Big Ten serious about expansion, but risks could outweigh benefits

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As with universal health care, Big Foot and the Arrested Development movie, my stance on potential Big Ten expansion remains unchanged: I'll believe it when I see it.

But clearly, something has changed within the conference's ranks. After years of pooh-poohing the idea of a 12th team, several prominent league officials have begun publicly pushing for expansion. On Tuesday, the conference issued a statement on behalf of The Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors, which "discussed the future" of the league at its Dec. 6 winter meetings and has asked commissioner Jim Delany to "provide [expansion] recommendations for consideration ... over the next 12 to 18 months."AP: Big Ten to explore expansion possibilities

The presidents, it should be noted, have requested a similar review nearly every five years since Penn State's arrival in 1993. The 1998 process resulted in an ultimately rejected invite to Notre Dame, while the 2003 review (which occurred at a time when several other leagues realigned) resulted in no action. But those didn't prompt the type of public campaigning currently on display.

Delany himself, though, has remained conspicuously quiet this week. A conference spokesman said Tuesday that the commissioner -- who has long been lukewarm about expansion -- would not be adding any further comment beyond the league's statement. As recently as last spring, he declared expansion a "backburner issue," telling the Chicago Tribune: "I don't want us to tear ourselves apart over the structure of football for the sake of expansion."

However, Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez told the school's athletic board last Friday that, "I have a sense [Delany] is going to take this year to really be more aggressive about it. I just think everybody feels [expansion] is the direction to go, coaches and administrators.

"We're irrelevant for the last three weeks of the football season because we're not playing."

Echoing that sentiment, Ohio State president Gordon Gee said Monday: "We have to be thoroughly modern and realize the world has moved on, and having a playoff for the Big Ten championship makes sense."

Give Alvarez and Gee credit: They're among the first league administrators to publicly acknowledge what the rest of us have been saying for several years: that the Big Ten -- which ends its regular season two weeks before most other conferences --- has fallen behind the curve nationally. Penn State coach Joe Paterno expressed much the same sentiment last spring in calling for a 12th team.

"We go into hiding for six weeks," he said. "Everybody else is playing playoffs on television. You never see a Big Ten team mentioned."

All three seem to agree on two things: that the league suffers from a perception problem, and that adding a conference championship game would help fix that. If that is indeed the overriding motivation toward adding a 12th team, the league will have to answer a difficult question over the next 12 to 18 months: Would the benefits of an essentially p.r.-driven expansion outweigh the potentially considerable risks?

Contrary to what many assume, a Big Ten championship game would not necessarily be a cash cow. The SEC's event -- by far the most successful of its kind -- generated $14.3 million in shared revenue last season ($1.2 million per team). The ACC's, which has been a disappointing disaster, hovers closer to $5 million. Even if we assume the Big Ten's loot comes in closer to the SEC's, that's still a drop in the bucket compared to the league's two biggest revenue generators: regular-season television deals and BCS/bowl payouts.

The Big Ten does not publicly release revenue-sharing figures, but it's been reported that its rights deals with ABC/ESPN and the Big Ten Network generate about $212 million annually. (That's in addition to the league's direct profits from its jointly owned network.) Add in this season's two BCS berths ($22.3 million) and five other bowl berths (about $14 million), and we're talking a minimally estimated $248.3 million in shared revenue, or $22.6 million per team.

Therefore, any potential 12th team would have to add $22.6 million in "value" to renegotiated TV and bowl deals to prevent the others from losing money. With all due respect to Missouri, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers (the most commonly discussed candidates), there's only one viable school that could guarantee that kind of gold mine: Notre Dame. The Irish rejected the Big Ten's last invitation in 1999, and the school has given no indication it's willing to reconsider.

Then there are the potential on-field ramifications. Would the exposure from a conference championship game help a potential BCS contender from the Big Ten? Possibly. But the game could also produce the opposite effect.

While Big Ten teams have taken their lumps on the field, they aren't exactly hurting for consideration. The league has produced a second BCS berth more often than any other conference (nine times in 12 years), including each of the past five seasons. If this year's Ohio State-Iowa showdown, played Nov. 14, had taken place in a league title game three weeks later, the 10-2 Hawkeyes likely wouldn't be playing in the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma in 2003, Alabama in 2008 and Florida in 2009 are the only title-game losers ever to receive BCS at-large berths, and all three entered their title games undefeated.

If the league loses more than one at-large berth (currently worth $4.5 million) over a four-year period, that extra championship-game revenue becomes a wash.

Delany, for one, seems to subscribe to the latter school of thought. "I could live with two divisions and a championship game," he told the Tribune last May, "but I think that has a tendency to devalue the season-ending game and have a negative impact [in terms of at-large BCS selection] on your losing team in season-ending games."

That's not to mention the logistical issues plaguing the Big Ten, which plays more intra-conference "rivalry" games than any other.

Would the Ohio State-Michigan game, which has had BCS ramifications for at least one of the two teams for eight straight years, become a de facto play-in to the title game? Would the Buckeyes and Wolverines be grouped with Penn State in an unduly stacked "East" division? Or would Ohio State and Michigan be separated, possibly causing them to play twice in the same season?

If you're going to go through that level of upheaval, there better be some clear, indisputable upside.

When the Big Ten added Penn State, it was able to claim the most television eyeballs among any conference's home markets. Unless TV execs believe Rutgers or Syracuse can capture the New York City market (debatable), no logical candidate could provide the same bounce. When the ACC added Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College in 2005, it nearly doubled its annual TV revenue. That's not going to happen, either.

The guess here is that if this decision were entirely up to Delany, his list of "recommendations for consideration" would continue to consist of one, uninterested party (Notre Dame). He'd tell the presidents that moving the Ohio State-Michigan game and maybe Penn State's conference finale to the first weekend of December would accomplish the same goals as a title game. (See the Big East, which garnered a huge TV rating for this year's Cincinnati-Pittsburgh finale.)

But Delany serves at the behest of his league's presidents (who themselves receive input from their coaches and athletic directors). If there really, truly is a sweeping desire for expansion among his constituents, he may have to provide them with something much grander than Missouri or Pittsburgh.

I'd say Nebraska would make a nice centerpiece for the "Big Ten West."