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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How Big is Too Big?

I haven't written much in the last few days for various reasons -- a lot of accumulated vacation hours, little going on around campus, etc. -- but I've done radio the past two days and the topic of conversation in both cases was the same: Expansion.

I mentioned the idea of expansion -- both in the SEC and around the country -- last week and compared it to the fight scene in "Anchorman." The situation really escalated quickly.

Monday, we got -- potentially -- the first real step beyond speculation, however. Well maybe. But probably not.

A Kansas City radio station cited anonymous sources in a report that Nebraska, Missouri, Notre Dame and Rutgers had been offered invites by the Big Ten. Those schools have either denied the story or refused comment, as has the Big Ten.

The lesson? Well, for one, when is the last time an anonymous report by a radio station turned out to be true?

The other lesson? We're still far from getting any closure on what has quickly become one of the most hotly debated topics in sports.

But there's a reason it's being talked about so much. For one, it's fun to speculate about things like this the same way we do with other meaningless exercises like preseason polls and mock drafts. But more importantly, some of the scenarios being discussed have the potential to effect every corner of the college football landscape.

In the end, there may not be much change beyond the Big Ten and Pac-10 getting conference title games and a few schools swapping conference affiliations.

For now, however - while we're still in the speculation phase -- every school is potentially affected, which makes every fan interested.

It's hard at this point to even grasp the full range of possibilities and ripple effects from any significant shake-ups, but here are a few key questions pertinent to this forum:

1.) Is this good for college football?

That question might be better phrased: "Is this good for college football fans?" Because college football will do what's beneficial for itself financially, but I don't get the feeling most fans are clammoring for 16-team super conferences just yet.

(* Side note: I don't think we should assume that large-scale expansion is going to be as financially beneficial as many people think either. Keep in mind that the NCAA didn't expand the basketball tournament as many assumed they would because, at the end of the day, the revenue streams simply wouldn't support it. It's a down economy, schools are already tightening their belts on things like travel, and when we talk about conference expansion, we're not simply discussing football.)

But I'm also not sure that bigger conferences would be a bad thing for fans either.

For one, while fans all say they like the underdogs -- and Boise State, Utah and TCU have certainly proven worthy of late -- those are the rare exceptions. If you remember my look at the Mountain West a few months ago, the truth is that that conference hasn't gotten more competitive, but rather that the top three teams have gotten better while the rest of the league has been exceptionally poor.

Moreover, those underdogs aren't playing a lot of marquee games -- and what we're certainly seeing more of is a lack of great non-conference games. Yes, Georgia has played some interesting opponents the past few years, but what about Florida? Or Ole Miss? Or a big chunk of the entire Big 12? The upside to a 16-team conference might be more conference games -- which would mean, theoretically, less one-sided non-conference showdowns.

But there's also a lot to be said for tradition, and the idea of 16 teams playing in the SEC could mean Georgia saying goodbye to annual rivalry games against Auburn, for example, and seeing the Tigers just once every few years instead. Or it could mean Alabama and LSU visit Sanford Stadium just once every 12 years or so.

My guess is the fans against any large-scale expansion see the disappearance of tradition as the primary reason.

2.) How does the SEC fit in?

Right now, it doesn't. But that can change.

I spoke to Mike Slive about this issue and his bottom line answer was that the league is monitoring the situation, and will act when it needs to.

I have no doubt that is the case, but it also would surprise me if a league as successful as the SEC was reactive rather than proactive.

Of course, the bigger question is whether the SEC needs to expand in the first place. Mark Richt certainly doesn't think so.

"I’d be surprised if it happened any time soon," Richt said. "I could see the other leagues getting to the format we have which I think is a great format with six teams on each side and a championship game. There’s some leagues that might be trying to get to that. That would make more sense to me than trying to get these super conferences because you don’t get to play everybody if you do that. It’s almost like two different leagues when you do that.”

Richt sounds awfully reasonable to me. After all, why does the SEC need to expand? For the Big Ten and Pac-10, expansion gets them the all-important conference title game, but the SEC has already set the standard on how that's done.

