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Big Time Expansion for Big Time Money

As the Big Ten and Big 12 expand, the end game is focused on one thing: making more TV money. The consequences may be unintended.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JUL 27 Big Ten Conference Media Days Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The landscape of major college athletics changed once again on Friday as the Pac-12 all but dissolved. In the blink of an eye, six of the ten remaining schools jumped ship leaving the “Conference of Champions” with just Washington State, Oregon State, Cal and Stanford. The other eight schools have officially split with half, USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington, heading to the Big Ten with the other half, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah, joining the Big 12.

It was a wild twist of fates as less than a year ago, it seemed the Big 12 may be destined for dissolution after it’s two crown jewels, Texas and Oklahoma, bolted for the SEC. There were early rumors the Pac-12 and Big 12 might merge after the Big Ten and others poached the top remaining schools. Those have been replaced with rumors the Pac-12 might merge with the Mountain West.

But the rumors don’t stop there. This is big time college athletics and there’s big time money to be made on the TV contracts so the landscape isn’t even close to done changing.

Before we even got to the Pac-12 schools jumping for the Big Ten and Big 12, rumblings started coming from the southeast that two schools were looking to make a move out of the ACC. Most notably, Florida State has been quite vocal about their desires to leave the conference and their belief they can break the existing Grant of Rights agreement.

At this point, if they truly felt that way, it’s likely we would see them test the waters. As it stands the GoR is the only thing holding the ACC together. Running through 2036, a staggering length for a deal signed at precisely the wrong time of the conference’s members, the agreement would cost Florida State or others north of $300M to get out of. Interestingly, paid over a 10 year period, that’s roughly the same revenue shortfall the Seminoles brass believes exists between the Big Ten and ACC so it may be a wash financially in a move that could get the school off a presumably sinking ship and onto one with a plethora of resources.

It wasn’t just FSU that was rumored to be looking for a landing spot. Clemson was a name mentioned alongside the Seminoles as not just looking to leave the ACC, but to join the Big Ten. With the Big Ten adding Oregon and Washington, pushing membership from 16 to 18, the timing of the rumors is notable. They’re perhaps even more notable given the fast-approaching August 15th deadline for ACC schools to notify the conference they will be leaving next year.

Of course, everything could well be turned on its head before that deadline as the rumors in the Pac-12 don’t end with a potential merger with the Mountain West. There have also been rumblings that Cal and Stanford would be on the move. While the Big Ten was at one point a potential landing spot for the pair, the ACC has now emerged as a conference looking to go on offense.

But as the saying goes, sometimes the best offense is a good defense. In this case, the ACC adding new schools may well invalidate the existing Grant of Rights which is holding the whole house together. In a scenario where Cal and Stanford make the ACC a coast-to-coast conference, look for schools from Clemson and Florida State to Virginia, Georgia Tech and North Carolina to sprint for the exits before room in the Big Ten and SEC fills up

Where is This All Headed?

If you’re a college athletics purist, the last 600 words or so have likely made you feel a bit ill. There is virtually nothing left of your father’s collegiate conference alignments. The granddaddy of them all is simply a playoff site the Big Ten may or may not get to play in and the schools that call the Rose Bowl home are now in the Big Ten. Because the Pac-12 simply doesn’t exist. The Big 12 doesn’t have Texas or Oklahoma or Nebraska, but it does have Arizona and Utah and BYU and UCF. The ACC is on the brink of collapse and the only thing that matters to anyone at this point is the TV revenue arms race.

Cash is king and right now the Big Ten and SEC are securing the bag while the Big 12 picks itself up off the floor, scrounging for the leftovers and the ACC looks for a way to attach itself to the two conferences holding all the chips. Meanwhile, the last remaining truly transformative program, Notre Dame, has been the only school not rushing to one of the big two, seemingly because there would always be a seat at the Big Ten table and the whole world knows there couldn’t be a more awkward fit than the Fighting Irish in the SEC.

So ND can afford to be patient, for now, while the world waits for the ACC to be ripped to shreds. When it is, this whole thing is going to look a lot like the NFL. The Big Ten isn’t stopping at 18 or even 20. The SEC isn’t sitting there either. The TV networks are in the driver’s seat now and what they want for their massive TV dollars is more high quality inventory. Over the air TV is dying except for live sports and the potential for big time college football (and to an extent basketball) is all these companies have left.

So when the dust settles, ESPN and FOX and CBS and NBC are going to demand that the Big Ten and SEC, complete with their 24 schools, play something like a 12 game conference slate. The season is going to be longer because an extra week gives extra inventory and extra inventory means more money. And when the regular season ends, you’re going to see an NFL-style playoff with the Big Ten’s top 4 teams vying for a chance to play against the winner of the SEC side of the bracket for college football’s Super Bowl.

The ACC and Big 12 may survive in some sense as the lite version of the Big Ten and SEC. They’ll likely make their way to 24 schools each as well. At least for a while, you may even see them playing games on the same days as the big conferences. But eventually, that desire to fill inventory is going to push those conferences to games on Tuesday and Wednesday night. The revenues won’t be in the same galaxy as the Big Ten and SEC, but there will be football on your screen every night of the week.

We will love it. We will hate it. College football will be dead, but there will tons of it for us to consume. It won’t be watered down by pay games against lightweights from smaller conferences, but will be full of marquee matchups featuring the biggest programs in the game with star players making NFL-lite money. Your favorite school might only play its traditional rivals every few years. Some of those rivalries might disappear entirely. And there will certainly be schools in your own conference you almost never see your school play.

But the money will be good, and that’s really all that matters. Not the tradition or the pageantry or the amateurism. It’s the money.

College football is dead. Long live college football.