Wednesday May 12th, 2010

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany broke free from his "silent phase" this week to throw cold water on a report from a Kansas City radio station that league had extended invitations to Missouri, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Rutgers and planned to expand to 14 or 16 schools depending on whether Notre Dame accepted its invitation. Delany e-mailed conference officials to deny the report. Missouri, Notre Dame and Rutgers also issued denials.

This probably will happen several more times before the Big Ten finalizes its expansion plans and sets off a high-stakes game of musical chairs in the other conferences. Lacking any actual news, people will seize on any nugget they can get.

I can't offer a clear picture of the new conference alignments, but I can offer a school-by-school breakdown of the players in this expansion sweepstakes. Hopefully, it will explain some of the issues university presidents will consider as they deliberate on expansion. If nothing else, it will give you something to read as you suffer through the silent phase.

RUTGERS: Why start with the Scarlet Knights? It's only fair to begin with one of the schools that played in the first intercollegiate football game. But really, why would the Big Ten want to add an athletic department with a football team that has accomplished so little since hosting the sport's first game in 1869? That question comes up a lot from people who don't understand what the expansion is really about. Certainly, Rutgers is a candidate because it's a flagship state university with a great academic reputation. But the most important reason is that Rutgers might help deliver the New York market.

The argument against this is that there aren't enough Rutgers fans to produce a noticeable spike in viewership. That's a legitimate concern. One school of thought is that the Big Ten Network doesn't need to earn boffo ratings. It needs only to move into a better spot in the channel lineup. The BTN is carried by Cablevision, which boasts 3.1 million subscribers in the massive New York market. At the moment, the channel is available on an a la carte service tier. With a local team in the conference, Cablevision and other carriers might be persuaded to shift the Big Ten Network to their expanded basic tiers (alongside Lifetime, SyFy and others of that ilk). That could pave the way for an arrangement similar to the one between the BTN and carriers in the league's current eight-state footprint that pays the Big Ten Network 70 cents per subscriber per month, according to Mediaweek and this excellent Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune story. Do the math. Using only Cablevision's subscriber total, that's an additional $2.17 million a month in revenue -- and it doesn't include the additional amount the BTN could charge advertisers because of its larger subscriber base.

Prediction: As long as the cable companies are willing to play ball, the Big Ten-Rutgers marriage would benefit both parties.

SYRACUSE: If Rutgers isn't enough to deliver the nation's largest television market, maybe the Orange could assist -- in spite of hoops coach Jim Boeheim's objections. Remember this, though: The Big Ten isn't going to take any schools that can't add a "pro-rata share," as Delany put it. In other words, the league won't expand to the point that each school receives less money than it already does. Syracuse is a private school with a smaller alumni base, so that is a concern. It is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, though, a fact that would please Big Ten presidents.

Prediction: Any Big East school that receives an invitation will go, but the question is whether Syracuse brings enough to the table to earn an invite.

CONNECTICUT: The Huskies also could help deliver the New York market, but the fact that UConn isn't in the AAU might be a stumbling block.

Prediction: If Rutgers alone doesn't open up the New York market, UConn and Syracuse could help. The potential financial benefit would justify taking two schools, but would it justify three? If it's two, Big Ten officials would have to determine which pair brings the most value.

PITTSBURGH: The Panthers have a fine football tradition and sit on a fertile recruiting base and Pitt is an AAU member, but the Big Ten already has a foothold in all of Pennsylvania's television markets because of Penn State. It's tough to imagine Pitt bringing enough new revenue to justify an invitation.

Prediction: Unless the Big Ten needs to grab another Big East team to lure Notre Dame, Pitt doesn't seem like a sensible option.

NOTRE DAME: The Fighting Irish, Big East members in every sport except football and hockey, are in a unique position because Notre Dame's administration and a significant number of alumni would prefer the school turn down money to retain its football independence. Though some assume Notre Dame's deal with NBC is more lucrative than any it would receive from a conference, that simply isn't the case. The New York Times reported in December that Notre Dame's current NBC contract (which runs through 2015) pays the school about $15 million a year. The best estimate for the Big Ten's revenue distribution during the next few years is about $20-$22 million per school per year, but that figure also includes bowl and NCAA Tournament revenue. Given the current revenues, Notre Dame -- which received $1.3 million from the BCS in 2009 -- still would stand to make slightly more as a Big Ten member.

That "slightly" is a bit misleading, because adding Notre Dame would allow the BTN to expand its revenue base nationwide. Cable systems in markets with a heavy Catholic populations would consider placing the BTN on expanded basic, adding to the pot. Another question is Notre Dame's future with NBC. Cable giant Comcast is acquiring the network at a time when Notre Dame's brand, while still powerful, doesn't carry the weight it did in 1991 when the first NBC pact began.

Prediction: Despite the financial benefit it could offer Notre Dame, the Big Ten still would need to blow up the Big East to force Notre Dame's hand. That probably would require the acquisition of at least three Big East teams. If that doesn't happen, expect Notre Dame to remain independent in football.

