Mitchell: Illinois to the SEC?
It might be a flight of fancy, but here's the case for Illinois as the fifteenth school of the SEC. I know...but follow me through to the end of the argument.
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
Finally, the economics of the sport are catching up to the logic.
For more than a decade, we at CFN have been advocating in favor of dividing the unwieldy FBS into two tiers of 64 teams, creating four "superconferences" of 16 teams for both tiers, still enabling them to play against each other, but promoting a de facto playoffs/champion for both tiers.
Simply put, and again for both tiers of the "new" FBS, we'd automatically get a "round robin" regular season within each conference, followed by an eight team playoff (given the four conference championship games), and then a final four.
Imagine a December with the second tier championship/playoff games on Fridays, the top tier championship/playoff games on Saturdays, and sprinkle the bowls in between. 20-30 days of absolute heaven…most of them clutch, win-and-advance, playoff-intensity games. Besides the excitement, it would generate revenue in the billions.
With ever passing year this inevitability comes closer to reality. Because it's a business. Follow the money, honey. Which takes us to...
ILLINOIS TO THE SEC?
As we expected, the Big Ten continued expanding towards the magical 16-team threshold by absorbing the "massive" football brands that are the University of Maryland and Rutgers University. * blink * Or put more correctly, the massive television markets that are Washington D.C. and N.Y.
That's what this all comes down to – money. Period. Once you're willing/able to accept that – to drop the last vestige of Ol' State U and 1950's football – you can more accurately predict the next steps.
With the announcement of Maryland and Rutgers joining the Big Ten, the consolidation of the superconference shakedown continues along its inevitable path. We had predicted Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, and have stood by our claim they will soon be joined by the ACC's Virginia Tech and North Carolina State to balance out the conference and provide for new television markets.
However, if it's truly about money first and foremost, and it is, than the SEC should make a run at the University of Illinois.
Yes, the B1G is on solid financial footing. Yes, the Illini have a proud tradition in the conference. And yes, it's a tough stretch to call Champaign-Urbana south of anything but Chicago.
But if I'm Illinois or the SEC, here's the argument for a Vegas wedding.
FOR THE SEC
It's easy...the Chicago TV market is gold. Fort Knox. And virgin territory. Remember, despite what you might like to believe, this is first and foremost about money.
Moreover, Illinois would further cement the gains made in the St. Louis market, as both the Mizzou and Illini fan bases overlap there. As a result, there's also a natural tie-in/rivalry with an existing SEC school.
Like Texas A&M & Missouri before them, Illinois is a prestigious member of the Association of American Universities, and along with Florida and Vanderbilt give the SEC five of these notable institutions. Furthermore, adding Illinois to the fold would in time also open northern recruiting even further to SEC schools.
Finally, with Virginia Tech in the east (and the Virginia/D.C. TV markets), Illinois would provide the conference with a balanced four divisions of four teams format and preserve/promote regional rivalries:
NORTH: Illini, Mizzou, Arkansas, Vandy
WEST: LSU, TAMU, Ole Miss, State
CENTRAL: Bama, Auburn, Tenn, Kentucky
EAST: Florida, SC, UGA, Va Tech
If you're Illinois, I recognize you're comfortable with the staid football in the B1G, and that breaking up is always hard to do. But here's what you have to gain by an SEC union.
First, go take a look at Texas A&M's recruiting this year. The Aggies are having a nice run leveraging their SEC exposure...going so far as even taking kids LSU wants out of Louisiana. I have personally heard Mizzou's head coach Gary Pinkel say on at least three occasions that the positive effect on recruiting is the one thing he grossly underestimated about the power of the SEC brand.
Illinois would be the lone school for kids up north that want to showcase their skills in the SEC. That want to play in The Swamp, Between the Hedges, and at night in Death Valley, but want their friends/family to have a closer trip for home games.
Overnight, you're one of the top basketball programs in the conference, regularly battling for conference supremacy. And benefiting financially from the buzz that generates.
Along with the other AAU schools, you can take a leadership role scholastically.
With the Chicago TV market in the SEC's arsenal, not to mention the impending SEC Network, the SEC could surpass the revenue generated by the Big Ten. At the very least, Illinois would be breaking even financially.
From a student enrollment perspective, Illinois would be introducing itself to an entirely new market.
Most importantly, you could get away from the B1G. For decades, a vocal component of the Illini fan base has argued that it gets lost in the Big Ten equation. As far back as the 1980's when conference JUCO transfer rules were changed following Mike White's success with the Illini, many in Champaign have argued they are overlooked in the Big Ten.
As the only northern school in the SEC, and sporting the largest financial nugget (Chicago TV market), the University of Illinois would hardly be overlooked again.
Impractical? Perhaps. But hardly impossible.
Remember…follow the money…
Russ Mitchell is the lead SEC Columnist for CFN. Follow him @russmitchellcfb
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