Moreover, the league just inked a huge TV deal with ESPN last year and has produced the last four national champions. Revenue and competition is already about as high as it can go. Even the annual also-rans like Mississippi State, Vandy and Kentucky have enjoyed some measure of recent success (and in truth, expansion would likly hurt those programs the most).

So my bet on this is much the same as Richt's -- the SEC is already the best, and they don't need to overreact to the Pac-10 or Big Ten's rush to catch up. After all, it's the ACC that more realistically competes for the same dollars as the SEC, and the ACC's expansion hasn't done a thing to dent the SEC's armor.

The wild card, however, might be Texas.

The Pac-10 would love to hook the Horns. So would the Big Ten. And for that very reason, it would make sense that the SEC would at least kick the tires on the idea.

But that, too, seems like an unlikely scenario. Of course, all of this might have seemed unlikely even a few months ago, but now here we are, on the precipice of the biggest shakeups to the college football landscape in the past 15 years.

Because while things may not change much in the SEC, things are going to change. Expansion is a reality in the Big Ten. That is likely true for the Pac-10, too. And if those leagues grow, it has to come at the expense of someone else. And when those dominoes start falling, it's hard to say exactly where we'll end up -- which is what makes this debate so interesting in the first place.

So what do you guys think? Are you all for expansion? If other leagues get bigger, would you want the SEC to follow suit, or stay with how things are? And if the SEC did get bigger, which teams would you like to see added?


Kathleen said...

There is a lot of talk in Texas about UT, A&M and even Oklahoma moving to the SEC. That just feels wrong to me - living in Texas is surely not the same as living in the South, so the Southeastern Conference seems like a bad fit...

I think a team like Clemson would be a much better fit as a new team to the SEC.

That being said, though, Texas fans here are surprisingly open to the idea - I think because they'd like more consistent competition and not just Oklahoma.

G said...

The Big 12 loses a team and Arkansas replaces them. Vandy is moved to the SEC West and Clemson slides into the SEC East.

Anonymous said...

I'm not wishing the SEC expands unless it becomes obvious that we must to keep our spot atop the football world. The tradition reason that you sight is one of the main reasons. The other reason is that it makes it that much harder to win a conference championship. If we moved to a 16 team conference and the 4 that are added are quality football schools (which they assuredly would be for the SEC to invite them to our moneyfest) then the path to the top of the conference would be a lot tougher climb. Its already tough enough in my opinion.

Chillbo said...

I think the conferences are already big enough. Consider this year: Georgia and Florida will obviously battle for the division crown, yet they won't play the same conference schedule. Florida plays Alabama and LSU out of the west, while Georgia gets Arkansas and Auburn (both play Miss. State). Now this year, it may matter less since LSU appears to be fading a bit, but just the mere fact that we play 2 different western divison teams make it so that we could lose in Jacksonville but win the division because we played (possibly) an easier western division slate (assuming 2 SEC teams beat Florida). At the very least we don't have Bama and they do, which loooks like an advantage for us. (Granted, I am totally for this scenario) Of course, Floida could have benefitted from this same issue in previous years. In '08 we played Bama, LSU and Auburn while they got Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU So, I realize this kind of balances out over the years, but in a given year, we may end up with a division being decided disproportionately by the schedule. Not to mention, Floirda, Georgia and Tennessee have permanent western division games with LSU, Auburn and Alabama, while Kentucky plays Mississippi State every year and Ole Miss battles dastardly Vanderbilt annually. The point being, more teams would bring more inbalance to the schedule or limit playing schools in the other division.

Anonymous said...

Here is the issue in a nutshell and if you can wrap your head around it, you will eliminate all the warm and fuzziness about tradition and living arrangements. THIS IS ABOUT #'s. Numbers do not care about tradition. Numbers do not care whether Texas is like living in Alabama or Mississippi.

Numbers translate into revenue and/or potential revenue. The Big 10 has a tv network that needs more #'s to remain sustainable for the long term. If they can get ND, then most likely the expansion of other conferences goes away. If the Big 10 does not get ND, then they must reach out to multiple schools to help them generate the #'s that ND could have brought them.

I was surprised that the talk was just Rutgers, Missouri, Nebraska and ND. From a #'s standpoint, Andy Katz's outside the box teams - MD, Ga Tech and Vandy (to a certain extent) make as much sense.

