Less is more? The case for the B1G to sit out realignment
The landscape of college football is changing. Ohio State coach Ryan Day remarked at Big Ten Media Days that we may not recognize the sport in 5 years. Even though the season starts in less than a month, all of the talk is about realignment and expansion, especially after Texas and Oklahoma made it official Friday and joined the SEC.
But here’s a thought: What if the Big Ten does nothing?
That may not be the “sexy” move, but it may be the right one. Let me explain.
For one, the Big Ten is a cash cow. The Big Ten annually generates the most revenue, even more than the SEC. It pays out the highest sums of money to its league members, with $54.3 million going to its 12 longstanding members in 2020. That means schools need the Big Ten more than the Big Ten needs new members.
Kansas and Iowa State may want to join the Big Ten, but the Big Ten can be selective. It should only be considering schools that will expand the conference’s brand and increase that annual payout to its members. Kansas and Iowa State may increase the Big Ten’s revenue overall, but if schools are getting less money from it, that won’t fly.
So, who would bring in more money? USC. Oregon. Washington. Notre Dame. Those are the slam dunks. Other than that? I’m not so sure.
The Big Ten needs to be careful about watering down the league. While everyone is talking about 16- or 20-team conferences, the B1G should safeguard against its historic beginnings. Eight schools have been a member of this conference since the late 1800s. Ten of been members since at least 1950. That’s a lot of tradition — ahem, Saturday Tradition (shameless plug). The Big Ten needs to make sure that adding members will add value, as USC, Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame surely would. (Notre Dame isn’t happening, by the way, but it always deserves a mention.)
Expanding for the sake of expansion risks upsetting the other members. When you’ve been in a league for 120 years and you have long rivalries with other league members, you expect to play them. But the reality of expanding to 14 has made what used to be annual matchups turn into every 3 or 4 years. For example:
- Michigan and Minnesota played every year except one from 1919-2015, but they’ve played only twice in the past 5 years and aren’t scheduled to meet again until 2023.
- Ohio State and Iowa played 54 times from 1944-2010, but they’ve only played twice in the past 10 years and don’t play again until next season.
- Illinois and Indiana played 45 times from 1960-2013, but they’ve met just once in the past 7 years and don’t play again until 2023.
- Iowa and Indiana played 72 times over from 1931-2015, but they’ve met just once in the past 5 years.
It has to be incredibly frustrating for those fan bases to have Rutgers or Maryland come to town instead of a border rival. With all due respect to Rutgers or Maryland, there just isn’t the same buzz around those games. If you’re an Indiana fan, how many Rutgers fans do you know? In all likelihood, not nearly as many as you would Illinois fans.
I’m not even hating on Rutgers or Maryland; the Big Ten wanted to expand East, where there is a lot of money. It just has to be aware of the consequences and keep fans’ feelings in mind. They are, after all, the customers who will pay for Big Ten Network or pay to go to games.
So, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren needs to be careful when considering who to add to the league and make sure they are pulling their own weight. No one would be excited to play Iowa State other than Iowa (and they already play each other, anyway). No one would be excited to play Kansas in football (because as I already wrote, realignment is entirely about football).
Sacrificing a matchup here or there with a border rival would be a lot easier to stomach if it meant that USC or Oregon was coming to town.
The Big Ten is in a powerful position as the clear No. 2 conference to the SEC. It doesn’t need to water down its product with backup options.