Will the Pac-12 expand again?


After the chaotic summer of 2010 when it looked like the Pac-10 was on the verge of a mega-expansion to the Pac-16, things have been pretty quiet for the past year following the more modest expansion of two schools to become the Pac-12. Some questioned whether the Pac-10 should have even expanded at all. Some felt they liked the tradition of the Pac-10, or even the Pac-8 and didn’t want to mess with that. Some questioned whether Colorado and Utah really brought that much to the table in terms of TV sets, quality of play, and national prestige.

One of the biggest concerns from the perspective of Husky fans was the loss of marquee games against our Pac-10 rivals to be replaced by games with Utah and Colorado. Why should we give up a road football game to USC in Los Angeles to play in Boulder? Why should we give up a home basketball game against Arizona to host Utah?

But, after the enormous TV deal Larry Scott negotiated that will bring $30+ million to every team in the league, it is hard to argue from a financial point of view that adding those two teams did not help the league. Colorado has 5 million citizens and Utah has 2.8 million. That’s less than 1/4th the number who live in the state of Texas, but it is still the equivalent of adding New York City.

Shortly after Texas pulled out of the Pac-16 proposal, they negotiated a sweetheart deal that gives them almost dictatorial powers in the Big 12 (now with 10 teams). Simply put schools like Iowa State and Kansas State have nowhere to go and were desperate to keep their BCS-status (and cash flow) alive. If mega-expansion had gone through I suspect they would have ended up in a newly configured WAC or perhaps a 16-team Conference USA.

Anyways, with calm back in college sports, does that mean the Pac-12 membership is set for the next decade or more, especially with this new TV deal? In my mind, absolutely not! In fact, I would not be shocked to see the Pac-16 formed in just 2-6 years from now depending on some of the other events that may occur in the near future. So, what is spark could cause the dominoes to fall and which could reshape all of college athletics?

The Big East

The Big East you say? Why would a conference way back east cause the Pac-12 to expand again? Because that league is unsustainable right now and I think inherently unstable in its current configuration. At a ridiculous 17 teams with the addition of TCU, it seems very unlikely they will stand pat. They have gone from a conference of small catholic schools and local northeastern state schools to a sprawling league of teams spread out across the country from Wisconsin to Texas to Florida. One of two things is going to happen in a year or so with that conference. Either they will expand or break up.

While they may have a nice balance in football with 9 members (4 home/4 away games), they still can not have a conference championship game. So, as they approach the time to renegotiate their very weak TV deal in late 2012, they will be looking for options to increase revenue.

They have had discussions about adding a 10th football team. Central Florida has been desperately campaigning to join from Conference USA and become the 18th basketball team. Central Florida is the 2nd largest university in the United States at over 56,000 students, is in the Orlando market, and has a natural rival in Florida with Big East member South Florida. But, there is a sentiment in the conference for Villanova to move up from FCS to be that 10th member. Adding Villanova would not require them to expand at all.

But, if they really want to make a move financially, don’t they really need to get to 12 football teams so they can have that championship game? To get there, they would need to add 3 more football schools (and thus go to 20 in basketball). If they do add three, who will they be? Given how spread out the conference is now, it could be practically anywhere! In addition to the aforementioned Central Florida, Missouri, Memphis, Houston, Army, Navy, and East Carolina have all been mentioned as possibilities.

But, there is sentiment among the basketball-only schools (Plus Notre Dame), that if the league gets to 20 teams, they might just want to break free to form their own basketball-only conference.

If the Big East does add three of the schools listed above, this really would not cause a domino effect that would affect the other major conferences and would have virtually no impact on the Pac-12. But, watch out for the Big Ten! They are still talking about going to 14 teams. Notre Dame and Missouri would be obvious candidates, but Rutgers, Syracuse, Pitt, and UConn have also been mentioned as possibilities. Given this list of possible defectors, it does seem pretty certain that the Big East will need to greatly increase revenues to prevent some of their more important members from looking at other options such as the Big Ten or ACC. Which means, don’t they really need to act before another conference acts for them?

But, it may not even matter what the Big East does, if the Big Ten decides to poach the ACC instead. Recently, the Big Ten began discussing adding Maryland and Georgia Tech! If the Big Ten acted first and poached schools from the Big East, ACC, or Big 12, everything could completely go haywire across the country. Each affected conference would then look to add replacement schools from other conferences. If those conferences begin a battle royale among themselves, you might also see the SEC get involved to protect its sphere of influence.

So, here are two examples of how this could come down. If Missouri joined the Big Ten and the Big 12 dropped to 9 teams, Texas A&M may decide it is time to jump ship to the SEC. To get to 14 members, the SEC may try to poach an ACC or another Big 12 team.

If two ACC teams left for the Big Ten, the ACC may try to grab replacements from the SEC (Clemson or South Carolina?), Big East (Rutgers or UConn?), or Big 12 teams (Kansas and Oklahoma?) to make up for it.

Ultimately though, the Pac-12 will probably be unaffected until the elephant in the room decides to make a move. Texas may decide it is better to be a rich partner in the Pac-1X than a poorer dictator in a dimished Big 12. With Texas coming over, other universities in the southcentral part of the country would be practically begging to come with them. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansasm Kansas State, maybe even a MWC team like New Mexico would be knocking on the door wanting in.

The luxury the Pac-12 has at this point is one of strength and security. They have their TV deal. In addition, due to simple geography, their footprint does not overlap with any other major conference. They can just sit back and watch the dominoes fall. If the pickings are right, they can expand to the Pac-16 and dominate the western half of the country forever. As for that new TV contract? What contract? They can simply walk over to ESPN and Fox and say “Excuse me…We just added 30 million TV sets, you’ll need to cut us a bigger check.”