We've said more than a few times that conference expansion is about money, and money is about television rights. Conventional wisdom for 20 years has said that the ideal candidate for Big Ten expansion is Notre Dame, but in the current conference landscape, I'm not sure adding Notre Dame makes sense any more. To understand why the golden domes may be just a footnote in Jim Delaney's plot to take over the known universe - and to understand why North Carolina (or Duke, perhaps) and Virginia are the next logical targets, it's important to understand television markets and media dollars.
Let's start with what we know: adding Maryland and Rutgers was about television. Rutgers, in theory, cracks open the lucrative New York television market, the largest single Designated Marketing Area (DMA) in the country, with roughly 7.4 television homes to its credit (the next largest DMA, Los Angeles, is 1.8 million homes smaller). Of the Top 10 markets, Delaney and his Big Ten Network can now plant flags in 4: NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
The SEC, by contrast, holds only one of the Top 10 markets: Atlanta (this also explains why Georgia Tech is often rumored as a viable expansion candidate).
Broadening your scope to the Top 25 markets, the B1G can reasonably claim 5 more, including Detroit, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Cleveland-Akron, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis - you could perhaps include St. Louis, but I don't necessarily believe that is dyed-in-the-wool Illini country. St. Louis, however, makes Missouri a possible expansion candidate.
Again, by comparison, the SEC can claim an additional three markets in the Top 25, all of which are in Sunny Florida, and may be as much ACC markets as SEC country (Tampa-St. Pete, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, and Orlando-Daytona Beach).
Let's step away from the Nielsen ratings for a moment, and take a look at some research from our friends at ESPN. Earlier this year, the network ranked the Top 25 markets for college football, and discovered that Birmingham is the "center of the college football universe." The Alabama market pulled a 5.9 rating (more on how TV ratings are figured here), while our own Columbus pulled a 4.3 in the 2012 survey.
Interestingly, Dayton (#11), Cleveland (#20) and Cincinnati (#25) all made the list, perhaps proving that Ohio State is the most-watched football team in the country with a combined 11.5 rating.
The rise of the giants...
A comment on a forum thread discussing the possibilities of a "super conference" in light of the mass exodus from the Big East got me thinking about expansion candidates again, prompting me to go back and take another look at the pool of potential members. The most likely candidates for expansion have to have a few characteristics that make them truly viable candidates:
Additional television market penetration to expand the BTN's ratings and revenue potential
Geographical relevance, generally defined as contiguous to the current B1G footprint
Membership in the Association of American Universities - a barometer of a school's focus on research
A focus on academic excellence beyond athletic excellence - subjective, but important
Potential to be relevant in revenue sports (football and basketball)
You'll note that I've placed the item most fans care about - competitiveness in football, and to a lesser extent, basketball - at the bottom of my list of requisites. This is because competitiveness is no longer the most important factor in the equation, as the Maryland addition proves, and because competitiveness is a moving target. Most folks would not have considered Wisconsin consistently competitive before Barry Alvarez took the helm, and now they've won at least a piece of the conference title three years running. Similarly the much-ballyhooed Oregon Ducks, who were not a great football program for the better part of the previous century, but have become a landmark in the Top 10 since Phil Knight endowed them with money and colorful jerseys.
So if you set aside things like improving strength of schedule for a moment, and think of this with an eye to the business of running a TV juggernaut, there are a handful of schools "available" who meet more or less all of the above criteria. Having already raided the Big East to take one of our two latest additions to the league, there are no schools left in the Big East that add any value to the proposition.
The SEC and PAC-12, for obvious reasons, are also not likely to yield any realistic candidates for expansion - those conferences are strong, getting stronger, and not going anywhere. Ironically, the one traditional SEC school that fits the bill is Florida, but I don't see them leaving the SEC any time soon. That leaves schools currently affiliated with the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12 to choose from.
With these notions in mind, I think there are five schools that have potential to join the Big Ten and make a positive contribution in the big picture. In no particular order, they are:
Let me set aside two schools that would make the average football fan salivate for just a moment: Notre Dame and Texas. The reason I am disqualifying Texas up front is simple - it ain't gonna happen in a million years. Well, at least any time soon. For starters, Texas doesn't meet a couple of the criteria above - they're nowhere near geographically relevant, which in this case is of lesser concern because we're talking about Texas, for crying out loud, but moreover they don't actually add that much in terms of television potential.
