Sunday, June 20, 2010

Realignment, winners and losers, and the University of Houston

If you're a college sports fan, you were doubtlessly intrigued by the events of the past couple of weeks. Just one week ago, with Nebraska's departure to the Big Ten and Colorado's departure to the Pac-10 official, the Big 12 conference appeared to be dead. Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State were by all accounts on their way to the Pac-10, Texas A&M was headed out the door to the Southeast Conference, and the remaining five schools of the Big 12 were staring at an uncertain future. A cataclysmic shift in the college athletics landscape seemed a certainty.

One week later, however, the fate of the Big 12 - minus Colorado and Nebraska - seems secure. How was the Big 12, which was by all accounts defunct, resurrected and the college sports world saved from realignment turmoil? The same way most problems are solved, of course: more money.

Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe got ESPN and ABC to agree to honor their existing financial commitment to the Big 12 in spite of the losses of Colorado and Nebraska as well as the fact that (by virtue of having less than 12 teams) the conference would no longer host a championship game. Meanwhile, Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Missouri reportedly agreed to give their share of whatever penalty money Colorado and Nebraska must pay to Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, thereby keeping those three schools happy and in the fold. Those three schools were also promised a larger share of television revenue relative to the other seven schools.

An excellent chronology of the events leading to the seeming demise and the sudden resurrection of the Big 12 is provided by Chip Brown at, who kept close tabs on all the commotion over the past few weeks. ESPN's Andy Katz recounts the role of influential administrators, business leaders and network executives in keeping the Big 12 together. University of Kansas Athletics Director Lew Perkins explains the mechanisms behind the bid to keep the league together here, and an interesting story about how the networks worked to save the Big 12 (and how the Houston Astros and Houston Rockets may have played a role) is here.

In other conference realignment news, Boise State made the move from the WAC to the Mountain West Conference. This would have all but assured that conference of Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying (BCS-AQ) status. That is, until the Pac-1o decided to round itself out to 12 teams by poaching Utah from the Mountain West.

By virtue of having ten teams, the new "Big 12 Lite" can now play a round-robin schedule and can no longer host a conference championship game. While it's no secret that Texas Head Coach Mack Brown and Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops were no fans of the conference championship game, it remains to be seen if the absence of such a game will in the long run put the league at a disadvantage. One of the reasons why the Big Ten decided to expand to twelve teams is because of the advantages a conference championship game would give their top teams going into the BCS bowls. That conference's season currently ends the week before Thanksgiving, which meant that their top teams stay idle while the top teams from other conferences get to play in a conference championship game, giving those schools an advantage in the ability to improve their BCS rankings.

This created a new round of speculation: would the Big Twelve decide to add two schools to get back to the twelve teams needed for a conference championship? If so, could those two teams possibly be former Southwest Conference schools TCU and Houston?

It doesn't look like that is going to happen. Beebe has gone on record as saying that the reformulated Big 12 has no plans to add any schools at this time and in any case will not add any more schools from its existing geographic footprint, i.e. Texas. And, while Beebe is not the final arbiter of that decision - the presidents of the member schools will make that call - it doesn't appear as if the "Big 12 Lite" has any reason to expand at this time. For one thing, the financial incentives that kept the conference together were based in part on splitting the television revenue pie ten ways instead of twelve, meaning more money for the existing schools. Adding back two more schools would compromise that arrangement. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the Big 12 schools, especially Texas and Texas A&M, would want to give TCU and Houston an advantage in recruiting the talent-rich Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth regions by elevating those schools to Big Twelve stature. In specific regards to Houston, both Texas and Texas A&M can already claim the Houston TV market, so the addition of the University of Houston is probably only marginal as far as extra viewer penetration is concerned. Also, Texas Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds still reportedly harbors a grudge against Houston regarding the embarrassing 2001 "Bleachergate" fiasco at Robertson Stadium. If the Big 12 does choose to replace Nebraska and Colorado, multiple reports have suggested BYU and Air Force as possible replacements.

Undaunted, local politicians have gotten into the process on Houston's behalf. A group of 26 state representatives and senators, led by Houston Representative (and my neighbor) Garnet Coleman, have signed a letter arguing for the inclusion of Houston and TCU in the Big 12. While I absolutely appreciate the advocacy of local politicians on my alma mater's behalf - it's too bad that the University of Houston didn't have such support in 1994, when the Southwest Conference imploded and political maneuvering got Texas Tech and Baylor into the Big 12 while the Cougars were forced into the non-BCS-AQ Conference USA - it's highly unlikely that this gambit will meet a successful outcome.

I'm actually of two minds about this. On one hand, I consider the BCS system in its current form to be unfair and exclusionary and would certainly like to see Houston enjoy the additional attendance, prestige and revenue that membership in a BCS-AQ conference would entail. On the other hand, there are drawbacks to an unearned inclusion in the Big 12 based on political wrangling rather than program performance. For one thing, other schools and their fans would be resentful of Houston; they'd never consider the Coogs an "equal," the atmosphere at away games would be brutal and possibly even violent, negative recruiters would go into overdrive and the Houston program would be under intense scrutiny for even the most minor of infractions. More importantly, the history of Baylor, which hasn't had a winning season in football since joining the Big 12, serves as a cautionary tale for schools who make it into top-level conferences due to political maneuvering yet don't necessarily have the resources to be able to compete at that level.

