Big Ten should resist the trend to expand into bloated league

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 10, 2011 - 8:05 AM

Adding Nebraska granted the conference a title game, but there's no rush to add more teams.

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Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany

It's inevitable, we're constantly told. Superconferences are the future of college football, and resistance is futile.

Perhaps that's true. Maybe a sport that observes more traditions than any other, that brags about unbroken lineages going back more than a century, that even resists a championship tournament in favor of the anachronisms that are big bowl games, is willing to chuck much of that heritage in favor of a model that increasingly looks like the sterile NFL division setup.

Like most observers, I don't doubt that it's going to happen, though it's hard to believe that Texas A&M, hardly one of the sport's cornerstone attractions, could be the catalyst for the final 8-on-the-Richter-scale shakeup that so many expect. But here's what I don't get: Who exactly is clamoring for this?

Some members of the SEC, unhappy with an annual TV contract payout that ranks them merely among, but not above, the biggest in the sport. A couple of TV networks, always eager for more games between marquee programs, the same mentality that airs Red Sox-Yankees a hundred times a season. Perhaps a small segment of fans who enjoy league-swapping more than the games themselves.

But do college football fans in general want mega- conferences? If there's a groundswell for it, I haven't detected it.

There would be fewer conference championships to compete for, and more despair for lower-level teams, forced to deal with increasingly brutal schedules. It's a headlong rush into the pro sports mentality, in which only a season that ends with the ultimate reward -- a national championship -- can be deemed a success.

Even Tom Osborne, athletic director at new Big Ten member Nebraska, briefly sounded wistful in July when discussing the end to the once-great Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry, a demise forced upon the Huskers when the Big Eight expanded to the Big 12. "When we lost that annual game with Oklahoma, it did put things in a little different complexion," Osborne said. "Had we still had that annual game, we might have made a little different choice."

Scheduling isn't the only problem with oversized leagues. As the Western Athletic Conference learned during its doomed expansion to 16 teams a decade and a half ago: Geography matters. Traditional rivalries matter. And adding a team in a big market doesn't mean those fans will watch your games.

Travel costs for minor sports mushroomed in the WAC, until some schools began dropping sports to save money. Fans became disengaged, uninterested in schedules brimming with unfamiliar opponents. And the bigger, better WAC lasted only two seasons before half the league -- basically, its original core -- broke away to form the Mountain West.

Change is inevitable, but the Big Ten's cautious approach, which has added only two schools, Penn State and Nebraska, in six decades, has been a smart one, particularly this year's addition of the Cornhuskers, because a 12th member bestows the right to stage a championship game. Each Big Ten team this year will cash checks worth more than $22 million in television rights, and the extra game will add onto that.

Another expansion risks diluting what makes the sport, and the Big Ten, great. Jim Delany has said the Big Ten isn't interested in more expansion unless the league's hand is forced. Here's hoping the commissioner is strong enough to resist temptation.

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