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Conference Expansion: Where Has ESPN Been?

Almost all the news in the conference expansion derby of the past week has been broken by web sites or newspapers. Barely any of it has come from the self-styled Worldwide Leader in Sports. The only "scoop" I can think of that came from the four-letter was Chris Mortensen's report of dubious validity on Wednesday about Tom Osborne telling his staff that NU's going to the Big Ten.

What's going on? The organization normally has its finger on the pulse of the sport. I can think of two theories:

1. ESPN is asleep at the wheel.

ESPN's college football blogging lineup has gone through some turnover, and often times people covering college football get breaks/vacations in the summer. They're still operational up in Bristol, of course, but they didn't have all hands on deck as the news was breaking.

In other words, there could be some truth to this. I'm not sure I believe it 100% though, because ESPN has about 1,000,000 employees. It could be part of it. I think that more likely is...

2. ESPN is trying to avoid an appearance and/or fact of conflict of interest.

Everyone agrees that TV dollars are a huge part of the conference expansion game. Who doles out huge chunks of those dollars? ESPN.

I know that ESPN's journalistic integrity takes hits from time to time, but this is an entirely new category. As we've seen plainly, the public airing of information has had a real effect on the process of conference realignment. Imagine if ESPN was the one putting that information out instead of Chip Brown. It wouldn't be too difficult to see it as the network attempting to destroy the Big 12 in favor of the Big Ten and Pac-10. It's one thing for ESPN to help set up interesting non-conference games. Meddling in conference realignment affairs is something else completely.

On a more private level, I'd be shocked to find out that ESPN is not in some of these back rooms where the deals are being made. Conferences have to have revenue projections to present to prospective teams, and those conferences have likely talked to ESPN in some form on some level to gauge the amount of money that might be available. ESPN probably doesn't want to affect any of those negotiations by leaking out potentially explosive information.

So yeah, it's the biggest story in college athletics in the past 15 years and ESPN has come nowhere close to owning the story. On the surface, that's a big upset. Looking at it deeper, it's probably not accidental.