December 1, 2011; Tampa, FL, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers helmet on the bench during the second half against the South Florida Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. West Virginia Mountaineers defeated the South Florida Bulls 30-27. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Conference Realignment: West Virginia Big 12 Expansion Shows Flaws in The Model

Bob Hertzel of The Exponent Telegram reports the West Virginia Mountaineers are seeking the Big 12’s assistance in solving travel problems for the the former. The move was one made for the benefit for Mountaineer football, but its impact on the other sports is at play in this decision.

Football did not present as much of a problem as basketball, with weekly trips and mostly weekend games, but, according to [athletic director Oliver] Luck, the league was agreeable to trying to arrange it so the Mountaineers do not have to travel on back-to-back weeks for conference games during the season.

Underlining West Virginia’s problems is a critical point for all conferences and athletic departments considering moves in the coming years of realignment. The 2012-’13 school year is West Virginia’s first in the Big 12 after a messy split with the Big East. Thus, both parties are still in an experimental phase.

But West Virginia’s distance from other conference members — the nearest partner is nearly 900 miles away — is not something that can be changed with rescheduling. While Morgantown offers a unique home advantage for Mountaineer teams facing road weary visitors, West Virginia is on the opposite end of the same disadvantage each and every time it travels.

Moreover, logging all those miles comes with a price. The university’s athletic department logged a $13 million loss in 2012, largely the result of paying a $20 million exit fee to the Big East. Hertzel reports that Luck anticipates a few more leans years, chasing the proverbial dangling carrot that is a renegotiated Big 12 TV deal.

The Big 12 restructured a contract with ESPN and FOX that is expected to pay conference members $20 million annually. As with all revenue moves made in college sports, football is at its heart. Football is the most profitable, and also foots the bill for the rest of the athletic department at most universities. As West Virginia uses its Big 12 TV money to pay down its mounting debts, travel expenses will continue to take a toll on the university’s bottom line. It’s simply more expensive to take 1700-mile or more round trips twice-a-month than it is visiting neighboring states.

Theoretically, the Big 12 could expand further — and to resurrect its conference championship football game, might need to. The conference could look east both to grow its footprint and give West Virginia closer travel partners. The Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles were rumored Big 12 targets a year ago at this time. The unsubstantiated claims of bloggers speaking through anonymous sources died off, but were they any validity to the idea, it’s worth noting that neither campus is particularly close to Morgantown: Clemson is 500 miles away, Florida State over 800.

Further, Big 12 members don’t receive more from the television deal with expansion. While a conference championship game promises added revenue, it may not be lucrative enough to persuade the existing members to add to their travel burden. West Virginia is on its own on an island in just about every figurative interpretation of the phrase.

Moving away from the Big East was a necessary move for West Virginia. The ACC might have offered a better solution, but the Big East offered nothing to keep the Mountaineers in the fold.

The university escaped a league that increasingly loses clout, most recently from the cold feet of the Boise State Broncos and San Diego State Aztecs. Their balking at Big East invites show further cracks in the armor of conference realignment, as no two programs would have stepped further outside their regional comfort zone chasing TV dollars than BSU and SDSU.

Both will stay in the Mountain West Conference, playing schools with logical ties. While San Diego State and Boise State were moving to the Big East for football only, their other sports would have suffered. The toll would not have been economic or physical like the brutal travel schedule West Virginia teams endure, but rather in prominence.

March 5, 2011; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego State Aztecs players celebrate with the Mountain West Conference championship trophy following a 66-48 win against the Colorado State Rams at Viejas Arena. The Aztecs won a share of the Mountain West Conference. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In men’s basketball, for example, the Mountain West has become an upper tier conference. San Diego State and Boise State are both projected as NCAA tournament at-large selections by CBS Sports, a feat that becomes much more difficult in the Big West and Western Athletic Conferences. By staying in their regional home, San Diego State and Boise State will be better off for the foreseeable future.

And it’s not merely a topic for those programs languishing in the middle ground of college sports, between the top tier of four conferences teetering on becoming “super,” and the low-major leagues. Expansion in the traditional power conferences is expected to continue, though may not offer any genuine, long-term advantages.

The rush to get in on ever-expanding television broadcast contracts has leagues looking far and wide for new, potential revenue sources. The growth of its geographic footprint is the most obvious move, but not necessarily the most sustainable.

Other leagues may avoid the massive headache that is West Virginia’s travel agenda through divisional splits, but even those present their own problems in the ongoing expanse of conferences. The new SEC member Missouri Tigers, for example, plays in the conference’s East division. Vanderbilt’s Nashville campus is the closest to Columbia, Mo. within the division at a little over 400 miles east. To face the Florida Gators in Gainesville, Fla., Missouri must travel more than 1,000 miles.

The SEC won with its addition of Texas A&M, but adding the Aggies also made sense regionally. And that’s the key missing from expansion.

Conferences were initially shaped regionally, a tradition that endured through decades and other rounds of realignment. The shift away from a strictly regional model began late in the 1990s, when the Western Athletic Conference and Conference USA formed massive, sprawling leagues. The top tier leagues only began experimenting with a non-regional model in more recent years, with the Boston College Eagles leaving the Big East for the ACC. BC’s closest partners are the Maryland Terrapins, over 400 miles away from Chestnut Hill, Mass.

The addition of the Syracuse Orange next year gives BC another Northeastern ACC member, and the conference entry into the New York market. The Pitt Panthers are also headed into the conference. Their additions did net the conference’s members an additional $4.1 million in TV money, but the overall payout per school is still less than counterparts in the Pac-12, Big Ten and even Big 12.

And Maryland? Its move alongside the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in 2014 expands the Big Ten’s reach from America’s Heartland via the Nebraska Cornhuskers, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The territory the conference will now cover is huge; The New York Times Nate Silver anticipates the money made won’t be.

The Pac-12 is the only conference yet to really tinker with its regional formula while expanding. The Utah Utes and Colorado Buffaloes were logical choices from that standpoint, and gave the conference the 12 members needed for a championship game. Their additions also helped the conference net the largest TV deal in college sports, proving that a giant geographic footprint isn’t necessarily key to winning the economic game of this new era.

Tags: Boise State Broncos Football San Diego State Aztecs West Virginia Mountaineers

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