And therein lies Houston's problem: resources. the UH athletics program will not be attractive to any BCS conference as long as it lacks top-quality facilities, strong attendance, solid television ratings and strong revenue.

In terms of facilities, the University of Houston has plans in place. Late last year the school began a facilities study, and, although the study was not completely finalized at the time, a couple of weeks ago the school's administration unveiled the preliminary results of that study, understandably in order to better position itself in the face of impending realignment. The plan calls for a total of $160 in facilities improvements: $120 million to replace aging, New Deal-era Robertson Stadium with a completely new stadium that would initially seat 40 thousand fans...
...and another $40 million to upgrade decrepit Hofheinz Pavilion into a state-of-the-art basketball arena.

The big question, of course, is where the $160 million needed to actualize these improvements will come from. A herculean fund-raising effort, including sizable donations from businesses and alumni as well as corporate naming rights, will need to be undertaken.

And that's only part of the problem. There's also the attendance issue, which has historically been the achilles' heel of University of Houston athletics. In 2009, the Cougar football program averaged 25,242 fans per game. Even though that was Houston's best average attendance since the 1991 season, it still ranked only 80th in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision and, for comparison's sake, well over 10,000 fans per game less than Baylor, the Big 12's lowest-performing team at the gate.

I've written previously about Houston's attendance problems and their possible causes. It is exasperating and depressing that a school located in a metropolitan area of almost six million people, with about 217 thousand living UH alumni living in said region, cannot produce an average attendance of more the 25 thousand fans at Houston football games. The Chronicle's Steve Campbell compares Houston's attendance to other "BCS-busters" such as TCU and Boise State and laments:
For too long, the UH program has ridden on the backs of the dedicated and devoted few. The UH alums living in this area outnumber the entire population of Boise. Those UH alums could change the course of Cougars history, if they care to do so. There is so much strength in those numbers, so much potential, if only UH can harness and galvanize it.
Exactly. But complaining about attendance won't solve the problem, and UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades, to his credit, has implemented a season ticket drive aimed at increasing UH's season ticket base from 6,300 (which is pathetic) to at least 10,000 (which still isn't great, but would be a significant improvement). 200 volunteers have signed up to spearhead the drive, and according to posts on UH message boards the number of season tickets sold for the coming season currently stands at around 7,500 with over two months left to go.

A new dormitory is also opening on campus this fall. This should help with student turnout because residential students are generally more likely to support their school's teams than commuter students, which have traditionally made up the overwhelming majority of Houston's student population. Indeed, student attendance at UH football games has grown considerably over the past several seasons, and the University's ongoing residential housing construction campaign clearly has something to do with that. People who attend athletics events as students, furthermore, are obviously more likely to attend them as alumni than students who don't, which is a positive harbinger for the future.

As far as television is concerned, the Houston area certainly has a lot of TV sets but that's not what matters. Market penetration - the number of televisions tuned to UH sporting events - is what matters. Accurate data in that regard are hard to come by; I've seen numbers suggesting that ratings for Houston's game against Texas Tech last year were pretty good, but I haven't come across information for other televised games, especially against Conference USA opponents. I have a feeling, however, that the number of people watching the Coogs on TV will increase as the number of people buying tickets to see them in person increases, as overall interest in the program among locals grows.

Which brings us to revenue. This table shows that Houston's football program earned a paltry $4 million in 2008 - the lowest in Texas and one of the lowest in the Football Bowl Subdivision. However, given the differences in accounting methods employed by various schools, I'm not sure this is an apples-to-apples comparison. Houston's total athletics department revenue of just under $30 million puts them somewhat higher on the 120-school list but is still in the bottom half and considerably less than BCS-AQ aspirants such as BYU and TCU. If Houston wants to be one of the big boys in college sports, they need to be able to earn what the big boys earn. Increased attendance and television penetration are both key to that goal.

I realize that there's a lot of chicken-and-egg to this situation. Houston doesn't look attractive to BCS-AQ conferences because it doesn't draw well or take in a lot money, but part of the reason it doesn't draw well or take in a lot of money is because it is excluded from the lucrative payouts of the BCS system and plays most of its games against non-marquee schools like Alabama-Birmingham, UTEP or Marshall. This speaks to the unfairness of the BCS system. Unless and until that system is changed, however, it is the reality under which collegiate athletics operates.

The football team, of course, also needs to do its part - no more inexplicable letdowns against inferior teams or frustrating collapses in bowl games. A 2010 season that ends in a conference championship, a season-ending top 25 ranking and - dare I say it? - an at-large BCS bowl appearance would help bolster Houston's argument for BCS-AQ inclusion tremendously.

