Scoggins: Latest Big Ten expansion adds to profits, not product

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2012 - 11:24 PM

The Big Ten opened its doors -- and money vault --to Rutgers and Maryland this week in moves that will grow its membership to 14 schools. But hey, why stop there?

The Big Ten should just keep peddling its brand and lucrative TV network to other corners of the country. That's what this is all about, anyway. So why not target other schools to add to the fold so that the financial pie grows even larger?

Go after Georgia Tech. The Atlanta market is expansive and remains a hotbed for college football fans. Make Boston College an offer it can't refuse. That's a passionate sports market with plenty of households.

Go west and target Arizona State. Lots of snowbirds down there who presumably have ties to Midwest football. And can you imagine if the Big Ten added UCLA and nudged itself into the Los Angeles market. Whew, what a windfall that would be.

Sound ridiculous? Perhaps, but conference expansion isn't necessarily guided by what makes sense. It only needs to make dollars and cents.

And that's precisely the driving force behind the Big Ten's latest expansion. This decision revolved around expanding the league's geographic footprint more than improving its beleaguered football product. The Big Ten wanted to tap new television markets in order to increase the Big Ten Network's considerable reach and profit margin.

Why else would Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany bail out two financially strapped athletic departments with middling football programs at a time when his conference's football image has taken a beating in national perception? Money, of course.

The Big Ten's migration to the East Coast potentially could generate $200 million annually in cable subscription fees, a TV executive told Sports Illustrated. The Big Ten reportedly distributed $24.6 million to each member school last year. SI.com projects that payouts will increase to $43 million in 2017.

Those figures dwarf the ACC's and Big East's revenue allotments and can pay a lot of bills. That certainly makes Maryland's $50 million buyout from the ACC more palatable. Rutgers' athletic budget is heavily subsidized by the university. Delany tossed both schools a lifeline.

"The Big Ten is really where Rutgers belongs," school president Robert Barchi said.

Really? Since when?

The Big Ten's addition of Nebraska last year sparked excitement around the conference, particularly among fan bases. The Cornhuskers brought rich tradition and history in football and a Midwest connection. That move made sense. This latest expansion generated a collective "huh?" in Big Ten circles. The only people celebrating are those who cash the checks.

We shouldn't be surprised, though. College athletics is big business and decisions are based on demographics and TV viewership as much as anything -- rivalries and tradition be damned.

The fiery Missouri-Kansas rivalry got left in a roadside ditch once Missouri bolted for the SEC. San Diego State is scheduled to join the Big East next season because nothing says East quite like San Diego. Predictably, there already are rumblings that San Diego State might back out over concerns about the Big East's future.

Conference realignment has become the ultimate money grab, and schools are terrified to get left behind once the dominos start to fall. It won't be surprising if the Big Ten's latest bite of the apple triggers more frenzied movement within other conferences and ultimately results in the formation of 16-team superconferences.

Hopefully that's not the case, but it's hard not to consider that possibility because conferences seem to operate under a bigger-is-better philosophy now. Who cares if Rutgers is any good in football as long as the Big Ten can include New York City in its footprint?

The guess here is that Delany is not done dealing. A 16-team conference makes more sense than 14. It just seems inevitable.

The Big Ten could benefit in recruiting by following a population shift south and plucking a few more ACC schools. Georgia Tech makes sense academically and in market size. Virginia has been mentioned as a possible candidate. Delany graduated from North Carolina and probably would love to add his alma mater's national basketball brand to the Big Ten.

Anything seems possible at this point. Fans might not embrace these landscape changes, but geographic footprints and cable subscription fees represent a new reality. Unfortunately, that's just the way it is.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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