Expansion Apocalypse?

We have discussed this topic endlessly in this and other forums. Conference expansion was years away, then it was imminent, and now it is a while off again. In any case, most people still believe that the Big Ten will eventually expand by somewhere between one and five schools.

The intent here is to provide a primer on expansion for VUhoops readers. So you know what is going on and how it might effect Villanova.


Best Case Scenarios

Any scenario where the Big East loses only one or fewer teams would be a clear winner. It would be an even bigger win if that one team were Notre Dame.

It would be relatively easy to pick up a single football program. In Notre Dame's case, the need to replace the school within the conference would hardly be imminent, and while the replacement would likely be a football member, it wouldn't have to be.

There is no shortage of mid-major schools that would love a taste of the Big East pie. Memphis and UCF from Conference USA have notably made their interest in joining another conference known recently. Adding one might allow the conference to expand or recover from a raid, adding both, or more could cause the Big East to lose it's status as a major football conference. Adding schools like East Carolina to replenish the football conference might injure basketball.

Honestly though, East Carolina is not a major conference candidate. To be a viable major conference program in a world where money is the endgame, you need to be able to bring in a large fan base or a lot of TV viewers. Schools in larger TV markets and those flagship state schools with a lot of fans are the real targets of conference expansion. East Carolina is neither.

Worst case

Other than Notre Dame, the likely Big East schools to be lost to a raid would be Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh or perhaps Connecticut. In any scenario where multiple schools from that list were to leave, the Big East would be forced to scramble to replace them. Some of the remaining football schools may not want to risk the fall-out.

If other major conferences start offering membership to Big East football schools in the wake of a Big Ten raid, you can expect those remaining football schools to jump on the offers. Why wait around and see if a neutered conference can compete? Why stay on-board when the Big East may lose it's BCS status and perhaps its earning power.

People have already speculated on the landing spots for various teams. A simple Google search will turn up numerous proposed realignment scenarios. It's not that hard to imagine, however, that a 16-team Big Ten could encourage other conferences to reach similar membership levels. The ACC, for example, may take the opportunity to bridge the geographic gap between Boston College and Maryland.

If a raid were to implicate more than one Big East school, and especially if it implicated three or more, it would probably signal the end of the conference as we know it.

Which Teams are Implicated?

As mentioned, the major Big East candidates for the Big Ten are Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and UConn.

Most people speculate that the Big Ten will not accept members that are not also members of the Association of American Universities. Both UConn and Notre Dame would fail that test, however, the Big Ten's public courting of Notre Dame a few years back would suggest that they may be interested in bending that rule.

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh seemingly has it all. An AAU member with quality programs in both football and basketball. Pitt would be a great in-state rival for Penn State and would improve the Big Ten in two sports.

However, if expansion is really about money, it's hard to believe that Pittsburgh adds a lot of it. The Pennsylvania market is already covered by Penn State, who have a ratings foothold from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Pittsburgh adds nothing for the Big Ten Network that Penn State doesn't already provide, except for a small ratings bump in Pittsburgh when the Panthers are playing.

Syracuse

The Orange were a target for the ACC during the last round of realignment. They bring a big alumni base and a top notch basketball program to the table. Football struggles to be competitive at the highest levels these days, but clearly competitiveness isn't the biggest concern.

If Syracuse can (or is perceived to be able to) deliver the New York market, it could be a financial bonanza for the Big Ten Network. That, however, remains entirely unclear.

Rutgers

Rutgers is the closest Big East football school to the New York City market. Their football team is a growing power while basketball has lately been in decline. As a flagship state school, however, it would fit the Big Ten mold better than some of the other options in the Big East. Of course, Rutgers never really inspired the loyalties of New Jersey (or New York) residents like Penn State, Michigan, Indiana and others.

UConn

Connecticut has only been playing FBS football for a few years, but has been reasonably successful in that time. Add to that a basketball program that has been among the nation's elite since Jim Calhoun was hired.

Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut is a television market with over 1 million TV households (the 30th market by size). The proximity to New York City may also help deliver TV viewers in that market as well.

If the Big Ten is not interested, the ACC might be. Connecticut would help bridge their geographic gap between North and South and would bolster their strong basketball credentials.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame is the ultimate wildcard. They're clearly desirable for the Big Ten, but they publicly claim to prefer independence in football. Hardly a superpower or a major draw in basketball, losing Notre Dame would hurt a little bit for the Big East, but would hardly be a death-blow.

In football, Notre Dame is a big enough draw that they would easily hold their own financially in the Big Ten.

If Notre Dame does not join the Big Ten, they would likely be forced to remain with the Big East. There is no other obvious fit for them. In the Big East they can stay a football independent for the moment at least, and maintain many of their traditional rivalries.

The case for football

For Villanova, football is the key to conference realignment. A basketball powerhouse from a major conference that is mentally and physically associated with the fifth-largest city in the United States. As it stands, the Big East is the only major conference that has members that don't field a team in football.

In order to land in a major conference in the event that realignment lands a mortal blow against the Big East, football probably needs to be part of the deal. Supposing that a proper venue could be located, the football team in its current form is no less competitive than a middle-of-the-road team in the Big East or ACC.

If money and football are the basis for conference expansions, adding a competitive basketball and football program in a major metropolitan area would be a desireable move for all of the major conferences, who would see a spike in their television revenue by adding a large TV market.

