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Talk of Big Ten, Pac-10 expansion creates tension among other conferences

When the Southeastern Conference decided to add Arkansas and South Carolina and become a 12-member league by 1992, then-commissioner Roy Kramer expected others to follow suit.

And yes, the Big Eight did morph into the Big 12 by 1996, and the Atlantic Coast Conference, which added Florida State as a ninth member in 1991, got to a dozen in 2005 with Miami, Virginia Tech and finally Boston College joining its ranks.

But during the past two decades, two of the more tradition-rich, perennially powerful conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-10, have studied the issue of expansion only to opt to keep the status quo.

"I really anticipated at the time we expanded that there would be further expansion in the fairly near future," Kramer said recently. "And that did not occur."

That may soon be changing.

The Big Ten and Pac-10 have begun new, seemingly more serious talks about expansion so they, like the SEC, Big 12 and ACC before them, can play a football championship game and, more important, enhance their revenue streams for the future.

"There's a lot more interest, a lot more scrutiny from the Pac-10," said Oregon athletic director Mike Bellotti, the former football coach at the school. "That is probably driven by the fact that we're in the last couple of years of our TV contracts, and our TV contracts are not in the same neighborhood in terms of compensation as the SEC or the Big Ten."

Consider: The SEC reported to the IRS total revenue of $161.6 million for the year that ended June 30, 2008. The Big Ten did even better, tax documents show, hitting $217.7 million in total revenue. The Pac-10 reported a more modest $96.1 million in total revenue for the same time period, and that gap may be widening as the SEC and Big Ten continue to generate even more money from their own networks.

But as the Big Ten, which is particularly interested in broadening the market for its Big Ten Network, and the Pac-10 explore the issue, a process that the Big Ten said in December could take as long as 18 months, questions and rumors abound — not solely about what expansion may mean for those leagues but what ripple effects would follow.

Remember: After the Big East lost three schools to the ACC, it wooed Conference USA members USF, Cincinnati and Louisville to shore up football, as well as Marquette and DePaul to reach 16 in all other sports. That forced C-USA, which later lost Charlotte and Saint Louis to the Atlantic 10 and Texas Christian to the Mountain West, to act or else. That league eventually brought in UCF, Marshall, Rice, Southern Methodist, Tulsa and Texas-El Paso.

The dominos were falling.

"I don't know how the chips are going to fall (this time), but all of the conferences are looking at their rosters and possible moves by other conferences," said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who now owns a sports television consulting business. "Everyone is game-planning this situation."

Big game hunting

The Big Ten, which added Penn State as its 11th member in 1990, isn't exactly looking for a government bailout. But its football season ends two weeks before the SEC, Big 12 and ACC play their conference title games.

It misses out on attention.

It misses out on money.

So, where does the Big Ten go for a new member? Rutgers, which could bring a large television market, could be high on the wish list, as could fellow Big East member Pittsburgh. Missouri could be asked to leave the Big 12 since it might bring its entire state's audience.

Texas, the flagship program in the Big 12, has been rumored as the top choice. Most see the Longhorns as the longest of long shots for a number of reasons, including the Big 12 doesn't share its revenues evenly and Texas gets the largest share (and that could grow to keep it in the league). Plus, Texas could lose rivalry games with Texas A&M and Oklahoma, games that produce big numbers — on TV and for the coffers — unless the Big Ten were looking to swell to 14, seen as an unwieldy number.

In contrast to the Big Ten, the Pac-10 does play regular-season finales on the same day as other conference championship games and often has been able to hype a de facto title game on that day.

But it's not guaranteed to unfold that way and, even if the schedule-makers are prescient, a regular-season finale doesn't carry the same pizzazz as a conference championship game.

Nor does it have the potential for a leaguewide payoff like a league title game does. The SEC reported $14.8 million in revenue from its 2007 title game.

So where does the Pac-10 look for new members? Unlike the Big Ten, its choices are limited — by an ocean on one side and dearth of schools with large enough followings on its eastern footprint that would make the new pie big enough so that each new slice is larger than it had been.

For some, Utah and Brigham Young, seen as an inseparable couple out of the Mountain West, might not fit that bill. Colorado (Big 12) makes more sense with the Denver market, and so too might San Diego State (Mountain West). But it is possible the Pac-10, which last expanded when Arizona and Arizona State joined in 1978, could adhere to tradition.

"From a football coaching standpoint," Bellotti said, "I love the Pac-10 in terms of its simplicity — everybody plays everybody else and the champion is a true champion because it's based on who you play, not on who you don't play. If you go to 12 teams, you're not going to play everybody … and you lose some of the unique aspects of the Pac-10."

A ripple effect

If we assume both the Big Ten and Pac-10 expand, then what? If the Big 12 loses a school or more, it would likely go after a regionally contiguous school such as TCU, which would force the Mountain West to respond, and that could mean it goes after a Western Athletic Conference team, such as, say, Boise State.

The dominos would be falling.

"I don't think the SEC or the ACC will be impacted in any way shape or form by whatever the Pac-10 and Big Ten might do," said Dave Hart, executive director of athletics at Alabama and the former FSU athletic director who was a driving force in the ACC's most recent expansion. "But other leagues could really be struggling with the aftershocks and saying, 'Where do we go now?' "

If the Big East were to lose a member, it might again reach into C-USA for a school such as East Carolina or UCF. And some suggest Big East officials should be discussing expanding to 12 football-playing members regardless of what happens.

ACC folks can attest to the power of forward thinking.

"We felt it was much riskier for us to stay at nine than what some people considered a risk in going to 12," commissioner John Swofford said. "We felt we needed to be proactive, and if we weren't, we'd ultimately be in the position of being reactive. We wanted to move ahead and stabilize ourselves, and I feel we have done that. We saw going to 12 as a way of positioning ourselves for the long term, and I think that's turning out to be true."

It does seem to be where things are heading.

Talk of Big Ten, Pac-10 expansion creates tension among other conferences 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 10:22pm]
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