Collegiate realignment, round 2?
History says that expansion and TV talks go hand in hand. A conference wants more money? It adds schools.
From 2022 through 2024, three of the five major college conferences will renegotiate their media deals in a marketplace that’s very different than a decade ago, raising questions about who their partners might be and how much they’ll be willing to spend. Not everyone, however, is convinced that conference realignment is a foregone conclusion during the next round of TV talks, according to a dozen commissioners, athletic directors and media executives.
Chatter about four 16-team super conferences has subsided. The likelihood of the 10-school Big 12 expanding is far-fetched. The smallest of the power five leagues gave expansion a thorough examination two years ago and opted to pass, deciding that Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston didn’t add enough value.
The makeup of the power five conferences has not changed since the Big Ten and ACC last expanded in 2014, making this one of the most stable periods in decades. Most people in the business believe this period of stability will continue.
“Conference shifts and people moving have been happening since the dawn of time. That’s nothing new,” Texas AD Chris Del Conte said. “But right now, it’s very calm. I don’t see any movement right now. We’re working under long-term TV contracts, so there’s stability there. The CFP has a long-term contract. People are focused on winning in the league that they’re in.”
Ironically, it’s Del Conte’s employer — Texas — that is most often brought up when conversations turn to conference realignment.
While college experts were skeptical about widespread conference shake-ups, they unanimously said they’ll be watching three factors that could be triggers for change: Texas, Oklahoma and the success of the ACC Network.
Texas and Oklahoma have the ultimate leverage because they know they can go to any league and find the red carpet rolled out. They also have the most decisions to make going forward, and those decisions could create ripples, perhaps waves, across college athletics.
When the Big 12 begins negotiating its next media rights deal, it will be incumbent on the league to show enough revenue growth, without expanding, to keep the Longhorns and Sooners from exploring alternatives. Whether the Big 12 can generate significant raises from its base of 10 schools remains to be seen.
The Big 12’s per-school distribution was $36 million last year. That, plus Texas’ $15 million from ESPN for the Longhorn Network, gives the ’Horns $51 million in conference and media revenue. That’s roughly what the Big Ten will distribute to its members this season.
If Texas ultimately decides to stray from the Big 12, that’s where things get interesting, and a bit chaotic.
The most compelling scenario has the Longhorns becoming an independent in football, a la Notre Dame. By being in business with ESPN, which is paying the school $300 million over 20 years for the Longhorn Network rights through 2030, the Longhorns have a ready-made media partner that would ensure maximum exposure.
Round They Go
The last round of conference realignment and how each power five conference shook out.
■ Result: Grew from 12 schools to 14 in football and 15 in most other sports; Notre Dame also now plays five annual football games against ACC schools.
■ 2013: Added Pittsburgh, Syracuse
■ 2014: Added Louisville, Notre Dame (except football); lost Maryland
■ Result: Contracted from 12 schools to 10.
■ 2011: Lost Colorado, Nebraska
■ 2012: Added TCU, West Virginia; Lost Missouri, Texas A&M
■ Result: Grew from 10 schools to 12.
■ 2011: Added Colorado, Utah
■ Result: Grew from 11 schools to 14.
■ 2011: Added Nebraska
■ 2014: Added Maryland, Rutgers
■ Result: Grew from 12 schools to 14.
■ 2012: Added Missouri, Texas A&M
Note: Dates are based on when the schools began competition in each conference.
Texas is probably the only other school in the nation, along with Notre Dame, that could thrive as an independent because it has a blue-chip brand, a national following and a built-in media partner.
Some administrators in the college space argue that the Longhorns already enjoy quasi-independent status in the Big 12, based on their freedom to have their own network, while also enjoying the scheduling benefits of being in a conference.
If Texas looked for another conference, the ACC and Big Ten loom as the most likely landing spots. Remember, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and ACC Commissioner John Swofford were the first movers during the last round of realignment, both making surprise moves that put Nebraska in the Big Ten and Notre Dame in the ACC.
But what would happen to the Longhorn Network? Texas’ contract stipulates that the network must live on, even if UT leaves the Big 12.
The ACC’s alliance with ESPN makes the ACC a potential destination if the Longhorns go looking. ESPN owns all of the ACC’s media rights, which would make it easier to either absorb the ESPN-owned Longhorn Network or develop another option. If the ACC wanted to get creative, it could offer Texas the ability to keep the network, or even agree on a Notre Dame-like independence in football with membership for the rest of its sports.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, wouldn’t be expected to stay in the Big 12 without Texas. Without those two anchors for the conference, the future for the other eight schools would change drastically.
Another potential trigger for change is the ACC Network, which is scheduled to launch in August in an environment rife with cord cutters and dwindling subscriber bases. ESPN fully owns the channel and was able to secure the right to launch it on Altice’s New York-area systems and nationally on at least one digital multichannel video provider.
If the channel is successful in signing more carriage deals, the conference’s makeup will remain the same. If not, some of the ACC’s stronger programs — Florida State, Clemson — could become targets for the SEC and Big Ten. Sources say success in terms of revenue falls somewhere between the thriving Big Ten Network and struggling Pac-12 Networks.
When conference TV deals expire:
■ American Athletic: 2019-20
■ Mountain West: 2019-20
■ Big Ten: 2022-23
■ Pac-12: 2023-24
■ Big 12: 2024-25
■ SEC (CBS): 2024-25
■ SEC (ESPN): 2033-34
■ ACC: 2035-36
During the last round of conference realignment, conferences expanded because of their TV channels. The Big Ten added Maryland to get more distribution for BTN in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., market, and Rutgers to get a toehold in the New York market. Similarly, the SEC added Texas A&M to get into the Texas market.
“My sense is that nobody wants to upset the applecart this time around,” one executive said.
The problem is that many of the schools that would be willing to jump conferences — think any of the schools in the American Athletic — don’t necessarily help add distribution for a conference-owned channel.
“There’s a lot less in play this time,” one executive said. “How many viable candidates are there? At some point, conferences will look at expansion as producing diminishing returns. The idea that conferences would continue to expand to absurd levels tied to athletics? That ends at some point.”
By the time the next round of TV negotiations is finished and three of the power five leagues have new deals for linear and digital media, the college landscape could look much the same as it does now.
Other forces will come into play, though.
The ongoing Alston v. NCAA case could open the door for schools to compensate athletes beyond a scholarship, which threatens the NCAA’s amateurism model. Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick predicted to CBSSports.com that the case could produce a scenario where schools that pay players compete in one division and schools that opt not to pay players compete in a different division.
Access to the College Football Playoff is another potential tipping point. In the first four years of the CFP, the field has been dominated by a handful of schools — Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State — while an unbeaten Central Florida couldn’t get in last season and the Pac-12 has been represented just twice.
One way for the Big 12 and Pac-12 to improve their chances is to have more teams, like adding UCF to the Big 12 and Boise State to the Pac-12, for example.
While any of those scenarios could prompt change, conference realignment almost always is tied to media negotiations and the ability to grow revenue with more teams and more games. Virtually no one saw the ground-shaking realignment coming last time, either.
“History shows that, since 1990, we’re in one of the longest periods of stability right now,” said Karl Benson, commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference and a veteran of 40 years in college athletics. “Conference realignment is just a regular occurrence. Can we expect more changes in the next five to 10 years? History says yes.”