Commentary: Big Ten Expansion: A Realistic Look
by Jonathan Hodges
This article is a bit late to the party, as the internet literally exploded with
rumors and opinions after the Big Ten released an official
statement on December 15th that it was exploring expansion. But, hopefully
this provides a realistic and balanced look at the potential for a 12th team to
finally become a part of the Big Ten conference. Note that this supplements a
previous article written prior to this season that
foreshadowed this event fairly well.
Television money is the lifeblood of college athletics and
college football is its cash cow. After a successful launch of the Big Ten
Network (currently in its third year), the conference is now potentially looking
to expand its footprint and bring in more fans, viewers, and
Also, the fact is that the Big Ten with its unbalanced
schedule and lack of a conference championship game has fallen behind the
times. Every other FBS/I-A football conference either plays a full round-robin
schedule (Pac-10, Big East, Mountain West, WAC, and Sun Belt) or stages a
conference title game (ACC, SEC, Big XII, Conference USA, and MAC).
lack of a balanced schedule and the fact that the conference's schedule ends so
early have been the prime talking points for those who support expansion and the
addition of a conference championship game (conferences are required to have at
least 12 members in order to stage such a game). Although the Big Ten is making
a dent in the latter problem starting next year with the extension of the
conference schedule by one week (to cover Thanksgiving weekend), there is still
the week after that remains vacant that allows one or two games involving Big
Ten teams (typically against lower-tier schools who must come from conferences
that don't have a conference title game and have an open date).
would allow the conference to stage a conference championship, extend its
schedule, expand its media footprint, and correspondingly increase the value its
television contracts to bring in additional revenue. It would also put the Big
Ten on par with its biggest conference competitor, the SEC, and ensure that the
conference doesn't end up with two undefeated football teams at the end of the
Obstacles to Expansion
surprisingly, money is the number one reason AGAINST
Currently, the conference has a complete revenue sharing
agreement that splits the conference television contracts and the conference's
share of bowl revenue equally amongst its 11 teams. According to SI's Stewart Mandel, that take is about $22.6 million per
Needless to say, the conference's current members would not like to
see their shares reduced, so the additional team must be able to provide an
additional $22.6 million in revenue in order to maintain the current take per
school. Even the most successful conference championship game (SEC) doesn't
pull in that much money, and it's very questionable if the remainder can be made
up for by the additional conference games available on television, a potentially
expanded media footprint, and an extra bowl agreement.
obstacle, though, is likely Notre Dame's NBC contract.
Notre Dame is the most logical choice for the Big Ten's 12th
member. An offer was extended to them in 1999, and they promptly declined,
despite the fact that their faculty overwhelmingly voted to join the
conference. The Big Ten has basically been waiting for them ever
The money obstacle would be easily overcome if Notre Dame were to
join the conference since they bring in a huge national following mirrored by
few, if any, schools. They have multiple rivalries with schools already in the
conference and are the most logical fit geographically and academically, as
Unfortunately, as explained in my previous article on the subject,
Notre Dame is fat and happy with their exclusive NBC contract and has no real
incentive to join a conference right now, even if doing so would make the Big
Ten a revenue powerhouse.
Although there have been a few wrinkles thrown
into the mix since this last came up a decade ago (like Notre Dame's recent lack
of success on the field, Comcast potentially buying NBC from GE, and the advent
of the Big Ten Network), there hasn't yet been the seismic shift that will push
Notre Dame into the Big Ten's arms.
Recently, some have written stories
on the downfall of Notre Dame into national irrelevance, but the fact is that
they still command enough attention to have an exclusive television deal and are
easily able to schedule up to eight home games as an independent. Unless that
attention falls off a cliff, they'll likely be living off of that NBC contract
for at least another two decades (if they do stay competitive nationally and
make BCS games regularly, it will be much longer than that).
Given all of
that, it is very likely that they would decline an offer to join the Big Ten
once again. So, with the Irish effectively off the table, where will the
conference expansion committee look?
When evaluating other options there are a few major
requirements for any team that is looking to join the Big Ten to keep in mind.
Then, on to the primary options.
