Structure

Part 9

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I would imagine terabytes of memory on the internet are dedicated to ignoring reality and making the entire world of NCAA sports boil down into numerically balanced structures that even OCD economists would have a hard time finding fault with.  This isn’t too odd, most people like to make things even.   Toss a bunch of M&Ms onto the table and I’d wager more people will start sorting them by color than won’t.

The NCAA, as a whole, or even the Power Five conferences are a lot harder to pull this stunt off with for all of the reasons I’ve already identified.   Just because Virginia sits where it does doesn’t mean that moving it into the Big Ten makes a lick of sense.   All you’re doing it sorting M&Ms.   Expansion won’t happen so you have four perfect conferences of sixteen.  Everyone I talked to laughed off this concept and wouldn’t even give it any consideration as a viable approach.

While reorganizing college athletics by some holistic numerical structure has little to no chance of ever happening, how each conference is structured plays a major role in expansion.  Matter a fact it happened when the SEC was sitting with 13 members.

I had mentioned previously that the SEC was extremely excited to welcome Texas A&M into the fold, but much less excited about Missouri.  While you never state it that way in media reports, the decision to add Missouri was a “Meh” one, to quote my SEC source.  In a perfect world the SEC would have stayed at 13, but the scheduling was so convoluted and confusing that they knew they were going to have to get to even numbers again at some point in the future.  Since there were viable teams currently asking for membership the decision was made to move to fourteen faster than needed to fix a future issue.

The universities the SEC coveted happened to be located in the Tidewater region and neither team showed any indication of wanting to move.  While the SEC states publically that it invites its members, the truth is that it reacted to universities who were petitioning it for membership.   Without there being any desire from schools where the SEC would like to expand, they were left with two schools who wanted new homes; Missouri and West Virginia.

nmex4The problem, however, was divisions.   The SEC knew it had to go to an even number, but since they already added A&M to the West, anyone they added would need to fit into the East.   If they added them to the West, due to geography, then an easternmost school in the Western Division would need to move to the Eastern Division; namely Auburn.

While this may look awesome from a condensed map stand point, it blew up some of the SEC’s storied rivalries.  Auburn has played Georgia forever and the Iron Bowl is as big as they come from in state rivalries.  Additionally, “The Third Saturday in October” is Alabama vs Tennessee and has been played since 1901.  Since it was protected when the SEC formed divisions, there was little desire within the powers that be, namely, Alabama, to cancel the yearly game just to add a new member.  Scheduling put everything in flux.

On paper Missouri and West Virginia are similar properties in expansion.   Both have had historic success in multiple sports, both have a solid athletic department with funding north of $70 million a year, both have solid fan support, and both are rural campuses within close proximity to major metropolitan areas.  While West Virginia’s sports brand is vastly superior to Missouri’s due to its proximity to the east coast, it also is not a major research hub in the US, causing it to lack the AAU designation.   That didn’t have the effect you may imagine with the SEC’s decision, however.  Where it mattered was with the Big Ten.

The SEC knew the Big Ten would never consider West Virginia without AAU status, but it may consider Missouri again in the future, especially with how active the state’s politics and board of regents were in finding the university a new home.  Additionally, the sphere of influence that West Virginia has on the east coast is shared to some degree with Tennessee and Kentucky, no SEC schools shared anything with Missouri, outside the Ozarks with Arkansas.   Missouri was so eager to move they’d “float their campus to Florida” if it got them a chance.  All of this started to give Missouri the edge.

The last thing the SEC checked was how Missouri fit into their media deals.   At the time the SEC was already working on the “Project X” with ESPN, later to be called the SEC Network, including potential valuations.   The CBS deal was also being broached, but not into full scale negotiations yet, after the addition of Texas A&M.  Sitting around the conference room one day they got the information they desired.   Missouri wouldn’t add to the media deals, but they wouldn’t take anything away either.   In short, they were a wash.

Meh.

Where Texas A&M’s deal was met with cheers, Missouri’s was met with a shrug of “back to business”.  That lack of excitement, however, also allowed the SEC to keep its long standing rivalries with the core universities.  The SEC knew that if they messed with that they could have trouble down the road, because another decision ended up impacting a major conference nearly 15 years after it happened.

Back when the Big 12 formed it made the dreadful decision to split into North and South divisions.  Each football team would play each team in its division once and half of the teams in the other division each year.   This caused some interesting schedule anomalies, including Kansas’ Orange Bowl run in a year they didn’t play neither Texas nor Oklahoma.  Other years they may have both Texas and Oklahoma on the road, making the road to the post season much more difficult.  While those scheduling quirks were bound to happen, one quirk could not be ironed out.

Since 1912, Oklahoma and Nebraska have battled it out each year on the grid iron, really gaining steam in the 1960s.  This was one of the games of the year and was more popular on Thanksgiving TV than the NFL.  With both being football powers, they met nearly 20 times with both teams in the top ten and twelve of those teams went on to play for a national championship.   It was the biggest game the Big Eight had to offer.

When the Big 12 formed in 1996, however, Oklahoma moved from the Big Eight to the Big 12 South, with Nebraska being in the North.  Prior to the formation of the Big 12 Oklahoma had another massive out of conference match up with the Red River Shootout.  Now that Texas was a member of the Big 12, and in the Big 12 South, the Shootout would not only be a conference game, but a divisional game.   Had the Big 12 just expanded to ten teams then Texas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma would play each other each year, however with 12 the only way that was possible was to have them all in the same division or have Oklahoma and Nebraska be an annual interdivisional game.  An annual interdivisional game, however, made it so that, in the new Big 12, only Oklahoma had to play both Texas and Nebraska each year; making their path to a championship that much more difficult.

In the end, they kept it even.   The Red River Shootout would be a divisional game and Oklahoma and Nebraska would meet every two years, just like the rest of the interdivisional games.  The rivalry that once included the “Game of the Century” was given secondary stature and Nebraska had lost its marque game.  This decision allowed an uneasiness with the conference to grow and caused other smaller issues to fester until Nebraska, who had fallen on tougher times from their powerhouse past, left the Big 12 to join the Big Ten and starting the most recent wave of realignment.

Additionally, conference championship games are valued on who could be matched up within them.  The Big Ten’s have a lot of value because Nebraska or Wisconsin could end up matched up against Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State.  The Big 12 originally had Colorado, who was coming off a national championship, and Nebraska in the north, with Texas and Oklahoma in the South.   That’s valuable.  However, having Texas and Oklahoma in the South and no elites in the north is not valuable.

This is a difficult pill for many to swallow because it implies the Big 12 South could not be recreated.  If the Big 12 expanded back to 12, they would either need to do so with two powers who could control an eastern division, or they would need to split up Texas and Oklahoma so that the two most powerful programs in the conference were not set up to knock one or another out every year.   You simply cannot have all of Texas and Oklahoma in one division any longer.   That was tried and failed.

Since it is unlikely that the Big 12 is willing to dissolve their biggest rivalry that indicates why the Big 12 is unwilling to expand to 12 currently.   When they say there are no teams on the market who generate enough money to keep everyone whole, what they really mean to say is there no teams who can stand toe to toe with Texas and Oklahoma and control a second division.

How this works out is difficult to say, but not taking into consideration the impact expansion will do to rivalries is a mistake.  The only way I can consider quantifying this is if a school is powerful enough to stand on its own in a division opposite Texas and Oklahoma, because the Red River Shootout is not going away.

 

If you have any questions or would like some numbers discussed, contact The Number Monkey on Twitter @TheNumberMonkey or via email [email protected]

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