[SPORTS] – On Davie

I like Bill Connelly’s work over at SB Nation, but I was a little surprised to see his defense of Bob Davie’s hiring by New Mexico. Connelly admits that his defense is “tepid,” and says that it is founded upon the notion that Davie’s tenure at Notre Dame wasn’t as bad as widely thought. In truth, however, Connelly’s argument is based on the notion that Lou Holtz’s tenure – or at least the end of it – wasn’t as good as you think, and that, in retrospect, Davie at least wasn’t any worse than Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis. But, even if any of that is true, does it really say anything about whether Davie did a good job at Notre Dame?

You can argue that Holtz was not recruiting so well at the end of his tenure, but that excuse only lasts for a couple of seasons. Davie’s 5-6 record in his fifth and final season can’t be attributed to Holtz. And with as much flack as Willingham catches, the argument “not as bad as you think” probably applies to Willingham more than Davie given how Willingham was run off after three seasons. Willingham won 10 games in his first season with Davie’s players. His following two years were roughly at Davie’s level (5-7 and 6-5), and then Weis came in and won 19 games in two seasons primarily relying on players recruited by Willingham before Weis basically reached the level of Davie and Willingham before him with 7-6 and 6-6 seasons to wrap up his tenure.

But ultimately whether Davie is “not as bad as you think” comes down to the facts underlying his record at Notre Dame. There are some key points to remember about Davie’s tenure. During his time, rival USC was mired in mediocrity. USC’s record during Bob Davie’s tenure was just 31-29, with only two bowls in ten six years. Other west coast rival Stanford – under Ty Willingham – was 30-27 during that period (I know Willingham did good things at Stanford relatively speaking (although again, look at USC and other perennial power Washington during that time), but why Notre Dame thought he was going to come in and win national titles right away seems crazy in retrospect). Navy was in the pre-Paul Johnson era, collapsing into awfulness under Charlie Weatherbie. Look, Notre Dame should always beat Navy, but at least Bob Davie never had to deal with the Johnson-Niumatalolo era Midshipmen. Davie was 1-2 against three very good Michigan teams, but he didn’t even have to face Michigan in his final two seasons. Davie was 0-5 overall against Michigan State, and 0-3 specifically against Nick Saban-coached Michigan State teams, losing by an average of 15 points against Saban. Probably what aggravates most Notre Dame fans the most about Davie are his getting dominated by Michigan State, his two losses to (very good) Purdue teams, losing twice in his last three seasons to Boston College, and a horrible record against ranked teams. While maybe the end of Lou Holtz’s tenure wasn’t great, it was truly Bob Davie that started the reign of mediocrity at Notre Dame over the past decade.

There is a lot of merit in the argument that the quality of the Notre Dame job is a bit overblown. Kids aren’t necessarily knocking down the door to play for the Irish the same way they might have been 50 years ago. On the other hand, the school has a ton of money to devote to football success, they have incredible national exposure even now, and they should be able to recruit successfully even if Indiana is not a hotbed for elite football recruits. A Notre Dame coach should almost never win fewer than 8 games. While the Notre Dame schedule can look superficially tough, there are typically at least a half dozen games on the schedule that Notre Dame just should not lose if the coach has been doing his job. In any given year, there are not going to be more than 1-2 games on the schedule – again, if the coach is doing his job – in which Notre Dame should be counted as a clear underdog. That’s going to leave 4-5 games where Notre Dame should be no worse than a coin-flip. When you add it up, even in a mediocre year Notre Dame should generally win 8 games unless the coach just isn’t doing a very good job. And at least every few years the schedule should be there to win 10 games and get to a BCS bowl. Every year should bring a bowl, and it isn’t unreasonable to ask the coach to win at least 50% of the bowl games.

