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Expansion Apocalypse: Villanova Edition

The state of Conference Expansion/Realignment has been rather quiet since the Big East added TCU to the conference at the end of November. Recently, however, there have been a few rumblings around the Big East and Big XII and almost assuredly, more change will come. Chief among those rumblings has been the discussion surrounding Villanova's pending decision on joining Big East football, but the Big XII's ability to survive has been called into question again following the announcement of Texas' Longhorn Network megadeal.

So what's new in Expansion Apocalypse?

Big East Check-In...

The Big East is still looking to expand, after adding TCU for the 2012 season, the conference is still one member short of it's expansion goal of 10 football members, set back on November 2nd. Of course, Villanova's decision is still looming, but John Marinatto told reporters that the conference isn't waiting for that decision to come down.

Some people's immediately reacted by saying that if the Big East isn't waiting, Villanova better hurry up and decide. If the Big East were to add another school as it's 10th member, the option might not be on the table in April.

That idea seems extremely likely.

It is true that the Big East won't wait for a Villanova decision, and they also may not wait for Villanova's upgrade to be completed before they add a 10th team. Not waiting for Villanova, however, does not mean that Villanova isn't invited to the party. While the conference is looking immediately to go to 10 football teams, the magic number for a football conference is really 12, and after expanding the conference to 18 all-sports members, adding an 11th football team from inside the conference is the most logistically-sound way to get there.

There is no solid intelligence out there on what school would be invited from outside the conference if the Big East were to expand again. Candidates that have have been discussed include Central Florida, Houston and Temple, as well as perhaps some leftovers from other conference implosions (see Big XII, infra).

UCF would seem to be a leader among those candidates, with a relatively-big market (19th largest) and success on both the football field and basketball court of late. However, Houston is also an attractive option. Located in football-crazy Houston, the Cougars also have had some historic successes on the hard-wood (Phi Slamma Jamma anyone?) and boast the 10th-largest television market.

There is no doubt that there will be a tenth football member joining the Big East, but the identity of that member is not yet apparent.

Big XII still shaky?

Commissioner Marinatto may have sent those roses to Dan Beebe too soon. While the University of Texas was elated with the option to keep their conference together with a set-up that allowed them to form the Longhorn Network with ESPN.

That network deal, however, may have made the Big XII more unstable than ever. That is evidenced by the re-emergence of rumors that Texas A&M has been flirting with the SEC about a move.

The SEC (or any conference) seeking expansion beyond 12 would depend largely on any new team's ability to bring revenue in that isn't already there. If the current scheme has each school earning X dollars (lets say $20 million for the purpose of this example), then any new addition would have to earn more than $20 million in additional revenue for the conference. Assuming the revenue works out to about $20 million per school, the addition of a member who only adds $10million in revenue to the pot would reduce the overall revenue to each school by "taking" more than it gets.

Of course, that would potentially be mitigated by the uneven revenue sharing schemes that exist in some conferences, but that sort of scheme is exactly why Big XII members are looking to get out.

Should A&M leave for the SEC, however, it will be interesting to see what would happen to the rest of the schools in the conference. Would Oklahoma go with TAMU? Would Texas bolt to the Pac-10? Or would the 9 remaining members stick it out (or even try to poach one of their old Southwest Conference foes from C-USA?). There may even be a possibility of the Big XII trying to step in and grab TCU before they ever officially play a down of Big East football.

Though, we have seen that the Big East doesn't appear to be interested in playing the sitting-duck. There is also a possibility that John Marinatto's venture out to Kansas this summer could amount to something if a major player in the Big XII were to defect. Kansas and K-State (and perhaps also Mizzou) are not particularly desirable to the Big Ten, SEC or Pac-10 -- their states are not very populous and they don't have the national drawing power of a Nebraska or Notre Dame. Kansas may have a national hoops following, but basketball isn't driving this expansion-bus.

With the Big East showing a willingness to expand westward and challenge the definition of "East" to include North Texas, it would be no real shocker if Kansas were to find themselves looking to develop rivalries with Louisville, Syracuse, and Villanova in a few years.

All of this is speculation, of course.

Villanova Football...

Back to the Big East football situation, the Wildcats are expected to make a decision on a potential upgrade when the Trustees meet in April. What will happen at that meeting remains in the air, and is perhaps even more contentious now that the leadership of that board has undergone a change. Terence O'Toole took over for Herbert Aspbury (a noted athletics donor) as chairman and five new members were added to the board (including one new Augustinian and St. Joes graduate). The by-laws were also amended to increase the maximum number of Trustees to 40.

Aspbury remains on the board and indications are that O'Toole is also a sports fan.

