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Save the date: All eyes on 2023 for conference realignment

Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire

Convention season in college sports is winding down. Athletic directors, commissioners and university presidents spent chunks of May and June in sun-splashed locations, discussing a range of topics.

Yet realignment, arguably the most seismic subject, didn't generate a murmur -- at least not publicly.

"It's been a non-topic, at least in the ACC," North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said.

"It's not an active conversation among ADs nationally right now," added Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt, who chairs the College Football Playoff selection committee.

"I honestly don't think about it much, and I think our conference is thinking about it less than it ever has," American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said. "Things have calmed down."

The Big 12's announcement in October that it would not expand its membership, ending months of will-they-or-won't-they speculation, signaled the start of what should be a stable period for Power 5 conferences. A Power 5 league hasn't integrated a new football member since the 2014 season -- Maryland and Rutgers joined the Big Ten, and Louisville joined the ACC -- but there have been additions elsewhere. If the Big 12 had expanded, there would been further shuffling and expansion exploration, most likely within the Group of 5.

Realignment appears to be in sleep mode. For now. But the potential for realignment -- and the strategy for when it surfaces again -- never completely leaves the radar of college sports' power brokers. That's why they're thinking about 2023.

Why 2023? It starts with expiring TV contracts. The ACC and SEC both have long-term media grant-of-rights agreements, running through 2035-36 and 2033-34, respectively. But the other three Power 5 conferences have agreements ending roughly around the same time (the SEC's Tier 1 deal with CBS runs through 2023-24). The Big Ten last summer opted for a shorter agreement with Fox and ESPN, which runs through 2022-23. The Pac-12 deal expires after the 2023-24 sports year, and the Big 12's ends the following year.

"Conferences have expanded primarily to take really good football schools to enhance their football footprint and strength, and also to help their [television] networks," Aresco said. "The question down the road will be whether any conferences want to add schools that they feel will strengthen them in football, whether it's because of an upcoming rights fee deal, or they feel it would strengthen their conference network.

"So '23, '24, that's what everybody thinks about."

Traditional rights deals aren't the only reason 2023 matters. By then the traditional rights deal itself might be obsolete. Conferences recognize that fans are consuming content, including live events, in different ways. This shift will continue to impact current distributors like ESPN, Fox and CBS, and could bring different companies into the distribution market, like Amazon, Google, Facebook or Twitter.

Leagues like the Pac-12 are counting on it, especially because its own network has yet to produce significant revenue for members.

"I don't think anyone knows exactly what the landscape will look like, or what health ESPN or Fox will have in 2023 when we're negotiating, or how significant a player Twitter or Facebook will be," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said last month at the league's spring meetings. "My sense is that there will be more competition. There will be more and different types of players."

Because streaming could become the primary way fans watch games, conferences might hold on to more of their own inventory and invest in their own delivery methods, like BTN2Go, the Big Ten Network's app. The changing market could benefit Big 12 schools, who retain their third-tier media rights. "The digital streaming of these live contests and how the younger generation is consuming that content is ever-changing," Hocutt said. 'It's changed in the last five years, and I can't imagine what it's going to look like five years ahead of us."

Realignment strategy also should change. In 2012, the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers more for their surrounding television markets than for the individual fan bases they added to the league. But if traditional cable subscription numbers continue to decrease, leagues might be less concerned about markets and would instead target members with large, passionate fan bases, willing to pay whatever to see their teams.

That's why football-only members could be a bigger factor for power conferences when realignment stirs again. That could be good news for BYU, a football-only candidate for the Big 12 last year, or even Group of 5 football heavyweights like Boise State and Houston.

Conferences also might hesitate to expand because of the changes in the media climate and the difficulty to predict even one or two years down the road. The Big 12's decision last fall underscores a lack of fail-safe expansion options. Although certain Group of 5 schools have some time to enhance their profiles before the next round of negotiations, they must convince the big conferences that accepting them will pay off.

"The shifting media landscape raises questions about whether or not having more inventory necessarily produces more revenue," said Kevin Weiberg, the former Big 12 commissioner and former deputy commissioner for both the Big Ten and Pac-12. "You also have to wonder if the kind of significant growth that the big conferences have achieved through media rights is still going to be there in six or seven years. So, if you were to expand, can you do it in a way that grows the pie for everyone?"

The so-called superconference model -- four 16-team leagues -- could take off in 2023. Or there could be minimal or no movement among the big conferences.

"I don't know where the pressure point will be," Aresco said. "SEC, Big Ten -- some of these conferences now are at 14. ACC is 15 if you count Notre Dame. I don't know they necessarily have an appetite for further expansion. You never know. There are some schools that almost anyone would want to have."

Expansion carries risk, but so does falling behind in revenue. No league will catch the SEC and the Big Ten, so schools not in those conferences must assess whether they can live with the gaps. A recent Detroit News report, which showed that Michigan expects to receive $51.1 million from the Big Ten in 2018, made waves around the industry.

"I got my glasses to make sure I read it right," said an athletic director in another Power 5 conference. "That's a big number. [The Big Ten has] been out ahead of the network curve for quite some time. They were the first to the market and created the market, so we're all trailing."

The SEC is the current revenue leader, distributing more than $40 million per member in the last fiscal year. The length of the ACC's rights agreement -- and the launch of its own network in 2019 -- suggests it could be quiet come 2023.

So it might come down to the Big 12 and Pac-12.

The Big 12 is still perceived as the most vulnerable, as Texas or Oklahoma could cripple the league by leaving. But revenue totals are encouraging -- its 10 members will split $348 million from the 2016-17 academic year -- and the internal squabbling that has plagued the conference seems to have disappeared.

"We've never been more resolute and more united as a group," TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said. "When we signed that grant of rights and we committed to a 10-team league, every decision we made is phenomenal for us in all of our sports."

The Pac-12's forecast, meanwhile, is less encouraging, and its revenue gap with other Power 5 leagues will widen before the next rights negotiation. Cal's athletic department lost $21.7 million in the 2016 fiscal year. Although the Pac-12's geography and tradition suggests members won't be looking to leave, something needs to shift before 2023.

As an industry insider said, "The Big 12's making strides, while the Pac-12 is falling behind." Another asked, "Can other conferences take advantage of the Pac-12?"

Although leagues say things are quiet now, there's plenty of behind-the-scenes strategizing. Weiberg, who worked for various conferences from 1989 to 2014, said the biggest change he saw was how individual schools focused more on television revenue distributions.

"Everybody watches it -- it's reported prominently," he said. "Athletic directors get concerned about gaps. If you were to have a situation where the rights would be flat or, in worst-case scenario, in some decline, these institutions have lot of expenditures that are sort of locked into the future: facility debt, the cost of operating the program, coaching salaries. One constant theme in college sports in the last 30 years has been the need to have some significant growth.

"Without it, you're operating in a much different environment."

The environment is changing by the day, and as recent realignments have shown, all it takes is one move to start the dominoes.

For those who love league stability, enjoy these years. For realignment fanatics, your time is likely coming again in 2023.