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COMMENTARY: Expansion talk evokes lesson of Hogs' journey, success
FAYETTEVILLE — The landscape for college athletics may be about to change, but the picture is still unclear and volatile.
Still, the steady march toward conference expansion seems very familiar.
First, the scene: Missouri and Nebraska seem upset and uncomfortable with the power structure in the Big 12. There's no fair revenue-sharing program and the bowl selection process is slightly tilted and scatter-brained. Missouri is willing to listen and the Cornhuskers are following suit as the Big Ten ramps up for expansion.
The 11-team conference has yet to call, but the Big 12 members' phone numbers are now for all to see in the yellow pages.
Secondly, a history lesson: The Cornhuskers and Tigers, perhaps not as verbally and publicly willing, are seemingly following the path of the Arkansas Razorbacks, who shook the collegiate landscape to its core with a move from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference in 1990.
Frank Broyles, then the Arkansas athletic director, could see the writing on the wall as rumors surrounding an expansion in the SEC began to grow. Attendance was falling all across the SWC, which had been plagued by problems. Only three teams in the conference, including the Hogs, had jettisoned the 1980s unscathed from probation. And of course there was SMU, which was given the so-called death penalty from the NCAA in 1987.
Rather than sitting back to see how the view in the SWC would change, he became proactive by talking and exploring the SEC.
Years later, he realizes just how big and important his decision was to go forward with the SEC. If not for some quick maneuvering as Texas floated about the possibility of leaving the SWC, the Razorbacks, he said, would have been left in the dust.
"We'd be an independent," Broyles said last week. "We would not have been included in the Big 12, I'm told by people in the south."
Broyles so believed this he repeated his stance with strong words.
"We would not be in the Big 12," he said. "We'd be an independent and broke."
If not for the move — and concerns from the state legislature after hearing cries from Baylor and Texas Tech — Texas could have been an SEC addition. And, for that matter, Texas A&M.
The Razorbacks' worrisome eyes toward Texas shifted to the southeast. And it's nearly the same position schools like Missouri and Nebraska are in today. The Big 12's power structure is flawed compared to the richest conferences. Revenue is not evenly split and with the Big Ten and SEC dominating the airwaves and the financial gains, a move by Missouri or Nebraska may be the smart choice.
But there is another thought out there that includes the Razorbacks amid this rumor-filled chaos.
Forget for a second that the Big Ten adds three or five teams to become a megaconference. What if the Big Ten expands to only 12 teams and selects Missouri, which seems the most likely to jet the Big 12?
If that's the case, the Big 12 may come after Arkansas, according to Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman. And Bohls believes Arkansas would be willing to listen.
Athletic director Jeff Long, however, didn't seem so keen on the idea during a speaking engagement in January.
The reason? It had nothing to with the geography of the Big 12, which is obviously a better fit for the Razorbacks. The worries the Tigers and Cornhuskers have are the same for the Hogs.
Money and image.
“You would look at it, but I can just tell you right off the top of my head, there’s about 7 to 8 million reasons you wouldn’t make a move to the Big 12,” Long said, referencing revenue from the SEC. Those numbers, of course, are not exact, but the standpoint remains — the Hogs would probably lose money with a move to the Big 12.
“It’s the strongest conference in the country,” Long said of the SEC. “It is the envy of, I would say, virtually every conference in the country. We’re the strongest financially, we’re strongest in our competition on the fields of play and we have the best coaches. There are many reasons to look at the SEC and say this is where you want to be.”
Still, the thought of Arkansas joining the Big 12 has always been on the Razorbacks' minds. Fans broach the topic on radio shows, Internet message boards and at booster club functions. The built-in rivalries are apparent. Games with Texas would be as heated as ever, old rivalries would be reborn and the fans' appetite would be whetted with the venom provided only by the traditional rivalries within the state of Texas.
Believe it or not, there is some fire to this smoke.
