Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Big Eleven wants one more

So the Big Ten wants to expand. You already know this, and the reasons are obvious:

1. Conference championship games generate a nice chunk of revenue.
2. The conference is tired of being irrelevant for the last two weeks of the regular season.

I'm somewhat neutral on the idea because of the potential scheduling issues -- I think moving the entire conference schedule forward one week would be just as beneficial -- but it sounds like the outspoken support from Joe Paterno, Barry Alvarez and Ohio State President Gordon Gee has finally persuaded Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney to put the process in motion.

Let's cut to the chase: Notre Dame isn't coming. Yes, there are rivalries in place with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, and it's true that the Big Ten's revenue-sharing program distributed about $22 million to each school last season (this comes from the ABC/ESPN contract, the Big Ten Network and the redistribution of bowl payouts). But Notre Dame's contract with NBC runs through 2015 at a reported $15 million a year, and the people who say NBC is desperate to get out of that deal because of ND's recent struggles are smoking crack: NBC just extended the contract and increased the payout last year, despite record-low ratings. Notre Dame's value has nowhere to go but up. And rather than having to split bowl money 12 ways (as the Big Ten does with 11 teams and the conference office), ND gets everything to itself, just as it does with its payout from the neutral-site games scheduled in the near future at Yankee Stadium, Cowboys Stadium, the Meadowlands and the Superdome.

Notre Dame isn't in the overwhelmingly advantageous financial position some people assume, but it's certainly doing as well as -- or better than -- almost everyone else. Joining the Big Ten would be of little to no benefit financially, and there are so many benefits of being an independent -- being able to market their own logo and apparel, being able to schedule games wherever money can be made, having regular rivalries with schools such as Navy, Boston College and USC -- that there's no reason to think ND would be interested in joining any football conference. That doesn't mean the Big Ten won't make an offer -- Notre Dame will probably always be the first choice -- but I'll be stunned if ND seriously considers the possibility.

So let's move on. There's been a lot of information flying around about conference requirements and bylaws, but this info comes from ESPN's Adam Rittenberg:
Contrary to popular belief, a candidate doesn't need to be a member of the Association of American Universities or be located within the Big Ten footprint or in a bordering state. Though the schools must fit what the Big Ten looks for, "there’s no prescription that you have to have 30,000 undergrads or you have to be a major research institution," a source tells me.
If a school is attractive enough, one or two factors could be overlooked. But Delaney has made it clear that the conference isn't expanding just to get expand -- the goal is to legitimately strengthen a number of areas -- so for the purposes of this discussion, let's assume that the only serious candidates are ones that are reasonably well-respected academically and bring competitive football and basketball to the table (the Big Ten is essentially a mid-major in baseball and does not have an organized hockey conference). Crimson Quarry explains this better than I could:
Expansion is not something that the Big Ten undertakes lightly. Penn State joined in 1990. Michigan State joined in 1950. Before that, the last new members to join were Indiana and Iowa in 1899. The University of Chicago is the only school to leave the Big Ten permanently (per Wikipedia, Michigan left the conference from 1907-1916, but was a charter member when the conference was formed in 1896). All current and former members of the Big Ten are major research institutions ranked in the top 100 by US News & World Report and are members of the Association of American Universities. The Big Ten cares about its brand, academically and athletically.
In other words, you can throw out suggestions like Cincinnati, West Virginia and Kentucky right off the bat. The chosen school might not have to be elite academically, but it can't be University of Phoenix either. On top of that, none of those schools brings in a major TV market. There'd be no real benefit outside of one consistently good athletic program at each school.

An "outside the box" candidate that's been mentioned several times recently is Texas, which would be great for the Big Ten but is probably even less realistic than Notre Dame. It's easy to see the appeal -- Texas is a national power in football, basketball and baseball and would add a huge market while expanding the Big Ten's reach into the Southwest -- but the thing people keep forgetting is that whatever teams gets invited has to actually want to join. Texas would gain nothing by going from the Big 12 to the Big Ten (baseball would actually suffer significantly) and would lose rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M as well as a ton of history in the Southwest Conference/Big 12. Travel costs would be a bitch, and the athletic department would probably lose a significant chunk of money (at least in the near future) because the Big 12's revenue-sharing program is far less democratic than the Big Ten's. Chances of happening: 0.001 percent.

Nebraska has been brought up for similar reasons but is really just a slightly less desirable version of Texas; only the football program would be an exciting addition. And while they might be more willing to jump than Texas, they'd still be giving up rivalries with Colorado and Missouri and have no meaningful connections with anyone in the Big Ten. I don't think there'd be a lot of motivation for either side.

And while we're in the Big 12, I think we can also eliminate Iowa State. The academics are mediocre and both major sports are terrible; you don't add Iowa State just to put a conference championship game on the field when it means weakening everything and giving $22 million in revenue to a school that wouldn't even approach that in value.

The list of serious candidates that would be legitimately interested in joining the Big Ten is a short one: Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers and Missouri.

Brian at Mgoblog put together a handy-dandy chart that breaks down each team's strengths and weaknesses, and while I don't agree with every individual rating, the overall conclusion seems accurate: The two most likely candidates -- by far -- are Pitt and Missouri.

The problem with Rutgers and Syracuse is pretty much purely athletic. While Syracuse would be great for basketball, the football team hasn't been relevant nationally since Donovan McNabb left a decade ago, and Rutgers had been a black hole in both sports until Greg Schiano came along and made the football team decent. Both schools are very good academically and would expand the conference's footprint into the New York area, but I doubt that'll be enough to add another version of Northwestern (Rutgers) or a slightly better version of Indiana (Syracuse). It's also unclear if Syracuse would even want to join: Jim Boeheim apparently is to the Big East what Gary Danielson is to the SEC, and I imagine Boeheim has more pull in the athletic department than just about anyone else.