I am not a Notre Dame fan, so this isn’t about a fan’s unrealistic expectations. Given the schedule that Notre Dame plays, their resources, and their ability to recruit nationally (if lacking proximity to elite athletes), even with any drawbacks that you want to count up for that job a coach should be expected to win at least 36 games over a four year period. That’s three seasons of 8 regular season wins, one season of 10 regular season wins, and 2 bowl wins. Put another way, a Notre Dame coach should roughly average 9 wins a season, or a winning percentage of 69.2% to meet reasonable expectations. That to me is pretty much the over/under line for judging a Notre Dame coach in this day and age. (By the way, even with the messy situation that Charlie Weis left behind, Brian Kelly was able to win 8 games in his first year and has seven wins this year with two games and a bowl left to play.)

So where did Bob Davie fall in comparison to the standard I described above? He won 35 games in 5 years. Since Davie had three seasons with just 11 regular season games, he is forgiven a bit in terms of gross number of wins, but if winning 69.2 percent of the time is the standard at Notre Dame, then he should have won at least 41 games – and possibly more since he should have had two more bowl games (and I rounded down from 41.5). Even without those two bowl games factored in, Davie was roughly 15% below what an average Notre Dame coach should do.

Maybe it is true that Davie wasn’t as bad as people suggest – in that he wasn’t awful. But he was definitely not good, and, in my view, he was clearly below average. Nothing about his tenure at Notre Dame really supports his hiring by New Mexico, unless you count that Davie has a high profile and might bring some attention to a beleaguered program. When you add in the fact that Davie has been out of coaching for a decade, it certainly raises some questions about New Mexico’s choice. If Davie embraces the changes that have taken place in football over the past decade, and if he surrounds himself with excellent coaches and recruiters on his staff (despite budget limitations), then this may all work out. But it is a pretty big gamble.


[SPORTS] – Sorry, But Let’s Try Reality, Big 12

Something that caught my eye today on college sports conference expansion was this article from Kirk Bohls on West Virginia being the top candidate for the Big 12 to replace Missouri. There’s an interesting quote from some anonymous (of course) “school official” from a Big 12 school:

West Virginia has better football than Missouri, better basketball than Missouri, a better budget than Missouri and more passion among its fans than Missouri. They’re better, anyway you turn ‘em. The travel’s not good (to Morgantown, W. Va) but that’s it.

Let me just say this as plainly as possible: that’s a load of bunk. If West Virginia was better than Missouri, than West Virginia would already have accepted its invite to play in the SEC. West Virginia was hoping for an SEC invite. The SEC prefers Missouri because Mizzou is a bigger prize, “anyway you turn ’em.”

There’s an argument that West Virginia has better football than Missouri, but over the last five years West Virginia hasn’t been much better (if at all). It is fine to argue that the Mountaineers have a better long-term tradition in football (which is true), but if you are going to say that then you have to acknowledge that Mizzou has a better long-term tradition in basketball. On top of all of that, the insult to the passion of Mizzou fans is curious given that Mizzou outdraws West Virginia at its home football games.

The budget claim is also curious. It turns out that some athletics budget figures are available for both WVU and Mizzou. While it appears that WVU spends more on football, Mizzou’s overall athletics spending appears to be much higher.

As for travel, the anonymous source is correct that travel will be tough. Check out Morgantown’s airport schedule. Unless schools are chartering planes (which makes little sense for non-football sports), they are most likely going to have to fly into Pittsburgh and bus it the rest of the way. Oh, and as far as markets go, West Virginia is a small state with no large cities. By way of comparison, the state of Missouri has about three times as many residents, and two large cities in Kansas City and St Louis whose metro area populations are larger than the population of the entire state of West Virginia.

I know that there will be a pretty heavy PR push to polish the turd that is Missouri leaving the conference, but trying to claim that West Virginia is a much bigger prize than Missouri is fairly laughable. I hope that some of the media members who will report this stuff will try to place it in the context of reality. Is West Virginia the best of the possible replacements for Missouri? Perhaps – maybe even probably. But that does not make them a better program for the Big 12 than Missouri has been.

