Commentary: Big Ten Expansion
by Jonathan Hodges

What better time is there than the offseason for one of the most controversial topics in Big Ten country than conference expansion?  Everyone and their brother has an opinion, especially when the school that so many love to hate comes up (Notre Dame, in case you've been under a rock for the past hundred years or so).  It's a topic that comes and goes depending on the events of the day - it was especially huge about 4 years ago as Div. I FBS underwent one of the biggest conference shake-ups in the modern era when the ACC built a 12-team conference and put the Big East on the brink of destruction, and also comes up around the time of conference championship games every year and whenever anyone mentions TV contracts.


As many know, the Big Ten is the nation's oldest intercollegiate athletic conference, founded in 1896, with charter members of Illinois, Michigan (who dropped out from 1907-1916), Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin, and University of Chicago (who dropped out permanently in 1946 and are now a Div. III NCAA member).  Indiana and Iowa joined in 1899, and Ohio State in 1912.  The next big change game with Chicago's departrure in the mid 40's, replaced by Michigan State.  And the most recent change came with Penn State's entry in 1990 (PSU was previously independent), creating an 11-team league (and as many have noted, paradoxically still called the Big Ten, which the conference adopted as its official name in the 80's).

In the early 90's, other leagues began an interesting shift - building 12 team conferences, splitting into 2 6-team divisions, and holding a conference championship game.  First was the SEC with the addition of Arkansas, then came the Big XII, created from the former Big 8 and SWC conferences (the Southwestern Conference's demise was seeded in SMU's "death penalty" in the late 80's along with Arkansas' departure for the SEC).  With the conference game came more TV money, publicity, and more chances at bowl games (which, of course, bring TV money and publicity) with 12 teams.  The tide was starting to turn and the Big Ten seemed ready to jump on board.

Notre Dame

The Big Ten's target: Notre Dame.  Geographically and historically, it would be a perfect fit for the conference: a true midwestern school around since the start of intercollegiate athletics (and football) that is a highly regarded national research institution.  They played nearby Big Ten institutions Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State regularly, and previously had a rivalry with Northwestern.  In 1999, the Big Ten made Notre Dame an offer to join the conference, and it made it as far as a Notre Dame faculty vote, where it was overwhelmingly accepted, but then it made it to the athletic department.

Notre Dame is a topic to itself in college football lore: much of the early history of collegiate football was built there, and they have always been an independent - playing whom they wanted where they wanted (usually at home).  Their large national following (largely built upon their association with the Catholic Church - and the fact that they were good for a long period of time) eventually led to a large exclusive TV contract with NBC in the early 90's - something that effectively broke NCAA's control of the TV revenue system.  This gave new backing behind their independence, as most other schools were reliant upon conferences for their TV revenue - in fact, most other remaining independents joined conferences around that time (see PSU joining the Big Ten, FSU joining the ACC, Miami joining the Big East, etc.) to join in the revenue sharing.  The only current independent teams are Notre Dame, Army, and Navy (the latter 2 benefitting from a large CBS TV contract to show their annual rivalry game).

While many reasons are tossed around for Notre Dame rebuffing the Big Ten's offer and remaining independent, the real reason is money: ND has its own large TV contract and bowl agreements that it has to share with nobody, and it rakes in the cash with ticket sales and merchandise licensing.  Once ND passed on the Big Ten's offer, the conference shifted away from the expansion topic, and are currently dismissing it completely despite it being the media's favorite question for Big Ten Commissioner Delaney.  ND, meanwhile, joined the Big East in all sports except football - since that conference would allow it to keep its independent football status.

Since 1999, the conference landscape was shaken up again with the aforementioned ACC expansion - adding former Big East powers Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College - to reach the 12 team league and add a conference championship game.  Other smaller "mid-major" conference readjusted as well (Conference USA, Mountain West, WAC), and during the shakup both the Big Ten and ND stayed on the sidelines as spectators.

