If Katrina Happened Five Years Later

Today we’re marking the fifth anniversary of Katrina devastating the Mississippi coast and exposing the criminal inadequacy of the federal levees in New Orleans. And most of the focus is on how far the region has come in five years.

But what’s on my mind today is how different the communication, media and information experience would be if Katrina was coming ashore today.

I was watching the approach and aftermath of Katrina with a lot of interest – I have connections to both New Orleans and the Mississippi gulf coast. And I happened to be in a position to be well-equipped to leverage the technology that existed at the time to uncover and distribute information.

I’ll forego the long narrative for some quick-hit observations on the difference between Katrina in 2005 and the experience as it would be today.

- Then: Right before the storm, New Orleanians were told to get out. So almost all of them left for … whatever seemed right to them as they headed north. On the road they had little if any information about where to go or how to get there. Houston became a favorite destination because, well, it’s Houston. You know there are hotels there and you know how to get there. It was a safe bet. You might have wondered if there was a smarter option, but it wasn’t worth the risk. Creeping along in the massive traffic to the sure bet was what made sense. Today: As dad drives north, mom is using the iPhone or Android to research options. She can already see on Waze that I-10 west of Baton Rouge is a mess, so continuing north looks like a better option. Zooming Google Maps in on Alexandria shows a bunch of hotels, and she clicks to call the Holiday Inn. They have a room, so she books it. They use a GPS app to take a back way in instead of staying with the masses on Interstate and get into a refuge eight hours earlier than trying to drive to Houston with the masses.

- Then: I first knew Katrina would be really bad when my wife IMed me the wave-height buoy page for Waveland. It had reached something like 28 feet early that morning and then went offline. With TV reporters long since bailed out, that was the only piece of information I had about conditions as the storm came ashore. I was at work that morning and didn’t have access to a television, but I imagine reporters were phoning in reports from inside their safe-distance hotels with observational updates. If you were watching TV, maybe you would know about it. Today: Assuming wireless communications stayed afloat; both reporters and average people would have broadcast text-based updates and photos (since everybody has a camera on their phone now) through Twitter in real time, and I would have known what was being reported through Twitter as well, either through actively searching for updates or just the Re-Tweet ecosystem. I might have seen a photo like this as it was happening, not a week or so later:

Waveland

- Then: Early reports from New Orleans were along the “dodged the bullet” line as reporters did their typical job of reporting what they could see and what they were told by authorities. The failure of the federal levees was not understood until well into the day of August 29. I recall a Times-Picayune update where a reporter had gotten out on a bike after people started calling in reports of flooding. The reporter rode over to the areas, saw the damage, road back and filed a story describing what he saw. If you were on your PC and went to nola.com, you might have seen it. Or if you were watching CNN you might have seen that they saw what nola.com was reporting. Today: Flooding reports likely would have been seen much earlier coming from stranded people. Most of the stranded would not likely be Twitter users, but one guy with an iPhone and Twitter would be all it took to get information and images out immediately (assuming, again, that cell service was up). And “New Orleans is underwater” would be trending real quickly. And the T-P reporter on the bike wouldn’t have to return to the newspaper office to file a story. He could stay in the field and broadcast the news and photos to the world all day just using his phone.

- Then: It took the media a long time to realize what was going on at the Convention Center and generally how little relief was coming to those stuck in the city. CNN applied a lot of pressure but it took a long time for that pressure to result in a resolution. If you were watching CNN or other networks, you knew about it, and that was about it. Today: The suffering of those at the Convention Center and elsewhere in the city not only would have been known earlier though information coming directly from the scene, but once the news was out there it would have been Re-Tweeted a million times and spread through Facebook like wildfire. The pressure on the government to act would be coming from millions of Americans, not just the TV media.

- Then: The evacuees were scattered and hopelessly disconnected from information about their city. The dumb little cell phone in their pocket might only connect them to another evacuee; not to any kind of information about what’s going on back home. My company was among those creating applications where “missing” New Orleans residents could be accounted for, but that required individual interaction with a PC. The technological hero of Katrina – Google Earth – had just been released a couple of months earlier, so few were aware of the amazing job the Earth community did in stitching together flyover photos and other information about conditions. And even if they knew about it, the only real way of getting that information was to open up a PC and look on Google Earth themselves. I was a Google Earth user at the time, and I used the images to help my friend Dave know that his house was underwater. I called him to tell him what I was seeing as he sat in Houston. Today: An evacuee would (assuming again that wireless networks would hold up and handle capacity) be able to stay in touch with everybody that mattered to them through Facebook. They could read news, see photos, get information on resources in the area they found themselves, etc. No doubt communities would have formed quickly to update gas and hotel availability and the like. Being geographically scattered today does not mean you are disconnected. Somebody asking the Internet about conditions on a specific street in New Orleans would get answers back almost immediately from a huge community willing to help.

