Tom Wistrcill had some fun on Twitter not long after the SEC shook up the college sports landscape by poaching Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 less than a year ago.
The Big Sky Conference Commissioner — who grew up in Spencer, Iowa — offered the Big Ten a playful lifeboat at the dawn of the superconference era.
“What do you think? Let the merger talks begin,” he tweeted to Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren in September. The tweet came from just outside of Big Ten headquarters in Chicago where all of the conference commissioners were waiting for the next realignment shoe to drop.
As it turns out, the Big Ten had an eye on some property out West. Think Beverly Hills, not Rocky Mountains though.
USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl
Just as the Texas-Oklahoma dust was beginning to settle, USC and UCLA quietly reached out to the Big Ten. Exit rumors swirled to start June 30. By nightfall, the Big Ten’s presidents and chancellors voted to lock in the schools and their LA market.
“The money is there for those schools in the Big Ten and the SEC to dramatically increase their revenue,” Wistrcill told PlayIA. “The gap used to not be that big between the Big Ten, and the Big 12, the PAC-12 and the ACC. It was a million dollars here and there. But now we’re heading to the point where it could be 20, 30, 40, maybe even a $50 million difference per school per year, depending upon the conference. And so that’s a dramatic difference.”
“That fractures what used to be a very solid group. I’m only disappointed because I like the tradition and pageantry of college sports and the conferences battling each other. Growing up in the Midwest like I did and like you did, you love the Rose Bowl, right? It was the chance on New Year’s Day to flip on the TV and watch that Big Ten champ take on USC or UCLA. And to see that go by the wayside is sad. But where things are at right now, and the opportunities for money to be that drastically different — it doesn’t surprise me that we’re here.”
What to expect when you’re expecting a superconference
Think back to the Texas-Oklahoma news a year ago. The Big 12 ultimately added BYU plus Cincinnati, Houston and UCF from the American Athletic Conference. The AAC then had to raid Conference USA for six programs to stabilize its membership. The Sun Belt also reshuffled its ranks as part of a domino effect.
Wistrcill says beat writers and Twitter speculators are right: The latest shuffle won’t stop at USC and UCLA to the Big Ten.
“I think what people get right is the fact that people are looking (for a new conference) right now,” he said. “The UCLA-USC thing opened the wound. So there are aggressive conversations going on all over the country.”
But Wistrcill said analysts often get the timing wrong. Raids and realignments don’t happen overnight.
“There are a lot of people that have to be considered, the athletic director, you have the president of the university. The president reports to a board of trustees or a Board of Regents. Oftentimes those boards are governmentally run and so they need to talk to the governor. They might have a Board of Higher Education that oversees all the universities so there’s a lot of politics at play.”
The Wistrcill crystal ball
Notre Dame vs. Iowa in the Big Ten?
“To me, the obvious thing is, Notre Dame has to make a decision,” Wistrcill said. “So here it is Friday afternoon (July 8). If Notre Dame wants to join the Big Ten, this will be the best time for them to do it. And it might be that it’s never monetarily made sense before. But if I’m Kevin Warren at the Big Ten headquarters, I’ve already talked to the TV people, I know how much more money I can get from them if Notre Dame is part of that package. And I’m going to Notre Dame saying ‘OK, here you go, if you come with us, here’s how much more money you’re going to make.’ So to me, that’s the first domino that has to fall.”
“After that, you know, my gut tells me the Big Ten won’t do much beyond that right now. I don’t know if there’s any other schools other than Notre Dame that grows their revenue exponentially enough for the Minnesotas, the Iowas, Wisconsin, Indiana, those others to increase their revenue. I don’t think another school does that right now.”
Wistrcill doesn’t see PAC pickups for Iowa State
There has been talk of the Big 12 pecking at the possible PAC-12 carcass by adding Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and old friend Colorado. Bigger prizes like Oregon and Washington are possibilities as well.
Wistrcill is skeptical, however. He isn’t sure TV executives will up their Big 12 contract bids enough to offset the smaller share per school if the Big 12 has to feed its TV money to 16 or 18 schools instead of 12.
“So if the Big Ten does nothing, well, then the question then becomes between the Big 12 and the PAC-12,” he said. “Does it make sense for some of their schools to either move to the PAC-12 or the Big 12? You don’t know if it makes sense yet. That’s why the PAC-12 opened their media negotiations. They’re going to see if there’s more value there.”
