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On Tuesday, I laid out the contractual provision in the SEC’s deal with ESPN that paved the way for Texas and Oklahoma to be added to the conference. Today, I’m going to examine the situation the Big Ten finds itself in as conference realignment begins anew.
Later this afternoon, I will discuss the looming legal battle between ESPN and the Big 12, a potential battle I also wrote about last week when news broke about Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC. You can read that piece as well. But for now, here’s a Big Ten analysis.
A decade ago, the Big Ten expanded and added Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland. Looking back at these choices now, the additions of Rutgers and Maryland were driven by the Big Ten TV network and the increased revenue a conference could derive from new TV markets. Given that cord cutting has accelerated, TV markets will likely matter less than brand quality in this round of expansion. The SEC, for instance, already has the Texas TV market with Texas A&M, so adding Texas and Oklahoma makes tremendous sense when it comes to overall brand value of the SEC, less when it comes to new TV markets.
That’s why the key takeaway for the Big Ten — which OutKick has been told had a meeting yesterday featuring four presidents and three athletic directors and that focused on expansion — is this: can the Big Ten expand and add elite academic and elite institutions?
Because unlike other conferences, the Big Ten can’t just take the top programs available.
That likely takes schools like Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and the remaining Texas schools in the Big 12 off the expansion board. (This is also reflected in allegations the American Conference was trying to add all eight remaining Big 12 schools. If there was Big Ten interest, it’s unlikely the American would be making this attempt.) Given the length of their existing contractual commitments, adding more ACC schools like the Big Ten did with Maryland, to the extent there was expansion interest, are also a major challenge. (There’s a segment of the Big Ten that would love to add Clemson to the conference because of the perceived massive television interest that could create, but that seems to be a challenge.)
Plus, it’s also important to note that every conference’s internal leadership dynamics are different. In a large part, that’s because every conference commissioner doesn’t have the same power. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, for instance, has the complete trust of his members after piloting schools through the most difficult year of college athletics in any of our lives. Not only did the SEC complete a full season of games even amidst COVID, but they did it with no serious health issues and with fans attending their games.
Given the COVID challenges, it was almost impossible for the SEC to have played a season more successfully than they did. This year the SEC will be back to near normalcy when it comes to crowds, tailgating and the general atmosphere surrounding their games. That kind of leadership success makes Sankey’s relationship with his presidents and athletic directors iron clad. It’s why the SEC schools will be voting 14-0 to extend membership offers to Texas and Oklahoma.
But Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren doesn’t find himself in the same situation. After a fitful start to the season that saw the Big Ten cancel the year and then come back from the cancellation to play a partial year, Warren’s relationships aren’t on as sound of footing as Sankey’s.
As if that weren’t enough, the Big Ten presidents are insistent that any schools added to the conference be elite academic institutions that increase the overall stature of the conference as a whole, not just in athletics. While most of you reading this column right now are big sports fans, sports are often seen as a distraction to the academic side of the equation. With that in mind, in order to expand membership, the Big Ten must find not only solid athletic additions, but also solid academic additions.
This means the Big Ten expansion situation isn’t overly complicated. There are only six schools that make sense for the Big Ten to expand and add to its conference:
1. Notre Dame
2. The four California schools in the Pac-12: USC, Stanford, California, and UCLA
3. Colorado, maybe
That’s it, this is the Big Ten’s potential expansion list.
So the big question is this: does the Big Ten have the ability to add any of these schools to go to 16 members or bigger? Could Notre Dame finally end its flirtations with the major conferences and sign on for a full relationship? And if Notre Dame did so, would they pick the Big Ten or the ACC? If the Big Ten could get Notre Dame to join, that’s a no brainer. Then the Big Ten could pair the Irish with one of the California schools or Colorado and feel like a 16-team conference had been strengthened both academically and athletically.
The most ideal situation for the Big Ten?
Adding Notre Dame and USC to get to 16.
The second most ideal scenario — adding Notre Dame and Stanford. (Notre Dame and Colorado would also work if the California schools said no to the Big Ten’s interests.)
Either of these moves would broaden the Big Ten’s horizons and create two additional elite conference members. But the most aggressive play of all would be for Kevin Warren to attempt to add all four California schools to the Big Ten, potentially with Notre Dame and Colorado, to get his conference to 22 teams.
It might sound crazy, but there’s some logic behind it.
Let me explain why.
First, the Pac-12 California schools are all elite academically. And they are joined, at least right now, by many schools that are not as elite academically. Could the four California schools argue the money and prestige of the Big Ten is far more significant than the money and prestige of the Pac-12? Without a doubt.
This would also provide a new window of games for the Big Ten, which would find itself able to stage games for 12 hours straight on Saturday, from noon eastern all the way to midnight eastern and beyond. That new viewing window — and, yes, new markets — would also be a major revenue boon for the Big Ten Network and would set the Big Ten up for a king’s ransom in television rights, which are coming to market in the near future.
What’s more, the Pac-12 TV contracts are up soon, the Pac-12 Network has been a disaster, and there have long been clear signs that USC — the biggest national draw in the conference — isn’t happy with the Pac-12. Could the Trojans break off and lead their own trek to the Big Ten? Or the SEC, for that matter? Or go independent? I’ll write on this later, but in the meantime, the point is, USC has a wandering eye. It’s not far fetched to believe that USC could help lead a migration out of the Pac-12. The more intriguing question than USC being interested in leaving is this: would USC rather be the only California school in the Big Ten or could they lead a mass exodus?
This would be a gut punch to the Pac-12 if it happened, leaving the conference reeling.
With eight schools remaining: Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Utah and Colorado, it’s likely the Pac-12 schools would either need to merge with the remaining Big 12 schools or add schools like Fresno State, San Diego State, Boise State and BYU to remain a viable Power Five conference. (Phil Knight at Nike, by the way, is a wild card here. Could his love for Oregon help the Ducks preserve the Pac-12 or put Oregon in a situation where they have the cachet to join a bigger conference? Keep an eye on that as well.)
Regardless, the primary question is this: can the Big Ten go west or not? If they can, things could get very fascinating in a hurry with the fall out in the Pac-12 and in all of college football.
If the Big Ten can’t go west, it seems unlikely the Big Ten would be able to make any expansion moves that would truly change the college football calculus in a major way.
So buckle up. With Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, expansion attention shifts to the Big Ten now.