Then: With New Orleans closed down after the flooding, information about what survived and what didn’t came out in a trickle. I have an email that was circulated a week after the failure of the federal levees describing a relief worker’s drive around the city that provided updates on specific spots around New Orleans. While the media had been reporting general conditions of flooded/not flooded for a while, that specific information was almost impossible to come by. I remember CNN broadcasting long videos of helicopter flyovers as a way of providing a little detail for those seeking it. I was first back in New Orleans six weeks after the flood, and part of our task was to get pictures of a house whose owners still didn’t know its fate. I took shots with a standard digital camera, downloaded them that night and emailed them along. Today: Just about everybody doing relief or otherwise finding themselves in the city right after the flood would be taking pictures and posting them – immediately or not long after. Many of those would be automatically geo-tagged and no doubt robust Google Map collections would be created by the mapping community to give real-time views of much of the city. And those collections would be viewable on the phones in the pockets of many New Orleans evacuees. Specific information would be readily and almost immediately available.

The real technological failure of Katrina, of course, was the wholly-inadequate federal levee system that was supposed to protect New Orleans from this relatively minor storm event. The absence of that technology is what doomed the city. But the experience of its citizens would be vastly different today given just the personal technology changes of the past five years.

Branding + Focus = “Every Night Should Be Saturday Night”

Loyal Wisdom readers have no doubt noticed a couple of things over the past few years – I don’t write a lot here anymore, and when I do it almost invariably focuses on college football, and most specifically LSU football. So as we approach the 2010 football season, I came to believe a change was in order. Rather than carry on with my LSU football focus on The Wisdom, it seemed wiser to create a new brand under which to write about my Tigers.

And thus I give you Every Night Should Be Saturday Night, or ENSBSN for short. If you’re well-versed in the worlds of college football and LSU, you might understand the references. There’s nothing revolutionary or particularly different from The Wisdom in the new site – just branding and focus to reflect what I care to write about these days.

Creating a little independent LSU football site does, though, reflect my growing frustration with the “SB Nationing” of the college football blogworld. Several of my favorite college football blogs have gone from simple independent sites full of design and content quirks to replaceable cogs in “blog networks” – trying to maintain their identity while doing things like writing coordinated pieces to satisfy the network’s EA Sports sponsorship sale. Consider this part of my backlash.

Of course the new site comes with the requisite Twitter account (@ensbsn) and Facebook Page. Following/Liking those things will get fresh stuff put in front of your face. Then there’s always the RSS feed for you oldsters.

As for The Wisdom, it’ll stick around. And I might even post things here from time to time. Just not stuff about football.

Gowalla Wars: SEC Football Stadiums

A couple of months ago I did a rundown of where SEC football stadiums stand in terms of Foursquare checkins. It’s only right that I do the same for the stadiums as Gowalla spots, especially considering I’m a much bigger user of Gowalla than Foursquare these days.

These rundowns are meant to be benchmarks to see what kind of activity the stadiums see this fall now that checkins are becoming a bigger deal.

As with Foursquare, the clear Gowalla leader right now is Florida’s Ben Hill Griffith Stadium, which has attracted 40 Gowalla users and 293 total checkins. Arkansas’ Razorback Stadium actually has more unique visitors (42), but only a total of 51 checkins. Obviously Florida students using Gowalla enjoy marking their passes by their stadium. And I don’t blame them – it’s a nice place.

Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is bringing up the rear, with just three unique visitors (21 checkins). Mississippi State’s Davis Wade Stadium has seen just eight visitors, with nobody checking in more than once. Somebody created two versions of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium, so its five (each) visitors and 20 (or 19) checkins could be off by just a bit.

And as far as Foursquare vs. Gowalla goes, only Arkansas has a higher usage rate for Gowalla (by a big margin – 42 Gowalla users to nine Foursquare users). That comparison will also be interesting to track this fall.

The full rundown of venue links and stats:

Alabama: Bryant-Denny Stadium
26 Checkins
13 Unique Visitors

Auburn: Jordan-Hare Stadium
20 Checkins
13 Unique Visitors

Arkansas: Razorback Stadium
51 Checkins
42 Unique Visitors

Florida: Ben Hill Griffith Stadium
293 Checkins
40 Unique Visitors

Georgia: Sanford Stadium
25 Checkins
15 Unique Visitors

Kentucky: Commonwealth Stadium (or this one)
20 Checkins
5 Unique Visitors

LSU: Tiger Stadium
32 Checkins
24 Unique Visitors

Ole Miss: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium
21 Checkins
3 Unique Visitors

Mississippi State: Davis Wade Stadium
8 Checkins
8 Unique Visitors

South Carolina: Williams-Brice Stadium
39 Checkins
23 Unique Visitors

Tennessee: Neyland Stadium
21 Checkins
15 Unique Visitors

Vanderbilt Stadium
11 Checkins
11 Unique Visitors

If A&M is headed to the SEC, who becomes the 14th team?

And now in the fast-changing world of reported impending conference moves, Texas A&M is believed to be leaning toward joining the SEC rather than following Texas into the would-be super conference we shall call the “Pac-16″ for now.

The Aggies would be a good addition for the SEC, what with their historical rivalries with Arkansas and LSU, their solid revenue base (at $72 million a year, they would be middle of the SEC pack, between South Carolina and Kentucky), their educational mission (says the graduate of Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College) and their geography – they stretch the conference just 350 miles west and add the state of Texas.