[SPORTS] – What Should the Big East Do?

With the Big East in a messy situation right now, there’s no shortage of speculation about how the Big East might act. We know that they’re going to expand, and it sounds like they plan to expand to 12 football-playing members. I don’t think they should stop at 12. Here’s a suggestion – just a back of the envelope suggestion – for a plan to cobble together a feasible conference that might – might – have a chance at keeping their BCS AQ bid.

First, forget Villanova. Yes, Villanova sounds like it wants to move up to FBS. But even if Villanova can make it happen, whenever it does happen the program is unlikely to do anything to help the Big East maintain its precarious AQ status. It will be years before they can compete at a high level – if ever. Cross that road when you come to it, but don’t build a plan around Villanova moving up at this point.

Second, invite UCF, Memphis, East Carolina and Temple for all sports. There are trade-offs to be made here. East Carolina and UCF likely add nothing outside of football, but they do provide the best football options the Big East is likely to see East of the Mississippi. Memphis and Temple help the league strengthen its basketball presence. Temple has not historically been a strong football program, but if they can keep up their recent success, it will help. Memphis’ football program is in atrocious shape right now, but there may not be any available program out there that can hope to fit the void left by Syracuse or Pittsburgh in basketball the way that Memphis can. The league will just have to work with them to rebuild the football program.

Third, invite Houston, SMU, Boise State, Fresno State, Colorado State, and San Diego State for football only. You can’t really ask these teams to join in non-football sports, because it would spin mid-week travel in non-football sports out of control. Yes, Air Force is a more attractive option than Colorado State, but I question whether Air Force would make the move without the other service academies. Can also consider Nevada, UNLV, and others for that Colorado State spot. Due to the need to maintain a contingent of western football teams to prevent travel from being too onerous for schools like Boise State, this may be the way to go.

Here’s the new 16-team football Big East, broken down into respective pods:

Pod A
West Virginia

Pod B
East Carolina

Pod C
South Florida
Central Florida

Pod D
Boise State
Colorado State
Fresno State
San Diego State

In case you were wondering what a schedule would look like in this set-up, here’s two sample schedules for two top programs:

Sample Schedule for Boise State
@South Florida
Fresno State
@Colorado State
San Diego State

Sample Schedule for West Virginia
East Carolina
@Central Florida
San Diego State
@Fresno State

Is this a slam-dunk option for maintaining AQ status? Absolutely not. But there is no such option available. The best the Big East can do is cobble together teams that might help it maintain AQ status while, at the very least, putting together a football conference that can score a decent TV deal without hurting the basketball product.

As for the six football-only schools, this is where I think adding enough football-only schools West of the Mississippi helps. They can serve as the core of their own viable non-football conference. They can then go out and try to cherry-pick other schools to join in all non-football sports. They might be able to swing a non-football deal with the remaining WAC or Mountain West teams, or they could just go out and try to land some lesser programs to cobble together a decent conference. No, it wouldn’t be optimal, but, again, there is no such thing as optimal for teams not on the radar of the big conferences. Here’s a potential 12 team basketball conference featuring the six football-only Big East members:

Boise State
Montana State
Colorado State
Fresno State
San Diego State
Long Beach State
Cal State-Northridge
Texas State
Texas-San Antonio

Again, the idea isn’t to achieve perfect, which is not possible. The idea is to achieve an optimal set-up given the options reasonably available. This might seem to crazy to try, but I think it might just be crazy enough to work.

[SPORTS] – The Big 12 Doesn’t Have to Die

I’m starting to wonder if Oklahoma will really find its way into the Pac 12 after all. Obviously, if the Sooners and Oklahoma State do not exit, then the Big 12 is saved. But even if Oklahoma and Oklahoma State leave, the Big 12 does not have to die. And teams do not necessarily need to scatter to the Big East or whichever conference will take them. If Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M leave, they leave behind Texas (which has options but does not seem thrilled with them), Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Missouri, and Baylor. Far from ideal, but is that at all inferior to the core of the Big East in football? I don’t think so.

