Posted on 14 May 2010.
Sometime soon, the Big Ten could get a facelift -- and transform college football in the process.
By: Brian Mosgaller
Sometime in the relatively near future, the Big Ten Conference will undergo a makeover so dramatic it would make Heidi Montag proud.
But the big question is, how will the procedure affect Spencer and LC and Audrina?
Welcome to college football’s version of The Hills (and apologies for the analogy).
Despite recent noncommittal (and non-denial) statements regarding conference expansion from league commish Jim Delaney, it is practically a foregone conclusion that the Big Ten will be adding teams within anywhere from two to five years. What is not decided, however, is what form this restructuring will take, who the players will end up being, and what kind of ripple effect will be initiated by it.
However it ends up manifesting, though, the Big Ten’s giant steps toward a superconference are going to shake the grounds of college football and give new direction to college sports in general, meaning that it this is a tremendously important and weighty development that deserves further examination.
So let’s breakdown what we know, and attempt to extrapolate what we don’t.
Shocker alert: this transformational rearrangement is being driven by money. Gasp!
But seriously, it is no secret that the Big Ten has found a cash-generating godsend in its Big Ten Network. Once thought to be a misguided and transparent attempt to make schools money, the BTN is now available in up to 75 million homes in the U.S.
The important numbers here are that last year the conference’s deal with ABC/ESPN provided about $9 million to each member school, and the BTN added approximately $7 million to $8 million to that booty. With bowl games and March Madness (among other things) topping off the pot, the estimated figure each Big Ten university ends up with is a staggering $22 million.
And the crazy part is that amount could double (at least) with expansion – expansion that could help the network cast its reach both East and West, as well as create a championship game worth between $15 million and $20 million.
For comparison, the SEC – winner of six BCS championships, as many as the other Big Five conferences (the Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, ACC and Pac-10) combined – pays out around $11 million to its member schools. The other conferences vary in their disbursements but are generally in a similar range (the Big East is the lowest, handing out an estimated $4.5 million).
In short then, the Big Ten Network has proved to be a cash cow for the league, and, naturally, they want to fatten the cow.
So what’s the best way to plump up that dead-president-spewing bovine? By growing the market for the network, of course.
Yet it is not quite that simple – there are prerequisites and mitigating considerations which factor into the expansion equation.
To wit, it is no mystery that the Big Ten, a proud and storied academic conference, wants to add schools that would not diminish the league’s scholastic prestige.
As a qualifying criterion then, it is commonly rumored that whatever schools are to be vetted for potential membership should be part of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization of 61 respected research institutions, as are all the 11 current members.
Moreover, the conference isn’t going to add just to add – it has to make sense (both financially and academically, as was mentioned) but also competitively. Sure, adding Buffalo would tap the New York market and add an AAU member, but it wouldn’t make sense on the field, where this discussion starts and ends.
With all that said, everyone knows the number one target: the elusive Golden Domers. That’s right, good ol’ Notre Dame. For years, the Big Ten has courted the Irish and for good reason. Although Notre Dame is not an AAU card carrier and doesn’t geographically enlarge the conference’s domain, it brings with it arguably the largest and most devoted fan base in the country. While the league wouldn’t be directly cracking the East Coast television market, it would in reality be gaining viewers and Notre Dame graduates from sea to shining sea.
Unfortunately, it is also common knowledge that Notre Dame is quite fine where they are, thank you. Sure, it comes off as a little arrogant considering the school’s recent on-field struggles, but the fact is, Notre Dame still holds an exclusive deal with NBC, and their pocketbook is presumably doing alright.
So, if the leprechauns want to play hard to get, the league must seek elsewhere – namely, the Big East and Big 12. And here is where any number of names can get floated. But the ones that make sense for all parties seem to be, in order of fit, Missouri, Rutgers, Nebraska and Pitt, with Virginia and Texas still in the conversation.
Now mathematically, the Big Ten is going to want an even number after two decades of confounding numerologists who take the conference title literally. Therefore, the expansion must occur by one, three or even five. Basically then, depending on what Mr. Delaney and his university president cohorts decide to do, the enlargement can either add just Missouri (or Rutgers); Missouri, Rutgers and Nebraska; or Mizzou, Rutgers, Nebraska, Pitt and either Notre Dame (if they finally acquiesce), Texas or Virginia.
Missouri seems to be the most logical pick. Even if it isn’t located on the Atlantic coast, it does offer St. Louis, and it is a natural rival of Illinois, an acceptable scholarly fit and willing participant in expansion. Granted, joining the conference of the Midwest may hurt the Tigers recruiting in Texas, but it won’t totally destroy that pipeline, and the pros simply outweigh that con.
