In an interactive room on the ground floor of his league’s semi-new headquarters, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren met with two reporters from Athletic to discuss the many challenges facing college sports.
As Warren was already ready to retire to his second-floor office, the issue of expansion became almost a minor issue. “In terms of membership in the Big Ten,” Warren was asked, “from time to time, completely unexpected things happen here. Do you expect (the conference) to remain in the current 14 teams?”
Warren launched into a lengthy response about how he likes the institutional structure of the Big Ten and why academic focus remains a key principle along with sportsmanship. He then added, “But as they say, just be mindful of the world we live in. We just have to be thoughtful and attentive. What will be the evolution of college athletics? But right now, I’m excited to be able to finish this school year well.”
As for the lack of responses, that was vague and deliberate. Six weeks later, Warren’s wording seems prescient. On Thursday, the Big Ten welcomed USC and UCLA as their 15th and 16th members in perhaps the most unexpected coup of the perestroika era. He impressed both with his strength and secrecy. It also left more questions than answers for the Big Ten, its member schools, newcomers, and the rest of the college sports landscape. Here are 10 important topics that league officials should think about in the coming days and weeks.
Three years after the birth of the Big Ten, the seven founding members held a meeting on December 1, 1899, at the Chicago Beach Hotel to consider expansion. Three Midwestern institutions applied for membership: Indiana, Iowa, and Notre Dame. Indiana and Iowa sent representatives to apply and were accepted as members, joining Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwest, Michigan, Purdue, Chicago, and Illinois. Notre Dame sent no delegate and his application was rejected.
Thus began a long and sometimes hostile relationship between the Big Ten and a small Catholic university just east of Chicago. At one point, the Big Ten tried to force the Irish out, but relations warmed up in the 1940s with Notre Dame participating in several league programs each year. In 1999, a full century after Notre Dame first considered joining the Big Ten, a fiercely independent Irishman turned down the Big Ten invitation. But as the tectonic plates of redevelopment crumble, Notre Dame may consider membership in the Big Ten if independence means irrelevance.
The Big Ten, just weeks later, announced a lucrative media rights deal that would likely bring the league over $1 billion a year. He has already received final offers from NBC, CBS, ESPN and Amazon Prime to join FOX as the Big Ten football rights holder. Now the league must revalue itself with two recognizable brands in the country’s second-largest media market.
The Big Ten and its media partners will now control 72 league-only games (up from 63) and 30 to 40 non-conference games (up from 25-35). The league already had some of the nation’s most popular college football games, but now USC and UCLA have the potential to take on Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other Big Ten teams in high-stakes regular season games. The new additions will change the course of negotiations and will likely shift the announcement date from mid-July to September. Ultimately, the addition of Los Angeles-based universities could help the Big Ten distribute significantly more revenue than the $55 million it currently provides to its sister institutions.
The ripple effect
A day after USC and UCLA were announced as future members of the Big Ten, Pac-12 announced it was eyeing expansion candidates. 10 holdovers issued statements expressing their disappointment with schools that are moving into the “Big Ten”. What none of them mentioned was what they would do with the opportunity to join the Big Ten.
Several Pac-12 programs have academic and football profiles worthy of discussion in Big Ten circles, including Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and Utah. This also applies to the ACC where other universities fit this profile. This begs the question: Do the Big Ten see the addition of UCLA and USC as a one-off move or just the first salvo in a concert of change?
Divisions and schedules
The administrators appear to have been keen to move away from the current geographic divisional structure, and those thoughts have taken hold now that UCLA and USC have joined the Big Ten. It’s ridiculous to think that USC will play in the Western division and then face the strong players of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan once every four years. The media partners of the G10 would also rightly frown upon this.
However, there are questions that remain. Will the Big Ten go branchless in 2023 with a new rights agreement, or wait until 2024 to fully rebrand when USC and UCLA begin football competition? If the Big Ten remain a 16-team league, will it introduce a 3-6-6 schedule with three protected annual rivals and then rotate the other 12 twice over a four-year period? Perhaps at the end of each four-year period, the league could adjust some of those protected streaks to get USC and UCLA through more opponents on a regular basis. The possibilities are endless.
On November 20, 1946, relations began with nine Big Ten teams and the defunct Pacific Coast Conference, which signed a five-year agreement to send their champions to the Rose Bowl. He was criticized at the time because West Coast representatives were interested in inviting the army. But the PCC and the Big Ten have stood firm against the criticism. Illinois and Michigan voted against the move and, ironically, played consecutively in the first two bowls contracted.
Over time, The Big Ten and Pac-12 became like-minded colleagues. They worked together on television rights negotiations in the 1980s and ran the Rose Bowl as equal partners along with the Tournament of Roses Parade. Together with the ACC, they formed a short-lived Alliance. This move clearly changes the landscape between leagues. The Big Ten is a strong player, and Pac-12 has become a subordinate.
Whether it’s the Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Championship Series, or the college football playoffs, the Rose Bowl has stood like an oak tree in the winds of change. He made the biggest impact and cost the college football winner-take-all title games in 1994 and 1997. The Big Ten and Pac-12 were influential in keeping the Rose Bowl top of the pack in timeslot and ratings.
Since the USC and UCLA news, no organization has rocked more than the Rose Bowl. The Bruins play their home games in the Rose Bowl. No team has played more in the bowl game itself than the Trojans. The attraction of this place for fans of the big ten will dissipate as soon as regular season games begin at UCLA. In one bold stroke, the Big Ten and its two newcomers devalued the historic bowl game.
Football leads the way in every aspect of expansion, but Big Ten basketball fans can’t help but rejoice at regular trips to UCLA’s famed Pauley Pavilion. Likewise, the Bruins should enjoy the prospect of playing basketball at elite Big Ten venues like the Assembly Hall in Indiana, McKee’s Arena in Purdue, and Michigan’s Breslin Center.
The Big Ten have led the nation in men’s basketball attendance for 45 consecutive seasons (since the end of the pandemic year). Both UCLA and USC have excellent coaches in Mick Cronin and Andy Enfield, respectively. Their athletes will enjoy a more stable high-level environment and better TV exposure than what they see in Pac-12.
Few athletics departments can match UCLA and USC when it comes to preparing Olympians. This manifests itself in excellence in non-commercial sports, from track and field and gymnastics to baseball and softball. While football is the main driver of this expansion, every sport will benefit from USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten.
Big Ten baseball programs have long struggled to earn NCAA Tournament berths, including this year when regular season and tournament runner-up Rutgers failed to qualify despite 44 wins. USC and UCLA should immediately help the league’s RPI, as well as provide warm-weather recruiting and play opportunities in March and April.
This will be a problem for the Big Ten schools, especially outside of football. According to the figures received Athletic The league’s 13 public universities spent an average of more than $4.85 million on travel in FY 2021, according to open solicitations. The cost of charter flights will rise, and there will be more commercial flights for Midwestern Olympic sports teams that travel by bus regularly. Costs will also rise for UCLA and USC with longer flights.
This could make league schedules think differently. It may include travel partners to allow one team to compete against USC and UCLA for three days, or do the same for those schools as they travel to Michigan and Michigan State.
The league network increased its equity from 51% when it debuted in 2007 to 49% in 2012 and is now at 39%. It has successfully integrated Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers into its orbit during previous expansions and has added these markets to its ranks. It will aim to do the same with USC, UCLA, and Southern California and do what the Pac-12 network has failed to achieve, which is total market penetration.
(Top photo by Kevin Warren: Michael Conroy/AP)
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