ACC vs. Big 12
BCS Conference Hunger Games in 2013?
As an elementary school student, I remember hearing about Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" - how it was shocking, and unpredictable, and how the ending would blow my mind. So great was the build-up, that when I eventually had to read the short story in middle school, I found it to be hardly shocking, and if anything quite anti-climactic.
I bring this up, because the events of the past few months in the world of NCAA conferences have set in motion another wave of moves, and no one should be surprised when they start to play out. Between Maryland, Rutgers, and the seven Catholic Big East breakaway schools, the writing is quite clearly on the wall: either the ACC or the Big 12 is the next BCS conference to fall. The dominos are already lined up; the only matter left to decide is in which direction they fall. It's too soon to determine a side, and history has shown that surprises can still shift the momentum, but from where I'm sitting, it's the ACC whose fate is looking shaky. But the Big 12 is hardly in the clear, and the next few years (or is it months?) should produce a fantastically Machiavellian fight to the finish between the two leagues.
First, a quick tale of the tape:
1) TV contract
The Big 12 wins this one, which is a credit to Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, with an assist from ESPN (by way of keeping Texas in the fold with the Longhorn Network and paying a premium to keep the new SEC-Big 12 "Champions" Sugar Bowl in the ESPN family). The ACC's most recent deal is smaller per school, and was questioned as soon as it was announced.
But wait - it gets worse. The ACC recently added Notre Dame as a member for all sports but football. Notre Dame, meanwhile, is in the midst of a football revival that, barring an unexpected coaching change, could keep the school firmly in the national spotlight for the next decade. Just in time - you guessed it - for the next round of TV rights negotiations with NBC. [Aside: and guess who is cheering extra hard for Alabama to win the upcoming BCS championship game? That would be NBC sports, whose contract with Notre Dame goes only until 2015.
Already, ND football has seen a ratings jump this season where other conferences have slumped. Imagine the Irish next season, playing as the defending champs with a returning loaded roster and preseason top 5 ranking? Hmmm... Does NBC gamble on the Irish getting blown out by Bama, thus slightly lowering the program's national profile and leverage in time for renegotiations? Or does the Peacock swallow its pride, shock the world, and extend the Irish before the National Championship Game? ] The bottom line is Notre Dame will soon sign a massive extension with NBC (or whoever might swoop in to woo the Irish), and in doing so, will set the bar even higher for what a dominant national player should be able to make year to year. Once that deal is finalized, the ACC contract will look even worse to the league's dominant teams, which leads us right into...
2) Alpha Dog program
The Big 12 has Texas and Oklahoma, and the ACC has Florida State and...??? It used to be Va Tech, and the U may yet be a national player again, but it won't be for awhile. So for now, let's say Clemson. The reality, of course, is that Texas and FSU are by far each league's top dog, and each school holds the future of their conference in its cold, calculating athletic department office. If Florida State bolts the ACC for the Big 12, the league is done as a major player. Similarly, if Texas decides to become a full-fledged independent, or accept an invitation from the PAC10/Big10/SEC, the demise of the Big 12 would soon follow. And as always, the decisions of the conference's Alpha Dog will depend on the usual two factors: money and power.
Each school wants to maximize its financial gains, while holding as much sway as possible in the decisions made by the conference as a unit. As soon as Texas or FSU see fit to leave their existing conferences, they will do so. Preventing, or at least delaying that process, is what keeps conference commissioners up at night. The Big 12 successfully persuaded Texas to keep the conference going a few years ago, when for a week or so all seemed lost. Would the ACC step up that way for Florida State? It remains to be seen.
Ultimately this is where the Big 12 could blow the ACC out of the water. The geographic distribution of the Big 12 schools is exactly where it needs to be: college football country. Oklahoma, Texas, OK State, and West Virginia all play in Top 20 college football markets, and TCU, Baylor, and Texas Tech fill out the remaining parts of Texas nicely. The ACC counters with FSU, Clemson, and Georgia Tech, also covering various top TV markets, as well as the state of North Carolina. So far, an even contest.
But consider where the ACC has expanded: Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Louisville. Decent TV markets, but not exactly hubs for college football. In fact, should the ACC eventually add Connecticut, it would complete its takeover of the entire Northeast, which be great, except for one thing: the Northeast is NFL country. People in Boston, New York, even Pittsburgh care very little about what is often considered a "JV", inferior product provided by the NCAA. And so, the ACC is in the process of essentially re-creating the 1991 Big East, and we all know how well that worked out for the Big East itself.
If FSU and Clemson leave, the ACC's North Carolina basketball schools would find themselves in the same helpless spot Kansas and Kansas State were in a few years ago. Duke and Wake Forest, in fact, would face the distinct possibility of becoming Mid-Major programs. The sad truth for the ACC is that too many of its veteran members fit the bill of being exactly the type of school that would appeal to either The Big 12 or The Big 10. Hard to imagine, given the constant quest for TV-market penetration, that both rival conferences resist the urge to further expand.
And so, the ACC and Big 12 should enter 2013 knowing that more realignment moves are surely on the way, and each must do what it can to stay one step ahead of the competition. Is the Big 12 ready to consider geographically-plausible Boise State as a member? Is the ACC ready to give FSU the type of TV deal that Texas has? With impressive bowl wins and likely top 10 preseason rankings next fall, both Florida State and Clemson have positioned themselves well for the next round of conference musical chairs. Will the ACC be thankful to have such strong assets, or dread the realization that their possible departure could blow up the league? All we know for certain is that in the dog-eat-dog world of BCS conference battles, 2013 could be the most cutthroat year to date.