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Who Will Be The Winners & Losers in Conference Expansion?


With the news that Southern Cal and UCLA would join the Big Ten, lawyers from ESPN and SEC are investigating the ACC's grant of rights clause that will expire on June 30, 2036, and recently potentially collaborations and partnerships with the ACC and Pac-12 or the Big XII expanding has come up. Then Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban said on the "Always College Football" podcast that mega conferences are here to stay.

Ultimately the carousel of expansion is beginning to heat up on who makes the next move. Does the Big Ten expand with another big moment? Does Notre Dame end up in a conference? Does the SEC make a move?

I recently wrote what super conferences would look like and feel that college football will look like by 2040.

Until then, we can surmise who will be the ultimate winners and losers in conference realignment and expansion.

Winner: Big Ten

In the future, where I feel super conferences will be the format of major college football, the Big Ten cemented itself as a big winner landing Southern California and UCLA.

While Southern Cal matches the football branding of Texas and Oklahoma, UCLA does not. UCLA hasn't been a perennial Rose Bowl threat since the Terry Donahue days of the 1980s.

What UCLA does bring to the proverbial table is a blueblood basketball program and arguably one of the most decorated collegiate athletic programs that boast 119 teams NCAA National Championships and alums that have won over 250 Olympic medals.

What doesn't hurt now is the Big Ten is adding Los Angeles, the #2 US market, to its portfolio; with a new TV deal being negotiated, Big Ten schools may receive up to $100 million annually by the end of the decade for its athletic content.

Winner: SEC

As we have learned since 2006, the SEC hardly loses in a situation, and after last year's expansion, the gains of Texas and Oklahoma are primed to go into 2025 with the top brands in the country in football.

Expect the SEC to counter in some fashion to the Big Ten news.

I expect the SEC to continue its version of Lee Atwater's Southern Strategy in its branding, and I expect the SEC to enter a vicious battle to secure the top North Carolina schools with the Big Ten.

I expect, though, that the first shots to the SEC from the ACC will be Louisville, Clemson, Miami, and Florida State. While no new territory is gained, the football brand power is just strengthened even more.

Winner: Lawyers

This is if there was ever a time to be a lawyer.

I am willing to bet any legal retainer time has been consumed by the SEC, ESPN, ACC, and other players and factions.

At the heart of the ACC is the grant of rights in the contract to understand what that is any TV revenue a school is due from the ACC's contract with ESPN is conference property through June 30, 2036, regardless of whether the school remains an ACC member or leaves for another conference. Hypothetically speaking, the SEC wanted four schools if each ACC school received $30 million last year, and the number remains constant. To buy out this grant of rights clause might be around $1.8 billion.

I doubt ESPN, SEC, and its members want to fundraise that money to buy out these schools as that would quickly eat away significant profit margins.

Look for lawyers on all sides over the next few years to find clauses or negotiate exit strategies here.

Winner: Notre Dame

For a school that hasn't won a national championship since 1988 and a New Year's six bowl game since the 1994 Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M, Notre Dame is still as relevant and positioned in a winner's seat.

They are highly sought after by both leagues.

They have a tremendous audience, a brand that rivals any in the country, and with their location being within 100 miles of Chicago, the No. 3 US market, it is the jewel both the Big Ten and SEC covet.

While I feel Notre Dame will join the Big Ten, don't rule out them running out the independent train in football for as long as they can. If Notre Dame can receive a media rights contract that at least puts them competitive with what the SEC and Big Ten schools receive, they can ride the wave of independence.

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Winner: Conference Championship Games

While one of my colleagues wrote that Conference Championship Games are pointless, I feel there may be a kernel of truth to that in the interim; in the long term, I think the exact opposite.

I feel the Conference Championship Games will be a big focal point on who makes or plays for the College Football Championship.

I honestly feel soon, bowl games will be obsolete. More on that later.

Loser: Pac-12

Let's face it; no markets are available with brands that combine what Southern Cal-UCLA-Los Angeles brings to the table.

I mean, the Pac-12 could vie for Notre Dame, but what will be there that Notre Dame would covet?

They could vie for TCU and a bunch of Texas schools, but they lack brand power even though they are powered by Top 10 markets like Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.

With everyone so quiet in Berkeley and Palo Alto, you must wonder when Cal and Stanford might be off to the Big Ten.

Where does that leave programs like Oregon and Washington? I don't feel the future is bright for the Pac-12.

If I were George Kliavkoff, I would need to sell my constituents that the Pacific Northwest brand is worth fighting for.

I would attempt to try to expand by four schools.

I feel viable targets would be Boise State and the new Big XII school BYU. I would reach for two other schools if I were Kliavkoff; it would be a very uphill battle for these two, Nebraska and FCS Montana Grizzlies.

Remember Montana upset Washington last season and has one of the country's most successful programs at the FCS level. The question is could they make the transition?

Nebraska is the biggest reach; I doubt they want to leave Big Ten money, but who knew Southern Cal and UCLA wanted to leave?

Loser: Big XII

It has been explained ad nauseam that Texas and Oklahoma leaving was the death nail.

While the UCLA and Southern Cal move didn't directly impact the Big XII, it indirectly questioned the stability of having 5 Power Conferences and that consolidation is in vogue to get down to two power conferences.

The bigger question for the members of the Big XII is whether there are any valuable pieces left to go to these other conferences that those members are willing to split the pie further to add a Kansas or Baylor, or Oklahoma State?

Loser: Middle Powers not in the SEC or Big Ten

When I look at the football programs in the remaining Power 5 conferences, you cannot tell me that programs like Indiana, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Illinois, and so on are more worthy of being where they are versus, say, Oregon, Washington, WVU, BYU, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Baylor and so on.

Look at Baylor; last year, they won the Big XII, the Sugar Bowl, and in 2021, the Men's NCAA Men's Basketball National Championship. Why are they in limbo, and a school like Missouri, which hasn't yielded anything remotely close to Baylor, is safe?

The real question of these programs' fates hangs in the balance. While programs like Oregon and Washington should end up in the Big Ten and Oklahoma State in the SEC, where does that leave a WVU, BYU, Washington State, or Oregon State?

Are all the pieces in that conference coveted if the ACC gets cannibalized?

Where does a Pitt, NC State, Wake Forest, or Syracuse end up?

That is very unsettling to many great schools.

Loser: Bowl Games

As I mentioned above, in the Conference Championship Games being a winner, I feel the inevitable loser is the bowl games.

We have seen the first significant impacts of the College Football Playoff rear its head on even New Year's Six Bowls last season.

With the trajectory of college football heading towards super conferences, there will be no bandwidth for bowl games.

You will probably have a Big Ten and SEC playoff, and the winner of that playoff plays in the College Football version of the Super Bowl.

It may not happen within this decade but look sometime in the next decade when the bowl is a relic of the past.

Loser: College Football Playoff Committee Members

This might be a long way away from being a loser, but as the dynamic of college football shifts towards super conferences, what is the point of having a committee pick a playoff when one can be played out on the field?

I also feel as we get into conference playoff games, the fun of going to a December home playoff game in Beaver Stadium or Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is too much to pass up when these conferences get to a size where it is easier to compete on the field for a championship.

Gone will be this committee's continental breakfasts and executive dinners on a week-to-week basis.