'No Free Lunch' In Big Ten Expansion
Perhaps there has been no topic hotter this football offseason or even across the NCAA than the subject of Big Ten Expansion. I have my own ideas, but the decisions about the future of this conference are not in my job description.
My take on Big Ten expansion begins with a story that seemingly has nothing to do with football, the Big Ten or expansion. A few Sundays ago I was cooking up some eggs and sausage with my kids. One of them was looking at the sausage package and saw an offer from The Jones Dairy Farm Company in Wisconsin for a free re-usable shopping bag.
Since all kids love free stuff, my daughter suggested I send in for a free bag. About two weeks later I got a package in the mail from Jones Dairy Farm with our free bag and a bright red Wisconsin hat with a big W on it.
I got a good laugh out of it. You have to love the rivalry and camaraderie that comes with the close association of a conference, but more on that later.
One thing is clear, this expansion process is being driven by two things: money and television. It is not about academics, it is not about making the conference more competitive, it is not about the welfare of the student-athletes. It is about money and television.
Every athletic department in the country faces the same problem. The cost of doing business continues to go up and up. Every university in the NCAA faces rising costs for tuition, salaries, health care for employees and athletes, travel...you get the picture.
That reality is helping to drive expansion. The Big Ten Network reaps a substantially higher cable rights fees in the “footprint” states where they broadcast. What that means is in the home states of the Big Ten schools (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa) the Big Ten Network gets a much higher fee than if it is on cable in non-Big Ten states.
Adding schools in new states adds more homes with higher rights fees and more money for the conference schools from The Big Ten Network. By expanding by three or even five teams all the schools collect bigger annual paychecks from the television deals.
There is no free lunch and there is a side effect of a big expansion to 14 or 16 teams. It will change this football conference. By splitting into two divisions of seven or more teams it will erode some cohesiveness and rivalries in the league.
In the Big Ten the rivalries are defined and created on the football field. The intensity of the dislike between Michigan and Ohio State was born of the annual gridiron battles in late November. The hat that I got in the mail was a product of the football battles we’ve had with the Badgers over the years.
In a 12-team league you play five division games and three cross-division games. You see teams for two years and then three years later you play them again.
With 14 teams—and assuming that Wisconsin is in the other division the frequency with which we play them would decrease dramatically. In a 14-team league you would play six games within your division and two games against teams from the other division. After playing Wisconsin home and home in say 2014 and 2015, they would rotate off the schedule for either five or seven years. You would not see them until 2020 at the earliest.
In a 16-team league the math is even worse. Teams would play seven division games and only one team from the other division. So after playing a team in 2014 and 2015 you would not see that team until 2030. Not a great way to keep rivalries going.
It will be a tough sell to go beyond eight conference games because the four non-conference games are the only games where each school keeps all the revenue. Conference games fall under a revenue-sharing plan.
It may also be unlikely that the Big 10 will put Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan all in the same division. They represent the three biggest stadiums, three biggest football revenue schools and consistently pull in the highest television ratings.
As a result one or maybe both of those teams may be opposite Penn State in the division structure and the frequency with which the schools play each other would decrease dramatically.
Those games have become rivalry games—in fact the Penn State-Ohio State winner has earned the Big Ten’s automatic BCS bid every year for the past five straight years.
It has taken nearly two decades to build up the rivalries and the bonds of conference membership. It would be a shame to see some of those bonds loosened as the frequency of football competition against cross-division teams regress to the frequency with which we play non-conference opponents.
But it’s not about that, it is about television and money but hopefully the powers that be can see that the decisions will have major consequences.