It appears that intercollegiate sports in the US are heading into another period of conference realignment. Quick recap: a few weeks ago the Big 10 Conference (which has 11 members – a fact that may surprise those who do not follow US college sports) recently announced that it would “explore” the possibility of expanding. The incentive for conference expansion is clearly financial. NCAA rules state that only conferences with 12 or more members can hold a conference championship game in football; conference football championship games can generate significant revenues from television, ticket sales, and sponsorship. As soon as the announcement was made, speculation about the targets of this expansion started. The leading candidates appear to be the University of Notre Dame (currently an independent in football and a member of the Big East Conference in basketball), Missouri (currently a member of the Big 12 Conference, which actually has 12 members), and current Big East members Pittsburgh and Rutgers.
The Big East Conference is no stranger to raids from rival conferences. In 2003, the Atlantic Coast Conference raided the Big East, stealing away Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College. The ACC expansion has not been viewed as successful, as the ACC football championship game has not sold many tickets, and some believe that the quality of the basketball played in the conference has been watered down. The Big East added five new members (Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, in all sports and DePaul and Marquette in basketball) following the raid, and the basketball conference is widely viewed as the best in the country. A recent news report indicates that the Big East learned a lesson from the ACC raid. According to Big East conference officials, under the conference agreement put in place following the ACC raid and subsequent Big East expansion, any team who leaves the conference must give notice 27 months in advance and pay the conference $5 million dollars. While $5 million dollars is not a large sum, 27 months is a long time to be a lame duck in a conference.
The Big 10 has no timetable for expansion, but continues to explore options. Only time will tell if the Big East deterrent is strong enough to avoid another raid.