In an ideal world, the league would then be able to go out and steal TCU and Louisville from the Big East and get BYU to join the conference for football only (or for all sports if they want). Is that 10 team set-up a great football conference? No. But it would be better than the current version of the Big East in football from top to bottom and would likely be in no danger of losing a BCS automatic qualifier bid. With Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Louisville, and Kansas State, it would also be a very solid basketball conference (likely a consistent 4+ bid league). My sense is that if Texas was interested in this set-up, their best bet to ensure some measure of stability would be to agree to an even split of revenues from primary and secondary conference sources, with schools retaining their tertiary rights. Thus, Texas would get to play the generous benefactor that saves the conference as a viable long-term entity by agreeing to some equal revenue sharing, but they also get to keep the Longhorn Network and collect that fat $300 million ESPN deal that no one else gets.

Now, if those three “ideal” choices aren’t interested, then there is a steep drop-off in backup choices – the most likely that come to mind (within a certain geographic range) being Cincinnati, Colorado State, UTEP, Rice, SMU, Memphis, Southern Miss, and Houston. No, that’s not a particularly pretty group. Pittsburgh and West Virginia are attractive possible options, but are pretty far afield geographically. In the case that the “ideal” falls through, things might actually go better if there is a feeling that the era of the super-conference has begun, thus pushing the entire football-playing Big East into a merger with the remainder of the Big 12 and an east-west divisional split.

Nonetheless, I don’t think the TCU/Louisville/BYU scenario is all that far out. I have to believe that TCU would relish being in the same conference as Texas, Baylor, and Texas Tech. BYU didn’t seem terribly enthused about joining the Big 12, but a football-only deal where they get to join a BCS-AQ conference and keep their own network (like the Longhorn Network) might seem like too good a deal to pass up. Louisville is probably the longest shot, but the Big East has its own instability issues, and the Big 12 can probably guarantee more money (at least at first).

Just pondering more scenarios…

[SPORTS] – Texas in the Big 10?

Orangebloods floats a possible scenario of Texas going to the Big 10. As part of that scenario, Texas would keep its Longhorn Network and not participate in the Big 10 Network. Maybe there is some discussion going on about that, but that notion of how things would be done should be sending alarm bells off that it wouldn’t work.

Imagine if they started with that arrangement. Well, how long do you think it would be before Ohio State started to think that maybe things would be better for them if they had a Buckeye Network and didn’t have to share everything in the Big 10 Network? Penn State? Or how about Michigan? How do you think Michigan State might feel about a Wolverine Network? Just change Michigan State to Texas A&M and Wolverine to Longhorn, and you’ll have your answer. To admit Texas by allowing them to keep their Longhorn Network and not participate in the Big 10 Network is to sign the death warrant of the Big 10 Network – and Big 10 unity. Any conference that admits Texas without forcing Texas to accept full and equal partnership is just sowing the same seeds of disunity and discontent that have led to the Big 12 teetering on the brink.

Once again, it sure seems like what Texas wants is all of the benefits of independence without any of the headaches of independence.

[SPORTS] – ACC Followup

So a report surfaced suggesting that the ACC was a potential player for Texas. The ACC quickly shot it down, however. My first thought about the Texas-to-ACC scenario: ugh. Oh, hey, I think Texas could be great for the conference – if Texas wanted to be a true partner. But the Orangebloods report suggests that the ACC scenario may be attractive to Texas only because Texas thinks they’ll get to keep their own network and maybe get to continue the same practices that have threatened to rip apart the Big 12. I continue to believe that independence is the way to go for the University of Texas, because it seems that what they currently want is a sort of independence without the scheduling headaches.

