Before Football Starts, a Few Thoughts on the Realignment Game

On the eve of the second round of realignment in as many years, a few trends and stories worth following, in no particular order.

1) Tradition doesn't appear to hold sway over college football, except to the extent it can by marketed

 In the last two years Nebraska and Texas A&M, two teams rightfully proud of their college football heritage, have sought to end a century old rivalry in search of greener pastures. Whether their new homes work as well in practice as in theory is another matter. Nebraska's notoriously soft Big 12 North schedule has been replaced with a tougher Legends slate, though an utter debasement of the word "Legends" allows for fairly pleasant divisional opponents in Northwestern* and Minnesota. More pointedly, Nebraska abandoned one of the oldest rivalries in football (vs. Mizzou) for a made-for-TV "Heroes [of the Corn]" game with Iowa. Though Nebraska will be near the top of the division for the foreseeable future, and quite possibly the conference thanks to both Jim Tressel and what could become a dysfunctional train wreck at Michigan. Both the divisions and the rivalries of the new look Big 10 bring to mind an out of touch NY advertising/marketing agency.

I'm inclined to believe the future for A&M looks a great deal like the past of South Carolina. They will be a team that no one one in the SEC will be allowed to sleep on, but likely won't begin to make the jump to putative contender without a few transcendent recruits making their way to campus and another program stumbling along the way. Bobby Petrino (who has not held the same job for more than 3 years) and Nick Saban (who has never been a head coach with same team for more than 4 years) returning to the their nomadic ways could clear a path for the Ags earlier than most expect. A&M a school which built its tradition around rivalry may need to temporarily be the spur on the battle for the golden boot.

I would not be overly concerned with the end of the rivalry, however, as it may be the most profitable option for Texas, A&M and most pointedly, ESPN. It is not at all out of the realm of possibility that Texas would play the Ags every other year, with intervening years filled by a different team(s) (ND is not an impossibility, especially in 2015/2016) in order to maximize the revenue to the schools and the broadcasters. A similar arrangement could work for the Ags and the SEC as well, by fostering a 3 way rivalry with A&M, Arkansas and LSU on alternating thanksgivings.**

* Pat Fiztgerald helms one of the more exciting underdogs in football, but the only thing legendary about Northwestern football is the 1995 season! Lake the posts! the team's average SAT score. And Minnesota is actually a worse team since 1995 than the Wildcats.

** An interesting example from the last decade is ND-USC/ND-Stanford/USC-UCLA/UCLA-No one in particular/Stanford-No one in particular. Given the marketability of Texas, any number of options are creatively possible utilizing either ESPN affiliated universities (e.g. Ole Miss/Arky) or home and homes with universities which exercise significant control over their broadcast rights (e.g. BYU, ND) or Fox universities without consistent Thanksgiving rivalries (e.g Cal). Conveniently, all of these schools are on the schedule in future years.  

The number of BCS teams without consistent Thanksgiving rivalries is more than substantial enough to get UT through a few decades of only playing A&M occasionally, if at all. Personally, I would welcome an intermittent rivalry game with A&M.

2) We're not approaching detente any time soon 

The Aggies have embraced their role as the agent of entropy for CFB, which amuses me immensely. The Big 12 is now less stable than ever, both the Big East and the ACC are in danger of losing a marquee team to SEC poaching and the other conferences will (most likely) eventually match moves with anything the SEC does. The Ags managed to top the destabilizing effect of the LHN on the college football landscape, at least in the short term. The smoke may not clear for years, so I'll tip my hat to College Station for making things interesting. 

 

3) Texas will not be left in the cold 

That doesn't mean that the situation that ensues be ideal to Texas fans in the short term, in part because  the value of the LHN would ideally be proven before next steps are taken. That means finding a band-aid for the Big 12 even though the current Big 12 is a fundamentally unattractive conference for another school's end-game planning. Among other Big 9 infirmities: it will be readily poached by future Big 10 and Pac 10 expansion, it is not easily won by a newcomer*, and unlike the other conferences, the divide of power is deeply entrenched.** Despite these issues, BYU is a likely option because it could use the conference as a stepping stone to another conference affiliation or resume independence when/if the Big 12 breaks up. Notre Dame is an exceedingly unlikely option, as is poaching a relatively stable conference as Hopkins outlined earlier.

