Expansion is about more than money, even when it's all about the money

AndyVance's picture
November 24, 2012 at 9:30a

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney welcomes Rutgers to the league.Like many of us, I'm somewhat annoyed that I'm even writing this during Hate Week... The Game is far more important than conference realignment, as we all know in the well of our souls. That said, Jim "I am Spartacus" Delaney has again changed the college football landscape, so it bears some consideration.

So, Maryland and Rutgers become the 13th and 14th members of the Big Ten. In a sense, we've known Rutgers was on the radar since the league added Nebraska, and as then, most fans couldn't fathom why a league that is constantly criticized as inferior to the SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 would possibly add a team that is anything less than a perennial powerhouse.

As has been noted, it's all about the money - or at least, all about the television sets that bring the money. This is important for the same reason it's important in Presidential elections cycles - voters/buyers/viewers matter. Perhaps that's why political savant Nate Silver got in on the B1G hate this week with his own analysis of why adding the Terps and the Scarlet Knights was bad mojo:

Rutgers and Maryland are outstanding public universities, but they are just not in the same league in terms of football.

The Big Ten may have expanded its revenue pie, but it will be dividing it 14 ways rather than 12, and among family members that have less history of sitting down at the table with one another. In seeking to expand its footprint eastward, the conference may have taken a step in the wrong direction.

As many strategists and pundits learned earlier this month, it's usually a bad idea to bet against Silver's analysis, but in this case, I think he's gotten it all wrong, and to explain why, I'm going to turn to none other than... Nate Silver:

The most popular team in New York, for instance, is Rutgers. They have about 600,000 fans in New York City. That isn’t bad, but it represents only about 20 percent of college football fans in New York (in addition to some competing teams like Syracuse, many New Yorkers are transplants and bring their football loyalties with them). It also represents only about 3 percent of New York’s overall population.

Notice anything about Silver's analysis of the New York media market? Four of the top 10 teams in the market are now members of the Big Ten, collectively earning 34.5% of the market and more than 1 million viewers. While Silver's more recent analysis relies on the fact that New York is not a college football town in the way Columbus or Omaha are college football towns, it's easy to understand the importance of the largest media market in the known universe to a sports marketing franchise like the B1G.

As Silver also notes, "If you add up these results across all 210 markets, the three most popular teams are the three that also usually have the largest home attendance: Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. (Ohio State is ranked first in the country with about 3.1 million fans.)

"These teams get to have their cake and eat it too, dominating a series of smaller markets while also scoring points in some relatively large ones like Philadelphia and Detroit — and having large enough alumni bases that they even have some reach in places like New York."

So, the Big Ten has the far-and-away biggest three fan bases in the country, and we again see why Notre Dame remains the league's mythical White Whale. (Note that the graphic is from Silver's article written prior to A&M's defection to the SEC, so the Big 12 now only has one team in the top 10, while the SEC has five).

If you're looking at how the leagues stack up against one another - something that's very important when you're negotiating television rights - the wisdom of cashing in on the New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., media markets is self apparent. The Big Ten has the strongest fan base of any of the four major leagues, by far, and those fans are not all in Columbus, Ann Arbor and State College.

But what about "we, the fans?" Okay, we can be honest and say that welcoming the Terps and Knights doesn't hold the same level of excitement as did welcoming the Cornhuskers, another of the greatest programs in the history of college football. There is no question that fans around the league, perhaps none more so than those of us in Columbus, were thrilled about the prospect of playing another team consistently in the Top 25. Nebraska helps make the league better, more competitive.

No one is saying that about Rutgers and Maryland, although they've each had some measure of success at some point in the past decade, and in theory each have reason to believe they could become much better programs in the coming years. Are they going to be anywhere near the caliber of "football factories" as Linebacker U or Ann Arbor Community College? Not a chance in Hell.