He later added:
“To me, Notre Dame is the big one right now. And then a week or two from now, you know, if the PAC-12 has the money there, they might be looking at those Big 12 schools. If not, then so be it. They’ll probably stay put and make a go of it. That’s what my crystal ball says. My crystal ball is no clearer than anybody else’s. But that’s my gut.”
Wistrcill thinks TV contracts may protect the ACC
The Notre Dame domino could cause a shakeup in the ACC as well. But, the ACC schools are under a shared TV contract through 2036.
“It’s supposed to bind them together. But you know, the lawyers could fight that out in court about how much money they would owe to actually leave the league. That’s going to be a really hard pull for North Carolina or Duke or Florida State or Virginia to leave that league. It’s going to be really difficult because that grant of rights is still going on for another 14 years.”
Understanding Grant of Rights
Wistrcill gives us a look behind the curtain as conferences negotiate broadcast contracts with their TV and streaming partners.
- “The term you’ll hear thrown around a lot during all this is ‘grant of rights.’ And essentially that’s where each school that owns their own media rights will then basically give those rights to the conference.”
- “The conference will take those rights and then go maximize those for the best value they can get. And so there’s strength in numbers with those grant of rights. You need to have the best schools with the best media coverage in great markets, lots of alumni, lots of fans that want to watch it. And, the more people that will watch it, the more TV executives — ESPN or Fox or whomever — will pay for those events.”
- “So each conference has their own grant of rights: the Big Ten, the Big 12, the SEC, even the Big Sky Conference like us will have our own Grant of Rights.”
“The TV executives are purely looking for their biggest bang for their buck. They want the best games and they want to put them at the best times,” Wistrcill said. “And they’ll pay the most money for that. But there’s a fixed amount of inventory, right? I mean, there can only be one game on ESPN at noon Eastern time, one game on Fox at noon Eastern time.”
Ugly at times but it “is what it is”
Talk about awkward.
Just over a week before USC and UCLA changed conferences, the PAC-12 and the Big Ten Commissioners were together for the Collegiate Commissioners Association summer meeting. The 2022 conference happened to take place in Wistricill’s backyard — Park City, Utah. “There was still chatter about Texas and Oklahoma,” according to Wistrcill.
“You know, the PAC 12, and Big Ten Commissioner were chatting and seeing each other. Then, a week-and-a-half later, out goes USC and UCLA. Nobody knew about it at the time. I’m sure the Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren did, but the rest of us didn’t. Certainly George (Kliavkoff) the PAC-12 Commissioner didn’t. So, you know, it’s just part of the business. I guess it’s how you kind of accept it. We don’t like it. And it can get ugly. There’s been some of that movement, even at the FCS level.”
The Big Sky Conference is an FCS league for football but even his programs can eventually be impacted as the blue bloods jockey for position.
“If the PAC-12, loses some members, then they would probably look to the Mountain West for some members. And if the Mountain West loses some members, then they could be looking at the Big Sky for some members. So we’re going to watch that really closely, talk to those people, be involved in the discussions and wait and see how it plays out. There’s nothing really we can do. We’re going to probably be a little reactionary on that. But, that’s when the dominoes could affect us. And that’s just part of the deal. And we’ll wait and see how that plays out.”
The Wistrcill Iowa file
The Wistrcill family moved to Spencer when Tom was in third grade. They stayed in Spencer through his sophomore year in high school. His mom was an assistant executive director of the Spencer Family YMCA. His dad worked for the Spencer School District.
“If I wasn’t at home, I was either at the Y or the high school. So it was a fun, fun place to grow up. My dad, being a teacher and a coach, had summers free. So he ran the outdoor pool that we had there right by the river. That’s where we spent summers.”
Wistrcill’s dad accepted a position in La Crosse, WI, so the family moved away from the northwest Iowa city of 11,000 residents in the summer of 1986.
After high school Wistrcill:
- Played basketball for St. Mary’s University in Minnesota
- Became an unpaid sports management intern at the University of Minnesota
- Earned his master’s degree at St. Thomas in Minnesota
- Became the D-II Northern Sun Conference’s first full-time commissioner
- Moved on to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference as commissioner
- Managed Learfield Sports operations for the University of Wisconsin
- Became a Senior Associate Athletic Director for the University of Minnesota
- Was hired as Athletic Director at the University of Akron
- Became a Learfield executive in Dallas
- Arrived as commissioner of the Big Sky Conference in December 2018.
“It was a good place to grow up and I had lot of fun there. It’s always good to connect with people back in Spencer,” Wistrcill said.