Remember that the New York Times reported last season that the Big 12 exodus to the Pac-10 last year was called off at the last minute because Texas just couldn’t hold themselves back from demanding to get more than everyone else. And also remember that one of the things that set Texas A&M off was their feeling that they had been deceived about Texas’ intentions with the Longhorn Network and felt that Texas was trying to bully their way into an arrangement that didn’t square with promises that had been made. So even if Texas goes humbly into the Pac-12 or the ACC, how long does anyone think it will be before they start fighting for a sweeter deal for themselves, even if it is to the detriment of their partners? Even before the Longhorn Network, when Nebraska left for the Big 10, which team were they grumbling about? Hint: it wasn’t Oklahoma or Texas A&M. People running these conferences need to look long and hard at why the Big 12 came apart.

I think the ACC should look in another direction.

[SPORTS] – What Should the ACC Do?

Through all of the college football expansion talk, one question has been the focus around the country: what will the ACC do?

OK, so actually maybe few people care. But, hey, I’m one of them.

The ACC is in a tough spot for a few reasons. One, there are several members that could be the subject of SEC interest if and when the SEC adds a 14th team. The program that makes the most sense for the SEC is Florida State, but I more and more believe that politics will prevent that from happening (there are several schools that will push to not admit a team from a state where the SEC already has a member, and I have a feeling that FSU won’t find any friends in Alabama, Auburn, or Georgia, all of which may feel reluctant due to their geographic – and thus competitive – proximity to the Seminoles). Still, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and others are candidates. And the Big 10 could eventually come calling as well.

Two, the ACC has a bad television deal. It turns out that there was more money out there than the ACC landed – a lot more – and that means that the ACC deal looks weaker than ever in pure dollar terms. On top of that – and this is the true failure of the league – the ACC’s TV deal just started this season and goes for 12 years. It was somewhat understandable that the ACC didn’t get a lot of dollars – they had little leverage at the time. The mistake the ACC made, however, was that they signed a long-term deal despite having little leverage and facing difficulties in both football and basketball at exactly the wrong time. They should have settled for a 4 or 5 year deal and hoped that the landscape was better down the road. Because of the bad television deal, however, the ACC may not be particularly attractive if this whole expansion rumble turns into an all-out free-for-all.

On top of all that, the ACC has several schools that are likely to turn up their noses at the whole expansion thing. I suspect there are still some schools that have never particularly gotten over adding Florida State – let alone the raid on the Big East that expanded the conference to 12. A conference like the Pac 12 may have had similar issues in recent years – until the lingering sense of superiority collapsed under the weight of bad television deals and underexposure. Eventually the Pac 12 decided to stop putting itself above it all and they hired Larry Scott, who was obviously brought in not because he was connected to collegiate athletics (he wasn’t), but because the Pac 12 knew he could make good deals and run a sports league. The result is that suddenly the Pac 12 has been as aggressive as anyone and they signed outstanding deals. The kind of deals that everyone in the ACC would love to have. The question is whether those schools in the ACC that like to think they are above it all will have the same “come to Jesus” moment as the Pac 12.

So they may be a target for big-time poachers, they have a bad TV deal, and there may be a lack of underlying conference unity. Not a good situation for the ACC.

If there is a saving grace, it would likely be in the form of some kind of opt-out clause in the TV deal that the ACC signed with ESPN. For example, most people believe that the SEC is willing to add Texas A&M and some other team because it will allow the SEC to renegotiate their contracts with CBS and ESPN, opting out if necessary, to get at least as much money per team as before, and likely more. If things start to get crazy in the expansion game, and if the ACC members start to get scared, it may finally present the “come to Jesus” moment for the schools that have not been on board with expansion in the past. It may force the ACC to get aggressive.

