2011 was a strange year in sports. There was the Green Bay Packers reclaiming their spot among the NFL elite by winning the Super
Bowl and starting the 2011 season 13-0. There was the thrilling baseball season that saw the Cardinals and Rays get in on the last day of the season and the Cardinals end Tony LaRussa’s career with a championship (and, incidentally, Albert Puhols’ St. Louis career). College football’s Jim Tressel was fired/resigned/retired (depending on which Ohio State statement you choose to read) in disgrace after lying at least 4 times to the NCAA, one time to get his star players eligible for the Sugar Bowl. The NBA and NFL both hit lockouts, but only NFL fans seemed to care (hopefully that was a wake-up call to Emperor Stern). VCU and Butler joined the Final Four, making for one of the most confused and bracket-busting of NCAA tournament memory. And of course, in the saddest of news, Penn State stood by and allowed Jerry Sandusky to molest children in their football facilities for at least a decade.
However, the 2011 story that fans will see the most impact in 2012 may have been the most transparent act of self-preservation of all- conference expansion. The Big Ten and Pac-12’s new deal to pair their teams against one another once per season starting in 2017 marks a clever answer to the ongoing problem with conference expansion- how big is too big? Conferences are pressured to expand, but they struggle at the point at which any geographically reasonable addition would dilute the individual value of each participating school. Adding a school to a conference makes little sense unless that school can bring in more money than the average current school in the conference. The SEC may have made that very mistake in force-feeding Missouri to the SEC East as a needed response to adding Texas A&M to the West. The Big Ten, finding no schools that would add significantly to their coffers, partnered with another stable conference to expand their brand out west and use those games in lieu of a 9th conference game.
Of course, 2011 saw conferences also choose to ignore the “geographically reasonable” part of the equation that for the longest time seemed inherent in the definition of conferences. The Big East now consists of teams in Idaho, California, and Texas, and the Big 12, whose footprint has always been Texas, Oklahoma, and the rest of the Great Plains, now has West Virginia in its scope of influence.
The ACC, as we have said at BSR, seems to have gotten it right in expanding to 14 teams while maintaining (though slightly expanding) their geographic footprint in New York and Western Pennsylvania, two incredibly large media markets.
We thought things had stabilized somewhat going into 2011 as well, with the Great Realignment never coming to pass while the Pac-12 just adding Colorado and Utah and the Big Ten adding Nebraska. This year the one conference that had the least need to expand- the SEC- was bolder than anyone. The Big East seems to have come up with a decent amalgamation of football and basketball schools to avoid being poached again this year, albeit mostly because every school that other conferences would want to poach was already taken in 2011.
However, this is all in flux if the BCS elects to get rid of automatic bids to BCS games, as expected. If/when that comes to pass, what is Boise State’s or any other school’s reason to stay in a conference that requires them to fly all over the country and take on tremendous expense just to face a strength of schedule that is only marginally stronger than the Mountain West? I would be surprised if the Big East survived as a football conference if the automatic bids were eliminated. The teams out west may yet realign once again to form a “best of the non-Pac-12” out west while Conference USA (which seems like a better name for the new Big East actually) and the Mountain West continue to hash out the details of a merger of remaining pieces. Stay tuned, there are over a hundred years of tradition and history to deal with, and until it is all converted into cold hard cash don’t expect conference realignment to slow down.