So it is in conference realignment. A conference's perceived strength can hold it together until some influential person steps forward and publicly questions that strength. If that person is influential enough -- and if that person's accusations of weakness are backed up by even an inkling of actual weakness -- the next steps can happen quite quickly. The Big 12 nearly imploded twice because of perceived weakness. The Big East has seemed to teeter on the brink of annihilation since realignment madness began in December 2009 with a decision by Big Ten presidents to explore expansion.
Now, the ACC -- one of the few leagues that has avoided getting raided -- sweats as it holds its spring meetings. Two influential people spoke Saturday, and their words thundered across the college sports landscape. First, Florida State Board of Trustees chairman Andy Haggard blasted the ACC's new media rights deal on popular Rivals network site Warchant.com. Haggard said the board was unanimous that FSU should see what the Big 12 might offer. Later Saturday, before a speech to an alumni group, Seminoles football coach Jimbo Fisher echoed that sentiment.
"There have been no official talks, but I think you always have to look out there to see what's best for Florida State," Fisher toldThe Orlando Sentinel. "If that [jumping to the Big 12] is what's best for Florida State, then that's what we need to do."
It doesn't matter that one of Haggard's main points was based on an incorrect assumption about the ACC's media rights deal. It also doesn't matter that he softened his stance in a Sunday interview with the Tallahassee Democrat or that Fisher clarified his stance Monday. "The powers that be will make the decision for Florida State," Fisher said Monday. "That's the board of trustees and the president. That's all I said that day. They'll do what's best for Florida State. We're in the ACC, and that's where we're at. I'm not a decision-maker."
But Fisher is a decision-influencer. In this climate, once the idea is planted, it finds a way to grow. It begins as chatter on message boards and fan blogs and causes actual change once boosters begin threatening to withhold donations.
Florida State president Eric Barron seems intent on pumping the brakes on this process before it reaches move-or-else territory. Monday, realignment e-mails sent by alumni and boosters to Barron were greeted with an automated response. (Read the full text here.) In the memo, Barron acknowledged some of the fans' complaints before explaining why he believes the Seminoles might not be happier in the Big 12. He mentioned the $20 million-$25 million it would cost to leave the ACC. Someone would have to figure out how to come up with that money. He mentioned the Seminoles might resent the fact that Texas makes more money than other members of the Big 12. In this case, Barron may have a bit of the inaccuracy disease that struck Haggard. Big 12 schools have agreed to equal revenue sharing for Tier 1 and Tier 2 (most football and men's basketball) rights. Texas only makes more now because it makes more on Tier 3 rights. He also pointed out -- correctly -- that the school's conference affiliation would not be negotiated in the media.
"We can't afford to have conference affiliation be governed by emotion," Barron wrote.
Still, Haggard's big-picture point remains correct; if it could figure out the the exit fee, FSU probably could make more money in the long run as a member of the Big 12 than it could as a member of the ACC. As anyone who has complained about or poked fun at the Longhorn Network knows, Big 12 schools retain control of a larger set of third-tier media rights than ACC schools. That means they can sell their worst football games and some men's basketball games along with baseball, Olympic sports, football replays and coaches' shows. FSU wouldn't get Longhorn Network money, nor would it probably get the $10 million a year that in-state rival Florida gets from Fox-owned Sun Sports for its third-tier package, plus Internet and radio rights, but the Seminoles could make several million dollars on top of a conference payout already greater than what the ACC can offer.
If this seems familiar, it should. Emotion kickstarted Texas A&M's journey from the Big 12 to the SEC. A few trustees, tired of being kicked around in the conference room and on the balance sheet by Texas, thought a change would help. The SEC, sensing a shift toward consolidation, had put out feelers in early 2010. By the summer of 2010, most of the Texas A&M fan base was ready to -- as the T-shirts said -- SECede. But the Aggies stayed put in the Big 12, and the fan base nearly revolted. A year later, the SEC needed to open a new market. Its media rights deals, which seemed so massive when they were signed in 2008, had just been eclipsed by the Pac-12's new deal. The Aggies weren't going to miss another chance to find out if the grass really is greener, so they jumped to the SEC.
