Ever since the Big Ten announced it would expand last December, the question hasn't been so much "when" but "by how many." Even so, the former question seems to have been answered, "right now," but we still have no idea how to respond to the latter.
At 12 teams the Big Ten is finally in a position to have what its fans and detractors have lusted after since the conference expanded 20 years ago: A Conference Playoff. Not only has the Big Ten added a national and historic power in the University of Nebraska, but it has expanded its schedule past Thanksgiving, thus keeping the conference in everyone's mind come BCS selection time.
Stil, it's entirely possible the Big Ten could continue to expand. If they do, there are only two realistic expansion scenarios. The conference could grow to 14 or 16 teams. Anything more than 16 and it's impossible to add another pair of universities/athletic departments that generate enough revenue to increase everyone's bottom line. At 16, however, it seems possible that the Big Ten can continue to increase revenues and increase everyone's slice of the pie.
Greed is good, but the Big Ten shouldn't expand past 12 teams.
As a good capitalist soul, I understand the allure of a 16 team league spanning from the Rockies to the Atlantic spread the word of the Big Ten to nonbelievers and their wallets. Believe me. I get it. But a 16 team conference is a recipe for disaster.
While it's possible for a 16 team conference to make more money for everyone, it's unlikely. As Darren Rovell's recent column on CNBC.com about the potential Pac 10 network points out:
Barry Frank [executive vice president for IMG Media] said that each team will be paid by the Pac-10 in TV money what the new conference thinks they are worth and that's where this will either turn into being a good or bad deal for the conference. Bottom line is, some teams don't add much value. They'll be paid a smaller percentage of what might be a bigger pie, which also would have to be split in 16 pieces.
By standing at 12 teams the Big Ten has not only increased its media footprint, but it has greatly increased its revenue generating potential through the creation of a championship game. You only get to add revenue through a championship game once, so any school that comes on board from this point on will share in that extra revenue rather than contribute to it.
There is also the issue of added value. Now that the conference is at twelve teams the number of slices in the financial pie start to get smaller as schools are added. Even if they do somehow get bigger, the increase may not be big enough to warrant inclusion. There are only two schools out there that can offer enough of a revenue stream to warrant an invite, and neither look like they are viable options for expansion.
Even though many of us thought all this conference expansion talk was originally a thinly veiled attempt to force Notre Dame into the Big Ten, the possibility of this happening is beginning to look more and more remote. Despite all the early rumors involving the poaching of half of the Big East's membership, the Big East has been left alone through the first round of conference expansion. As Notre Dame relies upon the Big East for its Olympic and non-revenue sports, without the catastrophic failure of the conference, the Domer's are perfectly safe. In some ways, Notre Dame's position has actually been strengthened by the Big XII's collapse.
Think about it. Over the past three weeks the expansion discussion has centered around what will happen to schools west of Ohio. Not a single paper or source has leaked a rumor that any of the prime expansion candidates has received a bid or is considering leaving. Futher, it appears that the Big Ten may actually be considering schools in the ACC (Maryland and Virginia) as possible additions rather than Rutgers or 'Cuse as originally speculated. When the Big East came out unscathed, Notre Dame's position remained unchanged. Frankly, the Irish may get what they've claimed they wanted all along. To remain independent in a college football landscape that looks pretty much like it did in December.
With Notre Dame out of the expansion picture the logical choice for expansion is Texas, only the Horns aren't interested. As the demise of the Big XII has played out, it's become increasingly obvious that Texas will take whatever deal gives them the most control over their perspective conference, not which conference is the best fit. When the Texas to the Big Ten rumors started, there were protestations about the travel requirements to Big Ten schools. However, with the Pac 10 (a conference Texas would immediately become the top dog of), these travel concerns for their non-revenue schools suddenly went away despite being in a conference with three different time zones.
In terms of money and control, With the NCAA's crippling report on USC, Texas also steps into the football driver's seat as the biggest name draw in the conference, affording them the right to name their terms on joining the Pac 10. This was never an option in the Big Ten. Where the Big Ten has an established TV network, streaming revenues, and equal financial dispersal, Texas would be forced to have an equal say with Indiana. On the other hand, Texas would be one of the driving forces behind a Pac 10 (16) television conference, as well as be able to dictate terms regarding their potential Longhorn network. I will admit the prior two sentences are speculation, but they add up.
Now, Texas seems to have found its Big XII religion. Again, it's not hard to understand why when the Big XII's current commissioner is promising the Longhorns $20 to $25 million in revenue all while being allowed to keep their network. Raise your hand if you believe Fox, ESPN, or anyone for that matter is going to dole out $250 million a year for the Big XII minus Nebraska and Colorado. That's a lot of money going to Baylor and Iowa State for being awful. But the Longhorns want us to believe that they want to "save" the conference now, despite their obvious attempts to extort it. Whatever finally happens to the Big XII, it's abundantly clear that Texas is not a candidate for expansion.
While there are excellent schools that would make a good academic, and possibly athletic, fit for the conference, none of them bring the financial incentive for addition. While Rutger is geographically positioned to deliver the New York City DMA, there is no garuantee it actually will. Missouri would be a good addition, but only if a heavier hitter came along with them. Maryland and Virginia might deliver the Washington, DC, DMA, but will they contribute enough otherwise to warrant an invitation (and if given, would charter members of the ACC even consider it!)? Given the amount of research the Big Ten has done to this point, I have to believe they would've poached other schools by now if they were going to.
Finally, the Big Ten should stay at 12 teams (or at worst 14 teams) to save the rivalries that presently exist inside its borders. At 16 teams it becomes increasing difficult to save the intra-division rivalries and trophy games that currently exist. With 12 teams the conference can continue doing what it currently does, rotate three teams (rather than the current two) off the schedule every two years. This way all the present intra division rivalries are preserved. At 14 teams it's trickier, but doable. The seven team division gives each team two out of division games a year, meaning you cycle through every six years. Go to 16 teams and the rivalries dead. At 16 teams the conference schedule will only allow for one out of division game. Try telling Michigan and Minnesota that the Little Brown Jug will only be played for twice in twelve years.
At this point the Big Ten has done the improbable. It's added a national and historic football power to it's lineup. It's added a championship game. It's increased its national exposure and advertising catch basin. It's done it without having to compromise its academic or athletic integrity.
So, for argument's sake, it might be time for the Big Ten to stop expanding and sit pat.