Former Arkansas chancellor John White was approached by a university president in the 2000s, and the tone of the conversation was apparent.
"... I was approached by someone who asked if we would be receptive to an invitation to join the Big 12 if they expanded," White wrote in an e-mail last week. "I said that I could not imagine a scenario that would cause us to leave the SEC for the Big 12."
White wouldn't confirm whether this university president was affiliated with the Big 12, but there was some obvious posturing going on behind the scenes.
Broyles remembers the behind-the-scenes chatter, even if it wasn't necessarily official and was squashed quickly by those at the UA.
"It doesn't hurt to look at something," he said, "even though we're happy."
Arkansas and its fans should be happy, even if on the surface it hurts to admit that a move to the Big 12 would be a terrible idea in its current state.
Consider for a moment the statistics and logistics. The Hogs don't have a top 25 television market to pull from like some college powers. In fact, save for Georgia and Florida, the concentration of television sets within the SEC fan base is not seen in the top 25 nationally, according to Nielsen's television market estimates.
The Little Rock television market was ranked 56th nationally this year, and the Fayetteville pool, which included Fort Smith, Springdale and Rogers, was 100th.
Yet, the SEC is powerful. It may not have the top TV markets, but its teams have a country-wide appeal of power, strength and competitiveness. The combined strength of the 12 teams strengthens its popularity and makes even the smallest of states (Arkansas) seem viable on the national scene, even if the numbers skew differently.
And there's more good news. Arkansas raked in $64,197,470 in athletics revenue for the 2007-08 reporting year, which ranked 27th nationally and ninth in the SEC. The Razorbacks' financial figures were higher than six schools in the Big 12.
And it's going up. Unlike the Big 12, revenue sharing in the SEC is expected to provide each school $17 million or more when numbers are announced by the conference office in June. The average amount distributed to each school in 2009 was $11.1 million.
Yeah, the Hogs are doing just fine since their move to the SEC was set in motion 20 years ago. But it's hard to not think of the possibilities of another move, while weighing the volatility of the college landscape.
The Big 12, of any major conference, figures to be the weakest when the Big Ten poachers come. A team or two here or there could push others to become proactive. After all, how could the SEC deny Texas and Texas A&M entrance into the blue and gold conference doors if they come calling before the SEC officially weighs the possibility of expansion. Just how long does the SEC sit aside after the Big Ten's first move on the collegiate chess board?
Plenty of factors go into the decision-making process in the future, but most of the business decisions become just that. And business, in Missouri and Nebraska's eyes, doesn't look that great in the Big 12.
Sure, most of the Big 12's revenue from television and NCAA tournament appearances are split evenly between its members, but an appearance fee allows schools like Oklahoma and Texas to add up to an additional $2 million a year, reportedly.
The Longhorns claimed $10.2 million through the Big 12's revenue-sharing program in 2007-08, while Nebraska and Missouri ranked fifth and sixth respectively with $9.1 million and $8.4 million within the Big 12's system.
And while the SEC may be stronger financially, it certainly is no Big Ten. The cows up north are so fat they don't even publicly release revenue-sharing figures. The Big Ten's own television network and its deals with ABC and ESPN are huge. The 11 teams are equally given an estimated $22.6 million, according to Sports Illustrated.
Money talks, and Missouri and Nebraska aren't sitting back and waiting for the dominoes to fall. They've pushed the button, and whether the Big 12 reacts by re-structuring its system remains to be seen. Either way, the overtures can be heard in the Big Ten offices.
Much like Broyles' behind-the-scenes dealings 20 years ago, the Tigers and Cornhuskers could be setting themselves up for a golden move.
And like Arkansas, perhaps there's no sense looking in the rearview mirror at the Big 12.
Brandon Marcello is the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Media. He can be followed on Twitter (@bmarcello) and he regularly updates The Slophouse, a blog covering the Razorbacks, on WholeHogSports.com.
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