Compounding UT's short term problem is a commonly held misconception, at least as I see it. I would argue that Texas is not the the prettiest girl at the ball in the realignment game.  Instead, that honor probably belongs to Notre Dame.*** However UT is most likely is the prettiest girl who will pick up the phone when the Pac 10 or Big 10 calls. As for UT's relatively minor image problems with finding a conference (or acting independently), that type of flaw can be solved with money to some major extent. It also never hurts to be friends with the mouse in red pants.

There seems to be surprisingly large number of UT fans who seek some kind of long term alliance with Notre Dame. On that point, I have only this to offer, if Notre Dame sees reason to join a conference, don't be surprised if Texas follows its lead because any deal good enough to attract ND will likely meet most of UT's requirements. The hurdles are almost insurmountable to that event, given Notre Dame's current built-in advantages, but there's something to run with.

* Unlike, say, the Big East.

** That divide may be more economically rational than other conferences, but few potential schools other than BYU and Notre Dame would benefit from the Big 12's economic rationality.

*** Notre Dame has a massive following, a proven TV arrangement (without the sunk cost infrastructure of its own network), and no legislative hurdles.  UT, to our present knowledge, has one of these things (see point 5).

 

4) The LHN's impact on conferences in their capacity as cartels*

Some erudite commentators believe the LHN is a sign of the college sports apocalypse. The better answer may be that the LHN is merely a symptom of the disease, not the cause. For all the talk about college football conferences as partnerships, they appear more akin to cartels - closely competing businesses which agree to regulate the price for their products. From an economic standpoint, cartels are only stable when there is no incentive for members to go around the cartel, i.e. they are making a profit similar to or better than the profit they would make without the cartel relationship. When Vanderbilt is being paid the same as Florida, basic economic theory would tell you that one school is most likely being overpaid and the other underpaid.** Combining a layered set of production cartels (the NCAA and the BCS conferences) producing a product (TV rights) for which the primary market is a high stakes oligopoly (e.g. CBS, Disney's holdings, Fox and the Big 10's cartel network), and we have the sort of game theory hypothetical that some UT professor is planning to abuse  teach students with this semester.***

Only 6 college athletic departments at public universities did not require a financial subsidy by the university last year, and four were in the much maligned Big 12. The reason, we could reasonably hypothesize, may have a great deal to do with the Big 12's inherent nature as a cartel that more closely mirrors a free market than the other conferences. Schools that bring less value are paid less, and schools that bring more value are paid more. Instead of the athletic programs of an entire conference having to be subsidized by what could otherwise be academic dollars, only the under performing schools require such subsidy. Texas was not the first school to implicitly declare the conference model economically nonviable - that honor probably belongs to Notre Dame - but its financial model is the most readily transferable to public universities in other conferences. Unless there is a collective implicit or explicit decision on the part of universities that their athletic programs are marketing engines instead of revenue engines, then the LHN is a presumptive herald of what will come.****

* Typically I only subject Hopkins to these theories and there's beer involved, so I apologize to those who prefer a little less economics in their sports. The NCAA as a cartel is a more developed topic for those interested. (Though I don't necessarily endorse these views, they are red meat for sports business/economics junkies.)

** In many ways, the fact that the SEC is made up of more financially matched  teams than the Big 12 is one of the reasons for its inherent stability vs. the Big 12's inherent instability. The similar overall financial picture of Bama, LSU, South Carolina, UF, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Tennesee and to some extent Kentucky, provides less incentive for cartel members to "cheat" the cartel system.  It's also worth noting that, despite being evenly matched, the SEC is moving forward with premium offerings like gatorvision.

*** Almost ten years later, I still have flashbacks to Prof. Brian Roberts detouring into game theory at the drop of a hat. And now they have a pleasantly nostalgic quality to them. I owe UT for helping me go Full Nerd.

**** I think that sort of collective action is unlikely, but it's not always safe to impute financial rationality to universities. 

 

5) Baylor and Tech cannot be happy with the precedent that A&M is about to set.

Each experiences a financial windfall from its relationship with Texas and A&M, and for the first time in recent history it is conceivable that Texas could leave either school behind. The impact this precedent has on UT's ability to act without considering the interest of other in state schools is one of the most relevant considerations for future realignment. Watch for the story lines out of legislature.

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