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Pac-10 power, Big 12 ultimatum and more in all-expansion Mailbag

As you may have guessed, the Mailbag's moratorium on expansion-related questions has come to a screeching halt after just two weeks. I pledged I wouldn't discuss the subject until we had some actual, legit news, and while we still don't know of any concrete invitations -- and while 95 percent of what you're reading about expansion these days (including from me) remains largely speculative -- I'd say a commissioner given free reign to start poaching teams, a major conference handing out ultimatums and presidents of universities openly lobbying their counterparts constitutes news.

To be perfectly honest, I find the whole Pac-10/Big 12 storyline riveting. I can't stay off Twitter for longer than five minutes for fear that I'm missing another new tidbit. It's not that I want to see one conference completely obliterate another -- but the possibility is morbidly fascinating. And based on my in-box, most of you are similarly on edge.

So without further ado, guys and gals, I give you the first-ever ALL-expansion Mailbag:

I'm honestly mystified: How is it that the Pac-10 can whimsically thrust itself into a position that would allow it to disintegrate the Big 12? I'm from Texas, and it seems like, after the SEC, the Big 12 is the premier conference in the country, both in football and across the Olympic sport spectrum. So how is the Pac-10, perennial butt of college football jokes, somehow in a position to bring the Big 12 to its knees?-- Michael, Austin, Texas

I'm not going to rehash the backstory of the Big 12's internal strife and Nebraska's long-standing resentment toward Texas, though that's undeniably a factor in the current stalemate. The more pertinent reasons why this is happening now, and why the Pac-10, of all conferences, stands poised to pick up the Big 12's pieces, has to do with commissioners, television deals and plain-old timing.

In 2007, with the Big 12's network television package coming up for renegotiation, then-commissioner Kevin Weiberg encouraged his schools to explore their own version of The Big Ten Network. They declined, a decision that seemed reasonable at the time (the BTN had not yet debuted on air and was struggling to find distribution) but has come back to bite them. Weiberg left shortly thereafter (for, of all places, the Big Ten Network) but not before negotiating a new eight-year deal with ABC/ESPN worth $480 million. Again, those numbers seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. No one knew they'd become utterly outdated just two years later, due in large part to the BTN's success.

When ESPN signed its game-changing, 15-year, $2.25 billion deal with the SEC last year (CBS signed an additional 15-year, $825 million deal with the league at the same time), it did so because the SEC was seriously considering starting its own network. Yes, the SEC is a more coveted property than the Big 12 -- but not by that much. When both 12-team leagues announced their 2009-10 revenue last week, the SEC checked in at $209 million, the Big 12 at $139 million. Even the ACC recently netted a new megadeal from ABC/ESPN (12 years, $1.86 billion, more than double its old deal). The Big 12's cable deal with Fox comes up next year and will almost assuredly garner a hefty spike, but its network package is locked in through 2015-16.

Enter the Pac-10, which has been buried by its own second-tier TV deals for years but has renegotiations coming up next year, and a savvy new commissioner, Larry Scott, spearheading them. And look who's his new No. 2 -- our old buddy Weiberg. The Pac-10 finds itself in a position to start its own network and/or elicit a bidding war between existing networks. (Fox is reportedly very interested in a joint-venture.) The timing is perfect for that league to strike gold if it can assemble the right lineup, and Texas is by far its most attractive option. Weiberg, with his past Big 12 ties, can help make it happen, thanks in part to the threat of Nebraska leaving for the Big Ten. That doesn't leave poor Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe with a lot of leverage.

All that said, Texas, which boasts the nation's richest athletic department, isn't in desperate need of more money. Texas would like to remain in the Big 12, but has indicated it may have no choice but to leave if Nebraska bolts. We'll see. This could all still be a big bluff, with Scott and Weiberg providing the ammunition. But as I wrote last week, the "Pac-16" does make a lot of sense.

