It's 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 22, 2011. Do you know where your conference commissioner is?
Two years of rumors, denials, threats, and lawyering, and it looks like the dominoes are finally starting to fall in the latest, and possibly final round of conference realignment. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are leaving the Big East for the ACC, Texas A&M appears poised to move over to the SEC, and members of the Big 12 and Big East are shuffling around each other in an uneasy dance of contempt and attraction. It's getting late at the bar, and nobody wants to take home a four when they could have had a six. Most of all, nobody wants to go home solo.
Well, except for one bitch.
The volatility of the situation makes it very fun to follow, while the intricacies of it (the understanding of which is key to really have a handle on things) make it not very much fun at all. I certainly do not fully grasp everything that's going on, but I have a feeling that puts me right along with most everyone else, so I won't be shy about throwing my own conspiracy theory out there as well. It goes along with a philosophy that has served me well for nearly all of my time on this earth.
When in doubt, blame Texas.
It is pretty much universally agreed that the impetus behind conference realignment is television money, same as it was during the early '90s. And same as it was before, the thinking is that adding markets adds viewers, which adds revenue. Everyone accepts that and moves on because it makes sense, but there is one very important difference between the realignment of the early '90s and the present round: availability of coverage.
When Arkansas and South Carolina defected to the SEC in 1992 as the first dominoes in an era of realignment that lasted more than a decade, televised football was limited primarily to broadcast networks, syndicated coverage, and ESPN. ESPN2 didn't debut until a year later, and it was still focusing on alternative sports when the Big XII was formed in 1996. ESPN GamePlan was more than a decade away. In this climate, adding television markets really did equate with adding viewers. College football is a big draw, but back then it was a limited draw. Get your game televised in a market, and there's a good chance people would watch it.
Nearly two decades later, the proliferation of cable networks has enabled college football to explode as a televised sporting event. ESPN alone operates five cable channels with the capability of televising college football, in addition to the Fox Sports family of regional channels, Versus, and an endless supply of syndicates. The Big Ten even has its own cable network, which I am able to tune into through my very middle-of-the-road AT&T U-Verse television package.
I have The Big Ten Network. In Arkansas. How much do you think I tune in?
That's what makes this round of realignment different. Delivering markets won't automatically deliver viewers and ratings as it would twenty years ago. People have a myriad of viewing options, even within the genre of sports. Even within the sub-genre of college football. 57 channels and there's nothing on? That's a joke. Now there are 57 sports channels, and if you're a college football fanatic like myself, there is ALWAYS something on.
It's not as simple as adding a state to your conference footprint and considering that market delivered. If the SEC were to add North Carolina, for instance, it wouldn't deliver the state of North Carolina. It wouldn't add any television sets to its coverage map, because the SEC Network is already carried in The Tarheel State. What the addition of North Carolina would add is the North Carolina fan base, and that's likely it. It's not likely Duke fans or Wake Forest fans or NC State fans would take any more of an interest in SEC Football than they did previously, just because UNC jumped ship. Ditto for Virginia Tech and the state of Virginia, as well as the DC market. Adding states to the coverage map is good, but I don't think that will add viewers as automatically as many seem to believe it will.
Clearly, Slive and company have to be very selective with their distribution of golden tickets. If we are indeed headed for four sixteen-team superconferences and the playoff that will inevitably ensue, the college football landscape would likely stabilize for an extended period afterward, and the SEC would presumably be buckled in for the ride. Slive is as shrewd as they come, and is undoubtedly burning the candle at both ends to ensure that the SEC is in the best possible situation when the dust settles. His sole mission is to position the Southeastern Conference where it remains the strongest, richest, and most visible conference in the country. With 12, 14, or ultimately 16 teams.
Doesn't that include Texas as a member? Ideally? Yes, adding Texas A&M delivers the Texas television markets, but not in the way adding Texas would. Based on my theory that fan bases drive ratings instead of just available markets, adding Texas would be a get far surpassing any other school out there. A&M is nice, and makes sense, but they aren't Texas. Nobody has the numbers, the cash, or the stroke that the Longhorns have. Nobody has the ego, either, which is why my fingers are burning even as I type this, but it's true, isn't it? Texas brings to the table measurables that no other school can compete with. This does nothing to diminish the case of adding A&M, by the way. They bring enough to the table in terms of money and viewers in their own right, and Texas is big enough that it can support two member schools without any drawback from overlapping resources.
The drawback, of course, is Texas' Longhorn Network. Part of the ESPN family, LHN is Texas' vehicle to further widen the already massive revenue gap between it and all of its competitors, and reap the competitive advantages that come with it. So many advantages that it seems LHN is becoming as much hairy mole as beauty mark when it comes to finding a permanent conference home. It apparently presented too much of an obstacle for the PAC-12 to overcome when lumped with Texas' somewhat understandable unwillingness to share its revenue from the venture. The problem for Texas is that while LHN is delivering guaranteed money right now, its viability long-term is still very much in doubt, and we are presently in a period of positioning for the long-term. Independence seems the only way for LHN to have enough content to flourish immediately, while at the same time independence virtually guarantees a schedule so boring that it would ultimately be the death knell for the network. A deal with the Big Ten seems to have been tabled, and joining the ACC lacks the panache a football school like Texas would seem to want.
What's left? The SEC. It's been spouted time and again that Texas' refusal to acquiesce with the SEC requirement of equal revenue splits will forever prevent Bevo from moseying over Birmingham way. But if there's a roadblock everywhere else, why can't this possibility be revisited? None of their other numerous options look particularly appealing at this point. Why not the SEC?
If I'm Mike Slive, I give Texas one last chance. LHN is destined to fail without enticing matchups, and no conference that can provide enticing matchups is willing to serve up a Texas-sized slice of the pie for the Longhorns to gorge themselves on. What's needed is a graceful exit strategy that saves face for both UT and ESPN. Enter the SEC, who is just around the corner from their first round of renegotiation with The Worldwide Leader for their television deal. It will certainly be bigger than any previous deal, and very likely much bigger. The Longhorns can allow ESPN to rebrand LHN into a conference-wide network, giving the conference another badly needed broadcast stream and giving ESPN a chance to get out of a loser and into a winner with a change made in scope and nothing else. You're still going after college football fans. You're just going after more of them. Texas' lollipop in the deal is that they get to keep the guaranteed money from the terms of the original LHN deal, after which the Longhorns participate in an equal split of all revenue, just like the rest of the SEC.
There. More exposure. More money. Salvaged egos. A more powerful conference. Only one problem.