A source close to Mr. Aspbury and the football program generally reported to me in January that the issues are "cultural and financial" in nature, but that the financial issues "can be addressed and are manageable." The cultural issues are more the product of "down right biases that cannot be explained."

In 1997, the offer to join the Big East wasn't new -- every Big East school, whether they had a football team or not, was invited in 1991 to join the conference in that sport. Schools like Seton Hall and Providence quickly turned the offer down, as they didn't have a team. St. Johns and Georgetown fielded I-AA teams in non-scholarship conferences that were really Division-III programs in disguise and also declined. It was UConn and Villanova that left the offer on the table, but in 1997, the league asked those two schools to either accept or decline by year's end to clear up the league's membership situation.

This time around, rather than passively inviting Villanova as a courtesy, my source tells me that the Big East is actively pursuing Villanova football. There is a financial incentive from the conference on the table that would be valued around $4-6 million dollars toward the upgrade (and may come in the form of "buy" games).

I have also been told by the source that the study done in 1997 and the one currently underway indicate that Villanova football would not lose any greater amount of money by moving to FBS football in the Big East than the current FCS program does, and other positives that come with the move (increased exposure, etc.) would likely be perceived as a net-gain if that were the case.

The price-tag for the upgrade in up-front costs after the Big East subsidy appears to be around $20 million. A "donor study" is apparently underway where the school has been feeling out major athletics boosters on the issue. My source believes that that soft-fundraising effort is the key factor in whether Villanova will make the move, and without a major donor, that campaign would require something to the magnitude of "a committment of 200 grads of $ 100,000 each."

A different source has indicated that the Football Club has been fundraising for the upgrade and as of a month ago had reportedly secured commitments totalling at least $10 million.

A number of Trustees were pleased with the addition of TCU to the Big East. As a relatively-small private school with a religious and academic mission, they felt like it was an added "peer" school for Villanova to compete with on the gridiron.* Furthermore, the stadium issue is easier to resolve with PPL Park being newly-built and appropriately-sized in Chester, PA. While some or all games could also be held elsewhere in the region.

Surveys recently sent out, first to students, and then to alumni and area residents indicated that PPL Park would host Villanova football should the move happen.

All survey questions have used PPL Park as the location of the football games, later surveys dropped the language asking takers to "assume."

A move to PPL Park may not go over well with Philadelphia Union season ticketholders according to some people in the know. If the Union fans were to blow up the deal over concerns about football lines or pitch-quality, the possibility of playing at Franklin Field is always there. The 'Cats could easily split the cost of new turf at that stadium without Penn logos and the addition of a large park adjacent to the stadium would allow outdoor tailgating before and after the game. The stigma of playing on another school's campus may be too undesirable, however.

Talks with officials from the Philadelphia Union for use of PPL Park have been ongoing for at least some time recently, and even if the invitation is ultimately rejected, it has been suggested that Villanova may still work out a deal to play some home football games (UDel in particular) at the venue anyway.

Also interesting, is the fact that the university has been purchasing residential properties surrounding the stadium-area. Some speculation over a stadium-expansion has resulted, but more-likely that land would be used to build the new football offices, weight rooms and other practice and training facilities that would be needed to compete at the FBS level. Plans are in place to demolish Galberry Hall, currently next to the football stadium and home to Conference Services, and meetings with area residents have taken place on the matter.

As noted in the book A Season in Purgatory, which I recently read, as well as confirmed by my source, the move in 1997 came to a screeching halt moreso because Father Dobbin was opposed to it than because of any other issue. Board members were unwilling to vote against his will, especially because they did not trust their President to properly oversee the upgrade at that time. Father Donohue is said to be more open to the issue -- though some reports had him initially wishing it would just go away, he has seemed intrigued by the idea of cutting the school's football losses through a move.

The faculty is heavily against the move, but similar pro-athletics decision have been met with faculty disdain almost universally across the country when initially proposed.

Rumors of the move certainly haven't hurt recruiting. The 2011 recruiting class will be the highest-rated of Coach Talley's tenure at Nova, and prime high school talents are showing more and more interest in the Wildcats. Despite this, Coach Talley claims he hasn't used the move as recruiting tool at this point. One source close to a Big East football member, however, reports that at least one recruit was lead to believe that the move was likely.

This process is by no means over for Villanova, and while a move up in football is not a "done-deal," it appears that the torch is still burning on the issue.


* As an aside, the CAA membership is just as lacking in "peers" for Villanova as the Big East football league. With the exception of Richmond, every CAA member is a large-ish state-funded institution at the moment.

The signing-day profile series will continue tomorrow with the Quarterbacks.