Now comes Florida State, perhaps the biggest prize to consider moving since this reshuffling began. Even though they haven't won a conference title since 2005, the Seminoles have a national cachet similar to or greater than that of Nebraska, which used its ability to draw ratings to wrangle a spot in the Big Ten. Like Texas A&M, FSU has the ability to open a huge market to a new league and drive up that conference's media rights revenues. The 2010 census revealed that Florida has 18.8 million people; only California, Texas and New York have more. Also, Florida is a football-mad state with relatively young professional sports franchises. For most residents, the Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles are the sports brands that matter most. The Seminoles guarantee significant market share. The difference between the Seminoles and the Aggies is that in College Station, athletic director Bill Byrne tried to fight the wave while President R. Bowen Loftin jumped aboard the SEC express. At FSU, Barron seems to be leading the call for caution and deliberation.
Saturday, Barron moved quickly to stop the momentum of public opinion. He released a statement saying "Florida State University is not seeking an alternative to the ACC nor are we considering alternatives." That might be true. But after Haggard and Fisher have lit the match, that may not remain true.
The ACC remained stable through the first two rounds of realignment because Commissioner John Swofford and conference leaders went on the offensive. They swiped Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East, and those moves enhanced the perception of the league's strength. Though Clemson and FSU and Georgia Tech fans floated SEC scenarios, none of it was serious. The people in charge remained pleased with the conference.
Last week, the ACC had to show its hand, and its strength (read: earning power) as a 14-school league could finally be measured against the other leagues. Sports Business Journal reported that the ACC's new 15-year deal with ESPN would pay an average of $17 million a year per school. The schools surrendered the rights to every football and men's basketball game for that amount. (This is where Haggard was mistaken. He thought schools retained the right to sell some men's basketball games, which would have benefitted the old-guard, basketball-first schools.)
That dollar figure produced immediate consternation in Tallahassee. Big Ten schools already receive more. Pac-12 schools will make more before even a penny is realized from the soon-to-be-launched Pac-12 Network. SEC schools make less from television now, but they'll certainly make more when that league renegotiates its deals with ESPN and CBS to reflect its new, 14-school membership. Meanwhile, the Big 12 is finalizing a media rights deal that would pay each school $20 million a year.
The upcoming SEC figure is important, because while Florida State plays in the ACC, geography dictates that its main recruiting rivals are Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Georgia. It can't afford to fall behind the SEC powers in a revenue/facilities arms race. For the same reasons, it's doubtful the SEC would consider inviting FSU again. (The Seminoles politely declined the SEC in the early '90s and joined the ACC.)
Would Florida State be better off in the Big 12? That's debatable, just as it is debatable whether Texas A&M and Missouri are better off in the SEC. Another question: Does the Big 12 even want to expand? Consider this quote earlier this month from incoming Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby: "I'm not going to presume a direction we will go," he said. "It has to be expansion that has at its roots enhancement of the league. There is nothing magic about 11, 12 or 10. To the extent that we can advance our agenda, we ought to at least consider that." Now consider this Bowlsby quote from the same teleconference: "It's not a geographic footprint anymore. We're talking about an electronic footprint." In other words, what markets enhance the league the most?
This talk has made ACC leaders understandably nervous -- and angry. That Haggard's initial statement was based on incorrect information has caused grief that might never have existed. "There was a lot of misinformation that was put out there," Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips said Monday. "It just takes one bit of that to occur, and you get a lot of reaction."
Sometimes, that reaction can rile a fan/booster base enough to turn an unlikely scenario into a realistic one. That may have happened in FSU's case. That should concern the ACC, but not as much as it should concern the Big East. That league has cobbled together an uneasy alliance after losing several sets of defectors. Should the ACC lose a member (or two), it likely would look to the Big East to find a replacement. (Probably Rutgers or Connecticut.) The ACC has a strong enough membership to survive a loss or two. The Big East might not have a strong enough membership to survive another one.
No one has to make any decisions this week or even this month. But before the year is out, FSU's leaders will have to answer the questions of an increasingly aggravated fan base by either exploring the idea of another conference or by committing completely to the ACC.
If they choose the former, the dominoes will begin falling again.