IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING

I have always been a staunch supporter of Navy football remaining independent, for reasons most of you are already familiar with. The Mids are approaching a decade of football success that was jump-started by schedule changes made possible by the flexibility that independence provides. Thanks to its national fan base and their willingness to travel, Navy has managed to secure berths in bowl games for 8 straight years, and has locked in agreements for several more, all on its own. Independence means maintaining rivalries while having the freedom to include a little variety, too; Navy has played at least one team from every conference and has played in every time zone in the country over the last decade. Gone are the days of dialing into Teamline to listen to every game; the same national draw that makes Navy attractive to bowl games has enabled them to secure their own television contract with CBS Sports Network. CBS is even making a movie! It’s a little harder to fend for yourself sometimes, but independence has been good to the Naval Academy.

Navy has played football since 1879, and has been independent from the very beginning. Conference realignment is almost as old, even if the methods and motives are different now; but Navy has never found it necessary to hitch itself to anyone else’s wagon. It appears that might no longer be the case. One month ago, I said this:

Navy would get a lot more money in the Big East, no doubt. The problem is that there is only so much that the Navy football program would be able to do with all that money. It wouldn’t change the service commitment, academic standards, or military lifestyle that scare away recruits now. By joining a league with other programs that don’t share those challenges, you set yourself up for failure. That doesn’t mean the idea should be completely dismissed, though. If the time comes when it appears that the BCS schools will break away from the NCAA to form their own organization, then I think you have to consider joining a conference if it would keep you in the top tier of college football (I’m not convinced that it would). But until you’re certain that’s the case,  it’s better to stay independent.

I did not think that we had reached the point where it is necessary to join a conference. My opinion is apparently not shared by those who get paid to make these decisions, as reports are surfacing that Navy was on the verge of joining the Big East before Pitt and Syracuse decided to move to the ACC. Even after those two announced their defection, it looks like the Big East still has Navy in its sights. Of course, plenty of reports in this conference expansion shell game have proven to be total crap, so we shouldn’t necessarily take these two at face value. There doesn’t seem to be much argument from the Navy side, though. To the contrary:

“As a coach, your job is to think about the future of your program. I have been looking at this situation for a long time and I don’t like what it means for our program,” Niumatalolo said. “Right now, we’re on the outside looking in. We would love to stay independent because that has been the perfect formula for us for so long. But times are changing and we need to look at the big picture of what will happen to our program if we maintain the status quo.”

Those are pretty strong words from Coach Niumatalolo, and they lead me to believe that there is more than a little truth to the Big East stories. So what does he mean, exactly? What is the status quo? How did we get here? What is the future? Would joining the Big East solve the problems that Coach is talking about? To answer these questions, you have to start with the BCS.

The BCS, at its core, is nothing more than a television contract. Once upon a time, major conference champions were matched against themselves and other high-profile opponents in the biggest New Year’s Day bowl games. Each game negotiated its own television contract, meaning that they overlapped and were essentially competing against one another. (It was pretty awesome, actually). Eventually, someone got the bright idea to combine all the major bowls into a single television package. To do that, the games were spread out over several days so as not to compete with each other; each one would have the spotlight all to itself. They were also moved to prime time, and one of them would be a #1 vs. #2 championship game. (It took a while to get the Big Ten, Pac 10, and Rose Bowl onboard, but eventually they joined the party). Now, instead of dividing the college football audience between a bunch of overlapping games played on one holiday, you had all of them tuned into one prime time game each night.  The combined value was far, far greater than the sum of its parts, and allowed the bowl games to offer astronomical payouts to their conference affiliates. In order to guarantee big audiences and maximize television value, though, the bowls had to ensure that only the biggest draws would play in them. For the most part, those teams are in the BCS conferences.

That’s the most fundamental thing that you need to understand about the BCS: it isn’t about the competition. Providing a #1 vs. #2 matchup was just a way to sell the whole idea to fans that had complained about back-to-back seasons of shared national championships in 1990 and 1991. The BCS is all about making money from television. TV doesn’t want the best teams. It wants the most popular teams.

Understand, though, that the conference expansion hullabaloo you see today is not about the BCS as it’s presently structured. Rather, it is the next logical step. Think about it; the current BCS television contract with ESPN pays $125 million per year. That’s only for 5 games. Imagine the amount of money that could be made for an entire season of games. That’s the motivation behind conference expansion. The BCS bowl games wanted to lock in popular teams to make themselves more valuable to television. Conferences want the exact same thing for themselves now. As their TV contracts have come up for renewal, they’ve tried to add programs that have large numbers of fans that will add demand to conference games and help beef up their selling price. For conferences that are starting their own networks, you also want programs that are popular in major media markets. That forces the cable systems in those markets to add those conference networks, which in turn generates revenue for the league by bringing in cable subscription fees and making ad space on the network more valuable. If the Pac 12 wanted a good team, they would’ve taken Boise State over Colorado. But that isn’t what it’s all about.