A Big 10 that has the #1,#3, #4, #8,#9, #11, #15, #18 TV markets is very scary from a $$ standpoint for the SEC.

Anonymous said...

If there is SEC expansion, I'd vote for Texas, A&M, Clemson and Georgia Tech. That way there's 2 for the west and 2 for the east. I think thats the most simple thing, for an otherwise complex move.

Anonymous said...

If it were to happen, this is my ideal scenario. Add Texas and A&M to the west. Drop Vandy replace them with Tech and add Clemson and FSU to the east.

This strengthens the in state rivalries between UGA / tech & SC/Clemson by making them both conference AND rivalry games.

Not that the SEC needs it, but it adds even more to their ratings in Atlanta. The Texas and A&M addition brings in a huge market in their state.

There will be a loss of some of the traditional games (UGA v. Auburn and Bama v. Tenn), but that is just a cost of progress.

Kathleen said...

It's easy to see the $$$ side of it and the logic of it, but college football has always been about tradition and the warm and fuzziness of it. No need to get insulting, those of us who enjoy tradition with our football aren't incapable of seeing the $$ to the story.

Greg said...

As a charter member of the SEC, there is no way that they will be dropped.

Anonymous said...

i say drop USC and bring in clemson. clemson is at least competitive and play more like an SEC team than the gamecocks. no expansion, just get rid of the cocks

Anonymous said...

I am not trying to be insulting and I am sorry that you see it that way. I do think that tradition does bear part of how decisions could be made, but from the sounds of things, tradition is not a big part of how the Big 10 is seeing things.

From a numbers standpoint, I think Clemson is a horrible fit. True, Clemson was a rival for us but that was before the initial conference expansion 20 years ago.

Clemson does not do much from a #'s standpoint. We basically have their numbers with South Carolina's inclusion in the SEC anyway.

If I was the SEC, I can live with ND to the Big 10. However, should the Big 10 really upset the balance by taking 2 from the Big 12 and 2 from the ACC or a combo SEC/ACC teams, then tradition must go out the window.

A move like that by the Big 10 will make Texas, Texas A&M, and OU free agents. The SEC would be under pressure to deliver more eyeballs. The one major drawback to the league is the inferior television footprint.

David Hale said...


I think you're right about the #s situation. The SEC has an advantage in expansion in that there are some natural rivalries already with teams like Clemson, FSU and even A&M. But my bet would be that expansion would be about creating TV markets because that is really the only thing holding the SEC back (and my guess is a big reason why they went with the ESPN deal rather than a true SEC network).

What is unfortunate for fans is that TV drives the bus now. That's where the bulk of the money comes from and, while SEC teams are always going to play in front of big crowds, it's those TV viewers that they actually have to work to get.

Pretty interesting read from Soloman at the Bham paper on the subject, too...

Anonymous said...

Pac 10 please pick up 2 teams. Don't care who. If one or two come from big 12, big 12 please pick two more up. One of the utah schools, boise, or tcu seem nice. Notre dame quit being difficult, join big 10. Big ten change your name. Big east... doesn't matter who you take but get to 12 and conntinue to be the worst. Institute bcs plus one system. Done. All is well. Not that difficult.

Anonymous said...

David, regarding your point about the SEC being reactive. Their response is actually very proactive -- in essence: Big Ten go ahead but if you try to trump the SEC we're going to respond so you won't get a leg up on us.

It's like the old Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold War. The SEC says, we're not going to start the nuclear war but if you do we're going to destroy you as well so there's no benefit in trying to pull something. So knowing this, the Big Ten will get to its 12 or possibly 14 to hold a championship but won't go to 16 and truly challenge the SEC and the status quo. It's game theory, popularized by John Nash, the dude in "A Beautiful Mind".

At the end of the day, the Big Ten just needs to feel relevant again at the end of the season. Money isn't the issue, relevancy and long term relevancy are the bigger issues. 12 or 14 solve that, 16 is probably not worth the hassle.

Anonymous said...

It's all about the Benjamins. After that, it's all about not being the last conference to go to 16 and being forced to add Memphis, Louiville, Southern Miss and Central Florida. If the Big 10 moves to a 14 teams conference, every other major player will have to follow suit, or risk being poached themselves.

