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.


Money and modernization.

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 pocketbooks.

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).

The 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).

Expanding 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 season.

Obstacles to Expansion

Somewhat surprisingly, money is the number one reason AGAINST expansion.

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 team.

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.

The biggest obstacle, though, is likely Notre Dame's NBC contract.

Notre Dame

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 since.

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 well.

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?

Other Options

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.
2. Competitive Athletics:  The potential member must be able to fit within the conference athletically, particularly in football and men's basketball, but also in the non-revenue sports.
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 sense.
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 territory.


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, Illinois.

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 ship.


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 decade.


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 State.

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 viable.


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.

Secondary Options

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.


Don't 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 decision.

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 championship game.

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.

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.