Being relatively weak financially, the Big East isn’t in a position to be raiding other BCS conferences for new members. There were talks between the Big East and those members of the Big 12 that might have been left homeless if that conference dissolved, but those talks didn’t go very far. With the Pac 12 announcing that they aren’t looking to expand right now, the Big 12 will most likely stick together, at least for a while. That doesn’t leave the Big East with very many palatable options. That is why the Big East is interested in Navy, and has been for years.

Navy doesn’t jump off the page as your typical expansion target, but they do have a lot that makes them attractive to the Big East. For starters, they would be a football-only addition. That appeases the basketball schools in the conference and won’t make that situation any more confusing than it already is. The real value, though, comes from television. Navy has a national television contract with CBS Sports, something that the other alleged Big East expansion targets (and probably most current members) wouldn’t be able to secure on their own. While the Naval Academy is a small school, they have a national following. It is one of the few programs that the Big East could realistically add that would make their next television contract more valuable, even if it isn’t by some extraordinary amount. Getting the Army-Navy game every other year might make adding Navy worth it all by itself. Again, the goal here isn’t to add the best team, although right now Navy can hold their own well enough. The goal is to add the most television value, and Navy, as a nationally-recognized brand, delivers in ways that another Conference-USA raid wouldn’t.

Navy’s appeal to the Big East is obvious, but things get a little murkier from Navy’s point of view. There is a reason why the Midshipmen have remained independent for the last 130 years. As a military school with strict academics and a service obligation upon graduation, Navy just can’t recruit in the same pool as a Rutgers, West Virginia, or Louisville. They would be at a competitive disadvantage with every other school in the league, and no amount of money would change that. Navy can win games in the Big East right now, but this isn’t about right now. This is about what you’re setting the program up for 10 or 20 years from now. The problem is that nobody has any idea what college football will look like 20 days from now, let alone in 20 years.

The concern that we keep hearing, as Coach Niumatalolo put it, is that Navy might end up “on the outside looking in.” That’s sort of vague, but it hints at the idea that we’re seeing a trend toward 16-team “superconferences” that will form their own top tier of college football, either within the NCAA or after leaving it. Secession from NCAA governance in football isn’t hard to imagine, even if it’s the very end of the plausibility spectrum. Maybe things won’t go that far, but one thing is clear: the major conferences are consolidating. In doing so, they are creating the potential for a clear divide– one more pronounced than the current BCS/non-BCS split. If consolidating all of the major bowl games into one television contract was a cash bonanza, then imagine the Scrooge McDuck-style money bin that would have to be built to contain all the riches earned from combining the television rights to all the major conferences. That’s basically what the old CFA was, only this would be in a whole new stratosphere compared to the days when there were only 3 television channels. That scenario could have several side effects, including the new group cornering the market on bowl games (or a playoff), and only scheduling games against other schools that are part of the cabal.

That’s the doomsday scenario. It isn’t far-fetched, but it’s in no way guaranteed, either. That’s the problem for Chet Gladchuck and VADM Miller. If a new top tier of football was inevitable, then the decision would be easy. The football team supports the mission of the school by providing mainstream visibility to potential candidates for admissions. Navy would have an obligation to at least try to be part of a new, top-level system. If it never comes to pass, though, then Navy will have given up a lot of what makes them competitive now. With a $5 million exit fee, it won’t be a decision easily reversed.

Let’s take a look at some other considerations, both for and against Big East membership:

  • Navy’s current revenue stream comes primarily from four places: ticket sales, the TV contract with CBS, the Notre Dame game, and Army-Navy. What happens if Notre Dame joins a conference? Will they continue to play Navy every year? As for Army-Navy, it’s still a money maker, but the trend is a downward one. It wasn’t competing well against conference championship games and had to be moved to its own weekend. It’s been a success so far, but if that changes there isn’t much else that can be done to maintain its value. Getting big guarantees from games against Ohio State, South Carolina, and Penn State would seem to indicate that money is a little tighter than it used to be. The Big East recently turned down a $1.2 billion television offer from ESPN. The final contract won’t be as big without Pitt and Syracuse, but it’ll certainly be more than what Navy makes now. This affects more than just the football program, too.
  • Gladchuck has made it clear that even if Navy joins the Big East, they intend to keep playing Notre Dame. Would we really want to, though? Let’s assume that the rumors are true, and Air Force also joins the conference. Navy would then have 8 conference games plus Army. In a 12-game schedule, that leaves only three games to play around with. Wouldn’t it be better to schedule a few wins? Do we really want to play Notre Dame on top of 8 other Big East teams? Wouldn’t the schedule be difficult enough? Nobody appreciates the Navy-Notre Dame series more than I do, but the bottom line is that it’s been beneficial to the Naval Academy for the last 80 years. I’m not so sure that would still be the case after joining the Big East.
  • Hello, Thursday night games and ESPN3.
  • Would Big East membership even matter in a superconference scenario? The other BCS leagues have taken what they want from the Big East, and they might not be done yet. If the conference is picked clean, would it even be included in the new top tier? I don’t think it would. Navy could be sacrificing a lot only to be no better off when it comes to being on the outside looking in.
  • On the other hand, the Big East can’t afford to wait forever. If Navy says no this time, the opportunity might not come again.

