The Case for (And Against) Twenty: Why Superconferences Might Not End At 16 Teams

In the summer of 2010 the college football world was rocked by sudden news that six members of the Big 12 were on the cusp of defecting to the Pac-10. Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado would go west and create a 16 team “superconference.” The Pac-16 would combine the Texas and California recruiting and TV markets. The USC Trojans would be playing the Texas Longhorns in conference games. The road to the Pac-16 basketball championship would wind from Norman, Waco, and Stillwater on the Great Plains, through Tucson in the Arizona Desert, and into Westwood, the home of the legendary John Wooden.

The idea of a superconference seemed relatively new at the time but it’s part of a natural progression of conference consolidation that has been ongoing for decades. Conferences progressed from eight and ten teams to ten and 12 and we now have two power conferences at 14 teams and one at 15 if Notre Dame’s quasi-independent deal with the ACC counts. When one counts associate members the number of programs in and associated with power conferences jumps even higher. The number all college football pundits seem fixated on is 16. This is 16 full-member football teams in a power conference. We’ve had 16 football teams in an athletic conference in the past. The Western Athletic Conference boasted 16 members in the mid-90’s and divided them into four divisions of four. The scheduling was confused but essentially the makeup of the four “quadrants” was as follows:

Q1: Hawaii, Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State

Q2: UNLV, Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming

Q3: BYU, Utah, New Mexico, UTEP

Q4: Tulsa, TCU, SMU, Rice

This set up lasted a grand total of three years from 1996 to 1998. Concerns about travel, finances, and the confused conference schedule prompted long time WAC members to leave the conference in the late 90’s and create the Mountain West Conference.

The WAC’s 16 team set up reads as an almost cautionary tale and rightfully so. Any conference that aspires to add 16+ teams cannot be focused entirely on taking and holding territory like some kind of collegiate Napoleon. Indeed the old Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference of the early 1900’s collapsed because it had too many members of disparate size and strength, with scattered scheduling rules and varied athletic philosophies, scattered from Texas to the Tidewater in an age of train travel and telegrams. Travel, member finances, maintenance of historical rivalries and conference culture…these things have to be respected. BYU, Utah, New Mexico, and other long time WAC members had been playing in the same conference since the 1960’s and 1970’s. They had no ties to Fresno State, Tulsa, UNLV, and the Southwest Conference exiles but suddenly those teams constituted half the conference. Perhaps a Pac-16 would have been an athletic and academic juggernaut. But perhaps it could have been beset by travel and culture issues. Was A&M’s historically conservative Corps of Cadets really going to march into historically liberal bastions like UC-Berkeley and Stanford? Would Wazzu fans make the trip to Stillwater and Norman? Could the smaller schools in the conference afford to send volleyball and swimming and diving teams on eight and ten hour round trip flights throughout the middle of the school year? Perhaps these could have been very real issues that ultimately sunk the conference despite the power brands that made up its membership.

Despite these concerns, the power conferences seem poised to acquire and collect markets and new territory with the vigor of Cecil Rhodes. Whereas the SEC’s acquisition of Texas A&M, Big Ten’s acquisition of Nebraska, and the Big 12’s acquisition of TCU seemed to fit existing conference cultures perfectly, other acquisitions have seen mixed results culturally. Missouri to the SEC, West Virginia to the Big 12, and the Pac-12’s expansion into Utah and Colorado have worked well but caused some head scratching. The ACC’s desperate expansion into northern and midwestern basketball-centric schools has created friction amongst the football focused and longtime southern schools. The Big Ten’s expansion strategy along the east coast via Rutgers, Maryland, and possibly Boston College in the future seems good from a business perspective but leaves one wondering just how much those schools have in common with Purdue, Minnesota, and Iowa?

