Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Why the Big Ten Doesn't Need Expansion

Blah blah blah. That's how I feel about all of this Big Ten expansion talk started by 491 year old Joe Paterno. Look Joe, it's great to see you in good spirits at the ripe old age of 82, and while we appreciate the opinions, there's no reason for the Big Ten to expand right now. Apparently Gopher AD Joel Maturi agrees with me, as he basically tells the Strib the same thing.

His reasons, though, like this one...

"I think most in the Big Ten are satisfied with the 11-team conference and would only entertain expansion if the 12th team was compatible academically, philosophically and athletically," the same baloney conference commish Jim Delaney was spewing over the weekend. This is the same kind of crap about competitive balance and everything else the BCS folks use to argue why we don't need a playoff. The reason we don't have a playoff system is because the people in control make too much money to give up that control. And the reason we won't see Big Ten expansion anytime soon is because it doesn't guarantee the conference any more money than they're already making.

They already have great contracts with ABC and ESPN, and have ties to the best bowl on the planet in the Rose Bowl, as well as two New Year's Day games in the Capital One and Outback Bowls. At worst, your top three schools are going to play on New Year's Day, and most years, including five of the last six, your top five schools will be playing in NYD or BCS games. You can't get any better than that. Would it be great if the Big Ten started winning more bowl and nationally-televised games? Sure, but to be honest, it doesn't matter much because regardless Big Ten fans travel extremely well to support their schools and they watch them on TV too. Win or lose on the field, sponsors are winning with Big Ten teams in their games, and that's not going to be improved with a 12th team.

People will talk about the benefits of a championship game, but the only reason conferences want it is to make more money. Delaney referenced the ACC Championship game and what a debacle it's been (they have had problems selling out their title game, as well getting people to support their teams in bowls. They were giving away tickets for a dollar to last year's Orange Bowl). This is not an accurate comparison because the ACC is a basketball conference and their two "powerhouse" schools Miami and Florida State have been way, way down of late. But even if those two returned to glory, you're not going to see the same fervor for football that you will in the Big Ten. I wouldn't see the conference having any problems selling out their title game unless they drew Northwestern, but even then I think the locals and fans of the competiting school would gobble up the rest of the tickets. The ACC also has the problem of hosting their title game in Jacksonville, Florida, which is really only close to FSU and Miami. This would not be a problem in the Big Ten because the three most logical sites would be Soldier Field in Chicago, the new Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, or Ford Field in Detroit (as much as I hate the Packers, it'd be pretty cool to see the game held at Lambeau, but that would only be a one-time deal if it happened because it's just not that close to very many schools) are all pretty central and easy to get to for any of the 11 schools (well except Minnesota, but we'd get screwed no matter what).

But would the game really make the conference more money? I don't think so. Under the current system, you've already got your eight conference games, and NOT having a title game means more teams remain in contention for the BCS games, and BCS games make more money than a conference title game. Since its inception, the Big Ten has played in 19 BCS bowl games, which is more than any other conference (the SEC is second with 17). Big Ten teams travel well, so the BCS bowl will take a school from that conference whenever it possibly can. NOT having that conference title game keeps more of them in play.

Then there's the question of who to add. Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, agrees Notre Dame makes the most sense. But of course, unless viewership of Fighting Irish football on NBC plummets and they lose their TV deal and/or the BCS reconfigures so that Notre Dame has to make the top eight to qualify just like everybody else (currently they need to only finish ranked 12th or higher to qualify), there's zero incentive for ND to join a conference.

Delaney's point, although he would never say it this succinctly, is that if you can't get Notre Dame, then why bother? Pitt, Missouri, Syracuse, West Virginia, Louisville, and Rutgers are all fine schools, but none of them are going to raise the exposure for the conference like Notre Dame would.

Finally, how would forming 2 divisions make any sense? You couldn't do it geographically because it makes zero sense to have Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State all in the same division. You'd have to do what the ACC did and divide it up essentially by program strength so you could balance it, but even that's a crap shoot because as we're seeing now at Michigan, Florida State and Nebraska, a rich history and tradition guarantees you nothing. It'd be a big headache to keep as many rivals together as possible and let's be honest, in the end, teams with less clout like Minnesota, Purdue or Michigan State would get screwed and would probably lose a rivarly game.

Look, the Big Ten's situation now with 11 teams isn't exactly perfect, but it's not exactly broken either. The best thing the conference can do to enhance its image is start winning some bowls and nationally televised games (we're looking at you, Ohio State!), and we'll save expansion talk until it becomes a good economic decision for Notre Dame to join or when hell freezes over. Whichever comes first.


John M said...

Your point about the number of Big Ten bids is excellent and under-considered. A conference championship game guarantees that one of the best teams in the conference will be saddled with an "extra" loss. Imagine a hypothetical season in which Texas enters the Big 12 title game ranked #2 at 11-1 and Missouri enters the game ranked #7 at 10-2. Either Texas is going to be eliminated from the championship hunt or Missouri from the at-large hunt. If both enter the game at 10-2, then the championship game could turn a two bid league into a one bid league.

Jeff said...

We agree John, and why I didn't emphasize this more is beyond me.

Yes, an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl helps, but just about every season a conference title game would risk knocking a second Big Ten team from a BCS game, and then that knocks the bowl qualifications of everybody else in the conference down a peg. No bueno, my friends.