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Expansion Apocalypse: Is Nine Enough?

On November 3, 2010, the Big East voted to expand the football side of the conference to 10 members. Reports from at least a month prior to that decision had indicated that the conference may have reached out to the Horned Frogs about membership, though no one in the Big East has ever confirmed that story.

Internet chatter recently has focused on who a tenth member would be. At one point, it was almost assumed that Villanova would be given that spot should the university administration vote to accept it, but the Big East football committee got cold feet on April 10th, and halted the process.

Other names have been tossed around, almost exclusively schools from Conference USA, and people wondered, "if not Villanova, then who?"

Not everyone was pondering that question, however. In fact, some were pondering a very different question: "Should Big East will hold steady at 9 members?" Yesterday, the crowd asking that question grew a bit larger on news from Mike Jensen that the crucial next TV contract for the conference was projected to be larger with Villanova football than with other widely-discussed options.

How much larger wasn't stated. I reached out to Jensen to ask about that morsel of information, and he told me this: "I wrote all I knew, which was just that snippet." So the investigation in that regard will go on.

What's so great about the number 9?

Getting a ninth football member into the conference was long a desire of Big East football coaches and AD's, who struggled with an unbalanced schedule. They would play seven conference games, and in some years they would have four at home, and others would have three.

So, while Louisville played four home games in the Big East in 2010 and Rutgers played three, each team in the ACC had an eight game conference slate with four games at home. Furthermore, with an 8-game schedule, a school like Boston College only had to schedule 4 out-of-conference games (three were at home) while the Big East schools had an extra spot to fill.

Filling that spot is a difficult task, and oftentimes there are no marquee match-ups to be had. Syracuse played two FCS teams in 2010 and since only one FCS win can count toward bowl eligibility, the Orange needed to win seven games instead of six to have a chance to go bowling.

Filling your schedule is difficult, and with only a small number of opportunities to match up with major conference opposition out-of-conference, it makes sense to load up on as much as possible in-conference.

A ninth member was increasingly becoming absolutely vital to the operations of Big East football schools.

Mission Accomplished then, right? Why 10?

Remember (again): this is all about money, shared money -- and in terms of expansion, the value-added will come primarily in the Television revenue.

The value of a television contract, as noted here recently, is a product largely of the combination of inventory and ratings. Inventory is a term used to refer to the actual games offered as part of the television contract. Television networks, since the advent of cable, have had a growing need for inventory -- ESPN has expanded from one channel requiring 24 hours of programming each day, to more than eight (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN News, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Plus, ESPN 3D as well as the Longhorn Network and a number of international channels), requiring at least 192 hours each day.

Live sports become a valuable commodity to broadcasters. ESPN takes a chance that it's other programming will fail and be cancelled (like "Playmakers"), but live baseball, football, basketball and hockey will always safely draw an audience. Just like your stockbroker might advise you to load up on "safe" investments as a hedge against riskier ones, so do the networks load up on "safe" programming (live sports) as a hedge against riskier productions.

A tenth football member increases the conference inventory, and can do so significantly. A ten-member conference can schedule up to 9 conference games for each school without repeating match-ups.

By my calculation*, a 9-team conference would be able to offer up a slate of 36 games between it's members to a broadcaster. A 10-team conference, however, can add nine more games (45 games total) by also moving to a 9-game conference schedule.

Adding a ninth member, by comparison, only adds 8 games over the current 7-game schedule. In terms of inventory, a 10th member actually brings more to the conference than the 9th did.

It is very likely that a 10-team conference is more valuable in television negotiations on a per-school-basis, than a 9 member configuration. Why? Because the 9th and 10th member add significantly to the conference inventory.

Assuming all games were valued the same (they are not) at $5/game, then each school in an 8-team and 28-game conference would get $17.50. In a 9-team and 36-game conference, they would get an extra $2.50 for $20 each. In a 10-team and 45-game conference, however, they would receive $22.50 each. The extra boost from a 9-game schedule increases the revenue-per-school by $5 -- imagine if we were dealing in millions, instead of pocket-change? Is that significant?

So we proved a lawyer can do elementary math... What else?

The Pac-12 and Big XII conferences have already moved to a 9-game schedule, and there are indications that the Big Ten will also implement that scheme. It is one of the items earmarked for the Big Ten meetings taking place next week, though any move to a 9-game set-up would not likely go into effect until 2017 or so.

With half of the six power conferences scheduling 9-games, other conferences will likely do the same. As noted earlier, the Big East already has difficulty finding quality games out-of-conference. If other major conferences begin to commit an extra open slot every year to their conference schedule, they will have fewer openings for a Big East program.

Even the MAC, long the default out-of-conference slot-filler for both the Big East and Big Ten, could potentially go to a schedule of nine or more games now that their membership has ballooned to 14 (with the addition of UMass).

If everyone else is filling their scheduling gaps in-house, it will become increasingly difficult to find compelling match-ups, or perhaps any match-ups at all, for some teams in the Big East. Joining the others with a 9-game schedule, however, alleviates that burden.

It wouldn't be a Big East discussion without Oliver Luck...

All indications are that a 10th team is on the way, and that a push for a 12th may not come far behind that. West Virginia Athletics Director Oliver Luck is a hard man to silence, he has been extraordinarily forthcoming with answers to most press questions (though he has turned down VUhoops' requests for an interview), and on this issue he recently was quoted:

. . . assuming, as we look down the road and try to make schedules do what schedules are supposed to do, we're making the assumption we'll have nine conference games. That's because I think we'll have nine conference games, and a 10th member, relatively soon. And we need a 10th team. If you look at it from a television standpoint, it adds content.

Luck isn't just pulling that sentiment out of thin air, either. His comments are similar to ones made late last week by Louisville president Dr. James Ramsey. Ramsey even continued to say that a 12-team football conference could also be on the horizon.


Money rules the day, and the math tends to suggest that all-things being equal, a 10-team conference playing a 9-game schedule should add significantly to the value of a Big East television contract on the football side. Furthermore, the logistics of scheduling with a 9-game conference slate makes life easier for Big East AD's and prevents out-of-conference schedules from becoming any weaker as schools scrap for warm bodies in the mid-major masses.

Indications from the Big East are that there will certainly be a tenth football member, and potentially more to follow. There have been no indications from any source that the potential of stopping expansion at nine teams is considered a viable option by any Big East school.

The Big East will be getting bigger, folks.


* I was definitely not a math major, so please correct my numbers if I am wrong and I will make appropriate changes.