Ben Dukes said...

Folks, you don't want to add GA Tech to the SEC. That would give Georgia's recruits two schools in the SEC to choose from. Awful idea.

Adding FSU is a similar problem. FSU already does very well against UGA for South Georgia recruits. If you pull them into the SEC, you're giving those kids another SEC option.

So, Georgia fans shouldn't hope for the inclusion of either of those schools.

As for Texas not being in "the south"...well, the geography of it is merely a problem when it comes to travel. But, Austin, Texas is closer to Baton Rouge, Starksville and Oxford than Columbia, SC is. The Longhorns would be a great fit in the SEC West. So would the Sooners, though I doubt both teams would look to jump from being the consistent title contenders in the big 12 to being two of five or six very tough teams in the SEC West.

If we start to look to what teams we can add for the SEC East, UGA fans should be hoping that we look to states like Virginia and North Carolina. Picking up VT and UNC would be good. I wouldn't worry about going head-to-head against UNC for recruits.

From a $$ perspective, I'm not sure that VT or UNC alone would do that much for the SEC...and definitely not what FSU would potentially do, but as a UGA fan, I have to look at strong teams who we don't regularly compete with during recruiting. VT would likely be a top-3 in the new SECE and UNC would be a MID-3 team.

All of these suggestions assume that the big 12 and ACC need to be realigned after the Big10's expansion, which isn't necessarily the case.

Any way you slice it, the Big 10 ain't gonna catch the SEC with the additions they've proposed.

Decatur Dawg said...

The only SEC expansion I would want to see is add Texas and A&M to the West and move Auburn over to the East so GA-AU is still played every year.

Georgia would have the same 6 regular games and 2 West games. You lose some games against LSU and Bama, but adding the Texas games would be huge.

Anonymous said...

Ben - I think you are somewhat right on your points about Ga Tech and FSU to a certain extent. Ultimately, I do not think that recruiting for football will be a big factor in determining who is added/deleted from the SEC.

It will come down to current TV market footprints vs. a combo of new market potential & actual ratings.

Let's take Clemson, Ga Tech, FSU and Miami for example. From a recruiting and scheduling standpoint, I would expect that USC, UGA, and UF would be opposed to adding any of these teams to the conference to avoid even more heated recruiting battles plus these rivalries now move from non-conference games to conference games.

There are fans out there who think these teams could be a good fit for these reasons. Heck the games might even bring higher ratings than they do now since they would be conference battles.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I do not think Clemson is a good fit because it does not open a new TV market for the conference. While they are a strong regional draw, I would not expect Clemson (which is a long way away from their Top 10 heydeys) to move the meter on a national basis. The SEC currently has this footprint covered already with South Carolina.

You could say the same thing with FSU, although they are more recently nationally prominent than Clemson. Again the SEC has their TV footprint covered with Florida.

Ditto Ga Tech and UGA. But I would expect the SEC would take Ga Tech as a defensive move to keep the Big 10 out of the ATL market. I only say this because Tech was mentioned by Andy Katz as fallback target beyond Missouri, Nebraska, Rutgers, and ND.

Miami is a bit of a different animal in that area and TV market a less of a lock for Florida. I could see the SEC could make compelling argument that they should take Miami to solidfy that tv market.

I believe the true reality of expansion is going to be determined by adding potential "new" eyes to your conference. The SEC has football locked up. It is the dominant player and drives higher ratings than the other conferences. They still probably will after expansion. But driving new potential eyes to the conference by adding schools outside the current footprint and possibly with other strong sports programs beyond football.

Texas makes so much sense for the SEC, I cannot fathom why the conference has not offered already. It has been stated by most that in order to pick up Texas, the SEC would have to take Texas A&M. There are the two West teams and it opens up the Top 10 Dallas and Houston TV markets.

I think you are barking up the right tree with Va Tech and UNC for the East. Va Tech does not bring much beyond football but it does have some presence in the DC Market. UNC has one of the most dominant and ratings consistent basketball teams add in the Charlotte, RDU tv markets and it is attractive.

Personally, I think the teams that get added to the East will come from the Va Tech, UNC, Ga Tech, Miami short list.