Friday, November 30, 2012

"Billionaire Ball" Review Part 2: The Rise and Fall of the Superconferences

If you made it all way through Part 1 of my review of Matt Hinton's "Billionaire Ball," you'll have read my promise to discuss how college athletics can maintain its traditions while maximizing revenue. As Hinton wrote in his essay, college athletics without tradition would be nothing more than minor leagues and thus lose its ability to generate revenue. This is why the Big East is doomed: in its desperate search for football teams, it has destroyed its northeastern basketball tradition. There is no reason to pay money to watch a matches between Tulane, East Carolina, or Cincinnati, even among supporters of those schools. There's no reason to hate each other, no reason to respect each other, no reason for a rivalry.

The movements of Maryland, Rutgers, Louisville, and others have lead many, particularly in ACC country, to ask if four superconferences are inevitable. The ACC is worried, with good reason, because they are four "nuclei" of college sports fandom in the US that can serve as the bases for superconferences: Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, and Chicago. Charlotte is just too small. The northeast corridor, barring the improbable re-emergence of the Ivy League as a sporting powerhouse, cannot form such a nucleus because its population is distributed among too many different schools. New York City will always have significant fan bases for Rutgers, Syracuse, Connecticut, and other local schools, but no school will every hold New York's attention the way USC/UCLA can hold Los Angeles's or Texas/Oklahoma can hold Dallas's. Every emergent power in college athletics will try to grab a piece of the northeast market: the Big Ten's acquisition of Rutgers and Maryland is the first move in the upcoming fight for the extra piece of the pie.

For the next few years, it's going to be all about the money. But after that, the realization will come that there is no money without tradition. No 16-team football superconference will be able to maintain meaningful traditions; as Brian Cook is fond of saying: it's not a conference, it's a scheduling arrangement. And without traditions, there's no money. I'm going to speculate here and risk being embarrassingly wrong, but, after the jump, I'll take my best shot at predicting how college athletics will make its fortune while only temporarily losing its soul.

In the short term, it's all about television money, and television money is about selling rights to the highest bidder and getting your network on basic cable. To do this, you need the biggest bundle of a conference you can manage. Many people seem convinced that we'll end up with 16-team superconferences, but I disagree. The number will be 18.

Logistically, the most sensible size for a conference is the major sports is nine teams: an eight-game full round-robin in football, and a 16-game double round-robin in basketball. However, a nine team conference can't bring in a lot of money, primarily because it's not allowed a football championship game. (Furthermore, there's not much point if you've already played a full round-robin.)  Since you can't make enough money with less than twelve teams, the size of your conference rolls towards the most sensible number greater than twelve, which is 2 x 9 = 18.

The Big XII is supposedly "in trouble" because it only has ten teams and thus loses the conference championship game payout. However, they have the ace in the hole: they're the conference with Texas. As a massively fertile recruiting ground and a rabid marketplace, Texas is in the position to make any schools that feel they're in a precarious situation an offer it can't refuse. Who's the biggest prize in a precarious position? Florida State. The next step in realignment is the Big XII inviting FSU, Miami, Clemson, and Georgia Tech to reach 14 teams, re-establish a conference championship game, and extend its cable reach across the south.

The ACC grabs Connecticut and South Florida to get back to 12 and this finally puts an end to Big East football, even if what was once "Conference USA" is calling itself the "Big East." Temple is left out. If your conference realignment plans involve don't involve Temple getting the shaft, they're just not realistic.

Notre Dame then takes a look at the new and not-improved ACC and says to itself, "I've made a huge mistake." Intent on never joining the Big Ten, ND surveys the landscape to find the best place for maintaining its aura and its echoes and getting its Freekbass on. They then make the only move crazier than a scheduling agreement with the ACC: an agreement with the Pac-12.

