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WBE confronts the Issues Of The Day: conference expansion

Mike, the Big Ten really shouldn't be giving you this kind of a headache, should they?

I usually try to shy away from college football bloggitysphere topics du jour, since 1. said topics usually don’t have much to do with Auburn 2. everything I’d have to say has usually been said by someone already.

But given that it’s now the off-iest part of the offseason and there’s multiple memes out there for opining, what the hell, we’ll look at a few. Today, conference expansion; tomorrow, the Alabama scheduling snafu and the taunting rule that ruffled everyone’s feathers. So:

Conference expansion. I wrote not long ago that the Big Ten would expand to 16 teams “when cows build a supercomputer that runs on cud.” While I’ll still be genuinely surprised if the Big Ten actually pulls the trigger on becoming FrankenConference, admittedly, it does now appear more likely than the cud-computer thing. And as a result, Mike Slive is firing warning shots of his own and sending the always-excitable hypothetical SEC expansion chatter into overdrive.

Two thoughts on these developments:

1. You’ll notice that as much as he might pretend otherwise, it’s the Big Ten that’s taking the initiative here and the SEC that’s threatening to respond, the much-maligned Jim Delany as the proactive agent and the SEC’s visionary Mike Slive as the reactive. That doesn’t automatically mean that Delany’s on to something–going to 16 teams by adding various Big East refugees and Missouri isn’t much of a coup–but it does point to something that Delany’s already done right and that Slive’s done wrong.

I’ll let Doc Sat clue you in:

When it comes down to the bottom line, Nebraska couldn’t afford not to leap at Big Ten money — and that’s even more true for potential expansion targets Missouri, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, et al, which stand to gain even more from a move than Nebraska.

That, in a nutshell, demonstrates the wild success of the Big Ten Network, beyond what anyone outside the conference imagined when the idea was floated in 2006 — the general reaction then, if I recall, ran along the lines of “Who wants to add 60 cents to their cable bill to watch Purdue volleyball?” Less than four years later, the BTN is already the giant in the room in the Expansion Chronicles, without which the likes of Nebraska and Missouri (and Notre Dame, to the extent the Irish even remain in the discussion at all) would have no practical incentive to abandon their century-old rivalries in the Big 8/12.

In fact, the BTN is in all likelihood the catalyst for the Expansion Chronicles, because a growing beast must be fed new cable markets to ensure its annual allowance of revenue. Whether or not it was founded with imperialist ambitions, the network was a farsighted, far-reaching stroke that has already put the Big East essentially at the Big Ten’s feet and cast much longer shadows than anyone could have imagined across the Big 12, a demographic lightweight when it comes to potential television audiences.

For all the chuckles that greeted its inception, the BTN is now an 800-pound gorilla in the room of college football, potentially capable of pulling the proud likes of Nebraska into the Big Ten fold via the flexing of its cash-flush muscle. How flush? Already each Big Ten team is raking in some $22 million per year in TV money–$5 million more than each SEC team–and that’s only two football seasons into the BTN’s tenure.

The much-ballyhooed deal the SEC struck with ESPN isn’t bad, isn’t bad at all. But it’s for 15 years. Yes, $17 million a year is a lot of money in 2010. But how much is it going to be in 2022? And how much is the Big Ten going to be pulling in by that point as the BTN slowly, inexorably grows … while the SEC contract stays the same? That $5 million gap today might look like chump change by then.

One of these two conferences is considering expansion because it took a smart risk and in so doing, positioned itself for growth. The other is considering expansion because it passed on that same risk, locked into a long-term contract that served its immediate needs rather than its future ones, and now might be forced to play catch-up. In all other facets of running a major college athletics conference, I’d take Mike Slive over Jim Delany in a heartbeat–but negotiating the league’s television contracts is arguably the single biggest fact there is in the conference commissioner “profession” these days, and in this facet Delany has served Slive his head on a platter.

(As a p.s.: wrong again, Mandel!)

2. Because of the above situation, I’m well aware that if/when it comes to it, Texas will be SEC expansion option 1, 1a, 1b, 2, 2a, 2b, and 3. (3a is also Texas, but football-only.) Too bad I don’t want the Longhorns in the conference.

I know it would be good for the league’s coffers, media profile, big-game-scheduling frequency, all that stuff. Arkansas would have a natural conference rival, finally. It would even give LSU one of their genuine old-school rivalries back when Texas A&M tagged along. It would be a slam dunk in every tangible way,  and that’s why Slive will do everything he can to make it happen if he has to.

But me personally, I can’t get over the intangibles. The SE in SEC has always meant something to me–that Auburn’s conference was the conference of the bayou and bluegrass, panhandle and palmetto, Music City and Magic City, with no weird geographical interlopers involved. (Arkansas sort of came close when they signed up, but the insanity revolving around the Houston Nutt years proved the SEC was the Hogs’ spiritual home all along.) Maybe the far eastern Texas coast would qualify, but most of the state–Austin included–has as much connection to the Southeast as a six of Shiner Bock.

On top of that, dynamics of SEC competition that have been in place for decades would be dissolved in a flash. Deciding our champion in football has always revolved around the great rivalries–the Third Saturday, the World’s Largest Cocktail Party, the Iron Bowl, Tennessee vs. Florida in the Spurrier/Manning years. The title used to go through Ole Miss and Georgia. Then it went through Alabama, then Florida. Now, the Tide and Gators seem to sharing things. The introduction of Texas would change that irrevocably; barring a strange collapse in Austin from Mack Brown’s successors, now the title is decided by LSU vs. Texas, ‘Bama vs. Texas, whether the Longhorns could survive trips to Jordan-Hare and Oxford and Knoxville.

For everyone besides the Razorbacks, it would be–in a word–weird. It’s one thing to invite a new team into the fold; it’s another to invite one who has the chops to dominate the league from its first day, especially when it’s something less than a perfect geographic and philosophical fit. The right move from my personal perspective is to expand inward–to bring Georgia Tech back, finally unite with Clemson, let Florida St. make up for that dumb-assed 1992 decision. Your mileage is welcome to vary, but the SEC I’ve known and loved is still the same SEC with the Jackets and ‘Noles around; with the Longhorns and Aggies, it’s something else.

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