What's that, you say? Texas doesn't add that much TV potential? No, and here's why: The Longhorn Network isn't yielding great results thus far, and while a Texas team should bring several big television markets (Dallas-Ft. Worth is Nielsen's #5 and Houston is #10), ESPN's analysis of the big college football markets only listed one Texas market in its Top 25 with Austin at #12... behind #11 Dayton, Ohio. While football is big in Texas, there are a lot of football teams in Texas - a lot of good football teams in Texas - and the audience is bound to be more fragmented than in a state dominated by a monolith like the Buckeyes.
Notre Dame is the square peg in a round hole
Notre Dame has always been considered Jim Delaney's white whale, the one that got away, the school that keeps Darth Delaney up at night... But while fans across the country might relish the opportunity to see Ohio State and Notre Dame duke it out each November at LucasOil Stadium for the conference trophy, I'm starting to think that the Irish' chances of getting in the conference are a fading notion or a passing fad.
While I doubt Delaney would turn the Irish away if they came calling, it isn't that important to worship at the altar of Notre Dame sports any longer, and ND might have missed their shot to get in the club, as their stock is rising, and will perhaps price them out of the market. NBC has given ND more money and reupped its contract with the school at each opportunity, and becoming relevant in the national title race under Coach Kelley has ensured that networks will pay handsomely for TV rights again.
For Notre Dame, the money might actually be better in the Big Ten, however... The school has gotten roughly $15 million per season from NBC for football, and another $5 million per year from the Big East for the rest of its revenue sports' television package. Big Ten schools, meanwhile are getting nearly $25 million. Oh, and with Rutgers and Maryland adding to the footprint, B1G schools are set to earn even more.
With the implosion of the Big East and the already announced move by Notre Dame to the ACC, one might wonder if conference realignment could again put Notre Dame on a course to joining the B1G, but looking at my criteria, they're not that great an addition (and don't forget, it's almost a point of pride for Jim Swarbrick to remain independent in football, even though Forbes' Chris Smith says that's bad business at this point).
Notre Dame adds national television exposure, but no discernable television market the Big Ten doesn't already claim. New York City and the New England states would, in theory, be fertile country for a Big Ten Network featuring the Fighting Irish, but there's not a turnkey pin on the map TV market they automatically open up. Rutgers and Maryland provided at least a foot in the door of the New York, New Jersey, Baltimore and D.C. markets.
Then you have the issue of what they bring to the table in terms of revenue for the network. Remember that in the BTN calculus, the addition of schools - Maryland and Rutgers, in other words - has been about additional subscribers, not additional advertising clients. While ND has netted mega ratings for NBC this season, those ratings don't mean that much in the cable TV world, which looks at revenue much differently than do broadcast networks.
Here's the last reason why Notre Dame isn't a fit - it isn't anything like the other Big Ten schools. Aside from the fact that it has great tradition, great sports, and a campus in the middle of flyover country, there are few similarities.
Most Big Ten schools are large, public research universities. Northwestern is the school already in the club that is the least like its peers as a smaller, private university, but it has strong research credentials and has been a member longer than has Ohio State. Even though it is a smaller school, its total enrollment still outstrips Notre Dame by about 7,000 students (undergraduate enrollments are similar, but ND's postgraduate enrollment is a pittance by comparison).
If you didn't already know this, the Big Ten presidents - the true power behind Jim Delaney's throne - take this research thing pretty seriously. Don't take my word for it, just ask my friend Gordon Gee. While athletic revenues are important, to these schools' chief executives academic prowess and research funding are what make the world go 'round. That in and of itself makes Notre Dame far less desirable as a comrade in arms than as an entry in the Bowl Championship Series.
Oh, and if you don't think these academic-types aren't really calling the shots, you're not paying attention.
So who makes the grade?
I've listed five schools who make logical expansion targets for the Big Ten. I say logical because I think they are "available" in the sense that they're in conferences that are less stable long-term, and they've either shown interest in joining the Big Ten in the past, or they meet most, if not all, of my criteria.
Let's start with the one SEC school on my list, a school that used to be in the Big 12, Mizzou. The University of Missouri is a large, flagship state university that is a member of the prestigious AAU. It "fits" the mold of the typical B1G school. The school was passed over the last time in favor of Nebraska, which made sense from a competitive standpoint, as Nebraska is a much bigger national brand, with a much bigger fanbase and a much stronger football tradition.
Mizzou still makes sense, though, as their teams have competed at the national level in recent years, and they meet the academic research criteria. Mizzou also shores up the St. Louis television DMA, the #21 market in the country, as well as the Kansas City market, ranked #31 (Nebraska probably gives some touch in KC, but not enough). Those two markets add another 2.25 million television households to the BTN footprint, in theory.
