SEC Expansion: The Case for West Virginia

It's almost certainly not going to be an ACC team. No matter what disagreements or squabble we might have about adding Clemson or Florida State or any other ACC team, the likelihood of the 14th program in the SEC coming from its Atlantic Coast neighbor is next to zero.

And that's because of the increased exit fee, and it's not because of the increased exit fee. It's not so much that the exit fee is now $5 million to $8 million more, because an ACC school could probably absorb that for a year, though it will be an even tigher squeeze. But the ACC made a point to say that the exit fee was approved unanimously, and that's the key. Why would you vote to increase the cost of a buyout by millions of dollars if you were planning to bolt the conference once the SEC almost inevitably came calling. You're voting to make it more expensive to take a step that you think you're going to take?

No, the choice is West Virginia. And unless the gap between the programs is huge, the SEC should go with West Virginia.

I've got to say I'm a little confused about those who don't just disagree with the idea of West Virginia joining the SEC, but use words like "failure" to describe adding Texas A&M and West Virginia in this phase of SEC expansion. There were better combinations that might have been out there, but most of them are off the board now, and bringing the Aggies and Mountaineers on board is still a great deal.

Some people will say the markets are better with Missouri -- and that might be true to an extent. But the markets are great in LA, and no one is talking about inviting Southern Cal. Geography and cultural identification still matter on the margins. So unless Missouri is head and shoulders above West Virginia, then the question is whether the Mountaineers are a better fit than the Tigers.

And the answer to that is yes. There's a not-unreasonable debate about whether West Virginia is a southeastern state, but there's no doubt it's an eastern state. Missouri is neither a southern state nor an eastern state. It is a Midwestern state. And there's nothing wrong with Midwestern states, but they have a couple of leagues already. Even Texas A&M is a southern state if you want to debate its southeastern credentials. If you one, there's at least a regional case to be made; Missouri has neither.

As far as sports culture -- really, it's not even close. West Virginia is a football program in a basketball-centric league, while Missouri is a basketball program in a football-centric league. Besides, they're fun to watch, and a handful of quality games with SEC teams -- the Sugar Bowl takedown of Georgia the most memorable among them -- proves they can compete.

So the question becomes one of markets. Is Missouri worth so much more that the SEC has to go with it despite West Virginia being the better geographic and cultural fit? And I don't think the question is as clear-cut as Mizzou boosters want you to believe.

It's hard to measure the number of fans a program has or the reach it has in certain markets, though Nate Silver of The New York Times has done about as good a job as anyone could. (I have a quibble or two with his methods, but there's really not a perfect way to do that.)

Silver's read on the fan bases for Missouri and West Virginia are actually about even, particularly when given the margin of error with anything that extrapolates from the data as much as he does: Silver estimates that Missouri has shy of 1.1 million fans, West Virginia about 960,000 -- so the question becomes how much those extra 140,000 fans are worth to you. If it's worth overruling the reasons that West Virginia is a better fit than Missouri, then the SEC should go with Mizzou. Otherwise, it ought to invite or accept West Virginia.

For those of you who want Virginia Tech -- and everybody with even a passing interest in the SEC should -- let's assume for a moment that the Hokies are as locked into the ACC as all the members now appear to be. If you combine Texas A&M and West Virginia's numbers by Silver's formula, it's equivalent to adding two Virginia Techs. That's obviously not as good as adding Texas A&M and Virginia Tech, but it's not a bad runner-up if you really believe that Virginia Tech is a home run.

Drilling down into Silver's data is where you get some even more interesting contrasts. One of the things he uses to look at fandom is a look at search data from Google Insights. Without getting into too much detail -- it's a scale of 100 based on what people are searching for in different areas. College football in Alabama is 100, for example -- because that's basically where people are doing the most searching for college football.

West Virginia is a 51 on college football, which still ranks No. 7 among the states. Missouri is a 34 -- not even in the survey's Top 10. If you drill down to metro areas, Kansas City is a 37 and St. Louis is a 29. Charleston-Huntington is a 40. My point in going through all those numbers is this: KC and St. Louis are larger markets than West Virginia, but there's no guarantee that Missouri can deliver those sets to the television contract. And if you don't think that television executives have figured that out, you're wrong.

Because intensity matters. Simply saying, "I'm a fan of Missouri" is different than catching each and every Missouri game on television. And the latter helps with television contracts, not the former.

There's another way to get at intensity, though it's not perfect and perhaps even another degree removed from Silver's data -- merchandising. Are your fans devoted enough to plunk down $20 for a T-shirt, or $70 for a jersey?

Luckily, we have a ranking of that from a relatively impartial source -- the Collegiate Licensing Company, which releases a list of its most popular clients ranked by royalties. West Virginia is 15th in the most recent rankings (which are a bit dated), right behind Tennessee and Auburn and a couple spots ahead of Arkansas. (The list isn't a flat rating, because it's only CLC clients, but they have enough clients to make it a barometer and it's completely fair to compare among clients.) Missouri is 18th. For those of you who want Clemson regardless of the gentlemen's agreement -- Clemson's way down at 25th.

Again, that's not a flawless formula. But it tells us this much: West Virginia fans have disposable income that they devote toward their team loyalties. Those are the kinds of people that television executives want to reach.

I'm not saying it's a clear-cut case that West Virginia is a better team in terms of market share and contract dollars than Missouri is. I'm saying that the difference in markets is not so large that the SEC should take Missouri despite the fact that West Virginia is a better cultural and geographic fit.

The SEC can have its cake -- a better television deal -- and eat it, too, by inviting a program that will find a likeminded group in the conference's other fan bases. The conference should take West Virginia, stop at 14, and begin reeling in the money that a well-done expansion will bring.

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