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Roundtable: Looking Back On Conference Expansion

We’re about 10 years removed from the madness of the 2009 and 2010 offseasons. The BTP staff looks back.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Any college sports fan can remember the madness dating back to 2009 when the Big Ten fatefully announced that it would be considering expansion. Well, it’s been a decade and the BTPowerhouse staff got together to chat about how the landscape has changed, what went right, and what went wrong.

Read it all below.

7/23 BTPowerhouse Roundtable:

1. It’s now been roughly 10 years since the free-for-all that gave us our current conference structure. What thoughts do you have looking back on those years? Do you like the current setup of college sports? Do you think we should return to how it used to be?

Thomas Beindit: First off, I honestly can’t believe it’s already been that long. Maryland and Rutgers still feel like recent additions to the league and Nebraska isn’t too far behind them. It’s pretty wild to realize that we’re closing in a decade since the Huskers joined the league and the other two will be right behind that. We’re probably closing in on the point where the new paint should be chipping off.

As far as thoughts beyond that, I feel like we’re stuck in a bit of a no man’s land right now. The Big 12 has been good enough to justify its existence, but it still feels like the Power Five should either lose a conference or we’d be better off going back to what we were before. Things feel clunky, unorganized, and inherently unfair for particular teams. Much of this applies specifically to football, but football is the sport driving conference expansion, so it makes sense to analyze through that lens.

Andrew Michael H: The tectonic shift that realigned Nebraska and then later Rutgers and Maryland into the Big Ten was a huge deal at the time. If you wanted to, you could spend hours a day reading different message boards to get each school’s take on what they wanted to happen with their school and their conference. It was a confluence of academics, culture, athletics, geography, history, and finance and it was fascinating.

But part of the reason it was so fascinating was because these schools were making 100-year decisions. Which makes me roll my eyes when people start talking about re-realigning things. No, no, no… we had that period, and it was necessary, but now it’s time for a period of some stability. If you’re complaining because you don’t think it “feels right” for Maryland to be in the Big Ten or Utah to be in the Pac-12, wait a decade or two. It takes time to build up history and rivalries and mutual respect/disdain. Rutgers and Maryland and Nebraska are part of the family now. You don’t kick someone out of the family once you’ve adopted them.

Bryce Bennett: Like Thomas, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years already. Maryland and Rutgers still feel they are getting their feet settled, while Nebraska has always felt like more of a natural fit for the conference.

Looking back, I still am struck by the realignment that DIDN’T take place. That time period felt like we were quickly heading towards four conferences of 16 members, and it turns out that we may have been right. The Big 12 was literally minutes away from losing Oklahoma and Texas to the Pac-12, which looking at the Pac-12’s position now is crazy to think about.

I don’t think there’s any chance of things going back. If anything, I think there will be more realignment, but I’ll talk more about that below.

2. Barring something unusual, it seems like things are pretty locked in at the Power Five level for at least the time being. There were a lot of discussions about the Big 12 expanding a few years back, but that never happened and things have seemingly calmed down. How long do you think this will last?

Beindit: There are two dates I think will be important for fans to remember going forward. The first is 2020 and the second is 2026. These are the contract dates for the College Football Playoff. The deal was signed originally for 12 years and is set to end before the 2026 season. However, many have implied that the powers will revisit the deals in 2020 and potentially look at playoff expansion then.

It’d be a stretch to suggest that a simple contract negotiation would mandate conference expansion, but this seems as likely a time as any for commissioners to revisit the subject. Perhaps a league that receives an auto-bid to the playoff will be more willing to add a few teams with mixed pedigrees that can bring marquee TV markets.

AMH: I hope the calm lasts indefinitely, but that may be unrealistic. If we get to a point where the Big Ten and SEC are making three times as much as other power conferences, the other leagues will do something about it. Would the Pac-12 be happy making 50 cents on the dollar compared to the Big Ten? Honestly, I think they would, so long as they knew that’s what the landscape would look like for the next 20 years. It’s when there’s uncertainty--like when the value of certain media rights deals doubles over a 5-year period--that schools feel like they have to take dramatic action.

Bennett: I think there will be more realignment. Feels like we are in a sort of cease fire right now. I could see this lasting for a few more years until new TV deals come up. I could also see the Pac-12 getting desperate and trying to swing for a bigger fish. Not sure what leverage they have right now though.

3. Assuming there is further college restructuring by 2025, is there anything you would like to see the Big Ten do? Anything they should avoid?

Beindit: As I said above, I’m not a fan of the current Big Ten configuration, especially with regard to football. Schedules vary massively, historical rivals rarely play each other, and the nine-game conference slate seems to killing teams’ postseason hopes. For me, the Big Ten has become a lot like lukewarm soup. Give me something hot or cold, rather than this compromise.

From this perspective, I would like to see an expansion or contraction. In fact, I actually think the best setup would be 10 or 18 teams. With the first, you could return to an eight-game slate where everybody plays each other. Much the same scenario would apply in basketball. Bump the conference schedule back down and play everybody in a home-and-home matchup.

On the other end, you could easily split the teams into two nine-team divisions with 18 teams. For football, you could play every team in your division and one crossover game per year. Put the emphasis on divisional record to avoid scheduling imbalance. And for basketball, you could also consider organizing things by division. In a lot of ways, it’d be like having two conferences.

I will certainly admit that this is a bold approach. However, I don’t see the point in pretending to be deferential toward the league’s history while radically expanding the league. Pick a lane.

