Sorry, Kansas: The Big Ten’s priority needs to be football, not basketball
The college football season is a month away, but all anyone can think about is what’s coming beyond 2021. Realignment will shape the future of the sport; Texas and Oklahoma bolting for the SEC is likely just the beginning.
There have been reports linking one of the Big 12 castoffs, Kansas, to the Big Ten. I can see why some initially connected Kansas to the Big Ten. Geographically, Lawrence is further East than Lincoln and almost as far North as Bloomington. Kansas men’s basketball ranks second all-time in wins, behind only Kentucky. It is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), which is reportedly a sticking point for the Big Ten.
I'm told Big Ten is so much more interested in AAU schools than Pac-12 is. I'm told Kansas and Iowa State (both AAU members) "made a run at Big Ten, but I don't know if they'll get any place," Big 12 source says.
— Kirk Bohls (@kbohls) July 27, 2021
The only problem? Kansas stinks at football. And that’s a deal-breaker.
When it comes to realignment, the Big Ten needs to prioritize football over basketball. That’s why Kansas is not a fit to join the Big Ten if the conference does elect to expand.
Conference realignment is all about television value to networks, and nearly all of that value comes from football, not basketball. Networks pay huge sums of money to these conferences for the right to broadcast these games. Kansas, which is the worst Power 5 football program, is unsurprisingly not a draw for TV audiences. In fact, none of the 8 leftover Big 12 teams are much of a draw compared to Texas and Oklahoma, according to The Athletic. Games involving Oklahoma averaged nearly 4 times as many viewers than games involving the other 8 schools; games involving Texas averaged over 3 times as many viewers than games involving the other 8 schools.
The Big Ten’s 12 longest-standing league members got $54.3 million in 2020. If Kansas were to join the Big Ten, the risk would be that games involving Kansas football would get terrible ratings — I can see it now: Kansas at Rutgers, coming up next on ESPN+ — thus lowering the value of those games to networks and decrease the annual payouts to B1G members. Texas and Oklahoma are going to increase the payouts to the SEC, not decrease it.
You might ask, well, what about basketball? Kansas, an annual Final Four contender, could help the Big Ten break its men’s basketball national championship drought!
I’ll answer your question with a question: If basketball mattered, why would Texas and Oklahoma leave the Big 12 in the first place? The Big 12 was the best basketball conference in the country last year (sorry, B1G). It had 7 of its 10 members make the NCAA Tournament, and Baylor was far and away the best team in the country. The SEC is the fourth-best basketball league in the country, at best, behind the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC.
Men’s basketball is a distant second to football in terms of importance to TV networks. That’s why Texas and Oklahoma, which both have decent basketball programs, are prioritizing football, because that will make them way more money. The average college football team makes more money than the next 35 college sports combined. Remember all those stories during the pandemic about what would happen if there was no college football season? Football is king.
That’s why Kansas simply isn’t a fit. The Jayhawks haven’t won more than 3 games in a season since 2009. They’ve had 2 double-digit win seasons in their history (which is 4 fewer than Michigan State had past decade). They are 7-98 in Big 12 play since 2009, never winning more than 1 conference game in a season during that span. They are as close to an automatic win that you get in Power 5 competition. Just a few years ago, Kansas averaged fewer than 20,000 fans at home games. In a conference that has 3 teams that average more than 100,000 fans per game, that doesn’t fit.
When you add in that Kansas is also a mess off the field, how would this make any sense?
When the Big Ten last expanded and added Maryland and Rutgers, it eyed moving into a new market on the East Coast. But what it really should do is find universities that will add value, regardless of location. That’s why USC and Oregon make the most sense. Those are huge brands in college football.
Kansas is the closest thing a Power 5 athletic program can get to not having a football team. It will never carry its weight, and therefore has no place in the Big Ten.