MISSOURI: This is a no-brainer. Missouri isn't happy with its lot in the Big 12, which adjusts its revenue distribution based on television appearances. Using 2007-08 school year tax documents, the Tulsa World found that Mizzou ranked sixth in the Big 12 that year in revenue received from the conference. The Tigers can double the conference distribution they receive by joining the Big Ten, and the Big Ten can add more than two million cable households by adding the Tigers. Plus, a Missouri-Illinois rivalry makes geographic sense.

Prediction: If Delany offers a golden ticket, Missouri will accept. Hopefully, the school's rivalry with Kansas could continue in a non-conference capacity.

NEBRASKA: Nebraska is a tougher call. We know the Cornhuskers want a better deal. How do we know this? Because in the process of shooting down the Kansas City radio report Monday, Cornhuskers' brass made it a point to remind us that Nebraska wants a better deal. "Both Chancellor Harvey Perlman and Athletic Director Tom Osborne have indicated that the university would consider any opportunity that would advance the interests of the university," a university release read.

But Nebraska is a small state. According to 2000 census data, it has just 666,184 households. So Nebraska wouldn't bring in the cable revenue other schools might. What it would do is give the BTN another program with national cachet that could help get the BTN moved to expanded basic in markets outside the Big Ten footprint.

Prediction: If the Big Ten offers, Nebraska is gone.

COLORADO: So far, we've only discussed Big Ten expansion. The Pac-10 also is pondering adding schools. If the conference decides to grow -- which is no slam dunk -- expect the Buffaloes to receive an invitation. If that happens to coincide with Missouri and Nebraska moving to the Big Ten, all hell could break loose in the Big 12.

Prediction: The Pac-10 seems far less bullish on expansion than the Big Ten. Plus, the recent meeting of Pac-10 and Big 12 leaders to discuss a joint television venture could create a deal that leaves the Pac-10 happy with its current membership number. But if Pac-10 leaders want to grow, they'll probably call Colorado.

UTAH: It might seem logical that Utah and rival BYU would move as a pair, but BYU, a church-run school, might not be the choice of presidents in a conference such as the Pac-10, which comprises eight state schools and two secular private schools. Utah, a large research university in a decent TV market (Salt Lake City), would be more agreeable to Pac-10 presidents.

Prediction: If the Utes get an offer that puts them in a BCS automatic-qualifying league, they'll take it.

TEXAS: Every conference would love to have the Longhorns, and if Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska leave the Big 12, Texas and its $137 million athletic budget might be a free agent. The Longhorns nearly joined the SEC 20 years ago, and if the Big Ten grows and blows up the Big 12, the SEC probably would call Texas again. For the SEC, which dominates the TV markets in the south, westward expansion would open up huge markets in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

The league would try to woo Texas with the fact that SEC schools retain control over local television rights, and it probably would mention the fact that Florida -- located in a state with six million fewer citizens -- has a local TV deal with Fox Sports that pays $10 million a year. Texas could command significantly more.

Of course, the Pac-10 probably wouldn't pass up the chance to take a shot at Texas. Since that league is entering TV contract negotiations in the next year, it probably could give Texas favorable terms. Pac-10 officials also might mention that while Texas would be only the third AAU member in the SEC, it would be the seventh in the Pac-10 (eighth if Colorado is already on board).

Prediction: Texas is the one school that could swing the balance of power in college sports. If the Longhorns moved to the SEC, it wouldn't be shocking to see Texas A&M, Oklahoma and possibly Oklahoma State move with them. Or, if Texas really wanted to flex its muscles, it could go independent. It might be the only program capable of pulling off that feat.

MARYLAND: It's surprising there hasn't been any speculation about Maryland joining the Big Ten. The state shares a border with Pennsylvania. The school is an AAU member. The program would deliver the Baltimore and Washington TV markets. There are a ton of great high school football and basketball players in Maryland, Washington and northern Virginia. For the same reasons -- except the geography, which wouldn't be too much of a stretch -- the Terps should also be attractive to the SEC. But Maryland is a founding member of the ACC, and those bonds are strong.

Prediction: Unless this is an all-time great case of sealed lips, it seems Maryland is staying off the Tilt-a-Whirl.

CLEMSON/FLORIDA STATE/GEORGIA TECH/MIAMI: I lumped these schools together because they are the ones mentioned most often for SEC expansion should Texas decide to stay put or go somewhere else. I have my doubts about this, because the SEC already dominates TV markets in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The league wouldn't expand for the sake of expanding, and presidents wouldn't approve any expansion that would take away revenue from current members. Plus, one of the league's most powerful schools (Florida) would try to block any move to add Florida State and Miami. Now, if the financial numbers worked out that any combination of these schools could add value to the league, that's a different story.

Prediction: A lot would have to happen to reach this point. If it does, the new superconferences may as well just break away from the NCAA.

ARKANSAS: A lot of readers have e-mailed and suggested Arkansas would be better off moving to the Big 12 to replace a departed school because the former Southwest Conference member is a more natural fit in that league. This is idiotic. The SEC is expected to distribute about $17 million per school for the 2009-10 school year. In the Big 12, Arkansas probably wouldn't get more than $10 million. No one, except possibly Notre Dame, would leave that kind of money on the table.

Prediction: Arkansas stays right where it is and enjoys the financial benefits of SEC membership.

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