Say you're a conference commissioner who has a network that could use some more quality inventory. The most obvious avenue you can take is expanding your league, but geography, tradition, and change-averse university presidents get in the way of that. What can you do to make it so that you don't have to televise body bag games for the entire month of September?
You find another commissioner in the same boat as you and set up a scheduling arrangement. The Big Ten and Pac-12, both in that very boat, have announced today that they'll set up a non-conference series with each other beginning in 2017.
The plan began this summer on the Big Ten's side, with Jim Delany attempting to figure out a way to get some of the advantages of conference expansion without actually expanding the conference. It's not difficult to figure out why he wanted to go outside the box.
The conference has a very specific template for its membership: generally large state schools with a specialty in football and membership in the AAU. Only 100+ year members Indiana and Northwestern don't exactly fit in that mold, and its two most recent additions of Penn State and Nebraska fit it perfectly (before NU lost its AAU membership, that is). If the league was to compromise on any of those factors, it would pretty much only be for the private, non-AAU Notre Dame.
The only schools that meet all of those requirements and make any kind of geographic sense are Iowa State, Pitt, and Rutgers. None of those are national football powerhouses, and Pitt and Iowa State are redundant geographically anyway. Kansas and Maryland are borderline, but neither is valuable enough to add to the conference without Notre Dame. Plus, Maryland probably wouldn't jump right away at Big Ten membership as a charter ACC member.
As for the Pac-12, Larry Scott already tried going to 14 and failed when his conference presidents rejected adding the two Oklahoma schools. That attempt came after trying to go to 16 and failing last year. He's definitely open to new ideas, probably more so than any other BCS conference commissioner. Plus, his league can't make the economics of expansion work without the Texas and Oklahoma schools that are out of his reach.
I can't help but see this as another step towards concentrating power, and therefore money, in college football.
With these conferences not expanding by taking schools from the Big 12 and ACC, it means that teams currently outside the BCS leagues won't have opportunities to move up as those leagues replace members. The Big 12 will keep its power status as long as Texas and Oklahoma stick together after all, and the ACC will stay up there as long as the Orange Bowl is satisfied with it.
This agreement also nips the early season neutral site games in the bud to a degree. Oregon played LSU in Dallas this year, and Michigan will play Alabama there next year. We're all familiar with the game in Atlanta too. By bringing signature non-conference games in house, the Big Ten and Pac-12 make sure that they get all the profits from them and cut out middlemen like, say, the Chick-fil-A bowl committee that runs the Atlanta game.
Speaking of cutting out middlemen, Delany said that the partnership could lead to the conferences' networks sponsoring bowl games of their own. That's a big deal because it makes no sense that colleges allow sometimes corrupt bowl committees to siphon off postseason revenue. In particular, schools get soaked on ticket guarantees that most have no hope of making money on when secondary market tickets go for much less money. Bringing bowl games in house not only can make them profitable trips for everyone, but it eliminates needless waste from the existing bowl structure.
Finally, cupcakes have been getting very expensive of late. Non-power conference teams from I-A have regularly been getting guarantees of close to $1 million for a couple years now. All of these games between the Big Ten and Pac-12 shrink demand for cupcakes by up to 12 per year (the agreement replaces the Big Ten's plan to go to nine conference games, so that demand loss is all on the Pac-12 side). The series therefore reduces the transfer of money in guarantees and TV dollars from power conferences to the non-power conferences by millions every season.
I wonder if Jim Delany pines for a time when there are no such things as cupcake games anymore. The economic structure of the sport won't lead to that soon, but I could see him wanting that as the ultimate end game of all this. He's famously snippy about the non-power teams asking more more access to the biggest bowls and the pot of money that goes with them, and I'll bet he'd be perfectly fine with a future where the top of I-A breaks off from the rest and leaves the Boise States of the world behind.
The SEC is not likely to create some kind of similar agreement soon. It might look into one after starting a conference network, but such a network doesn't exist yet. As a 14-team conference, it only has one other league to look to anyway: the soon-to-be 14-team ACC. However, several SEC schools (Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina) already have rivalries with ACC schools.
Either those rivalries would have to end, and that would involve three state legislatures having their say in the matter most likely, or those three schools just never join the rotation. Either way is messy, and the ACC would be the clear winner as the SEC is worth far more to TV networks than the ACC is. The only leagues on par with the SEC in that regard are the Big Ten and Pac-12, and they have prior commitments now.
As long as the BCS as we know it exists, even a permutation without AQ status, the SEC will still have the inside track at the national championship. Nothing about this deal will magically make the Big Ten's and Pac-12's reputations exceed the SEC's, and the extra tough game
will could mean an extra loss for half of the best teams in each conference. The plan, as stated now, is to match the top with the top and bottom with the bottom of the two leagues.
Winning national championships is what the SEC is all about these days, so I don't foresee an immediate reaction. However, this deal will likely extend the lead of the Big Ten and Pac-12 in the overall revenue department as long as the SEC doesn't have its own network. The conference-owned network is proving to be a disruptive innovation in the world of college sports, so don't expect this accord between Delany and Scott to be the final shock to the system.