Does a bigger, more powerful Big Ten make sense for all members?
College football fans got an illustration this week of what the Big Ten will look like in 2024 when USC and UCLA officially extend the conference from coast to coast.
During the past few months, meanwhile, there's been a constant stream of rumors, speculation and potential details about what's next. Will the Big Ten's desire to become the most powerful brand in college sports lead to more expansion?
It all sounds good in theory, reaping many more millions in television revenue. But rank and file schools like Northwestern and Illinois, along with Purdue, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and so on, should seriously consider the risks, starting with whether they'd become less relevant than they already are.
These days, college sports television contracts are based on eyeballs. It's been written many times about how four million viewers is sort of a gold standard for the networks, because that allows them to charge the type of ad rates that create profits.
When it comes to drawing four million viewers, the Big Ten holds its own with the SEC. Both leagues had 14 conference games that exceeded that total last year.
In the Big Ten's case, 13 of those 14 games featured either Michigan or Ohio State. The one that didn't? Drumroll - it was the Northwestern-Nebraska game from Ireland that had a nice time slot as the opening game of the season in August.
The Big Ten just signed a new TV deal that calls for three marquee matchups every Saturday. Fox will continue airing Big Noon games. The CBS 2:30 p.m. slot is sliding from the SEC to Big Ten, complete with announcers and theme song. The leagues will split the time slot this year, but the SEC will move completely to ABC/ESPN in 2024. NBC is adding a Big Ten Saturday night game.
For TV revenues to keep increasing, the Big Ten needs matchups that draw eyeballs, at least three per weekend. When it comes to expansion candidates, three schools stand out when it comes to drawing viewers - Notre Dame, Florida State and Clemson.
There are a variety of reasons why this is not likely to happen anytime soon, but let's say the Big Ten did add two of the three teams mentioned above. They'd obviously be expected to join the conference's top-tier, contending for championships and playing in the high-profile television slots.
Where would this leave Northwestern, Illinois and the rest? They'd get a nice stream of revenue, while being pushed down another couple rungs on the ladder, most likely.
By getting rid of the two divisions, Big Ten West teams have even less chance of landing a showcase spot in the conference title game. Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin have made it the past four years. Future Big Ten title games could be Ohio State vs. Michigan, Penn State vs. USC. How about Florida State vs. UCLA hooking up in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title?
Limiting the power
Another uncomfortable result of a Big Ten power grab is it harms other schools. By removing the Los Angeles teams from the Pac-12, every other school in that conference figures to lose revenue. The University of California system is making UCLA send money to Cal-Berkeley for leaving its northern cousins high and dry. The payment was cleverly dubbed "Calimony."
Eventually, college football may move from the Power Five conferences to a Power Two, featuring only the Big Ten and SEC. They'd split from the NCAA, in theory, make their own rules and establish a form of revenue-sharing with the players.
Some benefits could result from that model, but it would definitely separate college football into haves and have-nots. Would television ratings rise or fall in a system that excludes more than half of the current Power Five teams?
Also, how close are we to a revenue ceiling? The Big Ten's new TV deal reportedly brings in more than $1 billion per year, which presumably doesn't include the current windfall from Big Ten Network cable subscriptions. There's been speculation the annual payout per school could top $100 million by the end of this seven-year deal.
In a grand plan of college football domination, adding Notre Dame, Clemson and Florida State is probably a necessary step. If the goal is increasing the payday for the current 16 schools, new members would need to add a few Brink's trucks of value for a move to pay off.
Barriers to getting bigger
It's possible the college football landscape could stay roughly the same for the next decade or so. There were reports former Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren wanted to add more Pac-12 schools, Oregon and Washington topping the list, but was turned down by conference presidents.
When Maryland bolted for the Big Ten, the ACC decided stability was important and has an agreement with ESPN that runs through 2036. Contracts can be renegotiated, but this one states that a school's grant of rights stays with the conference through '36. A school can leave, but its TV money stays.
In recent weeks, a group of ACC schools dubbed the "Secret Seven" met to discuss strategies. The league reportedly agreed to an uneven split of profits, where teams that make the College Football Playoff or Final Four receive larger checks. But it's hard to imagine any ACC rivals holding the door open for Clemson or Florida State to leave.
So despite all the chatter about the Big Ten and SEC picking off pieces of the ACC, it may take a while. Notre Dame reportedly has a $100 million buyout to end its agreement with the ACC.
Another hot topic is the Association of American Universities or AAU, which describes itself as an organization devoted to maintaining a strong system of research and education. New members were recently announced and the list included Notre Dame and Miami, Fla.
Is that a sign those two schools are headed to the Big Ten? Not necessarily. The Big Ten presumably prefers AAU members, but Nebraska isn't in it, and plenty of other potential Big Ten targets are.
Rather than expansion, a better way for Big Ten teams to ensure solid TV ratings might be to schedule stronger nonconference games. Out of the 44 contests that drew at least four million viewers last season, only two were Big Ten nonconference games - Notre Dame vs. Ohio State and Penn State vs. Auburn, and the second game barely made the list.
With a 12-team playoff starting up in 2024, winning every game becomes less important. The Big Ten should start creating games with TV ratings in mind, which could also give the rank-and-file teams more chances to be in the marquee games.
And any Big Ten team besides Michigan, Ohio State, USC and Penn State should be fighting for every moment in the spotlight.
<b>Most watched college football games of 2022 </b>(In millions, regular season only)
Michigan at Ohio State 17.14M
Tennessee at Georgia 13.06M
Alabama at Tennesee 11.56M
Alabama at Texas 10.60M
Notre Dame at Ohio State 10.53M
<b>Next 5 highest-rated Big Ten games</b>Ohio State at Penn State 8.27M
Ohio State at Maryland 6.60M
Penn State at Michigan 6.45M
Michigan St. at Michigan 5.58M
Illinois at Michigan 5.47M