What’s the New Wood Pile Looking Like?
When we started this series, the conversation was concentrated on a little program shuffling at the FBS upper level (known as the Power 5) through four of the five conferences. The big concentration was on the action and activity going on in the Big XII as Texas and Oklahoma prepare to head to, the for-now, 16-team SEC. There were issues there, but nothing that hinted at the lower tier disintegration and cannibalization of Conference USA, the explosive growth of the Sun Belt, and then the scramble for the Big XII to repopulate its ranks with G5 teams that made sense in the Power 5.
The plan was to go over the conferences as they sit and set the stage for the big media negotiations to come for the 2025 do-over with “The Mouse”. Then suddenly someone in the PAC 12 and B1G (BIG 10) decided that the SEC at 16 teams presented some sort of major competition level problem, and the two biggest market teams in the PAC 12 blew the West Coast for the Rust Belt. The B1G suddenly was bi-coastal with the monster Los Angeles market looming like that flock of buzzards in the dead tree contemplating the roadkill. Suddenly all bets were off. All assumptions could be cast out the window, and the ACC was holding a pathetic little pig in a poke sack labeled do not open until 2036.
Don’t let anyone fool you, there is just no telling what is going to happen between 2023 and 2025. The 2022 season is scheduled, and the games are in the books and ready for the action to happen (both on the field and in the betting dens). That seems to be why the B1G, after the Los Angeles raid, clammed up, and the SEC signaled that it has stopped shopping for the magic four more teams for their presumed 20-team super conference. For now, there is no point in pushing further, and the waters are so roiled that its better for all parties to wait for a beat or to while things settle down a bit.
The Next Two Seasons are Wide Open
Folks, we have no specific knowledge, any more than most other people do in this, but we suspect that the boil has been turned down to a simmer for the season and the flame will be back to blazing after December wraps. This isn’t finished. So, we can feel a bit freer to maybe speculate a bit, look at possibilities, and maybe project a few things for the next five-year cycle.
Let’s take a look at what seems to be distilling out in some “givens” that are evolving:
- The current situation is unsustainable. The money pressure in both program compensation and now the introduction of Name, Image, and Likeness fees/licensing combined with the wide-open transfer portal, has professionalized the upper levels of college sports. This also presents itself as a balancing act because the vast bulk of the money is concentrated in fewer than 20 teams. Programs like Rutgers, in the B1G, are struggling while the Ohio States, Alabamas, Auburns, Texas A&Ms, etc. are on money machine cruise control. As an example of where things are heading, Virginia Tech’s revenues still rank us in the mid to low 40s in program cash flow. We might actually get close to the 30s soon, but not with the lame ACC Network Contract that has us theoretically locked in until 2035. Swofford was “too cute by half” in signing up for that long term and “locking in” the schools for huge escape money, but the money was chump change. The next round of negotiations (in the 2025 range) between the media and the other conferences threatens to make the escape money well worth it for the ACC teams, that are invited to leave, to head for the exits.
- The current Power Five and Group of Five configuration (though not official, it is an understood grouping) is rapidly ending. There are too many teams chasing too much money and too few trophies to sustain “national championship” quality efforts. None of the P5 conferences will be immune. Their unbalanced configurations, across the board, are unlikely to result in the ability to generate the revenue to compete in the upper tier professional league. Their only saving grace might be the reality that much of the revenue talk is heading toward Basketball as a major driver. College Men’s Basketball is a major media opportunity with many more games that can be televised during a broader schedule during prime time. That is why you are hearing lame to terrible football programs being talked about (UNC, Duke, and UVA… cough, cough… choke hack) for moving to the SEC or B1G super conferences. Florida State, Miami, and Clemson you can understand… but the Hoos and Heels only figure into the equation when you consider hoops. This re-alignment will be driven purely by money, and nothing else.
- The talent pool is going to shift drastically toward the big money, prestige teams and there won’t be a whole lot of stars being sprinkled on the 2nd and 3rd tier teams. You heard that right, three tiers – sort of like FCS Divisions I, II, and III. The middle and lower tiers will just not generate the revenues, notoriety, and next level draft attention enough to grab up the big stars coming out of high school. They will have to muddle through with a range of three, two, and one-star talent, much like the G5 and FCS level schools do. That is likely to pull down the quality of the 2nd and 3rd tier programs far below any possible consideration for meaningful playoffs. Borderline teams like Tech and West Virginia might pretend to operate at that level, but their talent pool is going to begin to get very small. This also means that mining the Transfer portal for premium league players who didn’t cut it will become the major attracter of talent in the 2nd and 3rd tiers.
- The gravity well that is forming looks to be shaking out into a three-tier grouping of six major conferences of 20 or so teams each. The two upper-level conferences will have their core teams from the SEC and B1G, but not all. Teams like South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Missouri are hardly going to put a dent in the ceiling of a 20 team SEC based conference. In the B1G, who thinks Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Rutgers, Maryland, or nearly any team but Wisconsin in the west has a chance? Those programs will have to figure out whether or not the revenues are worth the “best booger bowl possible” invitations for their seasonal results. The PAC 12 and Big XII are both in the same bucket only most of those teams are now looking at 2nd tier outcomes at best, as well. Oregon is openly looking to bail to something better. They knocked on the B1G door only to be refused… for the moment we predict… The only potential tier one programs left in the Big XII are Oklahoma State, and maybe Baylor. There are some really good football programs in those conferences, but they aren’t tier 1 money and talent. Cincinnati will barely get a chance to play in the Big XII and will likely get poached if it so desires.
