HOUSTON (CBS-Houston) – Rice University is one of eight member institutions from Conference USA all set to merge during the 2013-14 season with the eight remaining members of the Mountain West Conference. The two made it official on Monday.
Hence, the work begins. Rice Athletic Director Rick Greenspan knows that between now and the first kickoff of the 2013 football season, important decisions affecting thousands of student athletes rest with the administrations of the 16 current members. While there are plenty of unanswered questions, it is important to note that this new union is not unlike any other corporate merger.
“We have two leagues coming together with two distinct conference offices in two distinct locations, one in Colorado and one in Texas,” says Greenspan. “While that will be resolved, those are not unlike a merger between United and Continental – and who and how are you going to make that transition?”
That is one of many decisions the new member institutions will need to resolve. What could help immensely is that the current 16 aren’t joining an established conference that has its own culture and business principles. Therefore, this new affiliation could be viewed by the members as a fresh start with the NCAA, at least to some degree, and allow flexibility in establishing an effective model.
“You get into the real operational issues – what are your formats,” offers Greenspan. “What are you going to do in terms of scheduling? What are you going to do in terms of divisional play (and) cross-over games? Where are you going to hold a conference championship – semi-final games?”
“How do you perhaps untangle some of the current agreements you might have with institutions or cities from post-season tournaments in baseball, basketball, football, etc. So, there’s a lot of unresolved issues. But I think you start with the big picture and eventually you whittle that down to a lot of administrative work.”
THE BIG PICTURE
There is potential for tremendous revenue opportunities when considering possible television partnerships and corporate sponsorships due to the upside of the merging institutions.
But, while Greenspan is excited about the prospect of generating revenue for the new conference and his institution, he’s more in tune with the opportunity to have serious dialogue regarding fiscal sustainability and what makes sense from a public perspective in regards to the college athletic landscape.
“If you look at the rate of growth at the highest levels of athletic spending be it Florida, Ohio State, the University of Texas, and you extrapolate that over the next decade, those institutions will have athletic budgets approaching a quarter of a billion dollars a year – a quarter of a billion!”
It has been well documented that the above institutions are extremely successful at generating revenue through athletics. But, is there a happy medium between academics, travel and athletics?
That’s a supremely critical question at Rice where academics are a priority. The new conference members will spend many hours making the best decisions in regards to travel. But that stated, football is probably the least of the challenges with travel due to the number of games in a season and Saturday scheduling.
So, when asked what type of scheduling he’d like to see within the new conference for football, Greenspan provided the perfect humorous response.
“Oh I don’t know. I guess what I’d like to see every year is Rice get scheduled 12 home games. The way I look at it we’re at the epicenter of the United States. We have a major airport whether you’re coming from Fresno or East Carolina; you know it splits the difference. I think it’s a very sound proposal!” Greenspan followed his comments by saying there will be discussions.
However, sports such as basketball, volleyball, tennis, and baseball play middle-of-the-week games that include traveling long distances with regularity. Greenspan says that’s when the risks increase the possibility of missed class time. But also says there are solutions.
“We’ve just got to be smart about how we can mitigate those things because it might be less important to some,” says Greenspan. “But it’s critically important here! We have lofty and ambitious expectations for our student athletes that they meet the standard. I think that’s been fairly well documented.”
“But, we can’t continue to say that we’re going to pile more on you in terms of missed class, missed class participation, etc., and achieve at the high level. We’re an institution (that believes) failure academically is not an option.”
CONFERENCE COULD GROW TO 24
Rice, UTEP, East Carolina, Marshall, Tulsa, Southern Miss, Tulane and UAB will join from C-USA. Air Force, Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, UNLV, New Mexico and Wyoming come from the Mountain West to merge with C-USA.
While it might be somewhat premature, there is already talk of adding an additional 8 institutions to give the new conference a total of 24. Obviously Greenspan embraces growth potential and change. However, he says there are other elements of growth that must be considered, one of those elements being travel.
“To a large degree, those should be done with the most advantageous eye on geography. Is it to improve our competitiveness? Is it to assist us in marketing and revenue generation? Is it to add another institution that provides proximity, perhaps a bus trip versus a plane trip?”
The details are yet to come as are the questions. One such question is once the 16-24 universities are decided, how will boundaries for competition be determined, such as 4, 6, or 8-team pods and how will the different regions be identified?
“I think some of that depends on what we can do with post-season,” say’s Greenspan. “You know there’s been some discussion about semifinal play. (It) doesn’t mean that you can’t have two divisions in semi-finals. I want to look at what those models mean in terms of competiveness. I want to look at what those models mean in terms of television.”
BCS AUTOMATIC QUALIFYING STATUS
The notion of a 24-team league could net the desired results for a conference possibly seeking BCS AQ status. The U.S. has more than 100 Division I-A schools. The bigger question according to Greenspan is whether or not the 24-member league will split the revenue into 24 separate pieces or will the league grow and deposit the revenue into one big pot? Regardless, Greenspan says there is strength in numbers.
“If you have 24 institutions and there’s a solidarity to them, you know you’re representing a tremendous number of student athletes nationally and that, I think, to some degree forces people to listen to what the conference says.”
Rice has nearly 400 student-athletes participating in collegiate sports. Multiply that number by the 16-to-24 possible new member institutions. While the number will vary, the sum of the parts does represent a very sizeable coalition.
“If you represent that number of constituents – and I call the student athletes to the NCAA – constituents – and we have a good strong coherent voice – it would be foolish not to listen to,” says Greenspan. “There’s only 123 Division I-A schools and if you get to 24, you’re representing one out of every 6 schools. I’d like to think that voice carries some weight.”
The current BCS format expires after the 2013 season. There have been conversations regarding the elimination of the AQ status. The new format, which will be in place by the 2014 season, could result in a matchup of the top 2 teams competing in a bowl game, or a Plus-One model – the top four teams would be seeded in the bowl games.
The Plus-One or without the Plus-One models would allow the other current BCS bowl games, (Fiesta, Sugar, Orange and Rose), to align with conferences of their choice rather than following the requirement of selecting teams based on their BCS ranking.
In summation, it is believed that there will be a change to the BCS model. However, it could also stay status quo. Regardless, Greenspan is of the opinion that the new conference could have a seat at the table.
“If the model represents nothing more than an extension of the current model meaning x-number of leagues get an automatic, there is no reasonable and coherent way, based upon the membership, that this conference should not qualify as an automatic conference, as well, in my opinion.”
So many questions will need to be addressed in the coming weeks and months regarding the formation of this new conference. Follow me on www.twitter.com/coloranalyst and facebook for updates. What do you think the new conference should be called?