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Expansion Redux

Expansion Redux 07/30/07

We saw something last week not seen in quite a while. Four years, actually. What used to as annual a right of Spring as Opening Day and senior proms is back. That would be Conference Expansion Season.

Every year after the NCAA basketball extravaganza finished its run, Conference Expansion Season would crank up. Message boards would be lit up with all sorts of outlandish scenarios, year after year, right up until the time it actually happened. Here we go again.

The return of Conference Expansion Season was tipped of by Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany announcing to the media that his league would again visit the issue of expanding to twelve institutions that play athletics, thirteen all total [Chicago, a member of the academics-oriented Big Ten for everything but athletics].

The Big Ten last participated in Conference Expansion Season in 1999, when it invited Notre Dame to join the fold. The Irish declined and the conference hunkered down to wait them out. That period of waiting may be ending.

Delany’s league is again cranking up Conference Expansion Season due to the cranking up of its brand spanking new Big Ten Network. This attempt to grab an even bigger piece of the cash cow generated by college athletics has created a need for more content for the network in the way of games, specifically games that people will actually watch. While it might be politically-correct to wax enthusiastically about the numbers of volleyball matches that will be televised, what is most needed is more games that people will actually watch, meaning football and men’s basketball.

Another member would provide those contests and the bonus of the league being able to stage a football championship. This would be an enormously valuable asset, much more so than the ACC offering up Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and tens of thousands of empty seats.

Once again, the Big Ten’s primary target is Notre Dame. Delany’s remarks can be interpreted as a shot across the bow of Touchdown Jesus. This time, however, the math of the Big Ten Network means the Irish might not be the only game in town and the Big Ten just might be tired of waiting. This might be Notre Dame’s last chance.

For their part, Notre Dame certainly must consider giving up their valued football independence. ND AD Kevin White is no doubt engaged in discussions as to whether the special football treatment given his employer will continue on into the distant future. While the status of his other sports will remain assured thanks to there being a conference out there desperate enough to allow the Irish to join for everything but football, there are questions popping up concerning his football cash pig.

Chief among them is that NBC contract, the lynchpin of Notre Dame’s special treatment. It runs out in the fairly near future. NBC has laid out a bundle for NFL football and might not be quite as enthusiastic as they have been in the past about writing $8 million checks annually payable to Notre Dame.

White recently announced his intention to dumb down Notre Dame’s schedule so that the Irish might go undefeated every year. That was followed by the announcement that the vaunted and television ratings blockbuster Michigan-Notre Dame series would be going on ‘hiatus’ in a few years. What is the value to NBC of televising week after week the Irish pounding Duke and the service academies?

White can feel secure that if NBC passes on Notre Dame football this time around, somebody else will pick them up, probably ESPN, although at what is likely to be a reduced stipend.

Or, White might be contemplating moving a step beyond the Big Ten Network and going for pay-per-view. Cash generated by marketing Irish football alongside professional wrestling would be in very large amounts.

White also has to think about how an Independent Notre Dame will continue to shine into the BCS. Two of their last three trips they had no business whatsoever being there and played like it. Their continued snatching of bids from more deserving teams rankles many. With new BCS contract negotiations on the horizon, there will be sentiment to change Notre Dame’s special treatment and perhaps wipe that smug smile off of Irish faces. If the other leagues want to drive Notre Dame into a conference, with the only viable option being the Big Ten, they can do it.

Then there is the matter of football scheduling. The series with Michigan will be gone. If Jim Delany really wants to play hardball, the Irish could be faced with losing long-time series with Michigan State and Purdue, too. Fully a third of Notre Dame’s 2007 football schedule is comprised of Big Ten teams. Dumbing down the schedule or not, finding replacements could be a bit tricky. An undefeated Notre Dame boasting of its BCS suitability by pointing to wins over the Coast Guard and merchant marine academies seems ludicrous.

From the point of view of the Big Ten, television network economics and logistics means they might be shopping for another member even if Notre Dame again says no. If the Irish decide to turn their football program into an even bigger sideshow than it already is by remaining an Independent, there is really only one other place the Big Ten will go sniffing for a team. That would be the same one everybody else plunders when it expands, the good old Li’l E. There is no shortage of candidates there.

It would certainly be amusing to observe the presidents of that bunch of crooks known as the Li’l E bark like dogs, jump through hoops, balance beach balls on their noses and willingly do whatever else demanded by the Big Ten. Trained seals would display more dignity.

