Texas A&M to the SEC is buzzing and this time it appears to be for good reason. Somewhere between being seriously considered and a done deal, this isn't just a rumor anymore. But here's the thing, A&M to the SEC doesn't matter that much on its own. Sure, its good for the SEC to get access to the Texas TV and recruiting markets and its cathartic for Texas A&M to get out from under Texas' considerable shadow. But unless you live in East Texas or passed through College Station this is not a landscape altering change. The big changes, the big questions, are about the what happens next.
Everyone's focus is on the intensely fashionably idea of 16 team superconferences: what are the next 3 for the SEC? Who do the B1G and Pac invite to keep up? Where do the little fish land? But this focus on conferences is becoming a fixation that threatens to hide the real power-brokers in the next wave of realignment - the schools. Perhaps the conferences will break free of the NCAA, but individual schools can and are breaking free of conferences as well. We are forgetting to think about programs and especially the biggest programs, The Kings. And the next stage of conference expansion is going to be about, for, and because of the Kings.
Like always, and like it or not, Texas holds the cards. But this time they have an unexpected partner-in-crime: Notre Dame. Don't laugh. No, there is no chance ND would ever join the Big 12 or any permutation of it, but that's not what Texas and Notre Dame are mulling over. Consider this, in response to a question during a luncheon speech in Austin the Texas AD DeLoss Dodds said that after Texas A&M left that Texas and possibly Notre Dame could join forces to create a new conference! Maybe Texas keeps the ever-shrinking Big 12 together after A&M leaves. Maybe. But if Notre Dame is on board Texas might make a different decision, they might decide to change college football forever.
Texas and Notre Dame are are very different, and very much alike. One is a state flagship - the other a religious Ivy. One is a Midwestern school with Northeast leanings - the other firmly rooted in the state and culture of Texas. But when it comes to football, and this is only about football, these two schools are far more alike than they are different. These are the two biggest Kings, they are the most prestigious and lucrative football programs in the country and the two most ready to go it alone with their media rights. And they know this, they see those similarities. Dodds and Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame AD) maintained a high level of contact during last summer's realignment discussions. Texas and ND scheduled a four-game series just last year. Notre Dame led the way with the single-school TV deal, and is now referencing Texas when discussing the start up of its own network.
There is a lot speculation that Texas eventually goes independent, but interestingly Texas never seems to float that idea themselves. And you often hear about Notre Dame's blanket rejection of conferences, but they are not blind to the benefits of conference membership if it were the right conference. The secret is in the composition of that "right" conference. The secret is that the magic number for the next level of conference realignment isn't 16 ... it's 6.
A conference fit for Notre Dame: National and Small
Notre Dame turned down more money in the Big Ten last year because their priorities, in large part driven by their alumni, are not purely monetary. They cherish their independence not just as a mark of distinction, but because it allows them to be a national program. Notre Dame has support everywhere in the country, it recruits everywhere in the country, it plays everywhere in the country, and it brings in money from everywhere in the country. It has long-standing rivalries with schools like Michigan, USC and Navy that it cannot jettison without sacrificing large part of this national identity and losing a lot of what makes it "Notre Dame".
But there is a conference that would fit Notre Dame. There is a conference that would let it to maintain all its rivalries, play a national schedule, and remain "Notre Dame". The conference for Notre Dame is national, and it is small. The conference for Notre Dame is the six-team All-Kings conference with itself and Texas as founding members. Six teams, five conference games a year - Notre Dame can keep Navy and USC on the schedule, it can keep Michigan and Michigan State. A national presence, all of their rivalries, the ability to maintain their private contract with NBC and space on the schedule for breathers against teams like Army and Tulsa to round things out. This is the conference Notre Dame could say yes to.
