Attorney General Jason Miyares either has a time portal to the future or very good political instincts.
Just a hunch: If those are the two choices, it’s probably the latter.
Last month, I reported that Miyares had called me to relay a message about college sports that was both clear in its meaning and cryptic in its purpose. With the college sports landscape in flux with some big-name schools changing conferences in search of more TV dollars, Miyares told me: “College football realignment is changing rapidly, and I view my No. 1 role as attorney general is to protect the interests of the people of Virginia, including protecting the interests of our public universities. … College football realignment can have an absolutely seismic impact. It is my fervent hope that Virginia Tech and UVa never make the decision to weaken the other institution.”
And how might that happen? If one school were to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference and the other was left in what Miyares called “a smaller or less profitable conference.”
At the time, Miyares’ comments seemed somewhat speculative. Now they seem a lot less so. Over the past week, the circumstances that Miyares seemed to be warning about became a lot more real.
First, Florida State has become a lot more vocal about its dissatisfaction in the ACC, where the TV deal runs about $30 million less per school than what schools in the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference are making each year. Florida State President Richard McCullough called this “an existential crisis” and said the school must consider leaving the ACC unless there is “radical change to the revenue distribution.” Leaving the ACC before its TV contract expires in 2036 may be difficult: The ACC requires a hefty ($120 million) exit fee and schools have signed away their TV rights to the conference for the duration of that contract. However, the Tallahassee school has hired JPMorgan Chase to figure out how to raise more money for its athletic programs — the first time a university has done this and a possible precursor toward coming up with the cash needed to buy its way out of the league (and fund whatever legal battles will be required to challenge that “grant of rights”).
Then on Friday the Pac-12 conference effectively collapsed. Its two marquee schools — the University of Southern California and UCLA — had earlier bolted for the Midwest-centered Big Ten. Geography be damned; the Big Ten offered more TV revenue. That left the Pac-12 shaky; now it may soon be gone entirely. Colorado left in late July for the Big 12. Last Friday, in the space of just a few hours, so did Arizona, Arizona State and Utah, while Oregon and Washington jumped to the Big Ten. That turned the Pac-12 into the Pac-4, with just California, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State, the four least desirable schools by TV standards. On Monday came word that Oregon State was holding preliminary talks about joining the Big 12, which now stands at 16 members and is apparently eager to add more.
So what does all this have to do with us here in Virginia? And, if you’re not a college sports fan, what does all this have to do with us at all?
I’ll answer the latter question first: Not all that TV revenue winds up with the athletic departments. There are impacts for the academic side of universities, too. If that revenue were to be reduced, that would hurt nonathletes as well, Miyares contends. That’s where the state’s interest starts to come in, and why the attorney general issued his warning a few weeks ago. Two decades ago, a previous attorney general (Jerry Kilgore) authorized Virginia Tech to file suit against the ACC for trying to raid the Big East Conference, which he believes slowed down the ACC’s expansion plans long enough for Virginia Tech to become one of those schools being raided.
There are also economic aspects to college football beyond the campus. A study in 2015 found that the economic impact of Virginia Tech football was $61.9 million a year — that’s $79.68 million in today’s dollars. That impact isn’t limited to hotels and restaurants and gas stations, either. That 2015 report says “as many as 4,700 properties in the region may be owned by out-of-region football fans, primarily season ticket holders. Realtors estimate about half of those properties, or 2,350 homes, were bought with the expressed intent to attend Virginia Tech football home games.” Virginia Tech’s football coach isn’t simply responsible for the real estate between the goal lines at Lane Stadium, but a lot of other real estate around the region.
If conference realignment meant that Tech had to schedule less-desirable opponents, that would hurt the New River Valley and Roanoke Valley economies in multiple ways. And not just the conventional business side of the economy, either. That report identified at least 26 places — including churches and schools — that made money off Virginia Tech football by renting parking spaces on game days. Ten of those 26 agreed to divulge revenue figures; their totals came to $43,455, or almost $56,000 in today’s dollars. The Lord may not have a preference for who wins the game, but his houses of worship have a direct interest in fans wanting to drive to Blacksburg to see the game.
As for the first question, here’s part of the nightmare scenario for Virginia Tech that has now become more likely.
