In a three-part series covering Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, SEC Country will explore the feasibility aspects of Fox Sports writer Stewart Mandel’s ambitious and, dare we say, crazy, vision for college football — 10 years from now.
Mandel’s extravagant piece is a radical departure from SEC Country’s outside-the-box stab (from last December) at projecting the SEC’s 14 head coaches for the 2025 season. The one common thread: Both stories fully acknowledge that substantial changes are on the horizon for the nation’s premier conference.
For today, we’ll take a 180-degree viewpoint from Thursday’s contraction discussion, by tackling the SEC’s need (or lack thereof) for expansion.
THE POWER TO SAY ‘NO’
The SEC and Big Ten are the only Power 5 conferences with 14 member schools; but that doesn’t mean these lucrative leagues are racing to become the first to 16, as well.
Simply put, even if the SEC and Big Ten have designs on expanding to 16 members sometime in the next decade, both conferences likely will target different universities — eliminating the need to rush the process.
The Big Ten, which added the New York (Rutgers) and Baltimore/Washington D.C. markets (Maryland) in their latest expansion go-round, likely would pursue the big-city strategy again with the next batch of expansion candidates. If that’s the case, then Georgia Tech (Atlanta), North Carolina (Charlotte), Oklahoma (Oklahoma City/north Texas), Central Florida (Orlando), the University of Miami (Miami) and the University of Houston (Houston) would make the most market-driven sense.
But what about Notre Dame?
Well, as a Michigan native who coveted Notre Dame as an expansion option 10 or 20 years ago, I’m sorry to say that ship has sailed.
The Big Ten has figured out how to succeed without the prestige of Notre Dame on the masthead. Plus, ND’s powers-that-be have no great incentive to surrender their “independent” status in football — as long as NBC keeps writing million-dollar checks to air Fighting Irish home games.
The SEC, which added Texas A&M (Houston market) and Missouri (St. Louis) before the 2012 school year, likely would have interest in Oklahoma, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Louisville, Miami, Houston or Florida State for the next expansion.
When comparing the candidate’s listings, there’s some overlap with Oklahoma, Miami and Houston; but each market also would have politically charged factors at play.
**If the SEC pursued Florida State for expansion, it most likely would anger the University of Florida community. In essence, Miami would represent a better compromise pick for a conference that may desire a stronger foothold in the state of Florida.
**The Big Ten would have no such obstacles with its hypothetical Miami recruitment. It’s an appealing market in one of the most fertile states for prep talent.
As mentioned above, the Sooners would greatly enhance the football/basketball profile of the SEC or Big Ten. But it’s hard to imagine Oklahoma jumping to another major conference … unless Oklahoma State was granted a coattails invitation to the same league.
This isn’t a Texas/Texas A&M type of situation, where a messy divorce was always on the horizon. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State may be fierce rivals, but both schools are smart enough to realize their long-term strength lies in being a package deal.
For example, if Arkansas were to jump to the Big 12, without much advance warning, the SEC easily could counter with a 2-for-1 invitation to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. As for the 16th vacancy, the SEC could then favor an eastward expansion, either through Miami, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia or Virginia Tech.
Speaking of which, why would Arkansas want to lead an SEC-free existence? The Big Ten and SEC produce the most annual revenue — by a long shot — and the Razorbacks would theoretically jump from a stable moneymaker (SEC) to perhaps the most dysfunctional conference in college sports.
It’s difficult to envision the SEC extending an invitation to Houston, citing two reasons:
a) Texas A&M already covers the metro Houston TV market, eliminating the desperate need to chase the Cougars.
b) Adding Houston wouldn’t help the SEC’s revenue-generating cause, in the next round of TV negotiations.
It’s a different story for the Big Ten: Just like the state of Florida, the Big Ten would relish the notion of tapping into the Houston market … and the talent-rich state of Texas.
LEVERAGE IS POWER
The 10-team Big 12 might delve into expansion talks later this spring. But even if this occurs, don’t expect to see others get super-serious about a 16-team super-conference — unless the Big Ten or SEC first make waves in that realm (Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany isn’t focused on expansion).
For the 2015 fiscal year, the SEC reportedly collected $527.4 million in revenue; and if the 14 Big Ten programs earned $36.7 million apiece in 2015, as reported, the league’s annual take comes to $513.8 million. (The Big Ten could see a major spike in TV revenue in 2018.)
The larger point: The SEC and Big Ten have the greatest national reach of the Power 5 conferences. The two leagues are the redoubtable trendsetters for game-changing initiatives — such as TV networks, TV ratings, member expansion, digital rights, policy-making, etc.
In fact, the leagues’ power status runs similar to how the NFL operated from 1996-2015, when The Shield used the perceived threat of a Los Angeles relocation to help established clubs finalize terms of new stadium projects — or major stadium expansions, citing the case of the Buffalo Bills — in its current market.
As in, Need some leverage to secure another $550 million in taxpayer financing? Just say you’re going to L.A. … and then watch the local politicians crumble under that speculation.
For a 20-year cycle, the NFL never fully exercised that power of moving back to L.A. — after the Rams and Raiders left SoCal after the 1995 season. The mere threat was good enough to satisfy the league’s revenue-bonanza agenda … at least until the St. Louis Rams stealthily became the Los Angeles Rams (again).
The SEC and Big Ten could posture similarly stellar leverage when exploring expansion to 16 schools:
If the Big Ten truly covets Notre Dame, then go out and pursue Georgia Tech, Miami or Oklahoma with great intensity … in hopes that Notre Dame would fall in line.
And if the SEC has legitimate worries of Arkansas leaving the nest in the near future, then go ahead and dangle that sudden vacancy to the Big 12’s greatest powers.
We’re talking about timeless bargaining chips for the foreseeable future.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.