In arms race for revenue, expansion trumps tradition.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Shanahan (87) grabs a pass in front of Rutgers defensive back Wayne Warren (27) for a touchdown in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012 in Pittsburgh.
To traditionalists, the Big Ten is the Great Plains and Great Lakes, not the Garden State's Jersey shore. It's Wisconsin bratwurst, not Maryland crab cakes. So generations of fans can be forgiven for their strained credulity upon learning the news that the fabled athletic conference was adding Rutgers and Maryland.
True, it isn't the first expansion -- Penn State and Nebraska were added previously -- and it likely won't be the last. In fact, some sports and media analysts are predicting the rise of 16-team "super conferences."
If that's the direction that college athletics is moving, the Big Ten just made a savvy move. Although geographic rivalries may have been bolstered by adding teams such as Iowa State or Missouri, the economic rivalry between college conferences is best served by the Big Ten gaining a foothold in major media markets. This should eventually result in new revenue for the conference and its member institutions, including the University of Minnesota.
Rutgers, located in New Jersey, is relevant to the New York and Philadelphia media markets -- the nation's first- and fourth-largest, respectively. Together they represent about 9 percent of the country's households, according to Nielsen.
Maryland is relevant to viewers in Washington, the eighth-largest TV market, and Baltimore, the 27th. Those two markets combined account for about 3 percent of U.S. households.
Adding these markets will translate into new revenue for the conference's Big Ten Network, which means a bigger pie for member schools. The expansion will also help the conference when it renegotiates its broadcast and cable contracts.
Minnesota's share of Big Ten revenue is about $24.6 million annually, with $6.6 million coming from the Big Ten Network. The U also receives rights fees of about $1.8 million from Learfield Sports and around $350,000 from Fox Sports North.
Overall, to help pay for an annual athletics budget of about $79.5 million, gross revenues for all teams during the 2011-12 season totaled more than $63.9 million, with more than $56.1 million coming from the three biggest revenue-generating sports: football, men's basketball and men's hockey.
It's too soon to know how much new revenue Rutgers and Maryland will generate for the conference. But it should help accomplish one laudable goal for the U and other schools: preserving non-revenue sports, which have faced dramatic cuts at many universities.
The U also stands to gain stature with the added exposure in larger media markets, which can aid in recruiting top students and faculty. For their part, both Rutgers and Maryland are solid academic institutions. Like the U and the rest of the Big Ten with the exception of Nebraska, both are among the 60 members of the Association of American Universities, which combined award more than half of all U.S. doctoral degrees.
The economic arms race in college sports gave rise to conference TV networks, multimillion-dollar coaching contracts and constant competition for bigger and better athletic facilities. The conference expansion trend is a natural extension of that race.
Traditionalists who long for a less professional approach to amateur athletics can lament the new landscape, but as long as fans are willing to buy tickets and tune in to watch their favorite teams on TV the search for new revenue will continue to reshape college sports.
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