Nobody thinks the Big Ten is done expanding. It’s already at 18 schools with its new West Coast acquisitions, and the assumption is it could easily go to 20. The Southeastern Conference, which will be at 16 schools next year with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, might also be interested in expanding.
Two schools often mentioned as targets for both conferences are Virginia and North Carolina.
Keep in mind that all this realignment and expansion is driven by TV revenues. Other schools might make more sense for each conference for various reasons (including geography, which is now such a quaint notion), but the primary goal is for conferences to add new television markets — and the states of Virginia and North Carolina would be new television markets for both conferences.
Let’s suppose that UVa and UNC both left the ACC for another conference (the Big Ten is the most likely for reasons we’ll get to shortly). That would weaken the ACC’s marketability and disadvantage whichever schools remain. It would create the situation Miyares warned about where the actions of one school (in this scenario, Virginia) would hurt the financial position of the other (Virginia Tech).
That scenario is a lot more likely today than it was a week ago, or two-plus weeks ago when I spoke with Miyares.
How likely is it? It’s possible not even the schools themselves know — the landscape is changing so quickly. The athletic director of Oregon State fumed to The Oregonian newspaper that “we were literally hours away from a deal that everybody could embrace” to save the Pac-12 when five schools decided to leave on the same day. C.W. Lambert, who reports for Big12Insider.com, cites a “reputable source” who says that eight ACC schools are considering leaving the conference en masse. He didn’t name them or identify their likely landing spots, but we know that earlier this summer, seven ACC schools — including Virginia and Virginia Tech — were among those agitating for more revenue. For this column I reached out to both those schools for comment. Virginia Tech didn’t reply, and Virginia’s sports information director said only “the department has not issued any statements regarding realignment,” which isn’t exactly a full-throated endorsement of keeping the ACC together. ESPN reports that Aug. 15 is the deadline by which any school — the immediate focus is on openly disgruntled Florida State — must give notice if it plans to leave, so the next week could prove to be decisive (or not).
Maybe none of these doomsday scenarios come to pass — maybe they are the Y2K of college sports realignment — but we need only look to Oregon State and Washington State to see what could happen. Oregon and Washington made a decision they deemed in their best interest — departing the low-dollar Pac-12 for the high-dollar Big Ten — but in the process they left their fellow in-state schools of Oregon State and Washington State at a clear disadvantage. They are now both scrambling for a home conference but have no guarantee they’ll get the TV revenue they did before.
Virginia Tech does not want to wind up being the Oregon State or Washington State of the East Coast, and it sounds as if Miyares doesn’t want it to be, either. Maybe if the attorneys general in those states had issued the same warning Miyares did, then those schools wouldn’t be in the predicament they are now.
Here’s why my focus is on Virginia Tech winding up homeless or in a weakened conference and not Virginia: All the speculation I’ve seen concerns Virginia being a target for the Big Ten (and possibly the SEC), not Virginia Tech.
There’s good reason for this that has nothing to do with the strength of their football programs. For all this attention to TV dollars, the Big Ten does pay some homage to academics. The Big Ten’s preference is for its schools to be members of the Association of American Universities, a group of 71 schools that serves as something of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for universities with strong research programs. Only one Big Ten school is not an AAU member — that’s Nebraska, which was a member when it was admitted but is no longer.
If AAU membership remains a criterion for Big Ten membership, that narrows the list of potential members. Two of the leftover Pac-12 schools — California and Stanford — are AAU members, but they weren’t invited in this latest round of expansion. The San Francisco Chronicle says that’s likely because their football records aren’t very good and therefore aren’t a good television draw, even if they are in the San Francisco TV market. CBS Sports suggests that the Bay Area has been “overrated” as a college sports market. In any event, interest in those programs is declining locally so it can’t be expected to add much nationally — according to CBS, Stanford’s attendance was down 16% last year, and that’s the more storied of the two programs.
Both Virginia and North Carolina, however, are AAU members and would represent new markets for the Big Ten. Virginia Tech is not an AAU member, which is one reason it gets left out of much of the Big Ten speculation. From a marketing standpoint, it doesn’t make sense for a conference to add two schools from the same state. (That was one of the arguments against the ACC adding Virginia Tech in 2003: The ACC already had the Virginia market with the Cavaliers, so adding the Hokies wouldn’t bring much; it should concentrate on new markets such as the ones it eventually picked up with Boston College, Miami and Syracuse — and, in time, Louisville and Pittsburgh.)
