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Mitchell: SEC Expansion...What Comes Next?
Who's up next?
Who's up next?
Posted Aug 11, 2011

Where there's smoke there's typically fire...and there's a fire sale underway in the great Midwest. From Texas Gov. - and A&M grad - Rick Perry confirming the school is in talks with the SEC, to rumors swirling around other Big 12 properties, it appears a major shift is imminent. CFN's SEC Columnist Russ Mitchell on the How's, What's and Why's of conference expansion.

By Russ Mitchell
Follow me on Twitter @russmitchellcfb

HOW many teams will the SEC likely expand to, and how quickly?

First, if the superconference era is as inevitable as many suggest (which it is, there’s simply too much money for those conferences left standing), then there will be a run on the suspect schools and markets; and those making a living off this game already know which schools are in play.

Second, unless the SEC wants to expand to the Pacific Northwest for the coffee, there is a geographic limit to its growth, and within that boundary there is a small pool of schools/markets that provide top value without being redundant.

Third, the SEC is in the driver’s seat. It is today the heavyweight conference of our sport, in more ways than just national championships – as irreverent a claim as that may be.

Finally, given a 12 game schedule, the accepted maximum limit for a college football superconference is 16 teams – and the SEC does everything at its maximum.

Given these factors, combined with the generally accepted belief that the market is moving and moving now, the powers that be in Birmingham will expand to 16 teams before the end of this season – not 14 as many suggest, and most certainly not 13.

Again, given (i) the superconference era is both inevitable and likely upon us, (ii) the geographic constraints, (iii) the small pool of best options, and (iv) that the SEC is king of the CFB jungle now, why would it wait and allow someone else to swoop in and pick off the few "prized" targets?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves...

WHY is this happening so quickly, and why now?

Technically, this subject has been smoldering for the better part of a decade; there's always been too much money to be made off the prospect of a 16 team conference. The reason it is accelerating now is because the Big 12 is imploding, and you need look no further than Austin, TX for the reason why.

Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe’s lips are moving, but no one’s listening anymore. Certainly not the teams in the Big 12 that hear the music slowing down and don't want to be left without a chair when it stops.

It's clear to everyone that Texas doesn’t want to play nice anymore, and why should they? Sorry, it’s a business. Park your fandom somewhere else for the rest of this column. IT’S. A. BUSINESS.

If Texas believes it can make more money as an independent and/or with its own television network (regardless of how ridiculously untenable the latter idea is within the construct of a conference of “equals”), well then, all the power to them.

Without Texas, the Big 9 is unmarketable, even with mighty Oklahoma. Ever seen what happens to a strip mall that loses its anchor tenant?

Truthfully, it’s barely a conference to begin with. Oklahoma and Texas have shared the past seven straight Big 12 crowns and nine of the last 11. Only twice in Big 12 history has one of them failed to play in the championship game – where exactly is the parity there? And there are few major television markets to speak of.

Without Texas, this becomes 'Oklahoma plus 8', with no Gosselin in sight. Ask your wife.

Therein begins the scramble.

WHAT's going to happen?

The SEC is going to get richer, bigger and just maybe, better. There’s no guarantee on the latter, and let's be perfectly clear: this all comes at the expense of the Big 12 teams who will be left at the altar.

But forget them, and apparently the best interests of college football (more on that in a bit).

There’s simply too much money for the SEC not to go to 16 teams. With the right combination, such a move could have an exponential effect on revenue far past the actual percentage in physical growth.

Taking just the single largest revenue contributor – television contracts – there are “look ins” to the current multi-year contracts that allow SEC Commissioner Mike Slive to revisit the negotiating table should the conference expand its product. 12 to 16 teams may only be 33 percent growth according to your Prob/Stat professor, but here’s where the new math kicks in.

Some suggest that with the expanded coverage/interest from the “right” markets (Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, etc.), and the right brands (say, Oklahoma), the SEC could realistically convert that 33 percent growth into an even larger percentage bump to its TV contracts.

As Kojak would say, "There’s your incentive, baby!" After that, there's still more money from expansion, but that should be enough to wet your whistle.

For you expansion foes filling up my in-box...please, less time misspelling and more time studying your conference rules. A single school that’s against expansion on principal (please, no laughing), or one university that's against inviting a specific school to the SEC table, is in fact powerless to stop it.

Today it takes only nine of the 12 members to extend an invitation for another to join. Sorry LSU, you’re not going to be able to stop A&M from joining without some serious politicking. Same goes for any other scenario.

Guess WHO's coming to dinner?

It’s just that – a guess. But an educated one. Again, the pool of value-add schools isn’t that big, and the SEC is in the driver’s seat. The great Midwest sky is falling and its teams are in play. So who is most likely on the SEC’s wish list?

A&M, Oklahoma and Mizzou, plus a player to be named later – but not much later, and it will be a school from the Big 12.

Certainly the SEC could try and rip a team away from the ACC – NC State would be nice. The Wolfpack have long played second fiddle to their in-state Tarheels...such a move would not only separate them, but very likely narrow the gap.

From the SEC's perspective, it would give the conference the Raleigh/Greensboro and Virginia Beach/Richmond markets, and perhaps even some Washington, DC spillover. But it’s not happening.

First, it’s far easier to cherry pick within a conference that's winding down than one that's strong. It’s called “motivation”, and the Big 12 member schools have it.

Perhaps more importantly, the SEC already owns the markets from the Carolina split down to Miami - and some would argue it already owns Miami too.

Finally, you’d have to take not one but TWO teams from the East to balance the conference. If you had three from the West and one from the East, it would create a restructuring nightmare. Who would you split? Bama/AU? Ole Miss/Miss State? Tenn/Vandy? If so, they would no longer be able to face each other every season.

Stop drinking for a minute and focus – it gets a little "mathy" here. With eight teams per division, the SEC will move to a nine game conference schedule (we’re not going up to 10 conference games – that’s just suicide). With seven division games, that leaves two to float, and thus the perennial cross-division match-up must go the way of the dodo. If you keep it, there's eight of your nine games...and you'll have to wait 13 years in between playing the other seven teams not in your division. That's not happening.

Thus, any expansion must be regionally balanced - you can’t split any of the three rivalries listed above. Can you imagine Bama not playing AU every year. Or no annual Egg Bowl? (Stop.) And even if it's a Volunteer whitewash nearly every season, the folks in Tennessee would flip. It's not happening.

To review, (i) the SEC already owns the TV markets along the eastern seaboard, (ii) it would have to take two eastern schools (which would mean giving up a profitable new market like Kansas City (Missouri) or Houston/Dallas (A&M), or a prize like Oklahoma), AND (iii) the eastern conference from which we'd likely poach (ACC) is doing just fine, thank you.

It’s going to be four western-leaning teams from the disintegrating Big 12.

But wait, HOW is this good for college football?

Oh, no you didn’t! Who lifted the rock and let in the light.

The question is really more complicated than whether or not it’s good for college football as a's also which specific teams will be hurt/benefit the most when it happens? Because it IS happening.

Again, to be clear, this is something of a zero sum game; certainly in the short-term. The SEC’s gain will come at the expense of the Big 12 schools left standing sans chair when the music stops.

But that’s a different article for another day.

Regardless of who gets hurt, it certainly is a whole lot of money for the SEC, isn’t it – given the conference is able to secure the right four teams.

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