If there's one silver lining about the generally modest result of this latest round of realignment for the University of Houston, it's that it gives the program more time to do the things that need to be done in order to make itself more attractive to top-tier conferences. Had a massive realignment taken place, and had the Coogs been left out because no BCS-AQ conference wanted them, it would have had a devastating impact on the program. In that regard, the Cougars are neither winners or losers in this latest reshuffling. That cannot be said for other schools and conferences, however; some clearly came out ahead and others behind.

Obviously Texas came out the big winner: they get more television revenue, the ability to launch their own network (although one wonders what its programming will consist of), and, with Nebraska and that pesky title game out of the picture, an easier path to the BCS National Title should they go through the regular season undefeated. Oklahoma wins for the same reasons. Nebraska, for its part, also wins, landing itself in a conference more to its academic and geographic tastes. The Big Ten, reciprocally, gets another storied program to add its portfolio and a conference championship game that addresses its problems regarding late-season relevance.

Texas A&M wins, because their flirtation with the SEC forced Texas to rethink the entire Pac-10 deal and decide to keep the Big 12 together. They end up with the same payout that Texas and Oklahoma receive. Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State win, because the penalty revenue they'll forfeit from the departing schools is a small price to pay for the fact that they're still in a BCS conference. And, although the Pac-10 might be disappointed that their dreams of a sixteen-team mega-conference including powerhouses like Texas and Oklahoma didn't come to fruition,'s Stewart Mandel argues that they came out ahead because their additions give the conference a legitimate football program in Utah, additional TV sets in Denver, and a revenue-generating conference championship game.

The biggest winner, in my opinion, is Utah. If there's any program that deserves to be included in a BCS-AQ conference, its the team that I still think ought to be 2008's national champion. Utah is a flagship state university with a strong, well-supported program, and it's good to see them finally get a seat at the BCS table. It's just one school, but it's nevertheless a small step towards more equality in an unfair system.

The Losers? Missouri has to be at the top of the list. Just a couple of weeks ago they were prepared to play a role in the Big 12's demise by moving on to the Big Ten. Unfortunately, unlike Nebraska, they had no invitation in hand. Now they find themselves among the "leftover five," ceding their share of Nebraska and Colorado's penalty money to the big three of Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma and getting a smaller share of TV revenue than those schools in return. This has to be a slap in the face to the folks in Columbia, who discovered they weren't really that relevant after all.

Colorado also comes out a loser, for while the Pac-10 might be a better fit for them, they jumped the gun and it's gonna cost them. They have a $15 million penalty due to the Big 12 for leaving that they can't afford (especially considering they couldn't buy out their underperfoming head coach's contract at the end of last season), and the extra revenue they thought they'd receive by being in a 16-team conference including Texas and Oklahoma isn't going to materialize.

The Mountain West Conference also loses. Just a week after adding Boise State in order to bolster their argument for inclusion at the BCS-AQ table, they lost their flagship program when Utah fled to the Pac-10. Now, in regards to the BCS, they're probably in a weaker position than they were before. The Western Athletic Conference, for its part, also loses - Boise State was their best program.

ESPN's Pat Forde argues, in his list of winners and losers, that college basketball also came out a loser. "The sport has never been more brutally disrespected as it was during this realignment phase," he writes. "Not a single decision was made with hoops in mind, showing just how much it is dwarfed by King Football." True indeed, considering that Kansas was very close to being a school without a conference in spite of their powerhouse hoops program. The reality is that football rules the roost in the business that is college sports.

Finally, Stewart Mandel opines that fans were also losers in this latest realignment. Money is king, and the desires of the fans are secondary:
Yet many of us can't shake our uneasy feelings over the way this all went down. As the drama of the past few weeks played out, fans had a front-row seat to the power-grabs, pandering and other behind-the-scenes machinations that quietly keep the spokes of the sport spinning -- almost all of which are tied to the almighty television dollar. We've walked through the kitchen of our favorite restaurant, and while the food may be just as good moving forward, we'll never be able to look at it the same way.
So that's that. Unless something unexpected happens within the next couple of weeks - i.e. the Big East decides to make a move - it appears that we're done with conference realignment for now.

That's not to say that no moves will occur in the future. The conventional wisdom remains that the top tier of college football will one day consist of 64 teams in four sixteen-team superconferences. I'm not completely convinced that this is going to happen due to the political and legal acrimony it would create - with the addition of Utah there will now be 67 teams that can automatically qualify for the BCS, meaning that three current schools would have to be left out of the arrangement even as schools such as BYU or Boise State or TCU or even Houston are looking to get in - and in any case, this four-superconference scenario simply cannot occur as long as Notre Dame steadfastly chooses to remain independent. Nevertheless, influential figures such as Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott still believe that the concept is a "very compelling vision" that "will crop up again," while Nate Silver at argues that conference equilibrium can only happen if this arrangement occurs (and no, there's nothing particularly unwieldy about sixteen-team conferences, as long as they learn from the mistakes of the WAC experiment of the late '90s).

But that's not happening just yet. Which is good, because it gives schools like the University of Houston more time to get their ducks in a row. But the program needs help from Cougar students, alumni and fans as well as the people and businesses of the Houston area at large. It's now or never. Time to step up!

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