Why Expand

The biggest reason to expand is to reach 12 teams, split into divisions, and stage an annual conference championship game.  Whether well attended (SEC) or not (ACC), the game adds a lot of value to the TV contracts, as seen by recent TV contract renewals.  A secondary reason is to add more teams to support more bowls and bring in more revenue (bowls are another major source of college football funding).  Money talks, and adding another big football school name would go a long way to increasing the cash flow.

Also, such a move would add more clarity to the league in the eyes of fans.  The Big Ten with 11 teams is a sort of enigma, as well as the scheduling scenario that has each team play 8 conference opponents, but miss 2 others on a rotating biannual basis.  And, especially in the case of Notre Dame, they are located in the heart of Big Ten country and already play multiple Big Ten teams each year - why not just be a part of it.

Why Not to Expand

Money.  The Big Ten is already the leader in conference revenue, despite not having as many members as other leagues.  It's recent launch of the Big Ten Network has been a success, even after early squabbling with cable carrier Comcast.  Its members are mostly opposed to staging a conference championship game as they've seen the issues created by such a game in recent years with the SEC (2 or more of the best teams in the same division), Big XII (tie-breaking rules keeping the "best team" out of the championship game), and the ACC (poor ratings and even worse attendance).  And the conference is seemingly holding out for its only perfect match, ND, to fall into the fold.

Although fans are looking for the hot story (Big Ten expansion would be a huge one), many are tradition-oriented and are just fine with the way things are.  And the fact is that fans do vote with their wallets - and the money is flowing into the current system.

Other Potential Victims

Schools other than Notre Dame are always thrown around when it comes to Big Ten expansion - but it's important to note that the conference has never endorsed any of them and has never made any official visits or inquiries, either.  Geographically, virtually all of the non-ND options lie on the periphery of the conference footprint.  Missouri would be one of the closest and best academic fits, and would be a natural rival with Illinois.  Syracuse would again be a good academic fit, brings in a long football history and tradition, and would be relatively close to Penn State.  Rutgers is a bit further away, but adds the potential for the New York TV market.  Iowa State makes sense geographically and is a current rival of Iowa.  Pittsburgh and West Virginia are also thrown around, and both are relatively close and would compliment Penn State.

The fact is, though, that the Big XII teams mentioned don't have much incentive to join - they already have solid deals with their own conference.  Big East members currently have a much better shot at big bowl money in their own conference (having no multi-year power member) and have more scheduling flexibility (only 7 conference games per year).  None of the non-BCS schools in the area (MAC, C-USA) would fit a Big Ten school profile.  That, of course, brings you back to Notre Dame.

The Verdict

The Big Ten is going to do what suits its members the best - and right now that is waiting it out.  They're already making the most money of any collegiate conference and sharing it equally amongst its member institutions, they have a successful network, they have the most lucrative bowl agreements, and they have a huge following of fans.  If Notre Dame ever comes around (only likely if the NCAA imposes conference membership upon them - note that NBC signed a contract extension with ND in 2008, their worst season performance in school history), the Big Ten will likely be there waiting.

My opinion is that the Big Ten is right - we've seen numerous problems with the conference championship games, including more controversy and attendance/ratings problems - so that isn't a compelling enough reason to jump on board.  The conference currently has a great record of getting teams to the national championship game and BCS bowl games, it has great TV ratings and attendance, and it brings in a ton of revenue.

Northwestern, of course, benefits greatly from the Big Ten's revenue sharing and its lucrative TV and bowl contracts.  Being the smallest school (by far) and the only private institution in the conference, it would be in much worse shape if it was in a lesser conference, but the revenue from the conference allows it to keep its athletic department going and its football competitive with the rest of the nation.  And in recent years (since 1995), NU of course has been competitive if not superior on the field of play.

We'll see what the future has in store - there are almost annual Congressional hearings on the BCS bowl system - and if the government or the NCAA do ever step in there will most likely be changes to how conferences are organized, but that is very unlikely at this point.  The Big Ten and its schools have a lot of say on how things go in college football today, and for now the status quo is where it's at.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.