The Big Ten ended its realignment hibernation over the weekend and plucked Maryland from the ACC and Rutgers from the Big East.
The impetus for the move, Notre Dame’s decision to strategically align with the ACC. There will be a ton written about the Big Ten’s move to 14, but what I want y’all to focus on is two succinct sentences from Maryland’s president: “Everyone thinks you make your money in seats. You make it on eyeballs on a screen.”
In essence this is why the Big Ten and the SEC are set to dominate for the next generation of college football and why it’s inevitable that both conferences will go to 16 teams.
I’ll tell you why that’s inevitable and who I believe will be those targets, but first I want to add my own additional two sentences inspired by James Carville that tells you everything about conference expansion: “It’s the math, stupid!” and “It’s the geography, stupid!”
If you get both of these rules locked into your head, realignment makes much, much more sense.
Now let’s unpack both:
Let’s begin with the first, it’s the math, stupid.
And by math, I mean dollars. An undefeated rule of conference expansion is that it can only occur if the relocating party stands to make more money by moving. Otherwise, why move? The reason why Maryland and Rutgers is joining the Big Ten is because they’ll have much more money there than they do in the ACC or the Big East. (By the way, Rutgers is the first school to officially outkick its coverage in the expansion wave. Just, wow.) Similarly, an undefeated rule of conference expansion is that the payout to existing members of the conference will increase by expansion.
Everyone is making more money.
Second, where does the money come from? Cable subscriber fees through the regional sports networks.
Back in January I wrote a series of articles on the coming SEC Network.
If you haven’t read those articles, I’d encourage you to do so now since they do a better job of explaining the current college environment than anything else you’ll read. If you’d read these articles then the Big Ten’s addition of Maryland and Rutgers wouldn’t have surprised you at all:
SEC and ESPN officials expect that the coming SEC Network will be the most lucrative regional sports network in the country. That’s billions of dollars flowing into league coffers.
Because the SEC teams are the most popular teams in the majority of the states in which the schools are located. This is why the Pac12 network will never be anywhere near as valuable as the Big Ten or SEC networks, because the Pac12 teams are infinitely less valuable brands in their respective states. The more valuable the brand, the more of a fight fans put up to ensure that every cable company carries the channel in a prominent spot. Given that the SEC Network will carry between 40 and 50 football games a season when it launches in 2014, how do you think LSU fans would react if three or four Tiger games weren’t available on their local cable channel?
Do we even want to consider what Bama fans would do to local cable companies if the Tide wasn’t carried on their cable package?
My point is simple: The SEC and the Big Ten are about to hop on a rocket ship and leave behind the rest of the collegiate universe.
The dollars each network will produce is truly staggering.
Which brings us back to the inevitability of each conference eventually having sixteen members.
And to our second big rule: it’s the geography, stupid!
Notice what the SEC and the Big Ten are doing, they’re going into new states with every school they add. Nebraska, Texas A&M, Missouri, Maryland, and Rutgers.
That’s no coincidence.
Why are the conferences doing this?
Because the carriage fees for their networks — the amount that cable companies pay to the Big Ten Network and the coming SEC Network — are predicated upon whether there are teams in the markets or not. For instance, I have the Big Ten Network and the Pac 12 Network here in Nashville. But Comcast in my market only pays the Big Ten and the Pac 12 around a dime a month to carry those channels. Basically, nothing. That’s because the demand for both networks is relatively small in Nashville. That is, there aren’t that many Big Ten or Pac 12 fans demanding these two channels in Nashville. But if there was a college in state that played in one of the conferences, let’s say that Vandy joined the Big Ten, the increased demand would cause the carriage fee to skyrocket.
If a school is located in the geographic footprint of a conference it’s worth nine or ten times as much money in carriage fees as it was before.
Are you starting to see why Maryland and Rutgers make so much sense to the Big Ten and why Texas A&M and Missouri made so much sense to the SEC?
They’re all new television markets.
Carriage fees will skyrocket.
Which brings me back around to something I’ve been telling OKTC readers for two years now — the Big Ten and the SEC are not expanding into markets where they already have teams.
I’m writing this in bold because y’all continue to Tweet me about this all the time: the SEC will never, ever add Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville or Miami to its conference.
It’s the geography, stupid.
And the geography is always going to be new markets, places where there aren’t already teams, because of the cable networks.
Fourteen teams is just a holding zone for the more logical step to sixteen. Two divisions of seven teams each is too unwieldy, the scheduling too difficult to make sense in the long term. No, both conferences will eventually move to sixteen teams each, four divisions of four. You’ll play all three teams in your division and then rotate through the rest of the conference much more efficiently.
So who will the Big Ten and the SEC add?
I’ve been writing on this for a long time, but the SEC’s addition of teams in North Carolina and Virginia is inevitable.
The math and the geography is fate.
North Carolina has 3.4 million cable and satellite homes. Virginia has 2.8 million cable and satellite homes.
Both are rapidly growing markets.
Combined that’s 6.2 million additional cable sets for the SEC Network, or about $75 million in additional revenue at the $1 a month network cost.
Once the SEC Network money spigot starts flowing, the gap between the ACC and the SEC schools is going to become Grand Canyon-esque.
My assumption is that Duke and North Carolina are a pair and won’t split up. That leaves N.C. State as the logical SEC addition.
In the state of Virginia, Virginia Tech is the easy cultural fit.
So who will the Big Ten grab? (Keep in mind that the Big Ten also won’t take “bad” schools).
I think the Big Ten will also head south and raid the ACC anew, Maryland is just the start of the ACC’s losses.
These four schools will be the final four Big Ten candidates:
2. North Carolina
4. Georgia Tech
I think the two most likely Big Ten additions are Virginia and Georgia Tech. The Big Ten would kill to get into a Southern media market like Atlanta and I still think long range that Florida State and Clemson will end up in the Big 12. (The Big Ten would kill to add Vanderbilt as well and get into Nashville, but the Commodores aren’t leaving the SEC. No one is.).
The only wrinkle for the Big Ten’s path to 16 teams is whether Notre Dame could ever be bullied into joining the conference as the ACC crumbles. I don’t think it could because I think a desperate Big 12 would welcome the Irish if the ACC deal falls apart. But it’s a complicating factor. In fact, you can argue that the ACC’s decision to welcome Notre Dame into the conference as a full member in all sports but football is what finally precipitated Jim Delany to steal away Maryland.
My assumption is also that Duke and North Carolina won’t split up. If they were willing to split up, the SEC would obviously prefer North Carolina over N.C. State. But I don’t think they’ll split up. (If they did split up, I think the Big Ten would take Duke and the SEC would take North Carolina). And I don’t believe the SEC would take two teams in North Carolina if the opportunity to take an additional team in Virginia was the cost.
This is the future, it’s inevitable.
It’s not a question of if the SEC and the Big Ten go to 16 teams, it’s just a question of when.
And if you follow the math and the geography, the two teams that they add won’t be surprising at all.