1. Academics: The Big Ten has a
high academic reputation (all schools rank 71st or higher in the most recent US
News and World Report college rankings) and any potential 12th member must fit
with the current members or not be that far below them.
Athletics: The potential member must be able to fit within the conference
athletically, particularly in football and men's basketball, but also in the
3. Geography: The potential member must fit
within or be just outside of the conference geographically, since travel costs
are a significant concern with upwards of 20 athletic teams per school traveling
amongst the conference schools to compete. Plus, it just needs to make
4. Media Attention: The conference is looking to expand its
footprint and/or bring significantly more attention and eyeballs to its members
and games. That means that expansion attention is likely to fall on schools who
carry a large following or are in an important media market, particularly
markets currently on the fringes of Big Ten
A name that has been thrown around
every time expansion talk occurs (which has been every five years over the past
two decades) who has a decent academic reputation, would be an almost perfect
geographic fit (that would also allow the expansion of the footprint into some
decent media markets), and who fields competitive athletic teams. They also
have an active rivalry with a Big Ten conference team,
Unfortunately, they are already pretty well off in the Big XII,
a BCS conference with a conference title game of their own, where Missouri
played twice over the last three seasons. That is a big obstacle for the Big
Ten to overcome if they pursue Missouri. Although Missouri may earn a little
more in shared revenue in the Big Ten, the Tigers don't have a prominence
problem in their current conference as a reason to jump
Rutgers has also been a name thrown
around in Big Ten expansion discussions and was a historically bad team up until
about five years ago (they have now gone to five consecutive bowl games after
only going to one ever before that, which was in 1978). They've now become a
competitive football program thanks to Greg Schiano and look like an actual
option for the Big Ten to expand out east.
Rutgers fits the Big Ten very
well academically and provide the opportunity to expand the footprint into the
populous east coast. Joining the Big Ten would be a windfall for them
financially, despite steep monetary penalties for abandoning the Big East, which
were put in place after the ACC raided them earlier this
Pitt also has the academic standing
to fin in the conference and geographically makes perfect sense. Like Rutgers,
they would be easy to pull away from the Big East. Also, they have been
competitive on the field and, as a bonus, have a dormant rivalry with Penn
Unfortunately, they wouldn't attract many more eyeballs to
television sets or people to games (they don't even have their own football
stadium), which may be a signficiant obstacle as the conference needs to
increase its revenue for an additional member to be
Another name thrown around in
expansion talks, Syracuse is very much the same as Pitt, although their football
program has been horrid this decade. The one thing they have going for them is
access to media markets further east, although the potential to bring in
eyeballs in New York City is a stretch.
Other options further down the list include Iowa State,
Cincinnati, Louisville, West Virginia, and Kentucky, to name a few schools that
have been thrown around by the media.
None of those present very likely
options, with a couple (Cincinnati and West Virginia) being easily tossed from
the list on academic reputation alone. Also, most of them do not have the fan
base or media attention to bolster the Big Ten, while Kentucky is likely more
than content staying in the SEC.
expect to hear anything from the conference or conference officials any time
before the summer of 2010 at the earliest. And the official process may even
extend into the following summer (2011) with the official timetable tabbed at 12
to 18 months.
As described earlier, it's fairly clear that Notre Dame
isn't a legitimate option and that, if expansion becomes a given, waiting them
out is no longer on the table.
The real question becomes: is expansion
worth it when the 12th member is not going to be Notre Dame? Money will
play a HUGE part in that decision, and expect the committee and any consultants
it hires to do a large amount of number crunching to come up with that final
If the answer is no, the conference may still have to figure
out what to do with its unbalanced schedule and lack of games on the final
weekend of the college football season. And, the fact is that the expansion
question will not die until the conference does add a 12th member and puts on a
If the answer is yes, then it's on to the dog-and-pony
show between the four realistic candidates listed above (who all happen to
already be members of BCS conferences).
At this point, the most realistic
option seems to be Rutgers, with its location, academics, and athletics falling
in-line with the Big Ten's desires. The only question is fan support and media
attention, which, honestly, is a question presented by all potential members
except for Notre Dame.
Previous jhodges commentary
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