The Big Ten’s push to conquer the college athletics universe has hit a pregnant pause about two weeks after accepting Maryland and Rutgers as the league’s 13th and 14th members. Everyone expects the league to consider future expansion, and Commissioner Jim Delany reiterated the possibility in his subsequent news conferences and interviews.
Rather than sitting out on the sidelines watching other leagues add members, Delany chose to be proactive. Two years ago he cited demographics, such as a declining population base in the Big Ten footprint and growth in the Sun Belt as the potential for adding members in different parts of the country. There were discussions with Texas as well as Maryland and Rutgers. The league ultimately chose Nebraska, but when other conferences starting adding schools and picking up locations with growing populations, the league was compelled to action.
Maryland offers the Washington D.C. and Baltimore markets, while Rutgers adds New York City and solidifies Philadelphia, which had been reluctant to embrace the Big Ten Network. While neither school guarantees those markets in ratings, it does elevate the league’s East Coast profile.
The moves took college athletics by surprise. Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said he was informed “probably several weeks, not several months” before about the potential for expansion.
“It started out as more of a generic (discussion),” Barta said. “(Delany said we) just want to make you aware to those concepts we talked about, those principles. We’re thinking of it again, the board of directors, the presidents are thinking of it again. Think about those principles, academic fit, athletic fit, cultural fit. The whole discussion about growing the footprint and let’s see where it heads. It was generic, not specific schools on day one. But then of course as he got closer and closer, we started to learn about schools.”
Barta said he liked staying at 12 schools in the league but understood the changing landscape of college athletics compelled the Big Ten to act. Provincially, he’d be in favor of adding a neighbor school, but the league comes first.
“Selfishly, it’s simpler, but I want what’s best for the Big Ten,” Barta said. “So, I’m not going to try and speculate if we’re going to grow, and I’m not going to speculate if we do grow where it would be. But the selfish answer is it’s simpler if it’s closer. But beyond that, I want what’s best for the Big Ten.”
Academic fit is paramount for any future expansion. Of the Big Ten’s 14 members, 13 are members of the Association of American Universities, a prominent consortium of research institutions. Nebraska initially was a member but was expelled after joining the Big Ten.
With AAU membership almost non-negotiable (Notre Dame being the exception), there are 10 potential candidates for Big Ten consideration. Texas and Florida are completely unrealistic. Texas has its Longhorn Network, which wouldn’t be compatible with the Big Ten. Florida is too embedded with the SEC for obvious and historic reasons.
Texas A&M might have been a possibility two years ago, but the school loves its new association with the SEC. Missouri would have done anything to join the Big Ten in 2010 but it would be difficult to pull out of the SEC after one year. Colorado now has the perfect association with the Pac-12 and should get a much-need influx of cash once the league’s networks become profitable.
The realistic schools include Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Duke and Virginia — all members of the ACC. North Carolina and Virginia came out with statements that they are interested in staying put in ACC. All four voted with the league to sue Maryland for the full $50 million payout. That said, there’s no real expiration date for expansion.
Kansas is a wild card. It makes sense geographically and has a long tradition with Nebraska. In fact, the schools still have one of the most-played football rivalries. But the Big 12′s new lucrative media deal coupled with the 13-year grant of rights (which means all first- and second-tier television revenue stays with the league and does not transfer to the school) makes any situation complicated.
When the Big Ten was weighing candidates in 2010, I profiled the nuts and bolts of each potential candidate. Here are the final verdicts I wrote about the three Big Ten newbies when they were under at least public consideration (the full breakdown is linked to the school name):
Nebraska (accepted in 2010, member in 2011)
2010 Final verdict: Football conquers all when it comes to college athletics. The sport earns between 80 and 90 percent of all athletics department revenue. Outside of Notre Dame, Nebraska is the most attractive candidate strictly because of football.
Maryland (accepted in 2012, member in 2014)
2010 Final verdict: Maryland offers a prime location with new markets, which fits the Big Ten’s demographic criteria. It provides a solid academic profile and athletically it could compete in the Big Ten. While it doesn’t offer a national splash, it does have substance. Like Rutgers, Maryland might not be the top candidate in a one-school addition, but it could make the cut for three or five schools. I think Maryland is the real dark horse in the expansion race.
Rutgers (accepted in 2012, member TBA)
2010 Final verdict: It depends on the number of schools that join the Big Ten. If it’s only one, it won’t be Rutgers. If it’s three or five, Rutgers will join the Big Ten.
Obviously there were several schools discussed and rehashed both in 2010 and 2012. Some schools listed below were considered potential candidates and others that had no merit. Here’s what I wrote about them:
Notre Dame (accepted as ACC partial member in 2012, member 2015)
2010 Final verdict: If Notre Dame wants in, it gets in. Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick said this spring he could see a scenario “forcing” the school’s hand into football conference play. But if Notre Dame was forced, would it be a cooperative member? Swarbrick and other officials have backtracked on any external comments, but you can bet internally joining the Big Ten is discussed at great lengths.
Missouri (accepted into SEC in 2011, member 2012)
2010 Final verdict: It would be shocking not to see a larger Big Ten not include Missouri, especially if the league expands beyond one school. Missouri offers too much. If its athletics program ever gains consistency, watch out.
Pittsburgh (accepted into ACC in 2011, member in 2013)
2010 Final verdict: Big Ten expansion is about what a candidate brings to the league, not what the league can do for the school. Although Pittsburgh brings tangibles the league expects, it doesn’t open any new revenue streams for a league looking beyond football. Pittsburgh only gets in if the league expands to 16, and it’s the 16th school.