The Big 12 has reportedly drawn a line in the sand and given three of its members (Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado) a date by which they must commit to the Big 12. What exactly are they going to do if one or all of these schools says sorry, we just aren't ready to make up our minds? Kick them out and go Big 9? Dissolve the conference? Draw another line in the sand? This doesn't seem like a credible threat at all.-- Scott Hammond, Saint Amant, La.

My sense is that it's not an official conference-office ultimatum as much as it is a deadline imposed by Texas and the other potentially impacted schools. As in, "You need to tell us by this date (reported to be anywhere from this Friday to next Thursday) whether you're with us, because if you're not, we've got to start making contingency plans." Nobody's getting kicked out, but once this deadline passes, the nine schools that have pledged their commitment to the Big 12 will no longer be so committed.

And that will most definitely be the case if the latest reports that Nebraska may defect as soon as Friday prove true.

Simple question here, haven't seen it addressed at all: Why doesn't the Big 12 go to 16 teams itself to prevent itself from being raided? Go on the offensive and add four teams (Boise, Utah, BYU and TCU?). Why is this not even a blip on the radar, anywhere?-- T.J., Boston

While those are all solid football programs, none would add any great value to the conference's television properties due to their relatively small markets (or in TCU's case, the fact that Texas already delivers its market). The league would be dividing the pie into four more pieces without actually making it that much bigger, which means each of the existing schools would get less than they would if they stayed at 12.

And remember, the two most important cogs to the league's future, Texas and Nebraska, are old-guard schools with the cachet to be picky. I don't doubt Texas prefers the Big 12 as currently constituted to the proposed Pac-16. But faced between joining forces with USC, UCLA, Cal and Stanford or Boise State, Utah, BYU and TCU -- it's going to choose the former. Ditto for Nebraska in the Big Ten. That's why the Big 12 is stuck in an uncomfortable position --- its marquee teams are far more attractive to other leagues than any available teams are to the Big 12.

Nobody seems to care how these potential realignments will affect college basketball. When a school like Kansas is an afterthought, and the Big East is facing possible defections, it's clear that football and football only is driving all of this. Could it be because basketball has a legitimate, playoff-based national championship instead of the ridiculous BCS system? Conference alignments aren't nearly as important when a rational championship figures into the equation.-- Derek Anderson, Washington D.C.

There's definitely truth to that. BCS-conference schools clearly exert far more control in football than in basketball, where the NCAA-controlled tournament is king. The value of BCS affiliation, both financially and from a perception standpoint, is undeniable at this point, and much of the shuffling revolves around that status.

But at the end of the day, football's regular season is infinitely more valuable than basketball's --- the stadiums are vastly bigger and TV ratings are much higher. Therefore, football television contracts drive expansion. A good illustration of this comes from the SEC, which, in releasing its aforementioned 2009-10 revenue data, was kind enough to provide an exact breakdown of the sources. Football television accounted for $109.5 million, with another $26.5 million coming from bowls and $14.5 million from the SEC title game. By comparison, basketball TV accounted for $30 million, "NCAA championships" $23.5 million and the SEC basketball tournament $5 million.

Granted, the SEC is indisputably a football conference first, and we'd probably see less of a disparity in the ACC or Big East -- but not in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10. These leagues make as much money off the BCS as they do the NCAA tournament, and even those figures are puny compared to their massive (or potentially massive) football TV deals.

MWC not inviting BOISE ... WHY? I know they say they are waiting to see how everything shakes up, but I feel the MWC should snatch up Boise before they lose TCU or Utah to expansion. The MWC should be the one who invites and start the first "domino" of expansion. No one else is inviting Boise or talking about them ... so get them.-- Jeff Hostetler, Gainesville, Fla.

I hear you. Boise looked like a slam-dunk done deal late last week for that very reason. However, the Mountain West presidents read the same articles we do. This time last week they were operating under the premise that the Big 12 might lose one or two teams and therefore come after theirs. By the time they got to Wyoming on Sunday, there was suddenly the possibility of there being no Big 12, that schools like Kansas and K-State might become free-agents and that their league might soon find itself in a position of power.