While conference culture, strained schedules, and travel concerns all weigh as potential cons, this pessimism ignores the substantial pros. The primary reason the WAC failed in the mid-90’s was largely because it was the WAC. It was a mid-major conference with mid-major finances and a mid-major TV deal trying to execute a sudden expansion strategy that would make even bold power conference commissioners do a double take. Power conferences are anchored by blue blood programs and are filled with name brand middle-tiers. They often boast academic juggernauts in their ranks as well as programs with fanbases that some professional teams covet. Travel budgets for these teams are substantial already and its safe to say that the internet and televised college sports are lightyears ahead of where things stood in even the mid-90’s. Back then the internet came on AOL CDs. Today entire games are livestreamed to fans onto their TVs and laptops while they follow real time reaction of social media on their phones. This speaks nothing of multi-billion TV rights deals and lucrative conference networks that have been driving expansion for years. Once allowable by law thanks to NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1984) these deals killed independent programs and regional conferences in the late 80’s and early 90’s (save for Notre Dame whose independence was preserved thanks to a deal with NBC). Then the major conferences raided other conferences in pursuit of the requisite 12 teams for a conference championship game. In recent years conferences have expanded to 14 teams in pursuit of new markets for their conference networks. The Big Ten seeks east coast expansion not for Rutgers’ and Maryland’s storied football programs but for their proximity to Washington D.C., Baltimore, and New York City. The SEC didn’t add Texas A&M and Missouri out of the kindness of their hearts because those two wanted to get away from the Longhorn Network…those programs added Houston, DFW, San Antonio, Austin, Kansas City, and St. Louis’ lucrative TV markets and doubled the population of the SEC’s footprint. All of this adds to conference negotiators leverage when it comes to negotiating rights deals. That the conferences get above average football and basketball programs and academic powerhouses is an added bonus. The thing is, this expansion actually works. The Big Ten Network and the SEC Network have been ultra lucrative for their respective conferences and help further widen the gap between themselves and the other power conferences. Because this strategy seems to work the question of when a power conference expands to 16 teams seems a question of when and not if.

My question is…why is 16 the magic number? As long as added schools mesh well and add to each member’s payout why should a limit exist? Why not 17? Why not 20? After all conference expansion has been running inexhaustibly forward for decades.

I postulated the other day that the Big Ten’s best option for expansion lies in former Big 12 members after the grant of rights expires in 2025. Texas adds a mammoth market, a blue blood brand, and an academic powerhouse to the conference. OU brings a solid small market and a blue blood athletic brand. Kansas brings a blue blood basketball program and excellent academics. KU and OU by themselves do not add the market the Big Ten needs to justify expansion. Texas and OU’s addition creates very legitimate distance problems. The three together create an alluring target but 17 teams creates scheduling problems and conference unbalance. Not to mention the political and legal obstacles that would present themselves if the core of the Big 12 suddenly jumped ship. 18 or even 20 helps solve these problems. By adding Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech the Big Ten ensures no major political obstacle will derail potential expansion. Six teams would be added from the middle of the country and would combine well with Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in terms of travel and game start times.

20 teams seems daunting from a scheduling standpoint but it’s workable. 10 conference games and dividing the conference into four divisions of five makes this possible. A team plays four in-division games, and two rotating games (home and away) against the other divisions. This would allow every team to play its division mates every year, and rotate through the entirety of the conference, home and away, in six years. A fifth year senior would actually play every opponent in a 20 team conference this way which is more than some conferences like the SEC can say. The permanent east-west opponent and the eight game conference schedule means every team plays one rotating cross-division opponent a year. Texas A&M won’t play Georgia for the first time until 2019. That’s an eight year wait period from the time the Aggie joined the SEC in 2012. For site-specific games it becomes even more complicated; A&M won’t play Tennessee at Neyland Stadium until 2023, 11 years after joining the SEC. The problem of the schedule being too hard on players in an age of injury concerns is real but schedules are growing increasingly tough already with conference rules against playing FCS opponents. Schools are rushing to fill their out of conference schedules with weaker power conference teams and FBS mid-majors…exactly the types of programs that would be added to a power conference in a 20 team scenario.