It is entirely unlikely that a major conference would add Villanova over Temple or another school with an FBS football team if the 'Cats were unable to field a team at that level.

Catholic East

If Villanova is not able to land in a major conference such as the ACC, the other likelihood is that an expansion apocalypse could lead to the Big East transforming into a Catholic Conference.

Assuming all of the football schools were to go their separate ways and leave the Big East, the eight basketball schools would be left to decide their future independently. Eight schools alone is enough to field a conference in basketball and the olympic sports, so there is no necessary rush to expand back to 16 teams.

If the Big East were to turn into Catholic East, a raid on the Atlantic 10 may be the next logical step to improve the earning possibilities of the conference. Xavier, Dayton and St. Louis are perennially competitive basketball programs in reasonably large markets.  It may be possible to maintain a borderline major status in basketball.

If Villanova were to decide to remain an FCS football school, they would have to be a part of this Catholic Conference.

Currently, the Big East (the only conference that negotiates TV rights for basketball separately) pays each member somewhere around $2 million per year for basketball. One one the better basketball-only conferences is the Atlantic 10. The A10's television deal for men's basketball is worth around $1million per year for the entire conference. As it stands, right now, the entire Atlantic 10 television deal is less than what Villanova alone receives from the Big East on an annual basis.

Defensive Moves

The options to save the Big East are very limited. Most likely the conference has to sit back and brace itself for an raid that might happen.

In hoping to head off a raid, the Big East has a few options:

  • Increase the buyout amount to withdraw from the conference: A highly unlikely option. It already costs a significant amount to get out of the Big East, but any school would be foolish to pay more than the value of the Big East revenue they recieve, which is vastly lower than that received by Big Ten schools
  • Give the ultimatum to Notre Dame: Tell Notre Dame that it's all-or-nothing, football or no sports. This move would either bring Notre Dame football (and a huge pay day) to the Big East, or force them toward the Big Ten. Some observers believe that Notre Dame would be all it would take to satisfy the Big Ten's hunger, but if the plan to go to 16 teams regardless, it may remain too little.
  • Form a Big East cable network: The conference already has a "Big East Network" that airs games and some content in markets where there are Big East teams but no national interest, but it isn't a true cable network in the nature of the Big Ten Network. A Big East Network would immediately appear (at a rate of about $0.70 per cable subscriber) in somewhere between 25 and 30 million homes (since the Big East covers 3 of the 4 biggest cities in the country and almost every major metro area in the northeast).

A TV network seems like th biggest winner from this selection. The conference has a strong presence in major TV markets and basketball will provide a significant amount of TV content during the season to keep the conference flush with cash. It's a risky venture, but at a minimum of 25 million households, the network would presumably cover more ground than the Big Ten Network as currently constituted (even if Rutgers were lost to realignment).

What of the Pac-10?

The latest rumor is that the Pac-10 conference plans to raid six teas from the Big XII. Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado would be targeted in this expansion. The finances seem appealing for these schools to jump ship.

If the rumor is true, and those teams all left to join the Pac-10, it would leave the six remaining schools looking for a new home. The Big Ten would be interested (and reportedly IS interested) in Missouri and Nebraska. The remaining schools, Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas an Kansas State ma or may not find a new affiliation.

Kansas and K-State may find a new home in the Big East, if that conference were willing to expand to 18 schools (10 for football). That would provide the football schools a two-school buffer, should the conference be raided by the Big Ten at a later date. Kanas (as an AAU member) may also campaign for a Big Ten membership. In football the draw of Kansas and K-State is perhaps limited, but in basketball, both currently possess programs that are nationally relevant (and in the case of KU, it is historically relevant as well).

For the Big East, adding Kansas and Kansas State would stretch the geographic boundaries of the conference. Nonetheless, with the Big Ten looking to raid the East for either two or three schools, it may make sense to head them off at the pass by adding two major conference programs in anticipation of a raid.

At 18 schools (10 for football) it would be very difficult for a Big Ten raid to inflict a mortal injury upon the conference. Even if three schools were lost to the bigger conference, the selection of midmajor football schools to bring aboard would hardly be too poor to maintain the status of the conference.

The Big XII raid may be the best thing that ever happened to the Big East. Giving the conference options it would never have otherwise, and allowing the Big East commissioner options that he would otherwise not have (i.e. picking up major-conference football/basketball programs, rather than raiding a weakened Conference USA again).

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Update (1:00pm): Somewhat predictably, the Pac-10 has issued a statement denying the above-noted rumor that they have offered six schools membership. The Pac-10 commish said the following: "We have not extended any invitations for expansion and we do not anticipate any such decisions in the near term."

Does this mean that it won't happen? No, but we should anticipate that a move is (again) not as imminent as we previously anticipated.

Rumors have also been flying about a potential Big Ten invite for Texas. It's safe to say that Texas is the biggest fish in this round of conference expansion (bigger than Notre Dame). The Longhorns will have their pick of landing spots should the Big XII cease to exist, but while they can keep the Big XII together, they will choose to do so, because the uneven revenue sharing in that conference leaves them with a massive pay-day and annual match-ups with their traditional rivals. Recent emails have suggested that Texas does have some interest in the Big Ten, however.

There have also been rumblings that the SEC could make an offer to Texas and Texas A&M. While there is no indication that Texas is particularly motivated to go in that direction, there is definite interest on the part of A&M.

See also: Rush The Court on the Pac-10/Big XII rumor

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