Over the last couple of weeks there have been a lot of things written and said about Big Ten Expansion, as well as its potential fall out. Everything's been covered from ACC expansion to what will happen in the SEC. But while we're all arguing over who will get an invite and how it will effect the rest of college football, let's not forget for a second what's driving the discussion.
Money. Lots and lots of it.
Over the last few weeks I've written a lot about expansion. In doing so, one thing has become clear. What's best for the on-field or on-court product that college sports fans adore is definitely not the most important thing at stake.
Cash flow. Media markets. Potential revenues. Athletic department profitability. These are the things at the top of the list. Whether a new University will improve the level of play in the Conference seems to rank somewhere in the 'teens. To an extent, this really sucks. What every college football fan wants is a more competitive, less predictable football conference for their school. They want to be the best team in the best conference. And the only way to get that distinction is to be a member of the best conference in the country.
And for the first time in decades, there is the very real chance your school could all of a sudden find themselves in that conference. If things proceed as predicted, there will be not just one, but four major conferences realigning themselves and expanding. It's an incredibly exciting time. Imagine the dream match ups. The perfect conference. It could happen. Right? But this isn't about on field play, and we know it.
In a strange way it's pure capitalism driving us into this new era for college football. As revenues have increased and opportunities to increase them even more have surfaced, all the old reasons preventing Conference expansion have fallen by the wayside. The Big Ten is a midwest conference. Not anymore. Notre Dame will never join the Big Ten because of what Yost said all those years ago. Hardly relevant today as Yost is long dead. You'll upset traditional rivalries. Oh well. To paraphrase Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume's excellent 1997 treaiste on Northern Ireland and the Irish: All old grudges and wounds fall by the wayside when the prospect of a better life through economic opportunity is available to everyone. You need look no further than Northern Ireland for an example of this.
The opportunities that have presented themselves are staggering. With the Big Ten presenting each of its member schools with an estimated $22 million a piece, it's impossible to believe the Conference would even consider expansion unless they firmly believed they could increase those revenues. So, it's safe to assume that any potential expansion will not just increase those revenues by a fraction, but in millions of dollars.
And this is where the on field product, rivalries, and the fans may end up getting the shaft. For proponents of East Coast expansion there's little outside of New York City that would interest any major conference. The best two football teams north of the Mason Dixon Line (i.e. Maryland/Virginia) are Connecticut and Boston College. Neither are powerhouses and neither command much attention in the NYC market. The schools located closest to the NYC market, Rutgers and Syracuse, have little on-field to offer but because they are located near New York they have more to offer than the better football schools.
Another perfect example is the case of Pittsburgh. The Panthers are one of the best combined football and basketball programs in the East. The hold some national pull and are located in a decent sports city. Pitt would be competitive in the Big Ten's middle tier and would certainly compete for the upper tier of the Conference in hoops. But they'll never get an invite. Pitt doesn't offer any new ground to the Conference because Penn State already gives the Big Ten all of Pennsylvania. So that kills Pitt as a primary expansion candidate, in spite of what it'd bring to the competitive balance of the conference.
While we'd all like to live in a college football world where everyone's competitive and the game is the primary focus, but we're all not naive enough to believe that's the reality. Why else do schools like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State schedule tomato cans like Delaware State, Youngstown State, or Eastern Illinois. The bottomline controls. And that is why expansion looks more likely to the West than to the East. Nebraska brought in $75.5 million last year and Missouri brought in $50 million. Compare that to Rutgers ($50 million) and Pitt ($39 Million), and the expansion arrow points away from the Atlantic.
While the clamoring after the almighty dollar may be perceived as bad thing, in some cases it may actually be a good thing. As today's extensive post at In The Bleachers points out, the SEC's gargantuan television contract in exceedingly unlikely to be re-negotiated. The caveat? If the SEC were to add a huge name, like Texas, that would force ESPN to renegotiate. The end result would be a better conference with better competition (though, arguably, it'd kill the Big XII). It may also save the ACC from itself. Twelve teams, a championship game, and a booming basketball tournament aren't giving the conference as much as you'd think. The ACC brings in only $67 million to distribute to it's member schools, less than $5.1 million a piece. Expansion may finally allow the ACC to expand past it's eastern shores and increase it's viewing audience. If the conference is to survive, it's something they arguably must do. In the long run this may become a good thing for college football fans as exposure and expansion bring us more football, more accessibly.
Even so, the meme returns. It's all about money. And no matter how many reports we see about expansion offers being extended or some guy in a van telling us there's Big Ten Expansion Candy in the back seat, we've got to keep in mind how each school's inclusion will affect the Conference's bottom line.
And that is what will determine who goes where.
(For more on our continuing coverage, click here for a list of our previous Big Ten Expansion stories.)