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ESPN Has Already Won the Conference Expansion Game

Make no mistake. All of the recent talk about conference expansion is about one thing: football TV money.

If the issue was entirely about competition, the Pac-10 would have already invited BYU in. If it was solely about academics, the Big Ten would be poised to raid the Ivy League. While the nation's two most image conscious conferences have certain thresholds to meet in those areas, the whole expansion business is about maximizing television contracts.

In that sense, ESPN (which includes ABC) has the upper hand.

Some of the expansion talk is about squeezing as much money as possible out of the regional and marginal TV networks like FSN, Versus, and Raycom. However, the conferences can shake them down only so much due to their limited reach and the fact that they don't broadcast premier games. To get the most from a television contract package, a conference must maximize its revenue from the top rate networks.

Competition to get on those top rate channels is fierce. The SEC is in the best position, as it has CBS locked down and it almost always gets the prime time spots on ESPN and ESPN2 thanks to its sweetheart deal with the Worldwide Leader. Notre Dame and NBC are in their own little world, since given NBC's problems of late, it's unlikely the Peacock would televise college football at all if it dropped the Irish's exclusive deal.

Those two realities leave the other five major conferences to fight over ABC's time slots and the rest of ESPN's. The most powerful entity in college football holds all the cards, and everyone is trying to get as attractive as possible to jockey for position at the Mouse's table. The only way that this situation changes is if Fox (the national one, not FSN) jumps in the game, but the shoddy quality of the network's BCS coverage is a fairly powerful signal that college football is not a priority there.

I don't know who will end up where when the dust settles. Because the SEC is basically locked into the largest piece of the ESPN pie for about 14 more years, I wouldn't be surprised if the other conferences do nothing now and sign contracts that expire roughly at the same time as the SEC's. That way, they could expand right before everything expires to set up a battle royale for the alpha dog contract that the SEC has now. The Big Ten especially has the ability to wait and see given the financial success of the Big Ten Network.

In fact, I'd put my money on no conference expansion at all in the next year or two. The real intrigue is going to be whether the other big conferences go for the Big Ten's regional model of creating an entire network or the SEC's model of farming the syndicated coverage to ESPN. If the four letter network gets ambitious, it could largely shut out lesser players like Raycom and Versus by offering better deals than they can.

Regardless, ESPN has already won the conference expansion game by being the only major buyer with five sellers giving their pitches.