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Why the Big Ten Needs to be in Gator Country

by on March 24, 2015 6:00 AM

The last two weeks my son and I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time together in the minivan – providing opportunities for some great conversations.

Since he enjoys sports we naturally spent a lot of time talking about that, and I tossed out this concept that I have been stewing over for a year or two.

He loved it, thought it was a fun idea, and so now you get to hear it!

After being the lone eastern outcast in the Big Ten for 20 years, Penn State was finally joined last year by Rutgers University and the University of Maryland. Meaning there are now schools in the conference that PA-based Penn State fans can drive to and back in the same day if they want to watch an athletic event.

But what if the Big Ten decided to make that leap to the magic 16 schools – giving them eight teams in each division and some nice even brackets in postseason tournaments in sports that all the schools participate in. Not to mention the bigger picture of large-scale intercollegiate athletics moving toward four 16-team mega-conferences making a numerically tidy setup (any number that is a power of two just makes more sense when creating tournaments).

Well, who would the Big Ten add?

My suggestion is one of the teams ought to be the University of Florida.

Outlandish? Sure. Unthinkable? Probably. Impossible? Never say never. Here's why it makes at least a little sense.

Academics are a strong component of the Big Ten. Every school in the conference except one* is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization of 62 leading public and private research universities in the United States and Canada. These schools "are on the leading edge of innovation, scholarship, and solutions that contribute to the nation's economy, security, and well-being." (*Note: Nebraska was an AAU member when they were invited to join the Big Ten, but lost their membership before officially joining.)

So it would be safe to expect any additions to the Big Ten would need this academic imprimatur. The 62 schools in the AAU are listed on the AAU website. Eliminate the Ivy league schools, smaller schools, west coast schools, and non-football-playing schools and you're left with 12 options: Duke, Georgia Tech, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Pitt, Rice, Texas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Virginia.

Money is a strong component of the Big Ten. The TV revenue deal in the Big Ten distributes tens of millions of dollars to each school in the conference. And the quickest and easiest way to get more money is more television revenue. The Big Ten's television rights deal with ESPN expires after the 2016-17 academic year, and all expectations are the next agreement will be a record-setter.

One criterion for deciding the size of a television deal is the markets and eyeballs that deal reaches. Currently the Big Ten's footprint covers seven of the top-twenty Nielsen ranked markets: #1-New York, #3-Chicago, #4-Philadelphia, #8-Washington, DC, #12-Detroit, #15-Minneapolis, and #19-Cleveland.

None of the other four "Power Five" conferences has a footprint that covers as many top-twenty markets. The Pac-12 covers six, the Big-12 covers two, and the ACC covers two. The SEC covers three – but guess what, they are all in Florida.

Of the 12 AAU school options above, only four, Georgia Tech, Florida, Texas, and Texas A&M, bring a top-twenty market with them, and of those four schools, Florida brings the most – three markets.

From the Big Ten's standpoint, adding Florida means it would have a footprint that covers HALF the top-twenty television markets in the country, while simultaneously eliminating the SEC from any top-twenty markets. That's a market share primed to command some dollars!

So it makes sense academically and financially, how about from a geographic standpoint? Would there be support for a school as physically separated as Florida is from the rest of the Big Ten?

A joke I've been making for decades is when you drive south on I-95, you reach a point where you've driven so far south that you drove back north.

In 1980 Florida's population was 9.7 million. By 2010 it had almost doubled to 18.8 million. Some of that was from immigration and some from new babies, but a lot was from people in the Northeast and Midwest moving there.

Anyone who spends time in Florida knows it's easy to find Big Ten alums. There are more Penn State Alumni Chapters in Florida than in any state other than Pennsylvania. There are more Ohio State Alumni Clubs in Florida than in any state other than Ohio. There are more Wisconsin Alumni Chapters in Florida than in any state other than Wisconsin. There are more Minnesota Alumni Chapters in Florida than in any state other than Minnesota. In other words, there are already plenty of Big Ten fans living in Florida who would enjoy seeing their school's athletic teams compete nearby – and would be only too happy to get the Big Ten Network.

Not to mention, the trip from State College to Gainesville, FL is 100 miles shorter than the trip to Lincoln, NE. So the geographic issue doesn't seem like it would be a problem.

How about from the University of Florida's standpoint? Is there any benefit for them? They are in the SEC – the avowed king of college athletics, why would they move?

Because the University of Florida would like to raise its academic profile. For years Florida and Vanderbilt were the only SEC schools with AAU membership. When the SEC finally added Texas A&M and Missouri they doubled their AAU membership but it's still less than a third of the conference.

Florida's average SAT Math and Reading test scores of incoming freshman are higher than every other school in the SEC other than Vanderbilt – and higher than seven Big Ten schools, including Penn State. The image of the SEC is of athletics over academics and Florida would like a better image for its graduates. Moving to the Big Ten would instantly provide that image change.

Lastly, from a sports team's perspective, baseball, softball and golf squads from Penn State and other Big Ten teams already spend their early seasons in the south. If a Penn State team is getting on a plane to fly to Minneapolis, Iowa City or Madison, might as well add a few minutes and fly to Gainesville. And who wouldn't mind seeing the Gators make a trip north to Happy Valley to play football every few years?

So there you have it, my pie-in-the-sky, it-will-never-happen recommendation to the Big Ten – add the University of Florida!

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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