Syracuse (accepted into ACC in 2011, member in 2013)
2010 Final verdict: If the Big Ten expands beyond 12 schools, Syracuse is in the mix. It’s geographically contiguous and could help gain access to the New York market. It likely will compete with fellow Big East schools Rutgers and Connecticut should the league expand to 16 schools.
Kansas (Big 12)
2010 Final verdict: It’s unlikely the Big Ten will ask Kansas to join. The league seems committed to grow demographically, and Kansas doesn’t provide the lift the Big Ten desires. Even though it’s more populous than Nebraska and has more tradition than Missouri, those two schools bring the earning potential Kansas doesn’t.
Iowa State (Big 12)
2010 Final verdict: Not much of a chance of Iowa State joining the Big Ten.
Texas (Big 12)
2010 Final verdict: If Texas wants to join the Big Ten and is willing to work under the league’s revenue-sharing structure, it’s in. It has become the highest-priced free agent in college athletics history. But a political fight forcing Texas to drag Texas schools Baylor and Texas Tech into a different league likely prove too much for the Big Ten to accept them all.
UConn (Big East)
2010 Final verdict: At first blush UConn is an outer-rim candidate because it’s located outside of the traditional Big Ten setting. But the school has plenty of upside and the expansion decision is based more on the league in 2040, not 2010. If the league goes to 16 teams and wants to gain traction in the Northeast, it could do worse than Connecticut.
Boston College (ACC)
2010 Final verdict: If the Big Ten wanted to combine BC with three or four other Eastern schools, it’s a possibility. However, BC’s case for inclusion is less strong singularly than Rutgers, Syracuse or Connecticut.
Georgia Tech (ACC)
2010 Final verdict: It’s an interesting consideration, certainly outside the proverbial box thinking. But with a partner or partners, Georgia Tech by itself just doesn’t add enough cache to justify the challenges of adding it.
Commissioner Jim Delany said last week the conference’s athletics directors will handle reconstructing the divisions in early January. When league administrators crafted the Legends and Leaders divisions in August 2010, they placed a priority on competitive equality. Rivalries and geography played secondary roles, as I documented in this 10-part series in 2011.
But Delany suggested that the tenets in realignment will be different this time around when incorporating Rutgers and Maryland into the league.
“I think it’s realistic to believe that geography will play a bigger role simply because now we span from the ocean to the Colorado border and from the Canadian border to the mid‑South,” Delany told reporters. “So we’re really pushing the limits. We are a national conference in many ways, but even geographically we’re spread, and as a result I think that geography will have to play probably a more important role in the evolution of the next divisional structure.”
Although there’s generally an “all-for-one” spirit among Big Ten officials, each school will bring a provincial attitude to the discussion. Two regional factions emphatically will come into play. One, expect a major push from four Western schools — Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin — to link up in divisional play. Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin were permanent rivals under the 11-team umbrella and own a collective history that spans into three centuries. Nebraska and its fans enjoy playing Iowa and Minnesota because of proximity. There’s also the potential for a burgeoning rivalry between Nebraska and Wisconsin, who compete for the Big Ten title on Saturday. Wisconsin athletics director and former coach Barry Alvarez played at Nebraska and was an Iowa assistant. New Nebraska Athletics Director Shawn Eichorst is a Wisconsin native and worked under Alvarez for three years.
“One of my executive committee members was lobbying Gary (Barta), ‘Let’s get Wisconsin,’” said Bill Hines, a University of Iowa law professor and chairman of the school’s Presidential Committee on Athletics. “My view is, ‘Let’s get Illinois.’ If we’re going to get somebody in our division that isn’t going to be as competitive as Wisconsin is the last five years. That’s purely self-interest.”
The other regional push will come from the east to tie together new members Maryland and Rutgers with Penn State and possibly Ohio State.
The biggest variable into realignment is whether the league will stay at 14 schools or expand further. With 14 current members, the league likely splits into two divisions. If it gains more members, it potentially could shift to four divisions of four schools where the divisions link up together every year or two.
An early report had Illinois shifting to the Legends Division and the newcomers joining the Leaders. Delany and other league officials refuted that report, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Ohio State officials likely would fight against that alignment. Michigan State Athletics Director Mark Hollis told the Detroit Free Press, “Who do I want to play? I want to play Michigan and Ohio State and Northwestern and Wisconsin and all the way through the Big Ten Conference,” Hollis said. “And the more you dilute that, you get concerned.”
If the Big Ten stays at 14, the biggest question is whether the league is willing to place Ohio State and Michigan into the same division. If so, an east-west divide is almost easy. Michigan State could head west with Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern, while Michigan would move east with Purdue, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. Under that scenario, Michigan and Michigan State would link up as protected rivals. Other annual cross-divisional match-ups could include: Wisconsin-Penn State, Nebraska-Ohio State, Purdue-Northwestern, Indiana-Illinois, Iowa-Maryland and Minnesota-Rutgers.
There’s also a question of boosting the number of league games from eight to nine, which Delany has wanted all along.
The parameters for realignment have not been set, but league officials will heavily discuss it after bowl season.
“I suspect it will go similar to how it went when we added Nebraska, but we haven’t laid that all out,” Barta said. “We haven’t laid out a timeline, and we haven’t laid out an exact process. My assumption is the process will be similar.”
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