Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Big Ten Expansion is Coming

In what's always a heated topic among Big Ten fans, it looks like Big Ten expansion could soon become a reality. From the "where there's smoke there's fire department" ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg blew the first puff of smoke Friday in a blog post where he quoted Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez saying the Big Ten will push for expansion- not should, will.

"I have a sense [Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany] is going to take this year to really be more aggressive about it," Alvarez told the board. "I just think everybody feels [expansion] is the direction to go, coaches and administrators."

Today started with another post from Rittenberg, this one showing Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee in support of expansion:

"We have to be thoroughly modern and realize the world has moved on, and having a playoff for the Big Ten championship makes sense," Gee told The Columbus Dispatch. "I'm not planting a stake in the ground on that issue, but it's something we now need to tackle."

The Chicago Tribune then published this report saying an official announcement was due from the conference today essentially confirming that expansion would be moving from "a backburner issue" (which Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has called it in the past) to a front burner.

Yep, a 12th Big Ten team may soon become a reality. That Tribune piece does a good job of hashing over just why this is coming up now, and of course, the three biggest reasons are money, exposure, and money.

The Trib story guesses a Big Ten title game (probably in Chicago, Indy or Detroit, or maybe it rotates?) would probably be worth at least $5 million to the conference, and when you add in the likelihood of it being broadcast on the conference's very own Big Ten Network, well, you can see the dollar signs adding up in the conference president's head. But is a short term money grab worth the risk of damaging an already very marketable and very popular product?

No doubt this game would be supported, at least much better than the ACC championship game, which up to this point can be considered nothing short of an absolute failure. Since their inaugural game in 2005, which pitted juggernauts Florida State and Virginia Tech, the game has not sold out. In 2008 they had barely 27,000 people attend and had an "improved" crowd this year of 42,000.

Sure, football is much more popular in the Big Ten than the ACC, but outside of the "Big Five" fan bases, will the other six travel for a conference title game? Whenever Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa are involved, you can guarantee a sell-out with just one of those fan bases alone. But what happens if Armageddon strikes and you get Northwestern vs. Minnesota? Or Purdue vs. Illinois? If the Big Five fan bases aren't involved, is this still a profitable venture? You would assume those games would be the exception and not the rule, but then again I doubt the ACC saw their sagging attendance numbers as a possibility. They certainly didn't predict the downfalls at Florida State (played only in one conference championship) and Miami (shockingly have not played in one yet). Is the current woeful Michigan program a blip on the radar screen, soon to be turned around, or are they in for a longer drought like FSU or Nebraska? Certainly with five very strong fan bases, they can make up for a slumbering giant if that's what Michigan turns into, but again, you never know.

The bigger question with this game becomes whether you run the risk of knocking out a second BCS bowl game participant. The Big Ten has had more teams involved in BCS games and the VERY lucrative payouts that go with them than any other conference. Why? Because unlike the PAC 10, we don't have nine conference games, which takes away one cupcake non-conference win from half of your teams, and two, we don't have a conference title game knocking out one of our potential BCS teams. With the popularity of Big Ten teams with the BCS bowls, maybe this wouldn't be such a big issue, but then again maybe it would: say Ohio State and Iowa met for the conference title game: If Iowa wins, would a BCS game want a three loss Buckeyes team? If Iowa loses, would a BCS game want the four loss Hawkeyes? And would any BCS bowl have the stones to take Penn State over the loser of that game when they weren't deemed one of the two best teams in the conference?

I actually want to dive into this later in the week and see that if in the BCS Era, would a conference title game really have made a difference on whether we got one or two teams into a BCS game? My hunch says it would, but as this year's BCS bowls show, bowls LOVE the Big Ten travelling hordes, and so long as two of them are in the top 14 are eligible, they're going to do their best to take them.

So maybe this is an issue, and maybe it's not, but I'll reserve judgment until doing some research.

Finally, the Trib article says that more and more Big Ten folks are grumpy that the conference doesn't have any good games after Thanksgiving. Um hello? Isn't that what we've all been saying for like the past five years?!?!? Thanks for finally paying attention! A Big Ten title game would certainly solve this problem, but then again, so would an extra bye like the PAC 10 has, and allowing conference games to be played after Thanksgiving. I know there's traditionalists firmly against moving the Ohio State/Michigan game and other rivalries, like our "rivalry" with Iowa, past the Thanksgiving weekend, but this would easily keep the Big Ten in the national conversation right through the end of the regular season without having to dilute things with a conference title game.

Plenty to be discussed in the coming weeks and months, but if there's already this much smoke around the issue, especially coming not just from prominent AD's like Alvarez, but from university President's (who of course make all the decisions), I have to think this will be happening, and happening soon.

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