So now that everybody assumes Texas A&M is coming on board, the speculation has turned to who would be the 14th SEC team – going on the likely correct assumption that an even number is pretty important to maintain. Texas, Oklahoma – even Missouri – are being tossed around as the obvious and best choices for the SEC to go after. But I don’t think any of those schools or any school west of Birmingham is a good or likely choice to become Number 14.

The problem the speculators have is they think the SEC is motivated by the same things that drive decisions in the Big Ten. It is not. And therefore its expansion game is a very different one.

In the SEC, the makeup of the conference – not getting a footprint in new TV markets – has been the key to its success and I have to believe the driver going forward.

The Makeup: Two divisions across nine states divided East/West. And it’s a happy coincidence of geography that this split puts Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in one division and Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the other. And in the East, South Carolina has become a player in the division’s dynamic while Kentucky enjoys a strong rivalry with Tennessee. In the West there is another state pair in Ole Miss/MSU, which are also good rivals for LSU and to a lesser extent Alabama and Auburn. Nobody much cares about Arkansas, but they’re competitive enough to make things interesting at times. And, oh yeah, there’s Vandy.

Needless to say, the SEC is a strong football conference, and its current division alignments both nicely hold traditional rivalries and provide a strong balance of power. With the conference schedule structure allowing cross-division rivalries such as Georgia/Auburn and Alabama/Tennessee to continue each year, it’s pretty well perfect. Add two teams on the west side and what do you do? Split Alabama and Auburn? If Mike Slive ever came up with that idea, he’d be getting a visit from Dale Peterson real quick, and that would be the end of the discussion.

Arkansas in the East? LSU? Ole Miss? Mississippi State? Makes no sense at all. Completely reorganize the conference to accommodate Missouri or Oklahoma? Let’s try North/South: Kentucky, Missouri, Vandy, Tennessee, Arkansas, … um … Georgia and Ole Miss? Or South Carolina? And North/South sort of thing will land Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn in the same division, and that’s just not happening. Break with geography and throw Oklahoma or Missouri in the SEC East? I don’t the think conference is desperate like that.

I think East/West balance will be a huge consideration in any SEC expansion plan. The conference fit in terms of competitiveness, history and academic profile will be first, followed by how well the geography fits.

But what about TV markets?

Texas A&M would also be a great add because it makes a lot more people in Texas care about the SEC, and Aggies are doing their Aggie thing in Houston and Dallas – the number 10 and five Nielsen markets. The SEC’s biggest “market” right now is Atlanta (8) by virtue of Athens being a part of that. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Keep in mind, however, that the SEC as it currently exists sucks in terms of delivering TV households. Its biggest state is Florida – which is a damned big state – but one with football loyalties divided among four BCS programs and where 30% of the state lives in the decidedly non-Gator Miami area. Give the Gators credit for half of Florida and you’ve got another Georgia.

The SEC completely dominates Georgia (sorry, Tech fans), which is the ninth-most-populous state, Tennessee (17th), Alabama (23rd), South Carolina (24th), Louisiana (25th), Kentucky (26th), Mississippi (32nd) and Arkansas (33rd). Not exactly a TV demographer’s dream (seven of the Big Ten’s eight current states are among the top 21), yet ESPN and CBS will gladly hand this conference $205 million a year to broadcast its games.

How can that be? It’s because of the quality of the product, not the TV households its “fan base” represents. Getting into new TV markets is the Big Ten’s game, which is fine. And while the addition of this Texas school will be great for the SEC, it’s because Texas A&M is a good fit for the conference, not because a lot of people live in Texas. But lots of people living in Texas is a really nice bonus.

So, then, I think if A&M comes in, the SEC will look to add a 14th team. But I don’t think it will consider any team west of Birmingham. And I think the fit in the conference will be the driver, not the school’s TV market. For those reasons, I like Clemson – which has a natural rival in South Carolina and a historic one in Georgia. Florida State would be an OK fit if the Gators could be talked into it (I don’t think they’re afraid of competing with FSU; they just wouldn’t want to give them the validation of being SEC-worthy). Virginia Tech comes up a lot, and while they lack good histories with SEC teams and are geographically far-flung, it wouldn’t be a horrible addition. I don’t like Miami for the SEC and don’t think the conference would see a fit there. Georgia Tech is very “ACC” in my mind, but given its in-state rivalry with UGA, historic rivalry with Alabama and former SEC membership, I think they have to be in consideration. I know Atlanta would love to have those Tennessee and Florida dollars coming to town more often. Tech would see a huge revenue boost if they joined the SEC.

If we see the Big 12 dissolve this week and Texas A&M added to the SEC, I think the conference will be (somewhat) deliberative and (relatively in this crazy process) slow to bring on the 14th. Slive has said he doesn’t want to be the guy to bust apart a conference, so it would pay to sit back for a little while and see what the Big Ten does. If they raid the Big East, it could put in motion things that make the ACC willing to give up a team the SEC would like to have. If none of that happens, you can always call Clemson in six months or so.

In any case, I hope and trust the SEC will not rush into anything, and will keep in mind the dynamic that has it on top of college football now.

