Louisville is not going to join the SEC, even though UK would like us to.
Look, the spark that started this realignment fire is the Big Ten TV network, which was mocked when it began but now pours literally ten times as much money into the Big Ten as does BCS Bowl revenue. The Big Ten Network has turned non-revenue sports into revenue generators (not big ones, but still, more than they were) by giving them a TV outlet and ensures that even third-tier Big Ten hoops and football games get nationally televised. The reason the Big Ten wants to expand is to expand the reach of that network. The Big Ten gets higher subscription fees from cable providers in markets where there is a "home" Big Ten team.
Painful though it may be to admit, Louisville is already a "home" SEC market because of the following UK has here. This is the same reason why Pittsburgh — as a natural a fit for the Big Ten as ever there was, given history, rivalries, geography and academics — isn’t highly mentioned for inclusion in the Big Ten. Penn State already gives the Big Ten Network the Pittsburgh market.
Missouri, meanwhile, gives the Big Ten half of Kansas City and all of St. Louis. Some combination of Rutgers, UConn and Syracuse gives the Big Ten the New York City market (they hope). Notre Dame has a national following, but don’t doubt that the Big Ten inviting the Irish is as much a play for the New York "subway alumni" audience as anything else.
UK — contrary to conspiracy theory — would LOVE to have Louisville in the SEC. First, the Louisville/Kentucky football game becomes a conference game, which means UK can keep reaping the ticket and TV revenue from the Governor’s Cup game AND free up a spot on their football schedule for an additional patsy nonconference opponent. That’s having their Wildcat cake and eating it, too. Second, UofL and UK in the same conference means at least two and possibly three Dream game hoops matchups each year (depending on the conference tournament). While that might "devalue" the games in fans’ eyes, it would be a cash cow for both Kentucky and Louisville, and would finally generate nearly as much TV interest (revenue) in the rivalry as the ESPN-flacked Duke/UNC rivalry.
Louisville is in good shape for the coming realignment in that we have great revenue generation, fans willing to travel, some national cachet in basketball, growing cachet in baseball, and the chance to recapture cachet in football. Adding us means you can grab lots of eyeballs for those second-tier revenue generators like baseball, women’s hoops, and volleyball, and you can get plenty of sellable hoops and football games given our head coaches and their storylines. What hurts us is that Louisville is the #48 TV market in the country. Greenville, SC, Harrisburg, PA, and Birmingham, AL all bring more TV households than us.
Eyeballs are all that matter in this realignment mess, and we haven’t got that many to sell. Moreover, the viewership Louisville can bring to the table is already available to the SEC by virtue of Kentucky. The Big Ten won’t have us because we’re not academically compatible. It seems naive to think academics would matter when this is clearly all a decency-be-damned money grab, but the Big Ten wants at least the illusion of academic excellence, and Louisville doesn’t have the TV market to override that need for classroom cover. That leaves the ACC. If the Atlantic Coast Conference doesn’t make a play for Louisville, then we’re stuck in whatever is left of the Big East, or we get demoted back to C-USA.
That said, I believe we will end up in the ACC.
For all the talk about dismantling the Big East, the Big 12 is the conference in trouble. It’s TV contracts run through 2015 with ESPN, so they can’t maneuver. The Big 12 is one of the worst major conferences at earning TV revenue, largely because their schools are stuck in flyover country and flyover time zones that don’t accommodate East Coast TV schedules. And, most importantly, the Big 12 has Texas, the biggest prize of all in this realignment war. Texas is the most profitable sports program in the country. They command the most eyeballs, bring in the most money. It’s Texas that every conference wants.
That’s why the Big Ten has mentioned Texas, even though it makes no geographic sense. That’s why the Pac 10 leaked a possible expansion scenario that included half the Big 12, particularly Texas. That’s why it’s been made known that the SEC almost brought in Texas during its 1991 expansion, and would be willing to do so again. It isn’t the Big Ten that control what happens in conference realignment; it’s Texas that holds all the cards.
And Texas will pick the SEC. The Southeastern Conference is the place where Texas can earn the most money, period. But Texas will require that Texas A&M come along, for tradition’s sake and for political reasons. If they truly had their way, they’d get Oklahoma and OK State to come too. The first to preserve the Red River Rivalry, the second to appease Oklahoma. Those four schools, incidentally, are the jewels of the Big 12. This expansion takes the SEC to 16 teams, which split into 8-team divisions and play a title game. Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi and Ole Miss go west, the remainder stay East. The new SEC TV network gets rich showing Texas-Alabama or Oklahoma-Florida SEC title games.
The Big Ten now has to counterpunch, and now has to add some Big east schools to secure that New York market and keep up with the SEC in the money race. But if the Big Ten adds some or all of the Syracuse/Uconn/Rutgers triad, it will have to also add Missouri and Nebraska just to make two balanced 8-team divisions that don’t separate Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.
This leaves the ACC picking third, with only the remainder of the Big East to choose from. Iff the ACC is picking from four of the remaining five or six Big East teams, there’s simply no way Louisville gets left out. Cincinnati and USF (Tampa) have bigger markets but they can’t deliver those markets. More to the point, Tampa is a non-factor because Miami and Florida State already have that territory locked up for the ACC. West Virginia, Louisville, and whoever is left among Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers and UConn will be the ACC’s choices. The ACC reclaims its hoops supremacy with the acquisition, and has enough football to at least pretend to be a BCS player.
Maybe it’s just blind optimism, but if this is how the conference meltdown shakes out, Louisville is sitting very pretty. We’re back in the best hoops conference and the most winnable major football conference. We’re still in a conference that has ties to both the Northeast populations centers and hoops recruiting grounds and the fertile Florida football markets and recruiting goldmines.
Oh, and as for Kentucky. They’re still king of SEC hoops and even more of a doormat in SEC football — but the second part won’t matter because they’ll be making so much money getting crushed by the Tide, the Gators and the Longhorns.