AMH: There’s nothing wrong with the Big Ten that wouldn’t be made even worse by trying to “fix” some perceived problem. Football is in good shape. The divisions make geographic sense and are easy for fans to remember. Just because one side is stronger now doesn’t mean it’s always going to be that way. (At the inception of divisions, the Big 12 North and the SEC East were the dominant half of their respective leagues; over time, that flipped.) Nine games is good--Big Ten schools should want to play each other more. I’d be OK with ten conference games. Yes, you might not get as many good OOC matchups, but if you’re Illinois, there’s no out-of-conference opponent you could play who’s going to generate more interest than Ohio State or Michigan.

On the basketball side, 20 conference games was a winner. Two conference games in December was a winner. I know people disagree, but I think the Big Ten Tournament in NYC was a winner, too (I went and it was awesome)--though with the Big East locking down Madison Square Garden I don’t think the Big Ten will go back to the Big Apple any time soon.

We aren’t kicking anyone out, and any additions would mean less games against conference opponents. Fourteen is the right number.

Bennett: I think it will change to either 16 or 18. Contracting doesn’t make sense unless it makes sense from a dollars perspective. That’s just the reality of it.

I agree with Thomas on the nine-game conference thing. The College Football Playoff committee doesn’t give any incentives to potential playoff teams based on strength of schedule. Why play nine games then? It is always striking to see Big Ten teams pummeling each other in the cold in November while the SEC has a virtual bye week with games against The Citadel and Mercer.

Basketball wise, I like the 20-game conference schedule. It’s not perfect. I still think the conference regular season title race can be impacted by unbalanced scheduling, but I think overall it’s been an improvement. The Big Ten saw some recognition of that with a strong NCAA Tournament selection draw. Also, after two years, I think I am a fan of the December conference games. College basketball can be a wasteland in mid-December, so it’s nice to get a taste of conference play.

4. Name your top Big Ten expansion candidates. Why would they fit?

Beindit: This is going to be a bit of a rant, but I want to explain my perspective a bit before I highlight the teams I would target. As noted above, conference expansion in the modern era has been driven by college football, TV markets, and cable dollars. League commissioners have talked about things like academics and the competitive qualities of the additions, but I haven’t seen convincing evidence indicating these have driven the expansion. By my measure, these additions have been about getting more lucrative TV deals and earning the leagues more money.

There’s an argument that these additional funds are good for the conferences. Many have made those arguments elsewhere. However, I vehemently disagree with the notion that expansion should be driven by cable contracts. I believe expansion should be driven by additions that increase the inherent value of your league, increase the competition level, and actually drive success that fans care about. With a massive amount of the additional cable revenue being used for administration and non-revenue sports, I just don’t see the point in adding schools to increase the money. Focus on the things people actually care about.

With that said, we can rule out schools that would be added solely to get access to an additional TV market or two. I want schools that fit the mold and will be competitive. As such, I would focus my attention on programs like Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, and Virginia. All five would bring elite level play in at least one sport and would have at least one natural competitor in the Big Ten. Kansas and Virginia Tech might be dark horses, though I don’t think either would fit as well as the teams noted above.

Teams that I wouldn’t consider are Cincinnati, Louisville, Syracuse, and West Virginia. I don’t think any of the four are a great cultural fit and all of them have been inconsistent on the court and football field recently.

AMH: Stand pat. Don’t add anybody. This idea that conferences should always be looking to add new members is crazy. The only FBS experiment with 16 teams was the old WAC, and it fell apart. Fourteen is workable. Sixteen wouldn’t be.

Bennett: Texas and Notre Dame are obviously the big fish here. Notre Dame almost joined the league multiple times, most recently in 2003. There’s always been something holding it back, and now with Notre Dame’s alignment with the ACC, it seems remote.

Texas is the big candidate. The reasons are pretty obvious. Storied, passionate, and well-known football program and fan base, recruiting footprint, increased revenue, and eyes on TV. Texas seems to run things in the Big 12, so would they be willing to give some of that up to join the Big Ten?

Both of those options seem kind of remote. Other options I could see and would be decent fits include Oklahoma, Virginia, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa State.

5. For our last question, let’s assume you are now the all powerful commissioner of college athletics. What would you do with regard to conference realignment?

Beindit: Maybe this is something that has been discussed elsewhere, but I haven’t seen it. I really wish conferences would consider reorganizing into conferences based on the sport. More specifically, I think the public should just acknowledge that football is distinct at the college level and let teams organize separately in that sport. For instance, Michigan might be in the Big Ten for every sport except football and in the “Midwest Conference” for football.

Again, this is a radical approach, but every time conference expansion is discussed, we always get the example of a volleyball team having to fly across the country at 9:00 a.m. It’s stupid to have football dictating how other sports are organized. Football is bigger than any other varsity sport and is unique in the fact that both genders can (though rarely) play together. Separate it out and I think a lot of this stuff would fit together a lot better.

AMH: Ban football teams from scheduling more than 2 years in advance. Develop some kind of algorithm similar to the one used to match medical students with residencies. That will give teams more flexibility to schedule based on how good they expect to be. That way teams in a down-cycle can schedule for bowl eligibility without having to complain how hard they have it in the Big Ten East, while those trying to make the CFP can schedule difficult games and legitimately criticize any SEC school that won’t do the same.

Also, make Ultimate an NCAA-sanctioned sport.

Bennett: Interesting question. Honestly, I feel like some sort of alignment around four power conferences of 16 teams is going to happen within the next 10 years or so. If that were to be the case, I’d try to protect the region-ness of the conferences. It wouldn’t be perfect, but as long as the conferences have some sort of regional feel to them, people will get used to it.

I’d also pay the players.


So, what are your thoughts on conference realignment? Add them below.