So will the Big Ten have a championship game?

Now that the Big Ten Conference will have 12 members come 2011, there is a “presumption” that the conference will go the SEC route and split into two divisions with a blockbuster football championship game at the end of the season.

But Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany – on record saying a title game is not the motivation for expansion and if they wanted one they could have done it 20 years ago – said yesterday that conference alignment and championship definitions will be up to conference presidents. Surely the topic has come up before. Delany saying there’s a “presumption” of a championship game would seem to indicate it’s not a sure thing.

So will we see a proper championship game in the Big Ten next year? There are reasons to suspect we won’t.

- Most importantly, it’s a poor assumption to think the 2012 Big Ten will be the same as the 2011 Big Ten – or even that the 2011 Big Ten will only have 12 teams. Before any division alignment or championship game decisions are made, the conference will need to know its membership is not likely to change anytime soon. Within a couple of weeks we may see a Big Ten that will be 14 or 16 teams come 2012.

But assuming for a moment they will be the 12 teams we know about:

- Division play is the key to the championship game format. In a 12-team conference, the standard model is that you play each of the other five teams in your division and three teams from the other division. But the Big Ten has a problem with geography and power bases. Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are undisputedly the football powers of the conference, and they also happen to be the three easternmost schools in the (current + Nebraska) Big Ten. They can’t put all three in one division, and East/West divisions won’t work. They could go Northish/Southish with Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska in the Northish Division and Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern in the Southish Division, but though Michigan would be 70 miles from Michigan State, they would be 400 miles from its second-closest division rival and 750 miles from their farthest (Nebraska).

But that seems like the most likely kind of division split – if the presidents could sell Michigan on it. The three powers can’t be in the same division with a championship game. None will go for “beat the other two conference powerhouses and you get a chance to beat the best team from the other side to be the champion!”. There’s no chance Penn State is aligned with teams all on the other side of Ohio and Michigan. Ohio State is the only current Big Ten team within 400 miles of State College. So it seems likely that Michigan is the odd man out here.

Will Michigan – down on its luck but still one of the two biggest dogs in the conference – go for “OK, you’ll just have to get past Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska … and Ohio State because obviously we’re keeping that … then beat Ohio State again or maybe Penn State at some neutral indoor site (sure, you’ve just played one game indoors in the past 25 years, but you’ll love it!) for a chance at the BCS!”? This to a program that went to Rose Bowls in 2003 and 2004 after losing two regular-season games. The bar has been really low for Big Ten achievement; do they want to raise that?

And how excited will Ohio State – which slid into three national championship games and four other BCS bowls in the past eight years sitting happily by as the SEC and others played championship games – be to have more of a hurdle put in front of them each year? Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa are probably very interested in a conference title game, but I’m not convinced Michigan and Ohio State will buy in to it.

- The Big Ten, of course, isn’t interested in increasing competition; they are only interested in increasing revenue. And the addition of a Big Ten Championship Game is seen as a financial windfall – which is the only reason it’s even being discussed. But does the addition of a championship game fit into the Big Ten revenue model?

The SEC Championship Game brings in $14.5 million in “profit” to be distributed to schools. Let’s be generous and say a Big Ten Championship Game would bring in $18 million. So you have one game with two teams playing on the final weekend of the season. That means the Big Ten is leaving 83% of its football inventory on the shelf and off the air on the most important Saturday of the year. What will the Big Ten Network show that day? Reruns of that season’s games?

The Big Ten could do nothing but add a ninth conference game (yes, they still only play eight) and shift some rivalries to the first weekend in December to create a non-event event weekend that might be as valuable as a championship game – without the ugly matter of one top conference team guaranteed to hand another a loss and knock them down the bowl ladder. Spreading the season out by another week would lead to more open dates, which means a less-crowded Big Ten Network schedule each week, which means more games on TV … which is the whole point of the Big Ten Network.

The Pac-10 has done this; USC/UCLA, Stanford/Cal, Oregon/Oregon State and Washington/Washington State and Arizona/Arizona State (Thursday this year) are all on “championship Saturday” now. That conference has recognized the value of playing on “championship Saturday” even when you don’t have a championship game. Yes, weather plays a much bigger factor in the Big Ten when you start talking about scheduling December games, but that’s the market the Big Ten Network plays in.

If the combination of TV money from a big “rivalry” weekend and stretched season with one more higher-value conference game each plus the revenue protected by not knocking the loser of a championship game down a notch in the bowls comes anywhere close to the revenue from a Big Ten Championship Game, I don’t think a title game happens.

And I think the Big Ten will wait to see what happens with the Pac-10 in the coming week or so before they even settle on an expansion strategy. If the Pac-10 goes to 16 and the Big 12 folds, there is already talk that the conference will try to get two automatic BCS berths instead of creating a championship game. Great for revenue; bad for football. But the Big Ten no doubt has their eyes on this strategy. And I’d be shocked if the Pac-10 hasn’t already raised the question with its BCS pals and feels pretty confident it can make it happen.

