How on earth can anyone make sense of realignment drama?
It feels really strange that in the year of our Lord 2023 this is something we have to talk about, but here we are, and it has become abundantly clear to me that we need to talk about this subject. So, what is the subject?
But we're not going to discuss what the PAC-12's TV deal might or might not be. We're not going to talk about whether SMU brings the Dallas market, nor will we be discussing the merits of UNLV and Las Vegas. Thouse topics might be mentioned as we get into this, but realistically, we're going to be focusing on the coverage of the process and what it means.
Because I've been asked too many times if such-and-such source is credible or is so-and-so's information makes sense. Today we are setting the record straight and talking about it.
Nobody knows a gull-dern thing
This is important. There are people who have been talking and will continue to talk like they know what is going on, but they don't. They're just talking.
Whether it's your favorite poster on a message board who has had inside information in the past, or an anonymous blogger from West Virginia, or even the well-respected journalist who writes for a national publication - they simply do not know.
That is not to say that they aren't connected, however. While I would certainly take conversations with people at the airport or any sort of information that is behind the cover of anonymity with a MASSIVE grain of salt, anyone can have a connection from anywhere. There are connections that matter and conversations that happen. So, when your favorite journalist talks about what he or she is hearing behind the scenes, you can bet that it came from a credible source.
What you can't bet on, however, is that it's news.
Conference realignment time is the ultimate rumor mill. Even the most connected people inside a specific University's athletic department are on the outside looking in. They might hear bits and pieces of things, but they aren't at the forefront of the decision making process or part of the conversations.
Like, honestly, do you think that Tom Holmoe was keenly aware of the specific details of Brett Yormark's conversations with ESPN and Fox? I'm sure he knew some things, but that wasn't his job to push a TV deal through. So, even if you talked to Holmoe himself during the TV negotiations, his information was at best secondhand information, and it was probably out of date.
Conference realignment happens at the university level, not the athletic department level. It doesn't happen regularly enough that your favorite message board poster or your favorite journalist is cultivating true sources at the University level. More often than not, their information is coming from somewhere else. Recognizing that is important. That doesn't mean it's bad information and it doesn't inherently mean that it's wrong, but understanding that it's not from the horse's mouth or even actual 'news' will help you know how to digest the information.
Please allow me this chance to talk about myself. I have covered BYU athletics for a long time now. I've been privy to a whole lot of inside information over the years. Some of it I share, some of it I don't, and some of it I use to help get more information from a different source. That's the name of the journalism game.
I have never once worked on a source who would have actual details of the specifics of realignment. Even the most connected people that I know just don't have the information. When I talk to those people and they do give me information, it's either secondhand, out-of-date, or their own opinion. Period.
I would venture a large sum of money that 99.99% of the journalists/posters/West Virginia fans are in that exact same boat as well.
News vs. Chatter
Journalists break news, that's their job. When they get a scoop and they know that something is happening, they write a story and publish that story. Whether it's a trade in the NBA, a scheduling agreement in college football, or a coach who will be fired in the NFL, journalists are there to break the story.
Conference realignment is no different. When it became clear to Jon Wilner that USC and UCLA were going to leave the PAC-12 and bolt for the Big Ten, he reported the news. It was clear. It was definitive.
He had information that he was confident in from a source who would know the information and his report did not mince words. USC and UCLA were planning to leave for the Big Ten.
There were no softeners with that language. There wasn't anything like, "I'm hearing this is a possibility" or "It sounds like USC and UCLA might be moving." It was clear, conscice, direct, and definitive.
That's journalistic reporting.
Everything that has been said or written about the PAC-12 and their TV deal over the last few months hasn't been reporting, but rather, it has been commentary. That distinction matters.
Commentary is what you get on ESPN and on a message board. Fans and columnists talk about what could happen or what they've heard. But that isn't news. That is chatter and conversation.
Sometimes that chatter and conversation is based on information that has been heard, but even in those circumstances, it's not actually news. They're not reporting what will happen, they're talking about things that might happen.
It's the same as wondering if Jonny is going to ask Jane to the Prom because you saw them holding hands in the parking lot. Jonny hasn't asked Jane yet, but you're going to talk about it because you think it could happen and maybe you were thinking of asking Jane instead.
It's conjecture. It's opinion. It's speculation.
It might be informed conjecture, opinion, or speculation - but that doesn't change its roots. It's still conjecture. It's still opinion. It's still speculation.
And that's perfectly okay! There is nothing wrong with conjecture, opinion, or speculation. But it's important to recognize it for what it is.
When there is news, you'll know it's news.
TV Deal vs. Realignment
There are two major stories that are happening right now. There is the PAC-12's looming TV deal and there is the potential for conference realignment. Those two things have a little bit of a symbiotic relationship with one another, but they are two separate stories.
But that's an important clarification to know and understand. Why? Because two separate stories means two separate pools of potential sources.
Everything we've already detailed about sources and who does or does not know information is true, however, there is one caveat that we haven't discussed yet: the TV deal.
When it comes to conference realignment, I would venture a guess that there are 20 or less people who actually know what's going on with realignment. If/when an invitation is extended, accepted, and approved, then that pool of 20 will grow to a much bigger amount and people will know. But until then, it's conference commissioners and university presidents who actually know. (And even then, they only know what they know. Tom Holmoe might have known that the Big 12 had invited BYU to the conference, but, for at least a period of time, he didn't know if the other Big 12 schools would accept BYU.)
The TV deal is different, though. There are TV executives who know the workings of that deal. The included parties on the TV side could include potential advertisers, sales reps, various levels of management, secretaries and minute-takers, anyone who may or may not have been CC'd on an email, or any other number of people.
Think about it. Bob Iger is not unilatteraly negotiating with Brett Yormark about the Big 12 deal with ESPN. He has a giant company to run that includes amusement parks, shareholders, movie content, live TV channels, and a billion other things. So, he's farmed out the Big 12 deal with ESPN to whoever/whatever team he's farmed it out to.
The same goes for Fox, NBC, Amazon, and CBS.
The potential for leaks and actual news to find its way to a reporter is significantly greater on the TV side than the realignment side.
The odds that your favorite sports reporter has the specifics of those deals because of a source at a TV network? Probably not very high. But there are media reporters (Marchand and Ourand, to name a couple) who specialize in this. That doesn't mean that they are the only people who could have information, but it's far, far, far more likely that they are hearing real information than your favorite beat reporter.
Because realignment and TV are kind of symbiotic, we have a tendency to group them together and assume that TV will dictate expansion. That could be true, but more likely, TV will just make their demands and then a separate decision will have to be made by the conference(s). Sometimes those decisions will be clear and obvious. Sometimes they won't be.
But, suffice to say, news about potential TV money or potential partners is much more likely to be leaked and reported on in advance than any sort of conference realignment would be.
So what does all of this mean?
It means to be wary. I won't tell you who to trust and who not to trust. If you want to believe the West Virginia blogger or the message board poster, have at it. I know who I trust in this whole saga (hint: nobody), but I won't tell you who to trust.
But, it's important to understand some of these things because it will help ease your feelings as you go through the process. There is a difference between news and chatter, even on ESPN.com. There is a different between sourced information and a conversation with sources for other kinds of information, even from your favorite journalist.
The more you understand that process, the less chaotic the realignment/TV deal process seems to be.