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Could The Big 12 Get Pitt To Flip From The ACC?

With Big 12 expansion talk at full tilt, we decided to find out how much interest there would be from the Pittsburgh Panthers.

Getty Images - Justin K Aller

On Monday, CBS Sports reported that the Oklahoma Board of Regents isn’t in favor of conference expansion; mostly because the options aren’t ideal. Count me as someone who agrees with them.

Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston, and the likes all have one thing in common: the most relevant conversation anyone has about them is whether or not the Big 12 should add them. If the Big 12 does decide to expand – and wants to raise the conference’s perception of power – they should focus on schools that make an impact on the college football landscape on a more consistent basis.

One such school would be Pittsburgh. They have the facilities, the fan base, the TVs, and their addition would renew the Backyard Brawl rivalry with West Virginia. Not to mention, Pitt would make a great travel partner for the Mountaineers as well.

So the question is, would Pitt be interested in the Big 12? There are only a handful of reasons on why a currently power five member would flip to the Big 12: Location (which obviously wouldn’t be a reason for Pitt), How content are they in their current conference, rivalries and of course, money.

I turned to my friend, Anson Whaley, to find out about those last three. Anson is the managing editor of Cardiac Hill, SB Nation’s Pittsburgh site, and is plugged into all things Pitt.

Is Pitt Happy In The ACC?

First, I decided to get a feel for just how content Pitt is in the ACC.

I think ecstatic is the correct word here. Quite simply, Pitt is in a much better position than they were even when the Big East was relatively stable. The biggest thing they had going for them in the Big East was probably the killer basketball league and some of the rivalries they developed. Now, minus a few of the basketball rivalries, they have both of those things and a lot more money. I said at the time that the ACC was the perfect landing spot for them and that hasn’t changed at all.

In addition to football/basketball, the one thing it’s done as well is put the Olympic/non-revenue sports out in the spotlight a bit more. Pitt has traditionally done a poor job at keeping up in those sports, but that’s starting to change with new athletic director Scott Barnes, who has made some key hires and really emphasized making all programs successful. In the Big East, it was easier to let some of those programs go a little bit, but since they are on a bigger stage in the ACC where things like baseball and soccer have higher visibility, it’s forced Pitt to step their game up a little. Ultimately, I think that will be a good thing for the athletics department and help Pitt’s programs improve.

Sure, there are things that could be better. It would be great, for example, if the ACC would get its own network and fans weren’t forced with watching game after game on ESPN3 instead of local television. But overall, I think they are very happy. You never know how a move of this magnitude will play out but in Pitt’s case, it’s worked very well.

Okay, if Pitt is going to bolt from the ACC it will not be because they are unhappy with their current conference.

The Backyard Brawl

What about the Backyard Brawl, though? The WVU-Pitt rivalry is more than 100 years in the making. Just how much does that rivalry mean to Pitt fans?

It depends on who you talk to. For a lot of the newer alumni, they are seen as Pitt’s biggest rival, even though they haven’t played in a while. For a lot of the older alumni, Penn State has always been the bigger deal – and they haven’t played in football in 15 years. The athletics department seems to be placing a bigger emphasis on restarting the Penn State rivalry over the West Virginia one. The school did just sign a pact with West Virginia to play a series in football in the future, but that was because Penn State wasn’t an option in those years.

I believe the rivalry means a little more to West Virginia because they really have few other true rivals. Sure, there are programs like Maryland and/or Marshall, but when they leaped to the Big 12 with no rivals there, it sort of put them out on their own. Pitt has the long-time history and upcoming series with Penn State. They have Notre Dame – a team they’ve faced 70 times and play regularly since they’re in the ACC rotation. There’s Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and Boston College from the old Big East – teams they now see again in the ACC. I will freely admit that outside of perhaps Penn State, West Virginia trumps all of those teams in terms of rivals. But the point is that the Panthers play plenty of familiar faces and losing the game against West Virginia hurts Pitt less than it does the Mountaineers.

Does the rivalry mean something? Absolutely. And I’ve long said that Pitt should try to schedule at least Penn State, West Virginia, or Notre Dame every year. With the new series’ against Penn State and West Virginia, that looks like the athletics department’s stance as well. But it’s pretty clear that given their choice, Pitt would almost always rather play Penn State over West Virginia.

Show Them The Money

Of course, whenever we talk about conference realignment, money is bound to come up.

Pitt is making more money than it ever has before now that they are in the ACC. Compare that to the Big 12 though, and it would appear that Pitt could be making even more. Last season, the Big 12 reported record profits with members pulling roughly $23 million. Even conference newcomers made over $20m with partial shares. If you include third-tier rights the numbers reached SEC levels. Texas pulled in a whopping $45 million because of the LHN, and even West Virginia pulled in over $26m after third-tier rights. Compare that to Pitt’s roughly $19 million payout from the ACC in 2015, and there is a sizable gap.

Now, I admit, I’m not brushed up with how ACC third-tier rights work, but according to USA Today numbers, Big 12 members made $10m more on average than their ACC counterparts this last year. Given that conference expansion would likely kill the LHN in favor of a conference network (meaning conference members would get some of that revenue pie Texas has been hoarding) and that the Big 12 may be able to renegotiate their TV deal, which would potentially mean even more money for conference members, would a sizeable pay-day be enough to raise Pitt’s eyebrows a little?

There is a revenue gap from what they could make in the Big 12. However, while the athletics department doesn’t want to turn away free money, I don’t believe that a Big 12 move would make sense on any level for them. Outside of the benefit of playing West Virginia on an annual basis and the added revenue, I don’t see much more that would make such a move all that attractive.

The travel scenarios for non-revenue sports would probably be nightmarish. Trying to compete for recruits in the midwest would be extremely difficult. It’s not a fit geographically at all and would making traveling to road games much more difficult. And not to mention, Pitt has its hands full in trying to compete in football in the ACC. As West Virginia is finding out now, winning in the Big 12 is a lot harder than winning in the Big East. When you add all of that up, it would be easy for Pitt to slip further into irrelevance in the college football landscape and more money isn’t necessarily worth that.

It shouldn’t be forgotten, either, that Pitt’s move to the ACC was predicated by the Big East’s instability. They may not have stayed there forever anyway, but the instability that was in the Big East doesn’t exist in the ACC and there’s no driving force to make a change at this point. I do believe the Big 12 could have been an option if they couldn’t get into the ACC or Big Ten, but that ship has sailed and ultimately, the school has to be happier that the ACC opened its doors. It just makes much more sense.

Finally, consider that the school probably wants some stability of their own right now. The athletics department has undergone a number of changes lately. Moving to the ACC, rebranding (currently underway), and hiring a new athletics director and several new coaches in the past year have meant a lot of transition already. A move anywhere else right now just would be an unnecessary burden.

It is hard to think that a potential 30%+ revenue bump (assuming my numbers and math are correct) wouldn’t get their attention, but what Anson says makes a lot of sense. It is not always about the money.

How Interested Would Pitt Be In Moving To The Big 12?

I have a feeling I already know the answer to this, but I have to ask, is there any realistic chance Pitt would consider a move to the conference, and what would the fans think about the move?

On a scale of 1-10, I’d place the chances of Pitt considering a Big 12 move somewhere around a 1. I just don’t see it. You never say never in these sorts of circumstances and things often happen that people don’t see coming (i.e. Pitt’s move to the ACC). But when you consider the investment they have in the ACC, how well they fit there, and how happy they are, I can’t envision such a move happening anytime in the near future. And my guess is that most of the fans feel the same way.

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