Despite its absurdity, this can be a win-win. Notre Dame is the only way the Pac-12 can establish a presence east of the Mississippi and reach the valuable, valuable, eyeballs there. In return, the Pac-12 lets ND negotiate a sweet deal on the TV rights that guarantees all four of its conference road games will be at 8:00 Eastern on NBC. Also, it will be worked out that ND never, ever has to play Utah. Because the Pac-12 is one of the two superconferences that makes a show of caring about academics, they grab the best available public research institution to make the Pac-14, which is New Mexico. (New Mexico is severely underrated academically. With access to both Sandia and Los Alamos National Labs, it's quietly become a great place to do research.)

Without Notre Dame, the ACC is (temporarily) finished. Looking for another football power to reach 16, the SEC offers Virginia Tech and Virginia, because the state legislature makes them a package deal. That move sets off feeding time. The Big Ten gobbles up the northeast, grabbing Pitt, Syracuse, UConn, and Boston College. Because the Big Ten cares about academics, Pitt brings Carnegie Mellon along to join the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. It's now at 18, which becomes the magic number.

The Big XII grabs Duke, UNC, Louisville, and Cincinnati to become the preeminent basketball conference and establish a foothold in the Midwest. The SEC grabs NC State to get a presence in North Carolina, and South Florida to be equal to the Big XII/ACC in Florida. Wake Forest is left out. If your conference realignment plans involve don't involve Wake Forest getting the shaft, they're just not realistic.

With the other three superconferences at 18, The Pac-14 has to reach the magic number. So it picks up the best four schools it can: BYU, Nevada, Colorado State, and San Diego State. SDSU gets the nod due to its research collaborations with UCSD; if UCSD had Division I athletics; they'd be getting this spot. Boise State gets the shaft, for now...

At this point, the land grab is now complete. We have four superconferences of 18 teams: The Big Ten, centered in Chicago, covering the Midwest and northeast; the SEC, centered in Atlanta, with a contiguous footprint from Missouri to Tampa; the Pac-18, centered in L.A., featuring 17 of the West's top schools and Notre Dame; and the Big XII, centered in Dallas, covering the Great Plains and the far Southeast. Each of these conferences is big enough to draw national interest and, more importantly, northeastern interest, and thus will be able to negotiate massive contracts with the broadcast networks and likely get their own networks on basic cable nationwide.

This will also be the point where we as fans will hate ourselves for caring about college sports. Four 18-team megaconferences featuring "rivalries" like New Mexico-Washington State, Missouri-South Florida, Iowa State-Georgia Tech, and Minnesota-Rutgers. Each league will have some sort of insane football schedule where conference mates don't face each other for years. The silver lining will be that they'll have 17-game full round-robins in basketball, and that kind of makes sense. The superconferences will have a complete stranglehold on the four-team BCS playoff, with the conference championship games becoming de facto elimination games...

...and that's what will cause sanity to reassert itself. The also-rans of the BCS, led by the enraged Boise State, Temple, and Wake Forest, will threaten anti-trust lawsuits against the BCS and the superconferences. There will be a deal, and the deal will be simple.

The conference championships that make up the de facto 8-team playoff will be abolished in return for an de jure 8-team playoff run by the NCAA. The eight top-ranked conference champions in FBS will be invited. There will be no automatic qualifier conferences or BCS-buster conferences. If a school outside the superconferences has an amazing year, it will get into the playoffs.

For the sake of football, the superconferences will break up into two nine-team conferences, and we will like what we see.

Most of the current Big Ten will get to keep Indiana basketball but get rid of Indiana football. Win-win!
The teams in each conference are listed below; teams not currently in the conference are in italics. The breakup of the Pac-18 will cause the final shake-out. BYU and Notre Dame will look at their new conference, say "we didn't sign up to the Pac-X to end up in the Mountain West," and re-establish themselves as independents. They are replaced by UNLV and the finally-satisfied Boise State.

I italicized Louisville before they joined the ACC.
Each group of 18 would negotiate broadcast rights as a unit and three of the four would likely play 17-game round robins in basketball. The Big IX and ACC would likely separate for basketball as well and play double round-robins, but keeps ties for non-revenue sports like baseball.

