The Big Time
Nestled midway in this story about the Big Ten’s impending expansion is a quote from former Syracuse athletics director Jake Crouthamel who predicts that both the SEC and the ACC will be expanding to 16-teams in the near future:Crouthamel said he saw the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference and the Pacific-10 forming four 16-team superconferences and leaving the umbrella of the NCAA. He said that those leagues would form their own basketball tournament to rival the N.C.A.A. tournament. “If you look at the history of what’s been going on for the last decade, I think it’s leading in that direction,” he said. Before chomping on that steak, let’s set the table. Big Ten expansion is happening, it’s happening now and it’s going to be groundbreaking. Historically timid in its approach to change in college athletics – the conference has long fought full expansion to set up a football playoff championship game, was last in the pool with a basketball tournament, resisted night football games for years, still doesn’t like playing football games after Thanksgiving and refuses to play football on Thursdays – the Big Ten is finally getting aggressive, thinking big, and attempting to fill out its enormous potential within college sports. Much like it did with the Big Ten Network, the Big Ten’s expansion model is bold and visionary in that the Big Ten isn’t thinking of adding just one team to get to 12 member institutions like the SEC, ACC and Big 12, speculation now has the conference eyeing 14 or even 16 teams. Those teams would be some combination of Notre Dame, Rutgers, Connecticut, Syracuse, Pitt and/or Missouri. Notre Dame is the ideal choice for the Big Ten (and joining the Big Ten would be the right move for the Irish as well, even though they don’t want to admit it), but any combination of those schools would dramatically bolster the profile and power of the Big Ten conference by moving it into new TV markets and unprecedented revenue streams. The question for fans in this part of the world naturally becomes: how would this effect the SEC and ACC? A dramatic expansion by the Big Ten, the kind that now seems imminent, should be handled differently by both the SEC and ACC because those two conferences, despite their many similarities, have different realities and needs. I have long lived by the philosophy that “if you’re not growing, you’re getting smaller,” but I also realize that growth for growth’s sake or unwieldy growth has proven costly for innumerable organizations – AOL/Time Warner, Buckhead condominiums, the NHL. Bigger isn’t better, better is better, but bigger is better when bigger makes sense the way it does for the Big Ten today, the way it did for the SEC when it expanded back in the early 90s and the way it did for the ACC when it expanded back in the mid 00s. With another round of conference realignment upon us, I think the time is right for the ACC to get bigger again, while the time is wrong for the SEC to expand. The ACC gave up its quaint boutique charm when it added BC, Virginia Tech and Miami trying to keep up with the SEC’s growth while attempting to transition its focus from basketball to football which is far more lucrative, but the expansion has yet to “take.” Competitive success, particularly in football, has been underwhelming, most people – myself included – still can’t for certain tell you who plays in the Atlantic and who plays in the Coastal divisions, and the league has more of a patchwork feel than a seamless cohesion like the SEC or Big 12. The cockamamie divisional alignment, an initial resistance – which continues to this day – to the original expansion and the greater emphasis placed on football by basketball old timers along Tobacco Road and the unimaginable collapse of both the Florida State and Miami football programs have collaborated to make ACC expansion seem like a failure. While it hasn’t been a smashing success, it has resulted in more money for the conference and was ultimately the right move in order to stay relevant in college athletics. Since nothing meaningful would be lost by expanding further, and because so many of the target schools fit the ACC’s profile, the ACC would be smart to expand again hoping the second time would be the charm. Syracuse, UConn and Rutgers would all be ideal fits for the ACC – both as universities and athletic partners. Each of these schools would expand the ACC’s profile in the New York media market while not adversely impacting the league’s geographic footprint or travel budgets. Syracuse and/or UConn would have natural rivalries with Boston College, and Syracuse and Miami already have a rivalry that previous expansion killed. West Virginia is too hick – I mean “culturally incongruous.” Louisville is geographically far flung and is a glorified commuter college which has no business in an academic coalition with Duke, UNC, Wake and Virginia – ditto Cincinnati. Pitt is worth considering, but doesn’t bring enough to the table to make it worth while. The wildcard is South Florida which is a joke as a university and culturally a tough sell to the blue-blooded ACC elite, but it brings a huge TV market (Tampa) and is clearly a university and athletic program on the rise which could mature over time. My advice to the ACC is move to 14 teams, correct the nonsensical and confusing divisional alignments by breaking down along geographic lines, and hope Jimbo Fisher is the real deal. What’s more, if the Big Ten raids the Big East for teams, those left behind can be acquired by the ACC for pennies on the dollar. Like a great home whose price dives due to an impending divorce and the desperate circumstances of the owners, Big East teams stranded by exodus will beg for inclusion into the ACC with none of the rancor that surrounded the ACC’s last expansion. As for the SEC, it works. The league’s current constitution makes sense, its identity and influence are secure thanks to its football dominance, and its multi-billion dollar TV deals allow it to stand pat and see where the chips fall. Down the road, if the SEC wants to take another look at expansion, perhaps programs not on the table today like Texas or Oklahoma could be at play. The SEC has enormous power and doesn’t need to play this hand to remain a major player. It’s more likely a mistake would be made in expansion at this point by the SEC. Big Ten expansion will change the face of college athletics dramatically; it will change how we watch the games and it will shift the competitive landscape. The ACC should use this opportunity to grow and reconfigure itself while the SEC should sit this round out and continue to enjoy the fruits of its previous labor at expansion.
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