Commentary: Conference Expansion Rumors - Your Guess Is As Good As  Mine
by Jonathan Hodges

Note: I have admittedly been absent from this scene for some time this offseason, basically since the post-bowl game wrap up, but I will begin to post preseason musings shortly, including a wrap-up of the spring practice season and my usual preseason predictions.

The last time that I chimed in about potential Big Ten conference expansion was back in December, shortly after the conference officially announced they would be looking into it.  At the time, everyone figured they would be looking at adding one member, setting up a conference championship, and taking probably one year or more to do so.  Things have drastically changed in the ensuing six months, to say the least.

Within a month or two, the news came out that the Big Ten was looking to add up to five additional members to yield a 16 member league.  All of the previously mentioned schools (Notre Dame, Missouri, Rutgers, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh) were still on the table, but a few more were thrown into the mix for good measure (Connecticut, Nebraska, and, the heavy hitter, Texas).  With that announcement, things began to shift across the nation, most noticeably in the Big XII and Pac 10 conferences.  Now time to try and sort this all out, especially since an "ultimatum" deadline is quickly approaching for two of the potential expansion candidates.

Revenue is the Key

As I mentioned in the last article that money was the key driver in conference expansion, and other conferences have now had their hands forced with the Big Ten looking to potentially scoop up five more members and expand their (and their television network's) reach.  The Pac 10 and the Big XII have two of the worst television contracts of any of the six BCS conferences, with unequal revenue sharing and very poor cable TV deals.  They both have a primary deal with ABC/ESPN, albeit not even close to as big of deals as the Big Ten and SEC have, but then have the remainder of their games either stuck on regional or low penetration networks (Fox Sports Net and Versus, respectively) or left off of television altogether.

Rumors began to circulate that the Pac 10 and Big XII were looking to partner and start their own TV network together (and most likely renegotiate their primary deals with ABC/ESPN) in order to get into the game.  Then the Pac 10 apparently was ready to really stir the pot when it was announced that they would pursue expansion by six teams, all of them coming from the Big XII.  Those teams would potentially be Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado.

Current rumors are that the Pac 10 has authorized their commissioner, Larry Scott, to pursue and take action on expansion, including adding six members, adding just two members (rumored to be Colorado and Utah), pulling off some mega-merger by joining with the Big XII as a whole, or (of course) doing nothing.  Also added to the mix is some good-ole Texas politicking where the state legislature would require Baylor to be taken with Texas, wherever they may go (remember when the Southwestern Conference was dismantled in order to form the Big XII, then-Texas governor and Baylor alumna Ann Richards forced Baylor to go in over the likes of TCU, SMU, and Rice).

The key, though, is that the Pac 10 is looking to increase their guaranteed revenue stream by expanding and starting their own television network.

The Fate of the Big XII

It looks pretty clear that the Big XII is hanging by a thread with every conference that is pursing expansion targeting Texas, easily the biggest revenue generator in that conference.  It is also rather clear that Texas won't be leaving without some cohorts, including Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and, most likely, Baylor.  It would probably also be desirable for Oklahoma (and Oklahoma State) to tag along, especially if that expanding conference is the Pac 10 (since they can accommodate more new members, potentially).

As mentioned earlier, the Big XII does not employ equal revenue sharing, which makes the internal relationships a big unsteady at this point.  Also, remember that this conference is not that old and is comprised of four members of the old SWC plus the Big 8 (all the members of the Big XII North plus the Oklahoma schools).  Therefore, the ties just don't run as deep as either the Big Ten or Pac 10, who have had rather steady membership over most of the past 100 years.

Don't Forget the MWC

It gets even more intriguing with the Mountain West Conference (the MWC) looking to expand themselves and potentially become a BCS conference.  Utah and TCU had great decades on the field, and now they are looking to add a 10th member who has also had a pretty good run themselves, Boise State.  That is rumored to be happening in short order (i.e. this summer).

If the Big XII does indeed implode, leaving the likes of Kansas State, Iowa State, Kansas, and maybe even Colorado, expect the Mountain West to jump all over them in order to elevate to BCS status in place of the Big XII.  Also note that the MWC does already have their own television network, the Mtn, which would receive a huge boost by adding more "name" schools.

Unfortunately for them, their conference doesn't have nearly enough sway to bring in anyone outside of Boise State on their own, so they'll likely be waiting for scraps after the primary battle has ended.

What is interesting is that in the mid-1990's, the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), of which Boise State is currently a member, expanded to 16 teams and then disintegrated when eight schools left to form the Mountain West thanks to additional television revenue that never materialized.

What's Going to Happen

Honestly, my guess is as good as yours until something comes out officially.  Rumor has it that Nebraska and Missouri are on the clock in terms of their intentions (i.e. will they leave for the Big Ten), and if their answer is unsatisfactory, it appears as though the Big XII South is ready to bolt to the Pac 10 (or whatever it will potentially be called).  The Big Ten has announced that it is willing to accelerate its timetable due to other conferences potential expansion, so expect that something will happen soon.

The most intriguing scenario is the Big XII South joining the Pac 10, Missouri and Nebraska (plus some more schools in the East) joining the Big Ten, and the MWC grabbing up the scraps that are left behind.  I'm not certain such a seismic shift will happen, although it is not unprecedented (see what happened when the Big XII formed).  Following the last major conference alignment (when the ACC expanded to 12 teams), the Big East was left weaker, but never went away, and the "mid-major" conferences that were raided (most notably Conference USA) still exist.

A lot depends on if the conferences actually want to expand beyond 12 teams, which likely hinges on the potential revenue those extra schools would bring.  I don't think anyone has a clear picture except for maybe the Big Ten expansion committee, which has a six month head start on everyone else in their research.  But with conferences now in a reactionary and/or defensive position, anything can happen after the first one pulls the trigger.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.