Despite all of the weauxfing engaged in by Mikey after last year’s football season and the relative high regard shown conference teams by the preseason rankings, things are not altogether peachy in that portion of the Northeast still stuck with a team in the Li’l E. The remaining Li’l E schools have pledged their eternal fealty to the league unless they do not, meaning that the next one to get an offer to jump ship will be out the door at least as fast as was Fredo.

One need only glance at the sheer numbers of exciting Friday night football that members of the Li’l E will be engaged in this year along with their virtual disappearance from Saturday afternoon telecasts to understand that while Mikey did manage to keep a good Syracuse team out of the NCAA’s basketball tournament, he was not able to leverage Biggie East bball into a decent football television contract. Gee, wasn’t life in that miserable conference fun? Now it is worse.

Along with steadily diminishing television opportunities and cash, there is also the little matter of bowl games. The Li’l E has exactly one more year left with the Gator, and a couple more of being shunted to what will surely be the exciting travel destination of El Paso for the Sun, provided Notre Dame doesn’t crack the BCS and instead grabs the bid.

They will remain with the Tire/Muffler/Gas Cap/Ignition Switch/Whatever bowl in Charlotte only as long as it takes enough SEC teams loading up on weak OOC dogs to produce nine bowl eligible squads in a season. Mikey is quickly turning his conference’s bowl schedule into the Li’l E/ MAC Challenge. This is not the stuff of a power conference, no matter how much Mikey back loads his big conference games to present the illusion of really good teams.

Since the feds have demonstrated that they take a very dim view of dog-fighting, it can also be expected that they would not take kindly to the Big Ten staging a steel cage match to the death between Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor and Rutgers President Richard McCormick, televised, naturally, by the Big Ten Network. Given the bleak future of the Li’l E, a chance to escape to the Big Ten would have them going at each other like pit bulls.

It would be between Syracuse and Rutgers, too. Senior Cousin David Hardesty might attempt to convince the Committee on Institutional Cooperation of the research dollars to be had from performing studies on inbreeding, but it will cut little ice. Likewise will Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg pointing out that his school fits the Big Ten academic profile and dropping to his knees and pleading, “Please, PLEASE take us.” Pitt was eliminated right out of the starting gate by the comments by Delany of any expansion adding new television markets. I’m sure they can hear Joepa’s snickering in the Steel City.

Expansion candidates can be identified by the discussions taking place between the Big Ten and various cable operators. The conference wants its fledgling network carried on basic cable and wants a premium of a buck or so a subscriber head per month for it. This is known as the ‘ESPN Solution.’

90% of the people in this country might not watch the Total Sports Network, but due to the 10% that does being a fair amount of eyeballs in today’s increasingly fragmented television universe, ESPN gets away with demanding that it be carried on basic cable packages and all cable subscribers foot the bill. 90% of the people might not be watching ESPN, but they are paying the $2 monthly premium ESPN demands and gets. The Big Ten Network is looking to grab a piece of that action.

That makes the most valuable expansion candidate the one with the most cable subscribers in its territory, whether anybody is watching or not. Syracuse and its famed New York market certainly fits that bill. That will be more important to the Big Ten than the fact that nobody much in NYC gives a hoot about the Orangepersons or that the football program has completely collapsed since the foolish firing of Paul Pasqualoni. Rutgers is even closer to the Big Apple and can throw in all of those people living adjacent to Jersey landfills, too. Nobody else not named Notre Dame can come close to delivering those kind of monthly checks.

For his part, Mikey, after slapping himself on the his forehead and exclaiming, “Not again,” will find himself just as weak and ineffective as he was the last time his league was raided. On the one hand, if Notre Dame exits there goes the last of his bowl leverage as well as the ‘Chicago Strategy’ for basketball. I bet adding DePaul and Marquette doesn’t seem such a bright idea now.

If the Irish decide to maintain their football independence and hang around, Mikey can kiss ‘Adios’ to either the Orangepersons or DORKS, taking another body blow to what will add to the fragmenting of what should be the home region of the Li’l E/Biggie East. The amount of annual conference checks the Big Ten writers to its members dwarfs the chump change Mikey distributes and the Big Ten Network will make it an even bigger disparity. If given the nod, either Syracuse or Rutgers will be gone. The alternative of slow financial strangulation is not a positive one. Look on the bright side, Mikey: no other league is going to come after Providence.

There is a much brighter picture to be had by somebody this Conference Expansion Season. That would be Virginia Tech. For the first time, Hokies can observe the hoopla knowing it has absolutely nothing to do with them. That will enable to observe it with a much better humor than, say, the last one.

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