Now, if the SEC comes to poach schools from the ACC, there’s almost nothing that the ACC can do about it. Most schools likely to receive such an offer would take it. North Carolina is probably the one exception (Duke, Maryland, BC, et al would likely never get offers). On the other hand, it may be a closer question when it comes to offers from the Big 10 or Big East. Schools would only leave for the Big East if there was a massive amount of money involved. Right now that is not the case, and the Big East has additional problems thanks to its awkward football/basketball set-up. As for the Big 10, since they aren’t likely to pursue schools such as Florida State or Clemson, it remains an open question whether schools such as Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, or Duke – the likeliest targets – would be interested. You are talking about core ACC members there – some of them wielding outsized power in their present home.

But what if the ACC can force a re-negotiation of that bad deal by expanding? And what if the renegotiation of that deal helped convince the league’s fence-sitters to stick around? The only way that is going to happen is if the ACC expands. Now, the ACC may feel like they can live with matters as long as they do not fear losing any more than maybe one team to the SEC. On the other hand, if it looks like the ACC could get left behind in the expansion scramble, or if other conferences start poaching, then the ACC needs to have a contingency plan in place to hold things together, and that might require firing some quick shots of their own.

The ACC should have an expansion contingency in place, ready to go at a moment’s notice. There are really only a handful of viable options (no one is leaving the SEC or Big 10, and they likely won’t be able to go as far west as the SEC – the conference currently goes no farther west than Tallahassee or Atlanta). In my view, the top four options for the ACC are Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville, and Rutgers. Pittsburgh should be the first choice, with Syracuse and Louisville neck-and-neck for the second spot, and Rutgers a few lengths behind the other programs. UConn is another possible choice, but lingering bad feelings between the ACC and UConn might make it unlikely (memo to politicians and school administrators that decide to throw a tantrum and get litigious: remember that you might one day want to partner with the people you try to sue). Schools such as West Virginia, South Florida, Central Florida, and East Carolina would meet a good bit of resistance from various factions in the league and are not likely viable options absent the ACC getting desperate.

By the way, since I’ve said in the past that football attendance is an important metric when considering conference expansion, here is the 2010 average home game attendance for my top four choices: Pittsburgh (52,165); Syracuse (40,064); Louisville (50,648); Rutgers (46,195).

Because there is such a steep drop-off between the top 4-5 picks and then everyone else, the ACC really needs to think about being proactive rather than finding themselves trying to rebuild their conference with the dregs left over from the expansion wars. In my view, that means they should make an immediate play for Pittsburgh and then take a little time to sort out the rest as the national scenario plays out. When the smoke clears, I don’t think it would be a bad deal at all for the ACC to end up with the following 16 team configuration:

ACC North
Boston College
Virginia Tech

ACC South
Florida State
Georgia Tech
NC State
North Carolina
Wake Forest

I presume they would need to go to a 9 game conference schedule, with 7 divisional games and 2 inter-divisional games per team. That scenario adds four viable – though not top-shelf – football programs and three outstanding basketball programs.

Speaking of basketball, in a 16 team league I prefer a pod-type system in that sport. Break the league into four pods of four teams. Within the pod, each team plays each other twice every year. Then they play every other league team once per season. It would require 18 conference games. You can identify my suggested pods by looking at the divisions above – I have grouped them in order so the top four would be Pod 1, the next four Pod 2, and so on. [Update: The pod system is designed for scheduling purposes only. There wouldn’t be a Pod B Champion, or anything like that, and conference tournament seeding should be on pure overall conference record from 1 to 16.]

By the way, if the ACC wanted to try and dip their toes into a Pac-12 type regional network system, my projected pods might serve as the basis for four regional networks to begin.

I strongly believe that this scenario would make the ACC an overall much more valuable product (and the timing of deal-making would also improve given Florida State’s expected football resurgence).

PS: Where would my 16-team scenario leave the Big East? Simple: a merger with the remaining teams from the Big 12 (which sounds like it is already in the works). Assuming the Pac 12 expands to the Pac-16, that is. It would leave the Big East/12 with 10 remaining football members. If they wanted to add members, they could consider Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, SMU, East Carolina, and UTEP – among others.