The ACC is Looking Like a Dead Conference Walking
So, what does this mean to the ACC which, for now, seems to be left out of the current festivities minus its idiotic pitching of divisions in hopes of attracting coy Notre Dame and the Irish Nation money to the conference for football, finally? The Irish have currently managed to fend off a hard charge from the B1G (their old affiliate conference) which also seemed to slow the B1G down a bit as they halted the merger mania with the Los Angeles duo.
Where does the ACC fit into all of this and where does Tech go? That’s what we are all about, here, is Hokie sports, right? The ACC is not in great shape, for the top Tier, folks. It just isn’t. Add to that the obvious snub of Virginia Tech in the various conversations about moves to the B1G or SEC leaves a bad taste on the palate, to go with it. Essentially, the sports media hype-wagon is fascinated by the big basketball programs in the ACC, and really only interested in the football as far as it can spell Clemson, Florida State, and Miami. The consideration for Carolina, Duke (of all programs… sheesh), and the Wahoos seems to be centered on their revenue potentials for men’s basketball. Tech didn’t appear in any article that I scanned, except one deriding us as an also ran… on the bubble but probably not, type.
Tech’s Fate is Totally Dependent Upon Cash Money Potential
Look, with a program hovering around the number 40-30 level in revenues and with a fan base that is, at best frugal, and at the worst cripplingly parsimonious. Virginia Tech is not figuring into the top 40-team lists of most sports pundits. It’s not that we couldn’t be in one or the other conference, it’s just that sticking and being able to pay the freight to get the quality players and coaches necessary to compete will just not be an easy feat.
Since the analysts are evaluating their potential moves based on both football and men’s basketball program revenue potential (yes, and some of that is championship stuff) Tech just doesn’t pull in the big bucks for either. Success in the football program has been illusory and ephemeral over the past 15 years. Tech’s W/L record since Danny Coale was robbed of the winning touchdown in the Sugar Bowl of the 2011 season hasn’t been even close to happy. The later Beamer years were par struggles, and the Fuente Era started with high hopes and crashed into mediocrity as fast as it started.
Tech’s Basketball programs have returned to some level of prominence with the hiring of Buzz Williams, and then the magic find of local coach, Mike Young to follow as Buzz hit the road for College Station, Texas. Young is looking to repeat and hopefully better his 2021/2022 run, but college basketball is even more volatile and difficult than college football.
Tech’s other sports are doing really well, but women’s basketball, softball, baseball, soccer, wrestling, track and swimming are all doing pretty well within their regions and often shine nationally but they aren’t revenue producing sports and as we have seen over the series, the Benjamins as doled out by “the Mouse” and the money plowed into the Booster clubs rule the day. Winning and losing count big there but it’s not connected to thrill of winning. It’s connected to the talent that it attracts, the professional draft attention, and the extra money that bowls and playoffs generate.
Virginia Tech, no matter how much we love it, is not a program known for finishing big. Our record getting to bowl games is stellar over the years, but our record of winning them isn’t so hot. I am not even going to bother pasting that number in, because it is depressing. Tech even manages to struggle against teams that it should easily beat in the bowls. That’s probably one of those score card things that puts the potential upper tier presence of Virginia Tech in the gravest of jeopardy. We just don’t seem to win too many of the big games in either football or basketball. That eventually weighs down a program’s bank potential.
The Long View Crystal Ball is Getting Less Fuzzy
What we do see sorting out is six super-conferences with about 20 teams each. How those groupings sort themselves out will be largely a matter of practicality and revenue flow. There is likely to be a major division between football program scheduling and other sports schedules, including a complete separation of football and basketball from other sports programs in the upper tier of teams since the upper tier will for all practical terms will be a professional sports league.
How does that all shake out as far as which teams go into which tier? We can pretty much immediately peg the top 20 teams to go into one or the other conference of tier 1. The next 20 teams will be where the push-pull will happen, and the advent of three championships for the three tiers is a probability that cannot be casually dismissed. With 2/3rds of the football programs really never able to compete for a viable playoff slot and national championship bid, there will be heavy pressure to create a major FCS style multi-level playoff and championship system. Frankly, that would be the best, and most fair system that could be developed. Make those playoffs bowl games. Give the lower tier teams a chance at a viable league championship and realize that Rutgers is never going to compete with Georgia for a National Championship, and the days of teams like Georgia Tech, Boston College, and even Virginia Tech achieving the feat are things of a distant and more amateur past.
This is the one bitter pill that most alumni fan bases will have to accept. College football changed forever in the decade of the 2020’s. It makes too much money to be operated the way that it currently is running; and the collegiate character of the related sports is essentially gone. This explosion, disintegration, and reformation is a symptom of a greater issue that will not easily be solved.
It’s Less than a Month for “Fall” Practice and Six Weeks Until Kickoff in Norfolk
It’s nearly August, and it’s time for Bryan and me to start up the football roster reviews. It’s going to be an exciting season if for no other reason than almost the entire coaching staff is new and there is finally a bit of hope floating around the fanbase.