As a number of national media folks gathered in the press box prior to last Saturday’s Oregon-Stanford game, the reaction was almost unanimous when reports surfaced that the Big Ten was likely to expand again.
“Here we go again.”
In what is becoming a yearly occurrence, at least in the larger sense of high level BCS conference athletics, universities are on the move once again and the landscape will look a little different down the road. On Monday, Maryland officially announced that their board of regents had voted to leave the ACC and join the Big Ten. Reports have said that Rutgers will do the same to give the new league 14 members.
College athletics sources told me the moves have been in the works for a while.
“When we first had those conversations, we were not thinking of moving,” Maryland president Wallace Loh said at a school press conference. “But as those conversations proceeded we began to see a prospectus and value about joining.
“The ACC is in the midst of change. It’s not about looking just to the past and the present, but also to look into the future and lead us there. It is to be ahead of change rather than have change overwhelm us.”
The addition of one, two or even more schools to the Big Ten represents a change in the landscape, but not a seismic shift. The ACC will move to fill Maryland’s place in the league while the Big East, still in a state of constant flux with its membership, will do the same if Rutgers or another university leaves. Things change; people will eventually get used to them even if the geographic reasoning behind leagues slowly dissipates.
There are a number of different factors that have been driving realignment the past few years, but the bottom line is finding the right fit. For the Pac-12, content and comfortable coming down the stretch of another successful football season with 12 members, nothing changes.
“You can never really anticipate timing with these things but I’m not surprised to see more of this happening,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said Monday afternoon. “Last year we went though the process of evaluating some expressions of interest that we had from other schools. When I’ve thought about this and discussed it with our members, I’ve painted a picture where some of our conferences would likely expand to 14 and maybe beyond. I think that’s all materializing now.
“I think we’re happy and comfortable with where we are as a conference. We’re at the right number for us. I certainly understand why other conferences are looking to expand but we feel we’ve gotten to the optimal number.”
Though the Big Ten will have 13 or 14 schools come 2014, the conference’s relationship with their longtime partner in the Pac-12 won’t change other than a few new faces at the table.
“When we expanded from 10 to 12 and when they expanded from 11 to 12, that didn’t change the nature of the relationship,” said Scott. “I certainly don’t think it does if they go to 14 or more. This relationship is rooted in the Rose Bowl, but we have other shared interests and I don’t really see [expansion] having any effect.”
Coming out of postseason playoff meetings in Denver last week, Scott has been in constant communication with Pac-12 presidents and chancellors about the big picture and constantly shifting parts on the Division I level.
“They feel we’ve been out front on these developments and found the optimal number for us in order to balance what is becoming a unique geographic logic to our conference — we have two natural rivals in each market we play in,” the commissioner said. “Obviously we leveraged our move from 10 to 12 to create a landmark TV deal and the only 100 percent conference-owned network. Our presidents are delighted with the financial stability and leadership position we enjoy in TV, economic, athletic and academic matters.”
One of the first words out of Loh’s mouth in the school’s press conference was how the move for Maryland solidified the school’s finances in the athletic department in the long term. Luckily out west, that has been taken care of by the Pac-12′s landmark media rights agreement with ESPN and Fox combined with the revolutionary Pac-12 Networks. Schools in the conference are enjoying more stability and more success than ever before.
In short, the Conference of Champions is doing just fine and will only continue to get stronger.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany hinted that this round of expansion is partly the result of a scheduling agreement that fell through with the Pac-12 that would have seen schools in both leagues play each other in every sport from football to soccer. That deal didn’t work out chiefly because of the Big Ten’s eight-game football conference schedule and the limited flexibility that the Pac-12′s nine-game conference slate gave.
“We did the collaboration with the Pac-12 hoping to get some of the benefits of expansion without damage to anyone else,” Delany said.
Either way, neither league will slow down in pushing for the best academic and athletic programs possible. The Pac-12 will continue to play the toughest non-conference schedule in multiple sports. Football teams will take on programs from the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, ACC, Notre Dame and others in the future. The same will happen in the Midwest with Delany’s conference.
The upcoming college football playoff should result in even more interest from fans across the country and greater stability among the conferences with multiple long-term deals in place. Still, as this week proved, nothing is ever certain regarding schools packing up and moving.
“I think I’ve said since I’ve been around that there will be a continual move to concentration and I don’t think this is the end of anything,” Scott added. “10 years from now we’ll see fewer, bigger conferences from what we have now.”
Something to think about down the road. For now and the foreseeable future, though, the Pac-12 sits in the envious position of being happy just the way it is.