In that case, the Big Ten would have all the motivation in the world to raid the Big East (Rutgers, Pitt), put them out of the football business and their BCS bid up for grabs. Then add Missouri and answer the calls of a nervous Notre Dame and you’ve got the Pac-10 model. And God would the Big Ten love that.

So it’s way premature to think the Big Ten will be only 12 teams going forward. And before the presidents are asked to vote on a championship game, they’ll likely be asked to vote on more applications to join the conference. If there’s even a hint that more expansion means more guaranteed BCS money, the idea of a Big Ten Championship Game will be quickly forgotten.

A Pac-16 … without a championship game?

So it appears the Big 12 is a day or so from complete implosion. Nebraska is expected to jump to the Big Ten, which would open the door for Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado to align with the Pac-10. And Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor will end up God knows where.

The word of this major and unexpected surrender of the Big 12 has come quickly all week through what are seemingly strategically-made anonymous comments from conference athletic directors and coaches. As an aside, I’d bet the ball started rolling with Baylor people looking to expose the scheme to either derail it or at least get themselves a Pac-10 invite.

And tonight there’s an ESPN story quoting yet another anonymous Big 12 source (a “Big 12 football coach”), who confirmed the pending Pac-10 invites for the six Big 12 schools. But among the anonymous comments was this (emphasis mine):

The coach said it’s possible the Pac-16 would push for two automatic bids to the BCS, one for each division champion. That potential bonanza could open the possibility of the two division champs from one league playing for the national title, and it would eliminate the need for a conference championship game.

“The Pac-10 doesn’t believe in a championship game,” the coach said. “And coaches in the Big 12 don’t like it anyway.”

Hold on a second. If part of the “Pac-16″ scheme is to worm two of their teams into the BCS without playing a championship game, well that new conference can go fuck itself. Right now, of course, one of ten Pac-10 teams gets an automatic bid after playing a full round-robin conference schedule, and one out of 12 Big 12 teams goes after eight conference games and a title game. But they want two of 16 (instead of 2 of 24) to get automatic BCS bids?

If the BCS sticks around, the “mega-conference” idea has the potential to clear up the selection process – if the mega-conferences determine a clear champion that it its BCS representative. But this idea of each division sending a team to the BCS with no title game is a huge chickenshit step backward.

It’s easy, of course, to understand where this idea comes from. Does anybody think USC wants to have to play Texas to get to a BCS title game (once they are eligible for bowl games again)? Texas, no doubt, would rather not have needed that extra second in that extra game against Nebraska to make the title game last year. The 2008 Big 12 mess (Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech all tied) is fresh in their minds, as is the 2007 title game where Oklahoma beating Missouri kept the Big 12 out of the BCS title game. And none of the Big 12 teams aligning with the Pac-10 can be happy with the idea of having USC or whoever is the best of those eight teams standing in their path to the BCS.

But it’s crap and the kind of power play none of the other BCS members should stand for … but there could be another that might like that sort of arrangement – the Big Ten.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is on record that he’s not interested in a championship game; he just wants new cable markets and more money. Having this idea planted that a conference might go to 16 teams, not have a championship and be guaranteed to send two schools to the BCS is the kind of thing that must make his toes tingle.

And if you get the big-money teams out west and the big-money teams in the Midwest all pushing for this idea, it just might happen. That would be a huge step backward. We need to move closer to determining a champion on the field, not farther from it.

The conventional wisdom is that once one 16-team conference is created, others will follow. It seems that the Big Ten has its eyes on going to 14 teams, but 16 would be easy for them to get to if Missouri and Kansas are left out in the cold. Some amalgam of the ACC/Big East could get to 16, and maybe they wouldn’t want a title game and would like two BCS invites as well. If the SEC wanted to stand pat with their powerhouse 12-team lineup and fantastic SEC Championship Game, they might get pushed to 16 without a title game because it would be foolish to be the one conference not grabbing two automatic BCS berths.

Do we end up with eight super-conference teams being automatically put into a bigger BCS lineup (hello, Cotton Bowl) with a couple of toss-ins to the minor conferences? And no conference championship games? God I hope not.

The Pac-10 / Big 12 Merger

Most of the rumors of impending conference shifts this off season have been easy to ignore. But this week’s bombshell out of Rivals.com (a Yahoo company and well-respected outfit) that the Pac-10 is prepared to absorb half of the Big 12 to create a 16-team mega-conference can’t be easily dismissed. It’s an out-of-the-blue concept and obviously would totally reshape the college football world. And it’s pretty damned brilliant.

We’ll see what ultimately happens, but one thing is clear. This wouldn’t be teams joining the Pac-10; this would be a merger – the creation of a new “super conference” that has the powers of the Big 12 and all of the Pac-10 as its base.

It’s not entirely correct to compare this to a corporate merger, since a “conference” is only an entity created by its member schools. It’s a marketing alliance; a co-op. But by the same token, there’s not much equity that exists with a conference itself; its value is derived from the value of its schools and their relation to each other (rivalries, regional connections, etc.).