Similar to Mizzou is Big 12 member Kansas. The University of Kansas is an AAU member, and a flagship public university (Kansas State is actually the land-grant in the state, but is not an AAU member), and while its football team isn't much to talk about, we know full well how good their basketball team is... and I don't think we can afford to overlook roundball in the discussion of TV relevance. Basketball may not generate quite as much revenue for these schools as does football, but think of the number of games played, and the money to be made during conference and NCAA tournament season... It's a bigger and bigger deal each year.
In terms of TV markets, Kansas is a little less attractive than Mizzou, however. Kansas City would still be in play here, but beyond that the next biggest market in the state is Wichita at #68 (455,000 TV homes).
Next up, then, is Georgia Tech. The Georgia Institute of Technology joined the ranks of the AAU in 2010, so it is something of an up-and-comer in the research community, although it is often ranked among the top 10 public schools in the country. It is a little smaller than most of the other expansion candidates (and current B1G members), but provides access to the big Atlanta television market.
According to a quasi-analysis from political super-genius Nate Silver, Atlanta is the #2 market in the country for college football. Little surprise given that it's a large city - the #9 TV market according to Nielsen - in the middle of SEC country. Silver's data furthermore suggests that Tech is the #11 most popular team in the country, and would be the #4 most popular team in the Big Ten... Given the 2.3 million television sets in the Atlanta market, Tech would be a sound addition to the conference.
That leaves the two schools I think are the next most-logical targets - ACC members Virginia and North Carolina. The University of Virginia is, to put it mildly, an academic beast compared with many other schools in the conference. Founded by Thomas Jefferson and set on one of the most gorgeous campuses in the country, UVA is member of the AAU, and is a flagship public university with an enrollment and "feel" similar to Northwestern.
When it comes to TV markets, Virginia could be huge. As with Maryland, there is the obvious tie to Washington, D.C. Beyond that, however, Virginia is home to several Top 100 Nielsen markets: Norfolk-Portsmouth (#43), Richmond (#57, and ESPN's #25), and Roanoke-Lynchburg (#66). These markets bring another 1.75 million viewers, similar to what Mizzou might add in the West.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is, for the money, the "buy" of the lot. This large, flagship public university, along with Duke, make up a region known as "Research Triangle Park." This in and of itself, along with the requisite AAU membership card, tells you all you need to know about its academic standings. Its basketball program is legendary, its football program has potential (all you need is potential in this equation), and most importantly, it cracks a lot of TV opportunities.
Raleigh-Durham is the #24 Nielsen market with 1.143 million homes, Charlotte is #24 with 1.140 million, and the two rank within ESPN's top 25 college football markets. Meanwhile, Greensboro-Winston Salem clocks in at #46 with another 691k homes, giving you a total potential add to the BTN of 2.97 million TV sets - a staggering number.
If you're Jim Delaney, what do you do?
Given the fascination with the notion that we will see, in my lifetime, four "superconferences" that tell the NCAA where to stick it, there is a strategy here that makes sense, giving the faculty what they want in adding top-tier research schools with strong academic underpinning, giving Fox and the BTN what it wants in more television households, and giving fans more palatable options than Maryland.
Step 1: Annex Maryland. This gives you geographical access to Virginia. (Check)
Step 2: Woo Virginia and North Carolina. These two schools offer six Top 100 TV markets and another 5 million potential viewers. They also give you great schools, steeped in tradition, and, in the case of UNC, an amazing basketball brand (Duke, by the way, could have fit the bill here, but its status as a private school seemed less of a "fit" than UNC). This brings you to 16 schools, a pretty nice number.
Step 3: On the other hand, you could ignore Virginia and take Georgia Tech after you annex North Carolina, bringing the huge Atlanta market and its 2.3 million viewers. Of course if you wanted, you could take all three and add one more school...
Step 4: Pick up Missouri. Mizzou is a nice addition to the western expanse of the conference, bringing with it two solid TV markets and solidifying the western front of the conference, and providing some good regional rivalry opportunities.
Here's where my strategy stops. An 18-member conference is somewhere between the 16 teams most assume are coming at some point and the 20 teams some folks envision. Eighteen may be unwieldy in size, somewhere in between a manageable 8-team division and those "pods" everyone is talking about these days. Even so, two 9-team divisions could work out... in theory...
If he could figure out an 11-team conference all those years, Jim Delaney can make 18 teams work just fine.