this is about Notre Dame. Notre Dame or 16 schools, hell or high water. The ACC will add the rest of the Big East, and the SEC will make its play for Texas, A&M, OU, and Ok.St.

    And the WAC parallels are a non-existent. The problem with a 16-team WAC was that it was done solely out of desperation. Had a 16-team WAC brought in Big Ten or SEC money, there would still be a 16-team WAC.


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