Rutgers, too, makes a bunch of sense. Obviously, the Scarlet Knights would attract an audience in the near vicinity of the Big Apple, plus they are a respected school and (newly) competitive football program.
Nebraska is a bit more of a stretch. At first glance, it seems to be a geographic outlier, a bad market, and an imperfect academic match. However, Nebraska’s brand is still a strong one nationally that resonates from Pac-10 country to the ACC. There’s still cachet with the Black Shirts. Plus, NU is likely itching to get out of the Big 12 (like Missouri), a conference increasingly dominated by, and devoted to promoting, the southern powers in Texas and Oklahoma. So, sign the Huskers up.
Pitt isn’t ideal, but they are more than suitable. The Big Ten may already be in Pennsylvania (thanks to the Nittany Lions), but adding the football crazy Pittsburgh market wouldn’t be detrimental for the conference, and the Panthers football tradition jives nicely with the Big Ten.
As for Texas and Virginia, the reality is it will probably never happen. Texas is the Big 12, and they want to remain the big power of America’s Southwest. It’s understandable. Yet, if five or so years from now, the Big Ten has already plucked Nebraska and Missouri from the Big 12, and the Pac-10 has pilfered Colorado in its own expansion, the Big 12 may be in shambles. All of sudden, Texas jumping on the cash boat that is the Big Ten seems a bit more enticing.
And Virginia, who has not been frequently mentioned in this discussion, makes for a nice back-up plan.
The Ripple Effect
If, in the end, Delaney and Co. opt for the minimalist one team expansion (come on Jimmy, think big!), the ramifications on the national football scene will be marginal. Say, for example, the Big Ten tacks on Missouri, creating two six-team divisions, the Big 12 can likely persuade TCU to fill the void, and all would be well. Even if Colorado were to migrate west, the Big 12 could add a Utah or BYU or New Mexico to maintain the status quo.
But if the Big Ten goes for a bigger splash – adding three teams, making two seven-team groupings – the game of musical chairs gets a little more interesting. If those teams are Missouri, Nebraska and Rutgers, and the Pac-10 goes ahead and appends Colorado and Utah, the Big 12 is put in a more precarious situation and the stakes are raised for other conferences (read: the ACC or SEC) to follow suit and grow their own leagues.
The most intriguing possibility, though, is if the Big Ten settles on the cannonball, picking up Missouri, Nebraska, Rutgers, Pitt and Notre Dame. In this scenario, shit will get crazy. For one, the Big Ten would no longer necessarily be producing two divisions, the winners of which would meet in a December championship game, but could instead arrange the schools in four four-team pods and actually have a four-school, in-conference playoff.
Meanwhile, both the Big 12 and the Big East would be scrambling and the ACC and the SEC would definitely be pressured to grow. In order to do so, the ACC could raid the Big East for the likes of West Virginia, Louisville, Connecticut and Cincinnati, leaving the formerly formidable Big East to take from the Conference USA, not exactly renowned for its gridiron greatness.
At the same time, the SEC would set its gaze west to the Big 12 (already on life-support) and come away with Texas, Texas A & M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. With three conferences at the “super” level of 16 members, the Pac-10 would logically want to keep pace, and would tack on UNLV, Boise State, Fresno State and New Mexico to reach 16 as well. Finally, the scraps of the Big 12 could then join forces with what’s appealing from the Mountain West and WAC, making one large, mid-level conference.
I told you shit would get crazy.
Alas, the bottom line is that all of those things may or may not happen at some point, but it almost certainly won’t be for awhile. Gradualism (and trial-and-error) seems to be the strategy of choice. For now, the Big Ten will add either one or three, leaving the greater football world relatively undisturbed, and the Pac-10 will find two willing additions and launch the West Coast version of BTN.
Notre Dame will keep doing its independent thing (despite existing rivalries with Big Ten schools Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, and alluring ones with Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio State), and the Big Six will stay the Big Six.
But although grand, large-scale change isn’t on the visible horizon, it is not unthinkable within as short a time span as a decade. The world is changing at a faster and faster pace, and college football inevitably will, too.
Which is why debating the merits of Big Ten expansion is an exercise in futility. Expansion will happen, and the waves will eventually ripple throughout the college world. All we can do now is wait and see if the dramatic cosmetic overhaul will yield a beauty queen or a cautionary tale of the procedure’s downside…like Heidi Montag.