Here’s a proposed Big East/12 16 team set-up assuming 4 teams were to leave the Big 12 and the four teams I suggested for the ACC leave the Big East:

Big East/12 North
West Virginia
Iowa State
Kansas State

Big East/12 South
South Florida
Central Florida
East Carolina

[SPORTS] – Get Real SMU (And Other Non-AQs)

So apparently SMU has made public its desire to join a BCS AQ conference. That sound you hear is 119 other schools chuckling at SMU holding a press conference to announce that water is wet.

SMU averaged attendance of just over 23 thousand fans last season in its 7 football games. Its stadium holds a maximum of 32 thousand (though SMU wants you to know it could expand to 40 thousand!). To put that into perspective, the Big 12 as a conference averaged more than 62 thousand fans per game. That’s almost three times what SMU actually averaged, and almost twice as many as the maximum that SMU could achieve.

On top of that, Baylor – widely considered to be the closest thing the Big 12 has to dead weight – averaged more than 40 thousand fans per game in 2010. In other words, Baylor averaged more fans last year than SMU could even fit into its stadium even after SMU’s claimed expansion. Non-AQ teams in the Big 12 footprint such as Air Force, BYU, and TCU all averaged more than 40 thousand fans per game last season. Even Rice drew more fans than SMU last season – 4-8 Rice!

SMU tries to make the case that “Dallas deserves a school” in a BCS AQ conference. No they don’t. No city “deserves” a school in a BCS AQ conference – and certainly not a city that can’t put more than 23 thousand fans in the seats for their newly respectable Mustangs. Left conveniently unsaid, of course, is that TCU – from neighboring city Fort Worth – will be joining a BCS AQ conference next season. And, thank you very much SMU, but the Big 12 doesn’t need you to “solidify the Dallas-Fort Worth TV market.” Even if both Texas A&M and Texas left the conference, the ripest target for shoring up the Dallas-Fort Worth TV market would be TCU.

In short, SMU adds nothing to the Big 12. If SMU were added to the conference, it would immediately be the weakest program in the Big 12 – by a healthy margin.

I hate to pick on SMU, but fans of non-AQ programs need to be realistic. Only nine BCS AQ programs drew less than 40k fans last season – and only two less than 30,000. There are 67 total AQ programs (including Notre Dame). And one of the programs at less than 30,000 was Duke, which also happens to have perhaps the most elite men’s basketball program in the country. (The other at less than 30k is the Washington State – and I assure you no one is looking for any more Washington States.)

Newsflash: BCS AQ conferences aren’t looking to increase the size of their weak tiers. To get added to a BCS AQ conference, the new team has to add value. If your favorite team doesn’t draw at least 40,000 fans, what kind of value would that program add? Don’t tell me about your “television market.” If your market is so big and great, why can’t you get anyone to show up for your games?

With 40k attendance as a cut-off, it is interesting to see which non-AQ squads meet that threshold. They are: Air Force, BYU, and East Carolina (and Air Force fell under that threshold as recently as 2009). That’s it! Central Florida just barely missed the cut-off with an average of 39,600 fans. I didn’t include TCU or Utah, which have already received their BCS AQ invitations. If you generously dropped the line to 30,000, you add to the list: Army, Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Houston, Navy, San Diego State, and UCF. At least with those programs they could credibly argue they wouldn’t be as weak as Washington State, although when you consider how disastrous things have been at Washington State, that’s not high praise.

Why does attendance matter so much? Money, of course. First, home attendance is a decent proxy for measuring fan support. If people aren’t showing up for games, then the interest on the TV side is likely flat as well. Also, the size of a stadium reflects support both in the amount of fans that show up but also in the amount of money that the school has been able to raise to build/expand the stadium. Boise State fans may claim that they could fit in more fans if they had more than 33,500 seats, but that misses the point. The fact that their stadium only has 33,500 seats tells a story about Boise State’s historical support. If Boise State had shown a capability of putting 40k or 50k butts in seats every week for a long period of time, then the stadium almost surely would have been expanded to that range already. As it is, the stadium only held 20k fans until 1996. What happens if Boise State’s program slips? Will they have sufficient residue of support to still fill their already small stadium, or will they go back to where they were at just 15 years ago? When you put the ceiling at 33,500, that doesn’t leave Boise State any margin whatsoever, and that hurts their viability.

