Thursday, February 27, 2014

Big 12, ACC Dogged by Also-Ran Status

They are supposed to be the "Big Five" conferences as the College Football Playoff era begins in 2014. But upon closer examination, there are really the "Big Three" and then the "Next Two."

We've covered the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 in previous pieces analyzing the respective conferences' competitive and financial status as the BCS gives way to CFP. That leaves us with the ACC and Big 12, which face more uncertainty and issues of membership stability, as well as falling behind in the revenue arms race.

Why these two conferences are considered the lesser of the five can be viewed through the lens of conference expansions, which the Big Ten kicked off by poaching Nebraska from the Big 12:
  • Big Ten: Nebraska (Big 12), Maryland (ACC), Rutgers (Big East)
  • SEC: Texas A&M, Missouri (both Big 12)
  • Pac-12: Colorado (Big 12), Utah (Mountain West)

BCS Conference Revenue (2014-15 Season)
ConferenceRevenue Per School*Network PartnersExpires
SEC (14)$34 millionESPN, CBS, SEC2023
Big Ten (14)$30 millionESPN, FOX, BTN2016
Pac-12 (12)$21 millionESPN, FOX, P-122023
Big 12 (10)$20 millionESPN, FOX2024
ACC (14)$18 millionESPN2026
Notre DameN/ANBC2025

The Big 12 was nearly gutted out of existence after losing four teams to other power conferences. Only a last-minute deal that gave Texas preferential treatment preserved the current 10-team conference, but it also sowed the seeds for potential future discontent. The current membership seems unlikely to be poached in the near future because of the grant-of-rights agreements, though even that is said to be not fool-proof.

For now, the Big 12 appears to be content to keep it at 10 teams and without a conference championship game. Having fewer teams means a bigger cut in the television money for each member school, which currently enjoys north of $20 million in revenue annually. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has said that there are no current expansion plans, and that might very well be true until the Big 12's TV contracts run out after the 2024 season.

At least the Big 12 has remained competitive on the field, despite all the recent turmoil. Texas won the conference's last national title in 2005 and is seeking to rebuild under Charlie Strong after a couple of mediocre seasons. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State all have been factors in the national championship race in the past few seasons.

The ACC has been more proactive in protecting its interests, and thus it's in a better position entering the new era. Of course, Florida State winning the final BCS championship couldn't hurt, either.

While it did lose Maryland to the Big Ten, the ACC got out ahead of the expansion frenzy by poaching Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East and then added another ex-Big Easter Louisville to replace Maryland. While these programs marginally boosted the ACC's football profile, they cemented its status as the premier basketball conference.

The one big football acquisition for the ACC is Notre Dame, even though the Irish joined the conference in all sports except football. Beginning next season, they will play at least five ACC teams every season, and that addition has already paid dividends as each conference team is due to receive an extra million in revenue going forward.

Notre Dame made the switch out of self-preservation, even though it continues to print money like nearly no other program. It just inked the richest athletic apparel deal with Under Armour (10 years at $90 million) after extending its exclusive NBC TV contract through the 2025 season.

But all that cash can't buy the Irish competitiveness on the field as they were routed in all four BCS bowl appearances, including a 42-14 drubbing by Alabama in the 2012 BCS title game. Notre Dame isn't getting more guarantees in the CFP than it had in the BCS, especially when it comes to the four-team playoff field. In a new era when super conferences will only become even more dominant, the Irish face a treacherous future by continuing to strike out on their own as an independent.

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