IOWA CITY — Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany stopped at Iowa’s sprawling new $56 million football complex Thursday morning and delivered a two-minute speech in front of more 100 football players.
The symbolism was poetic in some ways. Delany’s shrewd gamble before the 2007 football season on a start-up venture called the Big Ten Network led to an explosion in revenue for all Big Ten members. Schools across the Big Ten’s nine-state footprint, like Iowa, boast new facilities built with a combination of television revenue and private donations.
Consider that in fiscal year 2006, one year before BTN debuted, Iowa’s budgeted income from Big Ten coffers was $10.5 million. For 2014, Iowa expects to earn $25.4 million from the league. That number expects to soar when the league renegotiates its next contracts with ABC/ESPN or other potential suitors for the 2016 season.
The Southeastern Conference delivered its schools more than $20 million last year, a number which will grow once the SEC Network comes to life next August. Several other leagues, like the Big 12 and ACC, also have witnessed a significant rights fee increase. Iowa State, for instance, saw its conference revenue more than triple from $6.4 million in 2006 to an estimated $22.3 million for this fiscal year.
But Delany does have markets that the others do not. When Maryland and Rutgers join the league next fall, the Big Ten will touch or encompass 16 of the nation’s top 41 markets, including No. 1 (New York), No. 3 (Chicago), No. 4 (Philadelphia), No. 9 (Washington D.C.) and No. 11 (Detroit). No other power league can match that.
“We have rights that are now with ESPN and ABC,” Delany said Thursday. “So I think this is the eighth year of a 10-year arrangement. So we’ll sit down and talk probably in the fall of 2015. We’re talking to them all the time, but a couple of years, we’ve got three years left in the agreement and probably two years before we sit down.”
Delany told reporters this is an unprecedented age of revenue for college athletics. He cited a recession following a landmark Supreme Court case in 1985 when the NCAA lost control of football television rights. He said it’s possible rights fees could fall in the future but added “I just hope it happens after we have an opportunity to participate in what has been a robust marketplace.”
“We have had 10 years of really good growth,” Delany said. “Whether or not it continues, is to be determined. Nothing goes up in a straight line. Technology can change, law could change. We don’t prepare budgets on the everlasting upward trajectories. There are limitations, there are parameters.”
Delany said the winds of expansion are “pretty calm” these days and his focus is on integrating Maryland and Rutgers into the Big Ten.
“All of us I think have responsibility, now that most of us are in two regions, to build our conference, to build our fan base,” Delany said. “Use competitive events, use meetings, use the bowl system to build identity in the regions. Texas and Missouri are new for the SEC. Utah and Colorado are new for the Pac-12. D.C. and New York, New Jersey and Maryland are new for the Big Ten. The ACC is in Massachusetts, New York and Indiana, so they’ll have work there.”
Delany wanted a 7-5 requirement for postseason participation but conceded there wasn’t enough support nationally and wouldn’t force the Big Ten to adopt the policy unilaterally.
With 35 current bowl games and another three created for the 2014 season, Delany said saturation could become a problem. But unlike when he took over as Big Ten commissioner in 1989, all bowl games now are televised. ESPN owns at least nine right now.
“Obviously there’s a greater demand for the games today than there were 25 years ago,” Delany said. “Part of that supply-demand passion can get excessive. I think when people are moving games to Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to get on TV, that creates one set of issues. When they create games and don’t have winning teams or at least .500 teams to fill it, that’s another problem.
“You have football division, conferences and teams where they are actually supporting those bowls and they want the opportunity for their teams and players. So they go out there and explore it and there are communities that want to do it. But I don’t think more is always better. I think less is better. If everyone is going to be 6-6, that’s where we’ll be as well.”
The Big Ten’s divisional revamp from the competitively balanced Legends and Leaders to the geographically accurate East-West next year was based strictly on expansion, Delany said. Maryland and Rutgers (the state university of New Jersey) join the league in 2014. He was most proud of the conference’s nine-game league schedule that begins in 2016.
“This time we felt like given the fact that we’re all the way out East, we’ve got 14 institutions, that it was better to look at it from the perspective of geography,” Delany said. “So I still think we’ve got some pretty good parity, depends on what five-year, 10-year, 15-year, 20-year cycle that you look at to really measure that. We’ve been able to maintain as many rivalries as we could.
“I think the key thing is we’re going to be playing more games against each other, and we’re going to get more geographic identity and hopefully by playing each other more, it will bind the conference closer. Two divisions, one conference, the Atlantic Ocean to the Colorado border, the Canadian border in part to the mid-South. So we’re larger and bigger, we’ll play each other more and we’ll try to bring each other together even closer as a result of more games.”
NOVEMBER PRIMETIME GAMES
The Big Ten never has outright banned primetime football in November, but the games were not allowed in their previous media contracts. Most of that was weather-related; it’s easier to get a larger crowd during a chilly day than a cold night on a in late November. But Delany is open to exploring November primetime games, if the schools and television networks agree to make it work.
“Over the next three years we’ll experiment with some November, where it fits for television and where our schools are willing to do it,” he said. “Beyond that we haven’t figured out what we’re going to do. I think primetime games are good for us, especially because we play exclusively on Saturdays.
“If TV requests it and the schools were willing, we’d look at it. I think there’s any scheduled this year. The weather turns a little bit and the crowds are very large and those kinds of things are not easy to do, but we’re more open to it than we’ve been. I don’t know that we’d do one in the next three years but we’ll look at it.”