None of this chatter about schools leaving the ACC matters until it’s proven that they really can before that TV contract runs out in 13 years. That’s why Florida State’s move to hire JPMorgan Chase is so important. If it can figure out a way to break that “grant of rights,” then the ACC is ripe for the picking in what seems to be an eat-or-be-eaten environment. “There are no rules in this game of realignment, right?” former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck told CBS Sports. “There isn’t an arbiter. You couldn’t go to the NCAA or the federal government. It was a game we likened to musical chairs. You don’t want to be the one standing when the music stops.” (That’s where Miyares’ interest in the subject becomes so intriguing; if a previous attorney general sued over conference-raiding, so could he.)
As a side note, Florida State may not be in as strong a position as it thinks it is. The school isn’t an AAU member, so the Big Ten might not be interested. And while it’s assumed that the SEC might be interested — ESPN reported that the Seminoles are already talking to the SEC — it might find itself in the same bind that Virginia Tech might. The SEC already has a school in Florida — the University of Florida — so while adding Florida State might strengthen the conference’s brand for football, it might not bring that much more in terms of TV markets. Ditto for Clemson, another ACC school often linked as a potential SEC member: The conference already has South Carolina so does it need another school in the Palmetto State? If the goal is to expand TV revenue, then the SEC might want new markets entirely — such as, oh, say, Virginia and North Carolina. Adding Virginia Tech to the SEC would also bring in a new state’s TV market, but I’ve seen very little speculation about Virginia Tech as an SEC expansion target. Indeed, I’ve seen more speculation that the SEC may not need to expand at all — there’s no point bringing in teams unless they bring enough TV revenue to justify their addition. The point is to create a bigger pie with more revenue for each school, not to wind up with a situation where the conference is splitting the money in so many ways that schools wind up with less than they are receiving now.
“SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has the latitude to be patient, not having to worry about the conference’s survival or need to add schools the way many of his commissioner peers currently are because of the conference’s strong stable of valuable universities,” writes 247 Sports. “Simply put, the SEC doesn’t have to be in the mix.”
The ACC, though, probably does need to show strength, especially after Florida State’s threat to leave. The best way to show some strength in that situation is to add teams. That’s what the Big 12 did after losing Texas and Oklahoma. At the time, the Big 12 looked to be in jeopardy. Instead, it went out and recruited four new schools — Brigham Young, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston — and now is snapping up four more with Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. And potentially Oregon State from the diminished Pac-12 and San Diego State from the Mountain West. While the Big Ten is busy adding “name” programs, the Big 12 is busy scarfing up the leftovers to create a super-conference that, like the Big Ten, might stretch coast to coast.
David Teel of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported last week that the ACC has vetted potential expansion candidates, but since no invitations have been extended, it can be reasonably concluded that they didn’t bring additional value to the league. Will that now change? Ross Dellenger of Yahoo Sports reports that the ACC presidents held a special meeting Friday night “to further discuss the league’s latest expansion plan.” On Monday, ESPN reported that the ACC was starting to sound out Cal and Standford but there was uncertainty about how the conference’s presidents and athletic directors would react to such far-flung members — and no prospect of those two schools generating much additional revenue. Meanwhile, Lambert of Big12Insider.com reports that the Big 12 is waiting for the ACC to implode and that “Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Louisville are the top targets on the Big 12’s board.” He adds: “Please don’t make more of this than it is … the Big 12 understand[s] it can’t entice defections … it can only pick up the leftovers.” If that’s so, the Big 12 is probably guessing that Virginia and UNC go elsewhere — as well as Duke and Wake Forest.
Maybe the ACC holds together and Virginia and Virginia Tech remain in the same conference. If it all blows up, though, there’s no guarantee they’ll wind up in the same place. Oregon and Washington certainly didn’t look after their in-state colleagues at Oregon State and Washington State. Meanwhile, ESPN reports that the Big 12 was “aggressive” in its pursuit of Arizona but that Arizona and Arizona State had a “strong preference” to stay together so the conference took a package deal. Would Virginia and Virginia Tech do the same? Would they have the leverage with a potential new conference to do so? And what would the attorney general have to say if they didn’t?