I do agree for the most part that the inclusion of academics into the expansion discussion is mostly bureaucrats blowing smoke. I mention academics from time to time because school administrators talk about it, but it's generally not an overriding factor in the process.
How could athletic conference affiliation have a big effect on research? It'd have to be by some kind of complex trickle-down effect. School presidents would get to know each other at the few-and-far-between conference meetings. They'd hit it off and discuss things. From there, the presidents would have to forge ties between the administrators of the corresponding academics programs at their institutions, who might or might not hit it off. Then, the administrators would have to encourage their professors to collaborate on academic research and write papers together to solidify the bond between the schools in the medical/engineering/scientific/whatever communities. People who give out grant money would have to notice increasing ties over time and come to change their attitudes in regards to who should get what.
That's a complex process that would take a really long time to bear fruit. It's a lot more difficult to follow that rabbit hole than it is to imagine Larry Scott walking up to the Bank of ESPN with a stickup note.
The one exception to all of this is the Big Ten. The Big Ten is an athletic conference, yes. However, the member schools also have the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an academic counterpart to the athletic conference made up of the 11 Big Ten schools plus former Big Ten member the University of Chicago.
The CIC is over 50 years old and well known in the research community. Gaining entry into the CIC takes care of all that mess in the second paragraph up there in one fell swoop. Given that the CIC let Penn State in after it joined the Big Ten, it's likely that anyone who joins the Big Ten in the future will probably get in too.
So yeah, the Big Ten actually has a reason to talk about being choosy regarding academics: the CIC consortium. To my knowledge, no other conference has something similar.