It all started with a simple tweet from CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd at 5:57 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday evening: “Latest on SEC No. 14 West Virginia/Missouri.”
The fact that SEC presidents were reportedly already planning to meet Tuesday night to vote on issuing an invitation to Texas A&M only added to the intrigue.
Dodd’s tweet gained further traction, when David Sandhop, publisher of Aggie Websider (the A&M Scout.com site), reported not only that the Aggies had received the needed votes to make the jump to the SEC, but that the league’s presidents had given commissioner Mike Slive the authority to negotiate with both Missouri and WVU to possibly join as well.
Chip Brown of Orangebloods.com added his own voice to the chorus not long after, tweeting similar information to Sandhop’s. Brown, who covers Texas athletics but was ahead of the curve nationally during realignment talks in 2010, said the Mountaineers are “squarely on the SEC radar as a potential 14th member.”
The reports set off a series of debates among national sports media figures and fans of some schools as to the merits of the potential additions.
Chadd Scott, an Atlanta-based sports radio personality, chimed in: “I don’t believe for a second SEC interested in WVU,” he said on Twitter. “Mizzou or staying @ 13 far better choices.”
But that opinion would seem to be a relatively uninformed one -- at least when it comes to the idea of the SEC “staying at 13.”
NCAA Bylaw 18.104.22.168 (c) would make that a nightmarish scenario because of the SEC’s pre-existing conference championship game in football.
The bylaw reads that for such a game to be held, it must be played “between division champions of a member conference of 12 or more institutions that is divided into two divisions...each of which conducts round-robin, regular-season competition among the members of that division.”
The important portion there is “round-robin.” If the SEC stayed at 13 teams for even one year, it would be a scheduling nightmare. One division would have seven teams, the other six. The NCAA bylaw would require each to play round-robin style -- meaning those in one division would have six divisional games and those in the other would have five.
Thus, the SEC will need to add a 14th member to avoid such issues. And if Texas A&M’s own “Dear John” letter to the Big 12 Conference is to be believed and that institution will withdraw from the Big 12 next summer (meaning it would start SEC play next season), the SEC needs that 14th member in a hurry.
Simply put: West Virginia might be the path of least resistance for that league.
Other potential choices that have been bandied about for weeks have major hurdles to clear: Florida’s disdain for the idea of adding Florida State; Virginia Tech’s political entanglements within its commonwealth’s borders; Missouri’s oft-discussed preference to join the Big Ten.
WVU has no such issues. Politically, the move would be a slam-dunk in the Mountain State. There are no regional competitors within the current SEC framework who would try to block the move to protect their turf.
Scott and several others who publicly condemned the idea of adding the Mountaineers to the SEC pointed to Missouri holding St. Louis within its borders, and the sizable TV market that would bring to the league. Their argument indirectly indicated West Virginia lacked in that area.
But the numbers might not be so skewed in the Tigers’ direction as many might think. In Nielson’s most recent data on the size of local television markets, St. Louis ranked 21st with just over 1.25 million TV homes.
But Pittsburgh, about an hour north of WVU’s Morgantown campus, was not far behind at 24th on the list (1.16 million TV homes). WVU also would bring the Charleston-Huntington market, ranked 64th on the list. Arguments could be made as to the Mountaineers’ reach into the Washington, D.C., market as well (No. 9 nationally).
For comparison’s sake, Lexington, Ky., (home of current SEC member Kentucky) comes in 63rd on the list. The Wildcats also reach deep into the Louisville market, but that city is only 50th on the list.
Other metrics indicate the passion of West Virginia fans is at least on par with that of most other current SEC schools and Missouri.
The Collegiate Licensing Company’s most recent rankings in terms of royalties on merchandise sold placed WVU at No. 15.
That’s ahead of SEC schools like Arkansas (17), South Carolina (19), Ole Miss (37) and Vanderbilt (64). It is also better than the program that is apparently the conference’s newest member, as Texas A&M came in at No. 20. And it outranks the Mountaineers’ reported competition for an SEC bid, Missouri (18).
As things stand currently, even without the benefit of a TV contract on a scale most other BCS conferences enjoy, WVU’s football program is the 24th most profitable college athletics program in the country, according to data compiled by sports business guru Kristi Dosh.
That data indicates the Mountaineers bring in almost $29 million per year in football revenue -- more than $4 million per year better than Missouri.
WVU athletic director Oliver Luck has also pointed to television ratings as a way of showing the power of his football program’s brand.
“We've had the most-watched Thursday night ESPN game [a 2006 loss at Louisville, ESPN’s fifth-highest rated college football game ever as of 2010] ...” he said back in June 2010 after taking the AD job, when the first reports of major realignment were still simmering.
“Those aren't folks just within our state boundary; that's across the country, so obviously, people care about Mountaineer football, and this conference realignment, by and large, is being driven by football.”
And then there is West Virginia fans’ penchant for traveling to road games and bowl contests in droves, something that has been cited time and again by bowl executives as one of the things that is most enticing about the Mountaineers when December and January roll around.
On the field, of course, WVU has a pair of BCS bowl wins over traditional powerhouse programs in the last half-dozen years -- including an SEC champion (Georgia in 2005-06) and a Big 12 champion (Oklahoma in 2007-08). The program has averaged 10 wins a season over the last six years.
All this isn’t to say there aren’t potential roadblocks.
Various academic rankings still put WVU far behind other possible SEC additions, and conferences have at least given the appearance of caring about such things thus far.
And the possibility exists that the very public expression of interest in West Virginia is little more than a political play by SEC commissioner Mike Slive, hoping to pressure Missouri (or whoever else that conference might otherwise want) into making a move sooner rather than later, lest the proverbial ship sail in the form of an invitation to the Mountaineers.
The fact that WVU is in the conversation at all may surprise some. If the SEC’s interest is real and such a time comes to pass, Luck, University president James P. Clements and other officials will have to put on an impressive sales pitch if they hope to secure an invitation.
But the facts support the notion that, at the very least, the Mountaineers are a competitive option when their full resume is considered next to that of Missouri or any other school on the SEC’s radar. Whether such a move occurs remains to be seen and depends on multiple factors at conferences and schools across the country.