Big Ten expansion disregards fans, compromises conference product

Publish date:

In his Monday column about Maryland's move to the Big Ten, my colleague Andy Staples makes some very salient points about why it would have been fiscally irresponsible for that school to stay in the ACC. It's hard to argue otherwise. Andy also explains why targeting all those East Coast television sets is a smart business decision for the league and its cable channel. I get that thinking, too.

But in response to his own rhetorical question -- "So why does everyone hate Maryland's move to the Big Ten?" -- Andy suggests we're all too caught up in nostalgia. "Most people either can't or won't accept what big-time college athletics actually is," he writes. "It is a big business that happens to be attached to mostly publicly funded universities."

Believe me, I get that. I've been covering this thing for a decade-plus. I know what drives these decisions. And yet, as a Big Ten alum, I could not be more disappointed that the conference chose to make these unnecessary and unwanted additions.

Maybe I'm too nostalgic, as Andy suggests. Or maybe I've just had it with these increasingly ridiculous conference land-grabs.

It's a shame that future Northwestern students (or Michigan State students, or Iowa students) won't get to partake in the same experiences I did while road-tripping to Columbus and Madison. If the now 14-team conference stays with an eight-game league schedule, schools will now visit most cross-division foes about once a decade.

It's nonsensical that an already struggling football conference is adding a pair of historically mediocre programs that may well enhance the Big Ten Network's equity but will do nothing to improve actual Big Ten football.

And it's an insult to our intelligence that Jim Delany -- the same man who just last year insisted "it's about quality and not quantity," in shooting down rumors of further expansion -- now wants us to believe that "the University of Maryland, if you were looking at it as an asset, is a 'buy-and-hold.' Because I think they have a ceiling that hasn't been approached recently but can be a very, very nationally competitive football environment."

(Let me be clear: I have no grudge against Maryland. It's a great school, and I have friends and family members who are alums. I've covered and enjoyed several great ACC basketball games involving the Terrapins over the years. And Rutgers ... well, I once sat in a three-hour traffic jam getting to a Scarlet Knights game, and afterward my rental car got stuck in their muddy parking lot at 2 a.m. But this isn't really about that. My beef is with the Big Ten.)

Delany, despite what his critics think, is a visionary and a forward-thinker who's far more intelligent than I could ever hope to be. (I'm not saying this to be hyperbolic; I've talked to him many times. He's just plain smarter than me.) And so, when he speaks of shifting demographics and the notion that the Big Ten needs to seek out new markets to compensate for declining population in its backyard, I tend to believe him. This move may well turn out to be one of incredible financial foresight 10 or 20 years down the road, and I'm sure all that extra television revenue will be put to a good cause, like increasing coaches' and athletic directors' salaries or putting new Jacuzzis in the weight rooms.

The problem is, none of that benefits actual Big Ten fans. In fact, the more the realignment wheel spins, the farther back fan interest seems to fall on conferences' priority lists. College fans' passion is due in large part to their sense of belonging. Now they're starting to feel much the same disconnect as when a professional owner trades a favored player to slash payroll. Hopefully college teams won't start moving to other cities for better stadium leases.

One by one over the years, these commissioners have gone behind a podium and told fans how they should feel about something. Trust me, ACC basketball fans, says John Swofford. You'll get used to only seeing Duke come to town once every couple of years. Don't sweat it. Here's Virginia Tech and Miami to hold you over. Trust me, SEC football fans, says Mike Slive. You've always wanted to see the Gators play Missouri; you just didn't realize it. And trust me, Big Ten fans, says Delany. Just because Maryland and Rutgers fans barely care about their own teams doesn't mean you won't care about playing them.

It makes me wonder whether they'll eventually go too far in testing fan loyalty.

The mad cash grab that's occurred within the past two to three years feels very much like the late '90s dotcom bubble or the mid-2000s housing bubble. Three years ago it was considered a really big deal that the SEC could distribute $17 million, primarily in television revenue, to its schools. Just a year later, the Pac-12, despite having a less rabid fan base and offering up fewer games for bidding, managed to top $20 million. Now, according to a document attained by SI's Pete Thamel, the Big Ten is projecting $43 million payouts come 2017.

I'm no economist -- but those figures can't keep rising forever.

The Big Ten's faith in its cable network and the anticipated windfall from penetrating the East Coast is based in large part on the fundamental premise that fans will maintain the same undying loyalty as they do today. That's certainly true for the diehards at, say, Ohio State, who will tune in whether the Buckeyes are facing Michigan or Eastern Michigan. But TV ratings ultimately depend on maintaining the interest of casual fans and, in an ideal world, attracting new ones. What happens if conferences push that contingent past the point of tolerance?

What happens if fans wake up one Saturday, flip on the TV and say, "Why am I watching a Northwestern-Rutgers game?" And what happens to all those subscriber fees when people inevitably stop watching conventional television? What if fans are watching the Iowa-Maryland game on their tablets, get bored, and start playing Angry Birds instead? At a time when attention spans are growing shorter and shorter, conferences are asking for a longer and longer leash.

The New York Times' Nate Silver, the noted political statistician who nailed the results of the recent presidential election, reached a similar conclusion. In an article entitled "Expanding Eastward Could Dilute Big Ten Brand," Silver, whose measurements show Rutgers and Maryland will rank 10th and 14th, respectively, in the conference in fan interest, says "... the Eastern schools seem to reduce both the geographical integrity of the conference and the quality of the average Big Ten football game." It's diminishing returns. The league may make more money in the short-term, but at what long-term cost to its product?

Delany has presumably thought of this. Perhaps this is all part of his long-term plan to ensure Apple chooses to partner with the Big Ten in 2026 when it develops technology that enables people to watch college football games while they sleep.

In the meantime, however, vague visions of the future do little to make me excited about a present that revolves around increasingly bloated conferences pitting schools with few commonalities. Maybe I'm being too nostalgic, but I don't think so. In truth, I care less about college football's past than I worry about its future.