I’ve said before that if Navy was ever going to join a conference, it should be the Big East, the spiritual successor to the Eastern independents. That nostalgic appeal isn’t really there anymore, with traditional Navy rivals Boston College, Pitt, and Syracuse all having left for the ACC. Sadly, as far as traditional rivalries being lost to the shifting sands of college football’s landscape go, those aren’t even blips on the radar screen. Still, there’s nothing wrong with the rest of the conference. USF is a great story, building themselves up from literally nothing to rise as high as #2 in the polls a few years ago. Navy and Rutgers are already regulars on each others’ schedules. UConn isn’t, but should be. The most exciting week I had as a midshipman was the week before West Virginia and Amos Zereoue came to Annapolis. I would love to see that happen again. I’m just not sure I’m willing to pay the price to make it happen.

Navy is in a great spot right now, with an amazing television partner, bowl games lining up to take them, and almost a decade of renewed success. Changing the things that make Navy unique– and successful— is something I don’t want to see if we aren’t completely sure that it is necessary. I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet, but if Navy waits until it becomes clear, then it will probably be too late. That’s the decision before the Supe and the AD.

I hope they make the right one.

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6 Responses

  1. sobering

  2. You could include that clip in every post and it would not bother me!

  3. The prophetic side of me was anticipating this column from you and you didn’t disappoint. The Big East is the obvious choice – but as you say, it may not be enough if 3-4 years down the road there’s another consolidation.

    One wacky thought: ND wants to continue to position itself to be in the big bowls. If there is a mega-consolidation that shuts the door on non-conf teams, they are going to have to join a conf. While the logical historical choice might seem Big10 given their regular rivalries against MI, MSU, and Purdue, I think the intelligent choice might the BE. They are already BE in other sports (BB). Their chances of winning the BE are likely higher than in Big10 – and thereby qualifying for the big bowl. And they joining the BE pretty much guarantees the BE will remain an AQ conf. As to their historical rivalries, they may have to go to an every other year with the likes of MI, MSU, USC, etc.

    Of course, I think the more likely is that they will just find a way to remain their own conference… even after mega-consolidation.

  4. Mike,

    Nice job. You covered all the bases, past and present.

    Navy’s independent status and astute scheduling have been important factors in our recent success. That flexibility appears headed overboard.

    I won’t venture a guess where the eventual outcome of this realignment will be, but I have a very hard time seeing any good in it for Navy.

    It would appear that the Big East is the better option on a list long with ugly options. I fear that Navy will be put in a grinder of having to face schools, week in and week out, who share none of our limitations.

    If this were an “NCAA” matter as opposed to various kingdoms- PAC 10, Big 10, SEC, ACC- trying to increase their share of the loot, perhaps something could worked out to accommodate the Service Academies’ unique situation. This situation, on the contrary, is a free market exercise where revenues dictate the outcome.

    I am struggling to be optimistic here, but it just seems to me that this is all bad news for Navy.

  5. “Be carefully what you wish for because it might come true” keeps nagging at the back of my mind. And I not talking about Navy joining a conference. I’m talking about the 4 x 16 super conferences (SC). Will it work out the way they think it will.

    If the SC teams decide to only play one another, it will be very difficult for the bottom 1/3 to have winning seasons – can’t schedule any cupcakes – no 1-AA or even teams from the not so super conferences (NSSC). 64 teams with 20 of them under 500 means 16 bowl games (17 if they set up a 4 team championship series). That leaves 18 current bowl games for the NSSC teams (who can still schedule 1-AA cupcakes to help their W/L percentage). Wouldn’t they invite some of the best 1-AA teams to join them? Wouldn’t they set up their own championship series of games using their bowls? Wouldn’t they set up their own top 25 in the newspapers? I’d rather be listed in the top 10 of the NSSC than not listed at all in the SC. You can be sure that the NSSC will find ways to promote themselves and might develop a pretty good following of their own.

    What happens when the the SC top teams get tired of paying the bottom feeders and begin to covet the better teams in the NSSC?
    If they break from the NCAA, will some teams write their own set of rules and take advantage of their weaker brothers? I’m sure that we can all think of problems that can/will come up over time.

    Nothing I’ve said will slow the current movement and I’m not saying I like what is happening. I’m just suggesting- to quote a wise Navy coach – that nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems.

  6. I think Navy’s biggest concern from joining a BCS conference is our own “death penalty” situation. Right now, we can hang in the Big East. Unfortunately, that means 8-4 in the best years. This is from the 50#+ difference in linemen EVERY WEEK, grinding us down. Right now we have 3-4 of those games spread out over the season. The rest are “only” 30-45# differences, which are “manageable”. In the not so great years, that means 6-6 and below. Then the spiral can start down. From there it could be tough to get back up. There won’t be the 4-4-4 formula with which to “rehab”. In that case SMU’s situation would be easier to recover from than our’s.

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