Therefore, it's now a no-brainer to at least wait a week and see if anything dramatic happens. Boise State is in the bag whether the MWC invites it this week or two weeks from now. The only drop-dead date is July 1, the deadline by which the Broncos must join to begin play in 2011 and count toward BCS auto-qualification. And by all indications, commissioner Craig Thompson remains strongly in favor of adding Boise. The only question now is whether the Broncos come alone or as part of a bigger package.

Hi Stewart. Outside of the teams in danger of being left behind in the Big 12 (like Kansas), who are the biggest programs out there at risk of being left without a chair with the big boys when the music stops playing?-- Bennett Aikin, Pittsburgh

It depends on how far the dominos fall, but one school with genuine reason for concern is West Virginia. The Mountaineers boast arguably the strongest football program in the Big East, yet if the Big Ten and/or ACC make a run at the Big East, West Virginia won't likely be one of their targets due to the state's small population and the school's academic reputation*. I'm not sure where the Mountaineers would land if, say, Rutgers, Syracuse and Pittsburgh went elsewhere, but it probably would not be a current BCS conference. Ditto Cincinnati and possibly USF and Louisville.

*-- Note: An unfortunate byproduct of discussing expansion is that "academics" is such a nebulous category. Whenever I write that a school like West Virginia might be discounted for academic reasons, I invariably get a slew of nasty e-mails from alums of that school. Please know, I am NOT an authority on universities' academic credentials. I know plenty of perfectly successful people with degrees from West Virginia, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State and anyone else that's been mentioned in this vein. I'm merely passing along very real perceptions that, fairly or unfairly, exist within the industry. Thank you kindly for your understanding.

And now, to the most important question I received all week.

From all the e-mail you are receiving and discussions you are having with fans and colleagues, what is the general consensus (among fans, not institutions) regarding these possible expansions/mega-conferences?-- Garth Hammer, New York

It's a very interesting time. There's no question fans are consumed by this topic right now. I think most are generally fascinated by it (as they have been for as long as I've covered the sport) and love hypothesizing the various possibilities -- like college football's very own hot stove or trade deadline. Yet at the same time, I don't sense much collective "excitement" about realignment, even from fans of the teams expected to benefit. If anything, I'd say most people fall somewhere between "intrigued" and "concerned," with a noteworthy contingent that seems borderline-disgusted by it all.

My two cents: No college administrator could possibly tell me with a straight face that 16-team super-conferences, severed rivalries and politicians having to grovel to protect their states' programs is a good thing for college football. The sport is built on tradition, but tradition clearly is not the top priority for many parties right now. They'll undoubtedly tell you how all that extra television money and exposure will ultimately benefit their "student-athletes" (more so those in the sports being funded by football than in football itself), or how excited they are to be aligning themselves with such academically renowned peers, but the average fan doesn't care. He or she just wants the Ohio State-Michigan game to still matter.

But college football has undergone an unbelievable amount of change over the past 15-20 years. If someone had told you in 1990 that Penn State would join the Big Ten, the Southwest Conference would crumble, the Rose Bowl would start occasionally hosting non-Big Ten and Pac-10 teams, the amount of bowl games would more than double and 6-6 teams would be eligible, the Orange Bowl would be played on Jan. 5, shoe companies would alter schools' uniforms beyond the point of recognition, coaches would make $5 million and most major teams would play one or two games per year against I-AA foes ... well, you would probably have been horrified. And that's before even bringing up the BCS.

And yet, the sport has never been more popular.

So something tells me that whatever ultimately results from all of this -- no matter how clunky, no matter how blatant a money-grab, no matter how many fans are initially resistant, disappointed and/or ticked off -- the new world order will eventually seem normal, much like everything I just listed above. As long as there are still brats to be had in the parking lot and hits to be seen on the field, people will still crave college football. The landscape is ever-changing, but the game remains the same.

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