Conference expansion and game theory

Or, why four sixteen-team super conferences might be inevitable.

By all indications, we just might be witnessing a major reshuffle of major college sports these days, with reports indicating that we very well might see the demise of the Big XII and the Big East (at least as a football conference). While my own loyalties in their less-kind moments take some pleasure in certain unnamed teams being left standing in this high-stakes game of musical chairs, I’m struck by how many explanations we’re seeing out here for this kind of major reshuffle. Dana O’Neil calls it out-and-out greed, for instance, that leads Syracuse and Pitt to bolt the Big East for the ACC—with a healthy dose of blame also reserved for the commissioner of the Big East. (Of course, Texas A&M bolting the Big XII for the SEC is taken as more about fairness, given the unusual–cough, cough–revenue-sharing structure in the Big XII…but I digress.) So what is behind all this? It is greed? Callousness? An indifference towards “the fans” (where that usually means the columnist)?

Maybe those things are involved, and maybe not.

As far as I’m concerned, the best way to think about this is something (roughly) like a Prisoner’s Dilemma. With good TV markets up for grabs, even conferences that would prefer to stay small must take on new teams lest they be left with the garbage TV markets when a major reshuffle is all said and done. Take the SEC. My sense is that most people involved are fine with a 12-team league, but if everyone else is moving towards four 16-team super-conferences (the better to negotiate ESPN deals with?), then it doesn’t want to be stuck taking lousy teams or lousy TV markets—and the same is generally true everywhere. Therefore, the four major conferences considering expansion—SEC, Pac-12, ACC, and Big Ten (Plus Two)—could each all have standing pat, staying at something like 12 teams, as their most preferred option, but in the absence of a way for conferences to commit not to take new members, standing pat means getting stuck with colleges you’d rather not take. As a result, we’re seeing a re-alignment that very well might be everyone’s third-best option (first being, maybe, expanding while others don’t, then staying put at second), and it need not stem from greed or moral turpitude or callousness at all…just from a basic commitment problem: the inability to conferences to promise not to expand when it’s in their best interest.

What’s the solution? Short of taking expansion legally out of conferences’ hands, I’m not sure there is one. And if that’s the case, here’s hoping the SEC makes the right moves in getting us up to 16 teams…

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