Hmm, another article about expansion. Just what you needed, right? But let's face it, expansion is the biggest issue in our time. It was the biggest issue in the history of Virginia Tech athletics back in 2003, and when the conferences start shifting soon, it will be again. And note that I didn't title this article "What I think about expansion" -- which would imply that I have some sort of clue how it's going to unfold -- but "how" I think about expansion. Maybe my viewpoint will bring something new to the table for you.
It's "Realignment," Not Expansion
While the 2003 shift was indeed expansion on the ACC's part, I prefer to think of the coming changes in college athletics as "realignment." It's true, the Big Ten is going to expand, and the SEC might expand as well, but what's really going on here is the realignment of schools from their current conference configuration to some future configuration that can't yet be seen or predicted.
Think of college conferences as tectonic plates in the earth's crust. They are always rubbing up against each other, pushing against each other, and building pressure. Occasionally, there's an earthquake, like there was in the early 90s when PSU joined the Big Ten, the SEC expanded, and the Big East Football Conference was formed. Or the mid-1990s, when the SWC imploded and the Big Eight joined with former SWC teams to form the Big 12. Or, of course, 2003, when the ACC raided teams from the Big East, and the Big East in turn raided Conference USA and picked up other schools.
Another earthquake is coming. The plate that's going to shift this time is the Big Ten, and it's going to send shockwaves through the rest of the college sports landscape. Conferences are going to realign, but I think that where they end up won't be the final configuration. Instead, the pressure will slowly start to build again, and at some point, there will be other future earthquakes.
The sources of the pressure that causes these earthquakes can never be foreseen far in advance. In the late 1970s, the NCAA's decision to create Division 1-AA began a long process of changing the college sports landscape, by creating a chasm that previously hadn't existed between the VMIs and Virginia Techs of the world.
In the 1980s, the NCAA's stranglehold on TV money was broken by the 1984 landmark court decision that freed colleges to strike their own TV deals. It wasn't logistically feasible for the large majority of schools to deal with the TV networks directly, so the networks went to the conferences to strike deals, instead. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the influx of TV money into Division 1-A football conferences forced many schools that had previously been independent to finally hitch their wagon to conferences, to partake in that TV money. Only Notre Dame had enough clout to strike an independent deal, without the backing of a conference.
TV money continues to reshape college athletics, but there is another pressure point building that I think is causing the current shift in conference alignments. That pressure point is the NCAA, which continues to force the richest schools in college athletics, the ones that generate the majority of the revenue and fan interest and media interest, to share their billions of dollars with the smaller divisions, the FCS programs and Division II and Division III programs that generate nearly nothing, and which very few people care about.
In short, the NCAA is heavily taxing the biggest, richest schools, forcing them to give up money to subsidize the smaller programs. And everyone hates being taxed. Think about it: If you could break away from federal government, keep all the money you make, yet still enjoy the same level of governmental services, wouldn't you?
Football Versus Basketball
Most of the money the NCAA siphons off the major revenue-generators comes from the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship. Recently, the tournament expanded to 68 teams, and the NCAA inked a new deal with CBS and Turner Sports that will bring in $11 billion over 14 years, an average of $771 million per year. That's up from an average of $545 million per year from the previous 11-year, $6 billion contract.
The money from the tournament provides the lion's share of the NCAA's operating revenue. I'm no accountant, and the many documents you can find at this NCAA.org link make my brain fog over, but here's a simple table (taken from their docs) that clears things up:
|NCAA Revenue Sources|
|Television and Marketing Rights Fees||$638,980,000|
|Investments, Fees and Services||$8,710,000|
|Total NCAA Revenue||$710,000,000|
See that "Television and Marketing Rights Fees" line item? That's almost exclusively all NCAA Men's Basketball Championship money.
What does the NCAA do with that money? Everything. They administer to the hundreds of schools under their umbrella, from Division I (which includes 1-A and 1-AA schools) to Division II to Division III. They pay out money to every one of the hundreds of schools in the NCAA at all divisions, and they run the championships and programs necessary to support every single school.