The real barrier to 20 teams is finances. Conference networks are so profitable because cable and satellite viewers in a given state pay a certain amount for a given channel in their package. For example ESPN is the most expensive channel in a given cable package at around $5. This is far and away the most. TNT, The NFL Network, and Disney Channel all command over a dollar, most channels command pocket change. Live sports are incredibly valuable to networks these days because they are one of the few properties that viewers do not DVR and still appointment watch. According to former Disney CFO Jay Rasulo 99.4% of sporting events are watched live, making the advertising revenue from these events incredibly valuable. This is the main reason the NFL, college football, and the NCAA basketball tournament (which combine massive audiences with reliable appointment viewing) can command astronomical rights fees. It’s also the underlying reason that even the third tier rights of conferences like the Big Ten and SEC can command top dollar and even expect to command top dollar before a contract is even signed (I’m looking at you SEC Network). The catch is these rights vary from market to market. For example the SEC Network commands over a dollar but only in states that house an SEC program. In non-SEC states the channel costs roughly ten cents. That’s a massive difference and is the reason that schools like Missouri and Texas A&M are so valuable. It’s also why expansion is so focused on new markets and adding schools from existing markets does not result in the major payout bump. This is the chief barrier to the University of Texas going to the SEC; Texas A&M already provides the Texas state market to the SEC. Money talks and B.S. walks so despite the Longhorns massive brand and academic power they would have to increase the total per school payout for the existing 14 teams, provide their own equal payout (and exceed what they could make in the Big 12), and likely help make up a good deal of a payout for a 16th team to keep the conference balanced. That’s a a lot of financial hurdles to overcome. It’s also why conference expansion is so focused on new markets as opposed to “obvious” fits like Notre Dame in the Big Ten or Clemson and Florida State in the SEC.

The thing is this system of market rates and cable bundling has proven super lucrative and its part of the reason that networks like the SEC Network and Big Ten Network have been so successful. It’s also the main reason your cable bill keeps increasing in cost. Combined with your internet cost and sometimes a phone (now that cable, Internet, and phones come bundled by the big service providers) these bills are often astronomical and include perks you often never use like ultra high speed internet and hundreds of channels one never watches. This is the chief reason people are cutting their cords (especially younger people), opting for Internet only packages, and online options like streaming TV (legally or illegally), Netflix, Hulu, etc. Astronomical rents, stagnant wages, a tendency by millennials to watch less TV (or at least be more flexible with their viewing options compared to older generations that still watch TV by appointment viewing), these things are all combining to undercut the strength of the traditional cable market. Even this week media stocks have plummeted and one of the main concerns is the questionable strength of a business model reliant on ever increasing sports rights. ESPN has been cutting costs across the board and the culprit is decreasing revenue from cable subscribers combined with ever increasing rights fees for the sports people actually watch in large numbers (NFL, college football, top tier basketball, and international soccer).

For obvious reasons creating a 20 team conference that maintains profitability would be incredibly tough but it’s not insurmountable. Indeed if 20 teams could be combined and profitability achieved across the board the money in play would be astonishing. Such a conference would dominate financially but likely also athletically, academically, and intangibly.

This is where intangibles come into play. Obviously the money leads realignment but these other factors play a significant role. If the SEC were to add six ACC teams and definitively seal their claim to the southeast coast they could raise their academic profile substantially. Additions of North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Miami, and Georgia Tech would more than double the number of AAU schools in the conference. The basketball rights payout for the conference would have to increase substantially by adding those impressive ACC brands to Kentucky and Florida. Furthermore in an age of conference power struggles the first 20 team conference would have a decided edge over the remaining conferences in terms of choice and markets. A Big Ten that goes to 20 puts the SEC in a bind and vice versa. It’s important for conferences to remember that the point of expansion isn’t conquest but there is a reason the comparison is often made. You’d have to think that if the SEC could add six of the southeastern ACC’s best, add football and basketball blue bloods, and several academic powerhouses, add new markets, and gain so much that money otherwise destined for the ACC would be simply added to the SEC’s rights deals and drastically increase the conference’s value that the conference would at least seriously consider the plan. At minimum the commissioner takes that call. Especially if the move made the conference THE athletic and academic power in the nation at the expense of its competitors.

You’d take that call. Improbable? Yes. Impossible? No.

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