Major college realignment finally seems to have come to a halt, or, at the very least, a decade-long pause before the next likely potential window in which we could see any reshuffling.
Since the Big Ten opened the window for the recent round of realignment with its late-2009 announcement that it intended to expand by adding a twelfth member, one of the leading voices to emerge in the coverage of All Things Realignment has been blogger Frank The Tank. I initially stumbled upon Frank's blog when I came across this post which advocated, from a Big 10 perspective, why Texas should have been the conference's primary expansion target, an advocacy which meshed almost perfectly with my belief at the time that Texas should have sought a move to the Big Ten.
Frank and his site quickly became one of the most visible hubs of realignment-related discussions, and his Texas-related posts eventually forced one Mr. Bean to publish his own rebuke of Frank and, um, others who shall remain unnamed who might have been foreseeing a potential Texas move north.
In the three years which have passed, Frank's blog has become a go-to source for those seeking the latest news, rumors and commentary on realignment. Now that realignment seems to have come to an end for the major colleges, I reached out to Frank to see if he would discuss the subject with us at Burnt Orange Nation, and he graciously agreed. Below is the discussion we recently had via email. And now that realignment has more or less come to an end, I'll be curious to see how Frank maintains and builds upon the very vibrant community he has at his site.
Thanks for taking the time to discuss realignment with Burnt Orange Nation, Frank. Many of those who have followed realignment closely over the past several years, including you, tend to believe that we've reached the end of realignment, at least as it regards any potential movement of schools between the now-five major conferences, for many years to come. Why is that?
The main issue is the fact that the ACC schools have agreed to a "grant of rights" arrangement, which three other power conferences (Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12) also have in place with their members. A grant of rights entails each conference member assigning its TV rights to its conference for an agreed upon period of time. That means that if the Big Ten were to attempt to now add, say, Florida State (purely being used as an example), the Seminoles' home TV rights through the 2026-27 school year (which is how long the ACC's grant of rights will last) will still be owned by the ACC.
As a result, the Big Ten would have only the TV rights to FSU conference road games or the Big Ten and/or FSU would have to pay fair market value to the ACC for the value of FSU's home games for the next 13 years as a buyout (which would likely be cost prohibitive). This is why grant of rights arrangements are considered to be the most effective way for a conference to prevent defections (as potential raiding conferences and schools know that the buyout amounts would make even a $50 million standard exit fee that Maryland is currently challenging the ACC about look like a rounding error).
With ACC schools off the table as expansion possibilities for the Big Ten and/or SEC and the fact that 4 of the power conferences have grant of rights arrangements, none of the top five leagues have plausible enticing expansion options. The Big Ten's combination of massive revenue generation requirements and AAU academic status (with an exception for non-AAU member Notre Dame) had already made the pool of viable expansion candidates for that league fairly small, so an inability to raid the ACC or Big 12 (Kansas and Texas are AAU members) shuts expansion down in Jim Delany's mind.
There isn't anyone outside of the ACC or Big 12 that would add anything in terms of revenue for the SEC, either. The Pac-12 has a similar holistic approach as the Big Ten, which means that the two schools close to its footprint that would potentially add the most revenue for the conference (Boise State and BYU) are non-starters due to other off-the-field issues (academics for the former and cultural clashes for the latter).
The ACC is sitting at 14 full members with Notre Dame being a 15th non-football member, so their expansion plans would strictly be limited to backfilling defections at this point (which shouldn't be happening as long as the grant of rights is in place).
That leaves the Big 12 as the only conference that really has any semi-plausible reason to proactively expand with any schools that are currently not members of power conferences... and even then, it's a weak case. My feeling is that the Big 12 never really wanted to be at only 10 members when everyone else was at 12 or 14 (no matter how much Bob Bowlsby and any Big 12 ADs talk about the love of a round robin schedule), but they didn't anticipate that the ACC would take Louisville (who was a part of every realistic and financially viable Big 12 expansion scenario).
That severely truncated the Big 12's ability to expand - Bowlsby could have probably sold the financial benefits of expanding with, say, Louisville and BYU, but now the potential expansion combinations may not bring in enough revenue (Cincinnati), be too far away geographically (UConn and Boise State) or have horrible football programs despite being in enticing markets on paper (UNLV, New Mexico, Colorado State and Tulane).
There's a possibility that the Big 12 could eventually say, "F**k it, we need to have 12 schools!", but it's hard to see any two "Gang of Five" expansion candidates that would make all of the various interests in the league happy (much less a larger expansion to 14 or 16 members).
The issues of grants of rights and lack of attractive expansion candidates notwithstanding, do you think where we've wound up -- with one major conference at 10 schools, another at 12 and three at 14 -- is a logical and stable place? Many of us who followed realignment closely seemed to think, if for no other reason than on instinct, that 16, and not 14, was the logical stopping point for the major conferences if they expanded beyond 12.
There were grumblings last year that the SEC found 14 a more difficult number to juggle than it had anticipated, and it's quite possible the Big Ten and ACC will start experiencing similar issues over the next couple of years. I suppose that this is a long-winded way of asking whether it's possible we're about to start a decade of inherent instability in major conference structure without any obvious or inexpensive ways to address that instability.
As you've intimated, 16 *sounds* like a stable stopping point for conferences because our instinct as fans is to neatly divide the college football world into four 16-team superconferences (and then in many instances place our hopes and dreams for a straightforward and unambiguous four-team playoff process when that occurs). The problem is that even though it seems to make sense to have four 16-team superconferences in a clean and organized structure on a macro level, conference realignment is made up of a lot of messy micro-level decisions by individual schools and leagues.
Instability over the next decade would really be caused by *who* might be willing to move than the conferences wanting to expand for the sake of expanding. For instance, if the Longhorn Network still has carriage troubles two or three years from now and Texas starts grumbling about its TV situation (as much as cash is nice, any school still wants its fans to actually see its games), then you can have massive instability among conferences immediately.
For what it's worth, I think Notre Dame and UNC are in extremely stable positions because they are where they are for reasons beyond financial factors like TV money. If there's one fan base whose zealotry is actually *underestimated*, it's Notre Dame's alums. I could go on for quite awhile about this, but independence itself is the guiding principle of that institution (whereas a lot of fans nationwide that don't actually know any Domers mistakenly think that the Irish are only independent because of their NBC contract, which then leads them to further mistakenly believe that there is a financial deal out there that would persuade them to drop independence).
Texas is more of a variable since the school has been fairly upfront that the Longhorn Network drove its conference realignment decisions more than any other factor. Now, I do think that Texas has a similar need to be the alpha dog of its conference in the same way that UNC lords over the ACC, but the mere fact that UT had engaged in very advanced talks about creating the Pac-16 with Larry Scott back in 2010 shows that getting the best financial deal for the school is fairly critical (which means that their ears will perk up a lot more with a large stack of bills on the table compared to Notre Dame and UNC). I don't think that Texas would move as long as the Longhorn Network is in existence (both on the part of Texas not wanting to give it up unilaterally and the fact that the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC definitely would never accept it), so it's more of a matter of whether that channel can survive.
Stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3 of the series.