The NCAA Tournament, despite the fuzzy, warm George Mason and Butler stories of the last few years, is the stomping ground of what the football side of the house calls the BCS conferences. The reason CBS and Turner are paying all that money is because fans like to watch teams from the ACC, SEC, PAC 10, Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East square off each March.
Take away the mid-majors, and the tournament is still very valuable as a contest waged by the big schools. Take away the big schools, leaving just the mid-majors, and the tournament is nearly worthless.
The tournament is so valuable because of 65-85 teams that can be classified as the "big schools," yet the money generated by the tournament is used for operations to support hundreds of schools. It's redistribution of wealth, and any time wealth is redistributed, those who have to pay hate it.
Over on the football side of the house, the BCS conferences get to keep most of the revenue they generate. Whereas the basketball tournament TV contract is the property of the NCAA, the TV deals that the football conferences strike with ABC/ESPN, CBS, and others belong to the conferences. The conferences make the deals, the conferences get paid, and the conferences share the revenue with their member schools ... and no one else. Valparaiso, for example, won't get one dime of the SEC's new $2.25 billion contract with ESPN/ABC.
Likewise, the bowl games pay appearance fees to the conferences and schools that play in them, not to the NCAA.
The reason there is no football playoff system is not because everyone "likes" the bowl system, and it's not because a proper "playoff format" can't be decided. And it sure as hell has nothing to do with the "welfare of the student athlete."
There is no football playoff because if there were, the NCAA would create it, administer it, and control the TV rights. The NCAA would control the money, and that money would get shared with, for example, Lenoir-Rhyne's women's field hockey team.
That's why the BCS system exists, and why there is no Division 1-A football playoff: because the BCS conferences get to keep the money under the BCS system. They don't have to share it with the Valparaisos and Lenoir-Rhynes of the world.
Breaking Away from the NCAA
It's easy to see where this is headed. Surely the 65-85 schools that generate all of that NCAA basketball tournament money want to keep it for themselves, like they do the football money. What's the solution? Break away from the NCAA and form your own governing body.
This concept isn't a new idea. I didn't think of it myself. But it's a concept that continues to gain steam and credibility. Why? Because the money available to the largest schools, mainly in the person of TV money paid to their conferences, continues to go up.
The reason the big schools continue to stay in the NCAA is, of course, money. It costs a lot of money to do what the NCAA does. They generate $710 million a year in revenue, but they spend about $672 million of it, according to the NCAA documents linked above.
But if it costs $672 million to administer to hundreds of colleges at all levels of the NCAA, what would it cost the 65-85 big schools to administer to ... themselves?
The big schools could generate the same $700 million a year the NCAA currently generates because, well, they already do. The big schools could add hundreds of millions of dollars more in the form of football money to the pot, and yet run their own governing body for hundreds of millions of dollars less than it costs the NCAA to run their operations.
I'm not arrogant enough to say that I know for a fact that this is where everything is going, that some day the current BCS football schools (plus perhaps some of the basketball schools that mostly fill out the Big East, A-10, etc.) are going to break away from the NCAA.
But it sure is a distinct possibility, isn't it? The logic of it, in financial terms, is undeniable.
What does that mean for the expansion discussion? It means that anything that's going on now can be viewed as necessary steps to the eventual breakaway. All these conference realignments and shifting of the collegiate tectonic plates are eventually winding down into a breakaway.
See the end, then just fill in what needs to happen between here and there.
If you were starting with a clean sheet of paper, perhaps you would draw up four sixteen-team conferences. Each conference is separated into two eight-team divisions. From a football standpoint, the postseason becomes an eight-team playoff. Win your division, and you're in the playoff. Win your conference championship game, and you're in the final four. You get the idea.
Oh, look ... it's the NFL, only twice the size.