So there’s a simple question that can be asked of all of these “co-ops” (conferences): Is what you have now better than viable alternatives? That question can also be asked of individual schools, of course, but this Pac-10 / Big 12 thing raises it to the conference level. And this is primarily a football question, though “viable” really comes into play for other sports where concerns like geography/travel requirements are a huge factor with the number of games and lack of positive cash flow.

The SEC would be hard-pressed to find something better. This is a cohesive regional conference with intense rivalries, a long history and a wealth of quality football programs. Six of the conferences 12 schools have finished in the top 5 in the past decade, and only three schools (Vandy, Kentucky and Mississippi State) have failed to post a top-15 finish in that stretch. And, of course, there are those five national championships (plus the one Auburn deserves) since 2003. There could be room for expansion (hello, Clemson and Florida State) in a way that makes sense for the SEC, but ESPN and CBS have given the conference three billion endorsements for what it’s doing already.

The Big Ten, of course, is itching to grow its cable network. Right now it has a good geographic fit, strong traditional rivalries and a proud history. But it struggles for relevancy in the modern era. It may have a plan to cobble together a “super conference”, and the Pac-10 / Big 12 thing may help them out tremendously (I’ll get to that). Clearly the Big Ten sees a “better” alternative than the status quo.

Then there’s the ACC and the Big East, which both might just be in a heap of trouble. Neither is in a great position right now (the Big East is nearly dead already), and neither have particularly good options. Where there has been concern about the Big 12 being picked to death, there should also be concern about the ACC and Big East dying on the vine.

Well, then, what about the Pac-10 and the Big 12?

I like the Pac-10 a lot. They have been too influenced by USC this decade, but it’s really a great football conference. The root teams of the old (and I do mean old – 1915 to be exact) Pacific Coast Conference include Washington and Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA. Way before the era of college football as a national TV sport, those rivalries were raging strong. In 1935, 94,000 people watched Stanford/Cal in Stanford Stadium – Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium had 17,860 seats at the time. I loved being out at the rickety old Husky Stadium last fall for LSU’s game against Washington, and I get the sense that Pac-10 football is a lot of fun. And it’s a solid conference, with eight of its 10 teams scoring top-15 finishes in the past 10 years; plus Stanford finished 16th once. Only Arizona has failed to crack the top-20 in the past decade.

Where the conference suffers, though, is in exposure. Even with USC’s success of late, the Pac-10 struggles for national attention. A lot of that is the time zone – much of America has gone to bed before the Pac-10′s Saturday finishes, and the sports world moves on to the NFL at about 10 a.m. Eastern on Sunday. Getting bigger would help the Pac-10 get more attention.

The Big 12′s problem is a lack of cohesiveness. Cobbed together from the Big 8 and the remnants of the Southwest Conference just 14 years ago, this is a conference born of a shotgun wedding. The SWC was “every team in Texas … plus Arkansas”, while the Big 8 spanned six states across the Great Plains. Outside of Texas (SWC) vs. Oklahoma (Big 8), there’s no great rivalry that spans the two original conferences. Joining a conference with the Sooners was good for Texas, but you have to wonder how much the folks in Austin really like being add-ons to the Big 8. Frankly, the teams of the Big 12 don’t have a lot to lose in looking at ways their conference might cease to exist.

And this reported plan with the Pac-10 may just be that way. The headline, of course, is that Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Colorado would be invited into the Pac-10. Those six teams would join Arizona and Arizona State in the “non-Pacific” division of the new super conference. Other than Colorado being sort of a bolt-on team in geographic terms and there being a hole called “New Mexico” between Arizona and Texas, that’s a pretty nice football division. It’s the Big 12 South where you swap Colorado for Baylor (which is like hitting the lottery), and you pick up a decent team in Arizona State and a could-one-day-be-decent(maybe) team in Arizona.

Then instead of rotating a few games with Nebraska and a bunch of crap schools (Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri), you toss USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State into the mix. And, presumably, the winners of each division face off in a bigger-than-anything-now (how about USC / Texas?) Championship Game.

And out on the west coast they have re-assembled all of the glory teams of the old Pacific Coast Conference into a division. Maybe in this model there are eight conference games (the Pac-10 plays nine now), you play everybody in your division and just one team on the other side. All of a sudden you’ve brought back strong regionalism and turned the new super conference into one that matters as much – if not more than – as any other conference out there.

Win, win, win and win. And win some more.

The inventory of 16 non-joke (ala Vandy, Duke, etc.) football programs playing strong sectional schedules all season plus some nice intersectional games (again, USC / Texas, Oklahoma / Cal, Okla. State / Oregon – highly watchable) capped by a huge Championship Game is the kind of thing a Fox or CBS could build entire networks around (both broadcast and cable; a turbocharged Big Ten Network). And this wouldn’t just be the Big Ten’s game of getting into as many cable markets as possible – this would be high-quality college football, and also serve the purpose of whittling down the qualifying field for BCS Championship Games; the sort-of playoff idea.

A bold, strong idea. And I like it.

Of the non-invited, Missouri and Nebraska would likely have happy new homes in the Big Ten. Kansas could also talk its way into a “Big Sixteen”. Iowa State and Baylor – who cares? Join the Mountain West or something. Kansas State is a ‘tweener – almost respectable enough to care where it goes. Hey, you could rule Conference USA!