Second, let’s take an example of how home attendance adds up. Oklahoma puts 84k fans in its stadium on average. Before someone protests that Oklahoma isn’t a fair example because it is relatively high in attendance even for the BCS AQs, let me point out that if a team is going to compete in a BCS AQ conference like the Big 12, they will have to compete against the Oklahoma’s of the world – like it or not. Now take a school that averages 34k fans. Not bad in the non-AQ world, but 50k fans behind an Oklahoma. Over the course of an average 7 game home schedule, however, the gap grows to 350,000 fans.

Now, let’s cast aside the additional donations that most Oklahoma fans have to make to get their tickets. And let’s generously under-price the cost of Oklahoma tickets. For the sake of fantasy, let’s say that the tickets for both Oklahoma and the 34k school are sold at an average cost of $40 per ticket. That means over the course of a season Oklahoma would draw an additional $14 million in revenue over the 34k school. That doesn’t include concession sales. And the additional costs required to seat the additional 50k fans per week are marginal (For example, Oklahoma would not need any more PA announcers or field maintenance crew than the 34k school). Once you take that difference and add on the concessions/memorabilia difference, along with the booster donations that come along with the ticket purchases, you see the massive financial difference. It is likely larger than the amount of TV revenue each conference school receives (it would be, for example, more than most Big 12 teams have made from their overall TV deals). Even against a school like Kansas State, the difference would be 15k per game – a more than $4 million starting gap in our basic hypothetical from even one of the poorest Big 12 schools.

It is true that these financial differences already exist within BCS AQ conferences. For example, Texas attendance dwarfs Baylor’s attendance. But, again, these conferences aren’t getting excited about adding any more Baylors. While no one would expect a Utah to compete with a USC financially right out of the box, the key is that Utah can compete financially with the rest of the Pac-12. In fact, I fully expect Utah to be roughly in the middle of the pack attendance-wise in 2011. The same will be true for TCU when it joins the Big East. If your favorite non-AQ school can’t say the same about the AQ conference you hope it will join, then my advice is not to get your hopes up too high.

[UPDATE: Something that was added in the ESPN coverage of SMU’s BCS fantasy press conference was SMU’s argument that since the SEC and Big 12 were essentially tied in the ratings in the Dallas Metroplex, then the Big 12 could use SMU to shore up its ratings in Dallas. My initial sense is that SMU is playing games with numbers here. Regardless, they’re engaging in logical fallacy to support their argument for inclusion on these grounds. The proper comparison to determine SMU’s value is not between the Big 12 and the SEC, but between SMU and the Big 12. If SMU’s games are rated higher in the Dallas Metroplex than the Big 12 games, then SMU actually has an argument that they would improve the Big 12’s ratings in the Dallas market (to the extent the increased value is sufficient to warrant inclusion). But given that SMU didn’t use that proper comparison, I’m guessing it was because the right comparison does not really reflect so well on SMU. As I mentioned above, if a school can only get 23,000 to show up for games, what is the likelihood that they are blowing the roof off the ratings?]

[UPDATE II: Just to illustrate the issue of how behind SMU is from the Big 12 schools, note that even if SMU expanded their stadium to 40,000, and even if SMU was able to sell it out every single week (something they’re not coming close to now in a 32,000 seat stadium), they still would likely be dead last in the Big 12 in attendance (Baylor averaged slightly more than 40k fans last season, so it is possible they could slip). In other words, SMU would struggle to keep up with even the Iowa State’s, Baylor’s, and Kansas State’s of the conference. SMU has a long way to go to make a decent case for entry into the Big 12. A long way.]