The teams that don't make the "playoffs" can play in bowl games. Maybe the next best 24 teams can compete in 12 bowl games, while the other 32 teams stay home ... except they're allowed to practice the extra month, unlike the current NCAA setup. But I digress.
On the basketball side of the house, just throw all 64 teams into a 64-team tournament, seeded by a real computer algorithm, not that stupid RPI formula. Neat, clean, and three weekends of action, just like the current tournament. Instead of Butler advancing to the championship, the new Cinderellas would be the teams that stunk up the regular season, like Penn State (3-15 in the Big Ten this year) making a run.
The Rocky Road Between Here and There
Ah, except getting from here (the NCAA) to there (64 or more schools that break away) is the long, slow, painful process, and it's so complicated that it might be impossible. The road is fraught with history, rivalries, inequities, and even politics.
One thing we learned during ACC expansion is that conference realignment isn't handled by athletic directors, who think like businessmen, focused on profits and losses. It's handled by school presidents and chancellors, whose thinking is a mystery to us regular peons.
Some people think like business people. Some think like educators. Some think like politicians. College presidents think like a combination of the three, and the result is a murky mental soup that most of us cannot even begin to comprehend. So to predict what these men and women are going to do, and how they're going to do it, is folly.
Then you throw in the real politicians, at the state and federal level, and the future turns from cloudy into a thick, impenetrable fog. Another thing we learned during ACC expansion is that politicians can alter the process greatly.
ACC expansion was complicated, but realignment of the entire landscape of college athletics is geometrically more complex, because of all the moving parts.
I get very, very aggravated at some of the people who comment on conference realignment. Many of them talk like they know what's going to happen, but they don't, and they say the dumbest things. Listening to ESPN "analyst" Rod Gilmore talk about conference realignment is more painful than hitting yourself in the face repeatedly with a ball peen hammer. Gilmore, for example, thinks the University of Miami already fits within the SEC's current geographic footprint.
Even ESPN's Pat Forde, a writer whom I respect greatly, said something incredibly ignorant the other day. When discussing a 16-team ACC that would include Big East remnants WVU, Rutgers, and others, Forde commented, "Virginia Tech has been a bad fit for the ACC. They need to realign with some of their old Big East compatriots."
Et tu, Pat?
Some people have very insightful commentary on conference realignment, but most don't. Most people, like Gilmore, Forde and anyone who thinks you can "book!" Texas going to the SEC, are mental midgets banging on metal pots with big wooden spoons. They're making a lot of noise, but it just hurts my ears.
I Think Virginia Tech Will Be Okay
The bottom line is, what about Virginia Tech? Call me an optimist, but I think the Hokies will be okay.
The term "okay" covers a wide range of outcomes, so let me be more specific. I think in the long run, even if the final outcome is a breakaway from the NCAA, Virginia Tech will be included in the party.
In all these realignment discussions, the conferences that are most at risk are the Big East and the Big 12. One or both of them could be decimated. The ACC may be affected, as well, but it won't die off. It might not be the ACC you want, but it will be the ACC, nonetheless. If we are to be whittled down to four 16-team conferences, I think the ACC will be one of them, and Virginia Tech will be in that ACC. Or maybe even in the SEC.
In the last 20 years, Virginia Tech has been gifted with a hall of fame football coach (Frank Beamer), two good athletic directors (Dave Braine and Jim Weaver), and two school presidents (Paul Torgersen and Charles Steger), plus myriad others who have done a remarkable job of building Virginia Tech athletics into a force that is positioned to be a part of the future of college athletics.
You couldn't have said that with any certainty 20 years ago, maybe even 15. But you can say it today. As disconcerting as this whole process is, it's not going to leave Virginia Tech wandering in some sort of wasteland.
That's how I view the oncoming wave of conference realignment. It's an unpredictable spectacle shaped by forces I can't begin to fathom. But it's never boring, and if you can put aside your fears, it's fascinating and compelling stuff.