The point is I don’t think (outside of Kansas State) any of the Big 12 schools would have a problem with a planned demise of the conference. The six that would join the Pac-10 teams should be thrilled with that plan; Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas would slide nicely into The Really Big Ten. Iowa State and Baylor are going nowhere in the Big 12; they need smaller ponds to play in.

And if it works out best for the Big 12 to dissolve, so be it.

Update: With the Pac-10 meetings underway and fallout coming from the original Rivals story, things are getting clearer – and muddier.

Apparently the creation of a “Pac-10 Network” in the mold of the Big Ten Network is a given. For its own sake, I hope the conference doesn’t think that small. The west is already isolated, and if the super conference’s focus is carriage rates for cable markets instead of national exposure, that’ll be a mistake. With 16 teams including Texas, Oklahoma, USC and Oregon, they would have an opportunity to build a powerful national brand. They shouldn’t make 77% of the U.S. population hunt for their games on specialty cable networks they may not even have. Sure, USC / Oklahoma would get on a national network, but they need to get the Oregon State (8-5) / Stanford (8-5) type of games – that was shown on Fox Sports Network last year – the kind of exposure Auburn (8-5) / Tennessee (7-6) gets – that game was on ESPN in prime time.

Likewise, the (apparently not favored) options of staying at ten teams or moving to 12 might make the Pac-10/12 a viable cable network, but it would lose the opportunity to create a powerful football brand.

But apparently the SEC is the only conference that has actually focused on growing the value of the brand – now worth $3 billion over 15 years to ESPN and CBS – instead of just growing revenue.

And Texas legislators are looking to pressure Baylor in (instead of Colorado), which would be a shame. Baylor’s political connections got it into the Big 12 when the SWC dissolved, and its yet to post a winning season in the 14 years since. Colorado has not been any better of late, but has at least posted seven winning seasons in the Big 12.

Rice, SMU, Houston and TCU (I bet they wish they could take that one back) got thrown to the side when the SWC dissolved. It’s Baylor’s turn now.

“We’re gonna force you to take Baylor” can’t be something that’s making the Pac-10 people lean harder toward the super-conference idea.

Big Ten – The CMT of CFB

The talk of Big Ten expansion and the expected ripple effect through major college football is inescapable this off season. The presumed dominance an expanded Big Ten apparently would claim has forced every university president and athletic director – from the heavyweights to the barely existent – to ponder what Big Ten expansion means to their program.

But the amazing and disturbing thing about this talk of a pending major shift in all of major college football is that it’s all about generating higher subscriber fees from a basic cable network.

The Big Ten Network (a joint venture with News Corp.) is now the primary driver of Big Ten revenue – and apparently a rousing success. The revenue model is a good one, and one that’s familiar to any second-tier cable TV executive – get into as many households as possible to generate carriage fees, charge the distributors as much as you can for carriage and keep your production costs low. The Big Ten Network (BTN) is Country Music Television (CMT) and its athletes are stars of their own reality TV shows.

News Corp. and the Big Ten want to expand so they can charge more money for the BTN. It’s as simple as that. This isn’t about expanding the Big Ten; it’s about expanding the Big Ten Network.

They don’t want to add The University of Missouri to their conference; they want to add Charter Cable of St. Louis to their network. Carriage rates, it seems, are much higher in markets where there is a Big Ten team.

That’s the game the Big Ten is playing. And when the future of college football supposedly comes down to whether a cable customer is worth 10 cents a month or 70 cents a month – well that’s a shame.

The Big Ten seems to have little interest in raising its competitiveness in college football. Commissioner Jim Delany is on record saying he doesn’t care about creating a championship game. The 11-team conference still plays a laughable eight-game conference schedule that puts a questionable “champion” on the shelf while the SEC, Big 12 and ACC gear up for championship games and the Pac-10 finishes out it season of each team playing one another.

I don’t care about the Big Ten. Let them add Rutgers to get into the New York market and get those high carriage rates. But I hope the other conferences take a look at the big picture and don’t go into land-grab mode once the BTN adds new high-carriage-rate markets.

Tony Barnhart loves to quote former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer saying “Your No. 1 job is to look at least 10 years down the road to where your conference is going to be and where the competition is going to be.” And that’s absolutely right.

So … 10 years from now, how important will a basic cable footprint be to a conference?

These are the early days of the decline of traditional television. Distribution is (slowly) moving away from the 100-channel subscription television model. I didn’t buy ESPN’s GamePlan last season because I had free access to all the games I’d want to see on ESPN360.com. It’s no longer a crazy idea that you could go without cable or satellite service and still watch your favorite programs. Folks like Google are pretty interested in that idea now. As more content is served through the Internet right to your television, the demand for paid cable channels will go down.

Things will be far different in the “television” world 10 years from now. And the Big Ten is apparently committed to their basic cable network and dependent on carriage fees for 17 more years.

The SEC signed a blockbuster 15-year deal with ESPN two years ago – after considering creating its own conference-owned network. In announcing the $2.25 billion ESPN deal, which came on the heels of a new $825 million deal for games on CBS, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive talked about the SEC’s decision to go with ESPN instead of creating its own network.

