Friday, April 23, 2010

Will the ACC Survive Conference Expansion?

The members of the Atlantic Coast Conference have much to think about with the expansion and changes in the NCAA Basketball Tournament and TV contract and with the expansion and changes coming to college conferences and football television revenue. Two subjects today. Basketball goes first.

While I’ve been a proponent for expansion of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, what the NCAA is doing by adding three more teams to the Championship field and three more television outlets is exactly what it needs right now. I wasn’t enthused with a field of 96 teams and have argued for expansion to 256 which would take just two extra rounds, an eight-game march to the title. But adding four teams makes sense. I guess.

Okay, it makes cents, or dollars and cents, or dollar sense. In discussion of the television contract with CBS, the NCAA discovered that the addition of 31 teams and the extra games did nothing financially. Even adding the three teams wasn’t needed to rake in more cash; that was done to appease the NCAA membership, especially with the growing number of automatic qualifiers increasing the number of quality teams left out. Three might not seem like a lot but it really is.

What is a lot is the new television contract: $10.8 billion over 14 years along with the guarantee that all games will be shown live in their entirety. The new structure spreads the games over CBS and Turner Sports outlets TBS, TNT and TruTV. Not that anyone can actually watch all the games at once from the comfort of home but this set-up will allow the basketball fan who enjoys the tournament beyond watching his favorite team more viewing options.

So far, the immediate reaction across the basketball world has been positive. Those who advocated 96 teams are pleased, or at the very least are saying so. But just wait until next March when the selections to the field are made and the screaming begins about the last four teams selected versus some left out. And, wait for the viewers without home access to all the channels to chime in about having to settle in at the neighborhood bar for hours and hours. I’ll ignore them both. The former will happen no matter the size of the field, and the latter is not such a bad deal.

What might be a bad deal for some colleges is the coming expansion of college conferences. When the Big Ten (which now has 11 teams) expands, dominos will fall and there will be a major change in conference affiliation, especially with the BCS in mind. The Big Ten will most likely not add just a 12th team, say Notre Dame or Texas. It’ll expand to 16 teams, pushing the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference, the Big East (already 16 for basketball), the Big 12 and the Pac 10 to do the same or die.

This will be done for football and football alone. That’s why the ACC expanded a few years ago. It was to give more emphasis to football, especially with the addition of the conference championship game. If Texas moves to the Big Ten, they’ll say it aligns them more academically, but it’ll be for more money generated through the Big Ten television contracts and the idea of expanding its (Texas) spot on center stage in the sport. Of course, the Big Ten would benefit by getting the Texas television market.

This is the same reasoning I’m hearing for Texas to move to the SEC. And, in the name of Virginia Tech being added to the ACC because of pressure on Virginia, Texas A&M would probably be a part of a deal to get Texas to join the SEC. That would get the SEC to 14 teams, so who would be the other two or three if Arkansas makes a mistake and high-tails it so the Big 12? How about Florida State, Miami, Clemson or Georgia Tech. Does that do anything to help the SEC? For television, probably not except for the appeal of FSU and the Miami market, neither really needed because of Florida.

The questions I have: Will the ACC survive in expansion? I’m asking if there will be an ACC once the expansion dust settles. It’s a legitimate question. What if two of the four mentioned bolt the ACC for the SEC? What if the Big East, focusing on football, was pro-active and enticed Boston College to return and Maryland to move? Or maybe Maryland goes to the SEC so that conference gets a foot in the Washington DC market? Where would the nucleus of Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Wake Forest, Virginia and Virginia Tech turn for members? The basketball appeal of those six does nothing for the need to keep football growing to take advantage of more football television revenue.

If further expansion is on the horizon, which it is as a game of expand-to-survive, the ACC needs to look closer to home. Even with the current 12, adding, say, Syracuse, West Virginia, Pitt and Connecticut does nothing for me, and I doubt it does much for increasing television markets. I believe strengthening a footprint is better than expanding one, though my friends at the ACC and in the broadcast areas of the conference schools will tell me otherwise. Go after the markets, they’ll tell me. With apoligies to my East Carolina friends, that’s why East Carolina, even with a solid football program, is not attractive to the ACC, the SEC or the Big East. No television market to speak of.

If I could wave a magic wand, the ACC would include these 14 teams: Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Wake Forest, Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida, Florida State, and Miami; AND these other two: Penn State and Pitt. Maybe substitute West Virginia for Miami but definitely do away with Boston College. My foot print puts a solid hold on a specific geographical region, has national appeal in football and basketball and helps with travel time and expenses. Of course, getting Penn State might be tough, though it has a lot in common academically with many of the ACC nucleus.

Yes there will be concerns about how to handle football scheduling and conference tournaments (noth just basketball) with 16 teams, but that’s just details, all workable at some level. Don’t be concerned with the details.

As the NCAA Basketball Tournament progresses through its new television contract, it’ll be interesting to see if the number of teams grows beyond 68. While some think it’s inevitable, I have my doubts because of television revenue limitations. But, as the days go by, watch for conferences to grow and the make-up of membership change dramatically. There’s a feeling that there’ll soon be just four major 16-team leagues, all demanding two guaranteed spots in the five BCS games. Right now there are five conferences involved in that formula. When, not if, the Big Ten expands, major changes will come quickly to the other conferences.

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