Monday, May 17, 2010

The Cynic’s Guide to College Football: Big 10 Expansion, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Super-Conference

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about conference expansion and realignment. At the top of that list is the Big 10’s expressed desire to expand to 14 or 16 teams. While much has been discussed (Notre Dame pipe dream, anyone?), the three most common—and logical—potentials to join the Big 10 are Missouri, Nebraska and Rutgers.

After a great deal of thorough analysis over some frosty beverages, I’ve come to one carefully-reasoned conclusion—this is a marriage made in football heaven and everybody involved would have to be a complete freakin’ idiot to not pull the trigger on this deal.

Although somehow “Big 14” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

First, let’s look at what those three schools would gain from joining the Big 10.

Academics—Some colleges still have this crazy notion that universities exist for purposes other than supporting football teams (strange, I know). Missouri, Nebraska and Rutgers—along with all 11 members of the current Big 10—are members of the American Association of Universities. If you’re known by the company you keep, AAU represents the cool kids in academic circles. Only 63 colleges and universities are members, but they receive
57% of all federal research dollars (more than $17 billion). 70% of U.S. Nobel Prize winners have been affiliated with one of these schools. In other words, the Big 10, especially with the addition of these three schools, would have a whole lot more in the way of academic funding and prestige than the Big 12 or Big East can offer.

It’s no Heisman, but it’ll do.

Equality—Over the course of the Big 12’s history, Nebraska has been on the losing end of more than one 11-1 votes. And others in the Big 12 North have quietly grumbled about the power in the conference moving south. The current state of the Big 12 is very simple—whatever Texas wants, Texas gets. A TV contract that heavily benefits the big name schools? You got it. Moving the Big 12 title game to Texas permanently? No problem. The list goes on. In the Big 12, the rich (Texas and Oklahoma) keep getting richer. The Big 10 is much more egalitarian in its structure, with all members treated more or less equally. (For example, they are the only conference in which all teams share BCS money evenly).

Clap if you’re a fan of the Big 12

Money—The Big One. Let’s be honest, none of this talk would even be on the table if there wasn’t money—and a lot of it—at stake. Under their current football TV contracts, Nebraska and Missouri each pull in approximately $10 million annually, while Rutgers gets about $4 million. If the Big 10 expands, each school would get in the neighborhood of $22 to $25 million. I’m not great at math, but even I can crunch those numbers.

Warren Buffett is a Nebraska fan. And he knows a good deal when he sees one.

So what does the Big 10 gain from these three extra schools?

Money—Yes, it all comes back to money again. Don’t act surprised. With these three schools in the mix, you pull in the New York/New Jersey, Saint Louis and Kansas City media markets. And while Nebraska may be small in terms of population, it is a traditional power that routinely brings in the big TV viewership numbers appealing to advertisers. In other words, you’re going to have a whole lot of eyes watching these games. They way I understand the Big Ten TV contract, they get 10 cents per cable subscriber in non-Big 10 areas, but approximately 70 cents per subscriber in Big 10 markets. Take that net 60 cents per subscriber difference times the number of cable subscribers in New York City, New Jersey, Missouri and Nebraska and you’re talking about a pretty good chunk of change. And that doesn’t even include the revenue from a potential conference title game, additional bowl bids, etc.

The Big 10 Network gets a whole lot Bigger. And Tennier.

History—To be sure, the Big 10 is not lacking for history or storied programs. But the addition of Rutgers (played in the very first college football game in 1869) and Nebraska (5 national titles and a laundry list of national award winners) certainly wouldn’t hurt the conference’s record books.

Rutgers 6, Princeton 4. You can’t get more old school than that.

Other Sports—While the focus of most of the expansion talk has understandably been on football, Missouri, Nebraska and Rutgers bring a lot to the table in other sports. For example, Missouri would be an immediate favorite for the baseball title. Nebraska volleyball would have a natural rival in Penn State as Final Four fixtures. And Rutgers women’s basketball has become a perennial contender.

Nebraska and Penn State have won 6 of the last 11 national championships in women’s volleyball, including the last three straight by PSU.

Are their downsides? Sure. Higher travel costs. The (potential) end of some traditional rivalries. Possibly fewer recruiting inroads in Texas for MU and NU. Some restructuring and rescheduling of the current Big 10. But are any of those reasons enough to say no to this deal? Absolutely not. At the end of the day, there’s really no good reason for this deal NOT to happen.

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