Big Ten, or Twelve, or Fourteen, or ...

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2010 - 11:03 AM

A major expansion of the conference would create a national powerhouse while sending shockwaves throughout collegiate sports.

It's a little bit like a prairie landrush, the way college football fans and bloggers and pundits scramble for the plushest real estate in college athletics once the word "expansion" is uttered. Notre Dame! Syracuse! Nebraska! The maps are drawn and redrawn.

But only Jim Delany gets to stake a claim.

The longtime Big Ten commissioner unleashed expansion fever in December when he announced that the nation's oldest collegiate conference would explore adding a 12th member -- and perhaps more. The research will take a year to 18 months, he reiterated last month, before a decision is made.

The startling success of the Big Ten Network, which already is returning sizable profits to the league's members, makes the process feasible -- and arguably even inevitable.

"I don't think you can stand still anymore today," Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said. "If you're not going forward, you risk going backward, because everyone else is trying to move up, too."

Not everyone agrees; college sports author John Feinstein wrote last week on his blog that "too many conferences are too big already because of the constant money grab," which frequently sacrifices historic rivalries for larger TV fees. "But he who has the checkbook has the power."

That, and the wherewithal to consider an expansion to 14, and perhaps 16 teams, amazing for a conference that has added only two new members since 1916 -- Michigan State in 1953 and Penn State in 1993.

"If you're dividing the pie more ways, the pie had better be bigger," Maturi said, and that's where the Big Ten Network comes in.

The network earns, by some published estimates, an average of 70 cents a month per household from cable TV customers in the eight Big Ten states, but only 10 cents outside that footprint, where the network is normally offered only as a sports-package extra. By adding a few more large population centers to its reach, and thus convincing cable operators to move the BTN to its basic lineup, the network stands to exponentially grow its revenues.

Which explains the conference's presumed interest in Rutgers, Syracuse and Connecticut, schools that might help the network hit the metro New York jackpot. But the Big East isn't about to yield its members without a fight, hiring former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as an unpaid consultant. Tagliabue's first salvo was questioning whether adding schools in the New York area would help the Big Ten and its TV partners, saying: "Is Minnesota and Rutgers going to get a big rating on Long Island? Give me a break.''

One other university has a strong fan base in New York, so strong, in fact, that it has scheduled a game in Yankee Stadium this fall. "If the Big Ten enticed Notre Dame to join, I think there would be a clamor for putting the network on TV in New York," said Malcolm Moran, a sports-media professor at Penn State. "They are a special case."

And one the Big Ten has tried to unlock before. The conference inquired about the Fighting Irish's interest in 1999, but was rebuffed. Some factors have changed since then, primarily the Irish's TV-income supremacy. When Notre Dame signed an exclusive contract with NBC in 1991, its fee dwarfed what other NCAA schools could earn. But under the five-year extension signed in 2008, the Irish make a reported $15 million a year -- far less than the $22 million that in-state neighbors Purdue and Indiana collect from the Big Ten.

Still, the answer probably is the same today. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in March: "We're trying like hell to maintain our football independence." He allowed, however, that a total reshuffling of conferences could fatally injure the Big East, Notre Dame's home for all other sports, and force the Irish to change their minds.

The Big Ten's other dream date is Texas, which meets its high standards in academics and athletics, has college sports' largest annual income (nearly $140 million) and can attract a statewide fan base of almost 25 million people. But the Longhorns, mindful of the backlash after their defection to the Big 12 broke up the Southwest Conference, have sent signals they are not interested.

That leaves a roster of potential suitors so large, it allows fans to mix and match their favorites. Pitt would be a natural rival of Penn State (though the Nittany Lions already dominate Pittsburgh viewership). Syracuse is the only BCS school in New York state and is an elite basketball school, too. Nebraska isn't in a population center, but the Cornhuskers have a rabid national fan base. Missouri would bring St. Louis, Kansas would lock up Kansas City, and Rutgers, located within 25 miles of Manhattan and 12 million potential fans, just missed going to a BCS bowl three years ago.

When the Big Ten makes its move, a chain reaction is widely expected among other conferences that could change the landscape of college sports. "That's what keeps presidents up at night," Moran said. "Everybody is afraid when the music stops, they won't have a partner."

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