A conference fit for Texas: Keep what you Earn
The problem for Texas always has been and always will be money and the incentive to earn more of it. Texas has always bristled at the fact that its conference partners have held it back. Yes, it is already the richest athletic department in the country but Texas can be more - much more. Texas dominates the second most populous state in the country, which also happens to be the state with the largest market for football. Right now their earning power heavily subsidizes at least half the remaining Big 12 schools, and grouping Texas with Baylor and Kansas State will never be viable long-term. The freedom for Texas to develop their market is hamstrung by politicking between themselves and their less endowed and less entrepreneurial conference brethren, and disincentivized by the sharing of that earned revenue.
Texas' desires are simple, it wants to keep what it earns and have the freedom to earn as much as it can as fast as its able. That cannot happen while it is paired semi-equally with Baylors, but it can happen if it can join with near-equals. Six teams, all Kings. This is conference that Texas can be in for the long haul. Seven games to turn toward its own ends and the Longhorn Network. Conference revenue shared only with programs that truly contribute to the conference pie. This is the conference that Texas could say yes to, and mean it.
TV and the BCS: Quality over Quantity
First, forget part of what you learned from last summer's realignment and stop thinking like a conference. Conference commissioners care about things like inventory and total conference revenue, and therefore conference commissioners value more conference games and more conference members. Programs and their presidents, however, only care about themselves. Once you get back to you "inventory" is irrelevant. You get 12 games a year, every year, and that's it. When its just you, conference size doesn't matter as long as you have the clout to get your games on TV. What is really important, as a King, is not quantity - its quality. What is important as a King is that if you are going to share, that those you are sharing with can bring as much to the table as they take off it. What is important as a King is maximizing that limited resource of 12 annual games, and you do that by playing other Kings.
The six-team all Kings conference would have one TV contract. 15 conference games, every one of which would get coast-to-coast carriage on a network or ESPN, and a per-school payout that would make the rest of the tier 1 contracts look foolish in comparison. And any conference with both Texas and Notre Dame would get a BCS autobid on the strength of those two programs alone, whether the conference had six members or sixteen. Texas can go independent, and Notre Dame obviously already is, but both can do even better by pooling their clout in a conference of coequals. Texas is big, but its still a lot smaller than ESPN or the Big Ten/SEC. Even Texas can use the right kind of company - the 6 team All-Kings conference..
The Road to 6: Who are the other Kings?
Herein lies the rub. The NCAA requires six teams to have a conference, and for this conference to work they all have to be Kings. Texas and Notre Dame is a great start - no the best possible start - but can they get to six? Yes they can. Getting to three is easy and obvious - Miami. They have virtually no incentive to stay in the ACC, they are not a long-term member and the money will be so much larger in the all-Kings conference. Miami is a given. The next step is also clear - Oklahoma just lost its conference and is looking for a home. The complication is whether OK can be rid of its OK State straitjacket. In the past, no, and T. Boone will be fighting this all the way. But when the earth is shaking like this previous verities are ripe for reconsideration. Oklahoma gets the Kings to four.
After four, the going gets harder, but the key to understanding the next step comes from taking a step back and realizing just who it is that will be calling on the remaining Kings in the more established conferences. When Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma and Miami come knocking, schools that you never thought would listen will listen. And the fifth school, the target that makes this project reality, is USC. The Trojans are a far bigger national program than they are a Californian program, and while their administration has been fully onboard with the new Pac 12, their fans were not blind last summer to the much larger, if less-certain, opportunities available to the school on its own. And sometimes, when the fans are right, their thoughts can trickle up - see Texas A&M over the past year. USC is King number five.
After five its a forgone conclusion, there will be a sixth school whether it is Tennessee or Penn State or who-have-you. There are enough remaining Kings and the prize will be so great that one of them will say yes. So allow me be the first to welcome to the future of college football:
|The Conference of Kings|
This is the solution to the Gordian knot of college football inequality. This is the concluding verse to the influx of money to college football. This is the American way, is there anything we believe most strongly as a country than that winners get paid? Its not 16, its 6. This is the future, and a frightening one indeed. But you would watch, and that's all that matters.