I haven't written much about this year's version of the conference expansion rumor mill yet for a couple reasons, chiefly among them that Rutgers has only been on the periphery of any supposed movement. "Well, if X triggers Y, THEN conference Z might be interested" isn't exactly a ton to hang your hat on, in direct conference to two years of public speculation about being an active instead of passive participant in events. It has been enlightening watching things unfold from a far though, with seemingly outlandish internet rumors being confirmed by the day. Just how the heck did we get into this mess?
1. The ACC is a basketball conference.
Let's be clear about this: every Big East team would willingly jump to the ACC if only for the stake of stability, and that's with the marauders at the door. The 2003 conference expansion was geared towards football of course, but it's hard to use that description for last year's additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, who bring a lot more to the table in basketball than football. UNC and Duke running a conference are certainly far better masters than Providence and Villanova running a conference, which anyone can see plain as day, but the fundamental structure of the Big East and ACC is a shared, flawed one.
They are both built around the unfair model that a small coterie of basketball schools gets to call all of the shots in a way that is not geared towards maximizing revenue. Football drives the revenue bus in college athletics by a staggering, overwhelming amount. Smart (evil, but smart) conferences such as the Big Ten recognize this in gearing every decision towards maximizing revenue, and therefore, gear every decision towards football. The Big East and ACC, for obvious historical and cultural reasons, were not inclined to give into this impulse, and make their decisions using the cold logic of capitalism. College sports is turning into Wall Street, and the second that the ACC was not willing to behave in this manner, they instantly became a target - all attempts to bolster against further hits by pre-emptively adding mid-level Big East schools be damned.
2. The ACC had no leverage.
Why, against all odds, does the figurative Mos Eisley Cantina called the Big East conference keep chugging along? That is because of years of being locked in to a soul-sucking, below-market deal negotiated by Mike Tranghese, the Big East finally has a chance to hit the open market just when NBC Sports is gearing up to take on ESPN (who also have Fox Sports in their corner.) Don't believe all the lies emanating out of Providence. Not only was John Marinatto determined to sign ESPN's lowball offer last year, but as recent events in the ACC have proven, such a pittance would have done little to preserve conference solidarity. In fact, this lie could not possibly be more incorrect. The very prospect of being locked into such a god-awful deal had a strong influence in driving away programs such as Pitt and West Virginia.
It is certainly fun to knock on Pitt and Syracuse for not helping out the ACC very much in their recent round of re-negotiations with ESPN, with neither bringing a ton to the table in terms of television markets or football prowess. That's a given, but the real culprit was that the ACC had just signed a long-term extension with ESPN that locked them in for over a decade, with the unfortunate timing of being signed right before last year's Pac-12 deal just completely changed the game. Once again, this is all a matter of leverage 101. If two media conglomerates are interested in a commodity, then both conceivably would be willing to keep bidding a price up as long as there is excess value to be had. In essence, while the ACC could negotiate with ESPN. they were doing such with one hand behind their backs, as ESPN could (and did) get away with making a very weak offer. They had no incentive, nothing spurring them at all otherwise.
One has to wonder though if ESPN is thinking this all through however. The consequence of low-balling John Swofford and co. is that now Florida State, Clemson, and all manner of other teams are now rumored to be looking for an exit. For ESPN's sake, they better not have looked at this solely in the terms of short-term gain. That is Mike Tranghese/John Marinatto-level thinking, which is not exactly company that anyone would like to share. Sure, they are paying less now, but possibly at the cost of paying more down the line. Of, if one is so inclined, the alternate route of thinking is that ESPN is actively encouraging all of these shenanigans, egging on the ACC to add Pitt and Syracuse (according to Boston College's athletic director), and generally supporting the move towards superconferences as some grand collusion. Better to negotiate with only four strong actors than six. As to which, if either, of these scenarios is actually correct is anyone's guess.
Either way, both of these two major factors explain why the revenue disparity is so high between the ACC and the remaining power conferences, which is the primary reason why any teams might be eyeing the exit at this point. For Rutgers, all they can really do is stay alert and guarded in the all-too-familiar position of waiting. Obviously, even with the small chance existing that the Big East could actually get a better television deal than the ACC (more likely is that the contract will garner football teams in the low to mid teen millions a year), Rutgers and any Big East team would jump in a heartbeat.
If you're Rutgers, being in the Big East 2.0 isn't really a consolation prize as compared to being #15 and #16 in a superconference. Those are all Eastern teams that the program has history with. Tobacco Road can knash their teeth about Clemson or FSU leaving. The prospect of playing Maryland, Virginia, BC, Pitt, Cuse, etc... every year sounds perfectly intuitive up here. The only thing to really root for at this point is that the ACC goes to 16, or loses enough teams to the point where further expansion is a necessity. There are less natural ties in comparison to a super conference such as the Big Ten, but something like that would obviously take precedence due to the money involved, and the emphasis on football, were things ever to come to that.
It definitely felt like that a year ago, with the conferences seemingly on edge to all expand to 16, before Texas and the Big XII blinked at the very last minute. That false start highlights the danger of getting too excited this time around, but at the very minimum you happy that John Marinatto isn't around to sell us out for two packs of gum and a used Larry Bird jersey. More than anything, the Big East and individual Big East programs need time - time to tread water, and hope for the wins in the conference standings to change. There were even rumors that the ACC could have had a chance at adding Texas if only they were willing to accept the presence of Texas's independent Longhorn Network, and now that situation is a complete 180. Where does the Pac-12 sit now, considering that a re-invigorated Big XII seemingly checks their options for future expansion. It is all quite a bit to take in, which is why it is probably best to hold off on future analysis before chess pieces actually start moving on the board again.