Missouri, on the other hand, is much more interesting. The football and basketball programs are both very good -- not elite, but good -- and while the school isn't great, it'd be about on par with Michigan State, Iowa, etc. It also brings a major TV market (St. Louis) into play and sets up a natural rivalry with Illinois that's already being played as a nonconference game. In other words, there's no single aspect that makes Missouri a slam-dunk pick, but there are also no real weaknesses. I think Missouri will receive strong consideration; the only question is whether they'd be interested in moving, which apparently depends on who you ask.

Another thing that could get in the way: Pitt. I didn't realize it until I had looked at all the relevant information, but man, I can't see any team -- other than Notre Dame, obviously -- being a more perfect fit. Pitt has very good football (both currently and historically), very good basketball, good academics (the school is ranked 56th nationally by US News & World), an endowment of $2.3 billion (which would top everyone in the Big Ten other than Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota) and a major TV market, although Penn State already brings in a good chunk of Pennsylvania. Oh, and speaking of Penn State, renewing a once-great rivalry between two consistently excellent football teams would do nothing but help the conference's national prestige. There are a ton of good reasons to add Pitt and no good reasons not to, and if you think they'd rather be in the watered-down Big East than in the Big Ten with Penn State and a big-time national TV deal, you might want to take another look at each conference. If the Big Ten calls, Pitt will listen.

It's hard to know exactly how the decision-making process will work, but I'll be stunned if Pitt and Missouri aren't the top two candidates when all is said and done (assuming Notre Dame still isn't interested). My prediction: Pitt joins the conference for the 2011-2012 academic year and football season.

As I stated at the beginning, my biggest concerns about the whole expansion issue are the divisional alignment and scheduling (which would obviously be related to the alignment). This topic has come up on various blogs and message boards for years, and there are always 1,000 different scenarios laid out to try to balance the two divisions geographically and competitively; I'm not sure it can be done.

The problem is that there are a crapload of traditional rivalries in the Big Ten, and you're pretty much forced to split some of them up. I've heard people suggest that one nondivisional game could be "locked" each year, but that wouldn't work. Each team would then have six locked games (the other five teams in its own division and one nondivisional rival), leaving two open spots and five available teams in the other division. There's just no way to evenly rotate five teams through two spots on a regular basis, so you'd end up with one team having to play the same nondivisional opponents for a three-year period (or a one-year period), and the inevitable byproduct of that arrangement is an uneven number of home/road games against particular opponents during that time. It'd be a mess.

The only realistic scheduling option is having each team play everyone else in its own division and rotating the six nondivisional teams through the three open spots every other year, meaning no team goes more than two years without playing any other team (I should note that if the Big Ten relents and goes to a nine-team conference schedule, a locked nondivisional rivalry game becomes perfectly plausible and maybe even ideal).

The other problem is competition. Similar to Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12, Michigan and Ohio State absolutely MUST be kept in the same division. If they're split up, you face the likelihood of consistent rematches in the title game that render the regular-season games meaningless. This would be terrible for the rivalry and for the conference as a whole. And assuming that those two are in the same division, you face a dilemma: If you put Penn State in the same division to preserve rivalries, you have one power division with all the best teams. If you don't, there'll be years when Penn State plays neither Ohio State nor Michigan during the regular season. This would be somewhat disappointing, but I could live with it in order to avoid a Big 12 North scenario.

Assuming that the choice for expansion is Pitt and that the conference is more interested in competitive balance than geographical balance -- which seems likely due to the minimal travel required in Big Ten play -- I see the alignment looking something like this:

Division A
Ohio State
Michigan State

Division B
Penn State

This obviously is less than ideal for rivalries: You have to keep Purdue and Indiana together and you have to keep the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota clump together, so there's no way to get Illinois and Northwestern in the same division. The same is true with Michigan State and Penn State. Unfortunately, some rivalries will have to be sacrificed in favor of better ones (or, in Northwestern's case, the greater good). You could put Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota in a region with Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State, but that would be ridiculously unbalanced; it'd be Pitt or Penn State in the conference title game every year from now until the end of time.

All things considered, I've never been a huge fan of conference championship games -- I don't like the idea of an 8-4 team winning the title over an 11-1 team, because that just doesn't make sense -- but the Big Ten obviously needs to do something to improve its perception. I mentioned moving the schedule forward a week, but nobody wants to do that (for academic and weather-related reasons). If they can get Pitt, I'm on board. The conference would get a significant upgrade in both major sports and could boast two legitimately strong divisions, which means the conference title game would be something the Big Ten hasn't had in a while: an event that even people outside the conference's footprint would be interested in. Missouri would also be acceptable, as the conference would be slightly better as a whole. No one else (outside of the unrealistic suggestions like Texas and Notre Dame) piques my interest.

Are the Big Ten presidents smart enough to realize that there are two clear levels of candidates? Well ... I don't have a lot of faith based on past decisions, but I guess we'll find out in 12-18 months.


JC said...

I prefer to see something actually happen rather than just speculation. Like, ya know, the Big Ten coming out and saying they're specifically looking at schools X & Y and are offering them etc.

These things just tend to take so long.

Shorts said...

The hard part about that would be the media storm. If the conference said, "We want Pitt or Notre Dame," you're eliminating everyone else right off the bat while causing a ton of speculation and questioning that might force one of those schools to withdraw themselves from consideration. By doing things behind-the-scenes, they can negotiate and get everything arranged with no PR concerns.