The case to expand the Big 12 Conference by adding Rice University and Texas-El Paso (UTEP)

WHY EXPAND?

“SUPERCONFERENCES” AND THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY EUROPEAN STATE SYSTEM

 The great questions of the day are not decided by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great error of 1848 – but by blood and iron.

Prince Otto von Bismarck

Will the Big 12 expand? Publicly the Big 12 has stated it has no present intent to expand – but such is always the official position until expansion is acted upon, so that tells us little. However, privately within the Big 12 there are opponents of expansion, in particular the University of Texas, which among other things (understandably) hopes to substitute Notre Dame for Texas A&M in its Thanksgiving-weekend game, which may not be feasible if the Big 12 expands and plays a divisional championship game the first week in December.
Nevertheless, for reasons of stability, most believe Big 12 expansion will likely take place within the next two years. This is because at its present membership of ten schools, the Big 12 has no margin for error; if, for whatever reason, an existing Big 12 school is enticed to look to the perceived greener pastures of another conference, it destabilizes the entire conference and the same cycle of “will the Big 12 survive?”plays itself out on the national stage all over again.

In addition, circumstances beyond the Big 12′s control may dictate expansion – where the Big 12 must expand or die. In view of the BCS presidents’ recent approval of a four-team play-off for football to begin in 2014 – with a selection committee to select teams, two semi-final games, and a national championship game – does this mean the long-predicted age of four “superconferences” (and their break-off from the NCAA) is at hand?

Probably not. Nothing is certain when it comes to conference realignment, but even with a four-team play-off system in place, there still exists a number of structural and institutional constraints (geographic, cultural, economic, political, legal) that together suggest a radical consolidation into four “superconferences” will probably not happen. To this end, conference re-alignment is reminiscent of the “balance of power” of the nineteenth century European State System:

  • • The Big Ten Conference plays the role of the powerful – but boring and insecure – Kingdom of Prussia and German Empire
    (and surely it is no coincidence that Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney looks strikingly similar to Prince Bismarck);
  • • The SEC is the insular and foreign – yet terrifying – Russian Empire, whom no one understands, but everyone fears (and it cannot be denied that SEC Commissioner Mike Slive is the spitting image of Catherine the Great);
  • • The Pac-12 represents the geographically remote (and therefore secure) British Empire – where the Rocky Mountains (like the English Channel) allows it the luxury to meddle and attempt to shift the continental balance of power to its advantage (and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott slightly resembles a young Queen Victoria);
  • • The Big 12 is the French Empire, which survived its own internal strife and version of the Terror (like Danton and Robespierre, former Commissioner Dan Beebe was “shaved by the conference razor”) only to re-emerge from the brink as one of the great BCS powers (and new Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has a curious tendency to place his hand inside his shirt and strike a pose);
  • • The ACC is like the artistic (and on occasion, inept) Kingdom of Italy, home of Michelangelo and Michael Jordan, that have historically lacked a distinct geographic identity and so have had to co-exist with other more powerful empires (Holy Roman, Venetian, French) or conferences (SEC);
  • • The Big East Conference plays the role of the diverse – but internally weak – Austro-Hungarian Empire, in which it was said that as many as 12 different languages were spoken in a typical military division (do the “new” Big East member schools speak the same language as the “old” member schools?); and
  • • Finally, Notre Dame is like the proud and fiercely independent Swiss Confederation (Switzerland), surrounded on all sides by foreign powers (and conferences), yet undaunted in its singleminded determination to retain its independent identity.

 

When we look at potential conference realignment this way, it’s easier to see the inherent difficulties of consolidating into four “superconferences,” as existing geographic, cultural, and political ties are difficult to sever in order to make it work. Trying to merge Big 12 schools with the Pac-12 or Big Ten, or trying to merge ACC schools with the Big 12, Big Ten or SEC, is like trying to merge France with Great Britain or Germany, or Italy with Germanyor Russia. Some things just don’t work very well.

In addition, the potential for legal constraints on “superconferences” always looms in the background. In addition to inevitable lawsuits for violation of antitrust laws that would follow, a more direct legal constraint could be much simpler – Congress could simply enact legislation that gives the NCAA exclusive authority to regulate and administer collegiate national championships. This is already de facto the case for all other NCAA sports (other than Division I FBS football), and precedent for this can be found in the grant of exclusive authority Congress has given the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) for the Olympic Games. There would likely be enormous political support for such legislation. Thus, radical consolidation into four “superconferences” is not likely – but when it comes to conference realignment, anything is possible. Since the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 are assured places at the superconference table, it’s left to the Big 12, ACC and Big East to battle for the final seat. This is not that important to the UT’s and OU’s of the Big 12, because they’re assured a seat at the table in some conference – but for other Big 12 member schools, whether the Big 12 survives largely determines their fate as to whether they’re “in” a new superconference structure or “out” with faces pressed against the glass.

Accordingly, for reasons of stability and future positioning for potential events – and not to increase market share or add additional football “brands” – it’s likely that the Big 12 Conference will seek to expand by two schools at some point in the next two years.

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