Predictions for the lower half of FBS are even more speculative. My best guess is that the Big Sky as a whole upgrades from FCS, replacing the current Mountain West and filling in the what's left of the WAC. Conference USA makes a clear east/west division with the western division being almost all-Texas (and New Mexico State, which is almost in Texas.) The eastern division becomes a new Mid-Atlantic conference, and is the new home for Temple and Wake Forest football.

The MAC expands to the west, picking up FCS's major football programs in the upper Midwest. (Indiana State hypocritically jumps to FBS). It splits into an East which is Michigan and Ohio and a West of newly upgraded teams. The Sun Belt becomes a true beast, forming two divisions centered around the lower Mississippi and the far southeast. Idaho gets left out and has to drop to FCS. Army and Navy remain independent because they're operating under a different set of rules.
Teams not currently in FBS are italicized.
I used the same color-coding for the less prestigious conferences because there'll need to be a revenue-sharing system in place, and the easiest way to do this is to reach bundle the smaller conferences in with the larger ones. The BTN plans to have hours of time to fill: why not show some Tuesday-night MACtion or some intriguing match-ups from the future MAC hockey conference? Instead of having bundles of 18, each region can negotiate as bundles of 36. These bundles are larger than any of the professional leagues, and would likely be at least as appealing to cable providers as the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL networks. Since the elimination of automatic qualifying conferences would result in their being no official statement that the Big Ten is better than the MAC or that the SEC is better than the Sun Belt, revenue sharing between the haves and have-nots can be achieved by splitting the cable and Internet broadcast payouts equally, NFL-style. Larger schools will maintain a revenue advantage by selling more merchandise, the proceeds of which will be shared with their student-athletes.

The four 36-school consortia will now not only have enough clout to have nationwide basic cable access, they'll have enough clout to cut out the middleman: ESPN as we know it will not exist in 20 years. When both professional and collegiate sports are offering their product directly to viewers through both cable and streaming, ESPN will be shoved down the same slide as The History Channel, TLC, and Bravo before it. That's right: 24 hours of First Take. We won't like E!SPN, but we'll be able to ignore it.

The long-term success of college athletics depends on the maintenance of tradition, the enforcement of fair play, and the enforcement of academic standards. This is not the same as amateurism, although ensuring fair play between richer and poorer schools will require caps on athletes' direct income and revenue sharing to ensure that as many schools as possible can afford to participate at the highest level. A superleague of the biggest of the big is non-traditional, non-interesting (because it's an NFL minor league), and eventually non-profitable.

We're in for a decade or so of severe unpleasantness, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. My prediction for the future of FBS: 148 teams, consisting of 16 mostly-traditional conferences of nine teams each, and four independents (Army, Navy, BYU, and Notre Dame). The top conference winners and independents will be selected for an eight-team playoff. The nine-team football conferences will be allied so that they can form 18-team conferences for basketball. Most broadcast rights will be in the hands of four networks and the proceeds will be used for revenue sharing, which in term will maintain the tradition of the sport.

The NCAA can take a more useful role in college athletics by assisting with the revenue sharing. By establishing a proper FBS playoff, they will control the revenue from it and can use that revenue to support all of its member institutions. They can also use their windfall to do the sorts of things they should be doing, like ensuring the "student-athletes" are earning an education.

The final division shown here is unlikely as it depends on all sorts of dominoes falling in the right direction; it could be messed up by the time I publish this point correct all the typos in this post if the Big Ten invites Georgia Tech. The broad outline of my prediction is that after a period of convulsion, FBS will settle into an equilibrium that maintains most of the traditions that make college football special to its fans. The solution I propose here is incomplete: basketball-only powers like Georgetown, Marquette, and Gonzaga will find their way into the regional consortia, and the rest of Division I basketball will need some access to revenue sharing proceeds. Lastly, I have no idea what will happen at the FCS level, but I'd love to see FCS football end up with a set of nine-team conferences too, if only to see the bidding war that would explode if an opening formed in the Ivy League.

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