“In considering these two options, our goals were as follows: To provide expanded national exposure for football, men’s and women’s basketball and our Olympic sports; to further increase the recognition of the Southeastern Conference nationally; to provide the opportunity for our institutions to promote their academic initiatives and achievements; to provide widespread distribution of SEC programming for our fans, both inside and outside of the SEC footprint; to recapture the copyright of our games; to retain digital rights for the benefit of our institutions and conference as we move into the age of new medias, and, finally, to provide financial stability for the Conference and for our institutions,” Silve said.

Through 2023, the SEC has a guaranteed $205 million per year revenue stream while having its product distributed by the undisputed powerhouse in sports media. ESPN and CBS made these commitments because of the strength of the SEC’s product. The only risk for the SEC is that 15 years from now their TV rights might be worth more than $205 million a year.

Through 2027, the Big Ten will be largely dependent on the dynamics of cable television for their revenue. Their partner (News Corp.) isn’t interested in the quality of the product, they’re focused on the network’s footprint. The conference may well come out ahead of the SEC financially at the end of its News Corp. deal, but the quality of their product will be in doubt after adding schools to grow the footprint. The conference is putting a lot at risk to play the cable TV game as it exists today.

So if the SEC stands pat with its 12-member conference and the Big Ten expands for the sake of carriage rates as expected, at the end of their current deals the SEC will be shopping a high-quality product that’s been the centerpiece of college sports on The Worldwide Leader for 15 years and the Big Ten will be shopping … awesome rivalries like Minnesota / Rutgers that have been enjoyed by everybody on basic cable who cares enough to subscribe to BTN and/or find it in the cable guide.

And note Slive’s mention of digital rights retention and the “age of new medias”. In their deals, the SEC has secured $205 million a year for television-type rights while apparently holding on to the digital rights that no doubt will become much more valuable over the next decade. BTN, no doubt, will also leverage digital rights, but again for a product not focused on quality.

I hope the SEC stays on the course it set with its 1992 expansion and focuses on the quality of their product over merely maximizing short-term revenue. Over the long haul, the value of having the nation’s strongest football conference will present more opportunities than finding more homes to squeeze 70 cents a month out of.

No matter what the Big Ten does, the SEC doesn’t need to expand. Circumstances might arise that make expansion a smart move for the SEC, but those circumstances would be something like Texas and Florida State looking for new homes, not luring North Carolina State into the conference to expand the footprint. That’s the Big Ten’s game – and one they have to play given the focus on CMT – I mean BTN. Reaching out to get into more cable markets might make them richer, but it won’t make them stronger.

LSU Football 2010 schedule wallpaper – the honest version

Because let’s get real, aight?

We’re this:

Not this:

Saying it don’t make it so.

Foursquare Wars: SEC football stadiums

Fans of SEC football teams love to tout their team’s rankings – from numbers of titles won to recruiting class rankings to seating capacity and on and on. So here’s something else to chew on and watch over time: Foursquare popularity of SEC football stadiums.

And since the spring is a preview of the fall, checking in on check-ins now will serve as a good base to see how the stadium “venues” draw Foursquare users come football season. As of today (April 17, 2010), we find:

- Florida’s Ben Hill Griffith Stadium blowing the rest of the schools away in terms of total check-ins with 268. South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium comes in second with 179. Bringing up the rear are Mississippi State’s Davis-Wade Stadium with just four total check-ins to date. Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium and Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium have both drawn only eight check-ins so far.

- Oddly, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have all had 47 unique visitors to their stadiums to lead the conference. The three people who have bothered to check in at Davis-Wade in Starkville also represents the SEC cellar.

- The first SEC stadium to be set up as a Foursquare venue (at least as they currently exist) was Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, which came aboard more than 100,000 venues before any of the others. Apparently somebody with a love of SEC stadiums went on a venue-creating tear at one point, with nine of the 12 stadiums being created at pretty much the same time. The newest venue is Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium, which came on 200,000 venues after the flurry of stadium creation.

The full rundown of venue links and stats:

Alabama: Bryant-Denny Stadium
75 Check-ins
39 Unique Visitors

Auburn: Jordan-Hare Stadium
73 Check-ins
17 Unique Visitors

Arkansas: Razorback Stadium
16 Check-ins
9 Unique Visitors

Florida: Ben Hill Griffith Stadium
268 Check-ins
47 Unique Visitors

Georgia: Sanford Stadium
61 Check-ins
47 Unique Visitors

Kentucky: Commonwealth Stadium
8 Check-ins
4 Unique Visitors

LSU: Tiger Stadium
62 Check-ins
41 Unique Visitors

Ole Miss: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium
8 Check-ins
7 Unique Visitors

Mississippi State: Davis Wade Stadium
4 Check-ins
3 Unique Visitors

South Carolina: Williams-Brice Stadium
179 Check-ins
31 Unique Visitors

Tennessee: Neyland Stadium
54 Check-ins
47 Unique Visitors

Vanderbilt Stadium
16 Check-ins
11 Unique Visitors

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