But thinking about this purely from an Xs and Ox standpoint will only produce whiny, petulant, smarmy commentary rather than insightful analysis of the move and what it actually means in the big picture. Two current Big Ten ADs clearly "get it," and offer the brass tacks about what the additions are all about:

Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez: "We're sitting in the Rust Belt. We lose population every year. That Eastern corridor keeps growing. With all the population [in Maryland, District of Columbia and New Jersey] you don't want one of those other leagues to come in there … and close us out of there and we're land-locked."

Michigan's Dave Brandon: "When you look at all the population growth and all the market that we’ve traditionally been in versus the way population has been growing and shifting in all these other regions and looking at the number of households and sports fans in these other areas, these are target-rich opportunities for us to connect with alums, to connect with fans to bring our university to showcase what we are and what we’re about."

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski actually has the most level-headed (and concise) analysis of the latest expansion move. It's a business decision; it's a turf war, plain and simple.

Think of the Big Ten as Five Guys. It just opened a franchise directly across the street from McDonald's (the ACC) and Burger King (the Big East).

In essence, the Big Ten just told the ACC, "You want to brawl, we'll brawl." It told the Big East, "We didn't start this, but we'll finish it if we have to."

The expansion and realignment arms race has begun again. The Big Ten had watched the ACC use the Big East as its own personal chop shop and decided it had to act. It couldn't allow Penn State to be isolated by ACC members Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse (and maybe UConn soon enough).

What sticks in the craw of most fans is that the Big Ten isn't competing - or shouldn't be - with the ACC or the Big East... We're trying to retake the crown as most prestigious conference from the infamous SEC, for crying out loud. Here's the thing, though... Who, exactly, do you suggest we bag as a plausible replacement? Nebraska was low-hanging fruit, that's for sure, but the Conference compromised because UNL is not in the same league, academically, as the rest of the B1G (says the guy who actually thinks UNL has one of the best agriculture programs - my area of professional expertise - in the country).

Mizzou could have been an option, but they add only marginally more fans than Rutgers (a few hundred thousand) and absolutely no additional television benefits in the long-term big picture. And would they have added anything on the field? Eh, not really. Looking at the geography of the league, the options in contiguous states to the current footprint aren't exactly breathtaking.

Dakotas? Nope. Colorado? Nope. Wyoming? Nope. Kansas? We'll talk about two schools there in a minute. We've already discussed Mizzou. Kentucky? Which do you prefer, Louisville or UK?

West Virginia might have been a plausible candidate from a football and basketball perspective, and they are a larger land-grant university. However, WVU is not a member of the AAU, as close to a prerequisite for Big Ten admission as you can get. I would have been very much in favor of bagging WVU in the same spirit as we did UNL, but after their well-publicized conference moves in the last expansion cycle, they're clearly not in play at this point.

So what about Kansas or Kansas State? Starting with the Jayhawks, they're no more exciting or relevant to football than are Maryland or Rutgers. They are a great basketball school, of course, which may have enhanced this year's perception that the B1G has become a roundball league. What about the Wildcats, then? Silo Tech has been the hot hand this year... oh, what's that? They lost to whom, did you say? Baylor? Really?

Oh, well, forget I said anything about them, then. (Okay, okay, I jest... But seriously, is K-State really what you consider a perennial football powerhouse? And back to argument #1, they add zip in terms of fan base or TV market access compared to the two recent adds.)

Sobering reality time: Maryland was added to the league because the conference needed to add the D.C. market, and more importantly as that geographic bridge to Virginia and the next league target, UVA, which will then be the springboard to North Carolina and UNC. The map says it all; like the game of RISK, Delaney needed an Outpost in Maryland to get two plausible candidates for expansion.

Virginia is a respectable athletic program - they're not Texas, sure, but they're probably at least as exciting as Iowa State or Pitt, wouldn't you agree? Plus Virginia again reinforces that foray into the D.C. media market. Similarly, UNC is a respectable athletic program, and while football may not be their strong suit, they've got a lot of intangibles going for them. Plus, the most powerful man in college sports just destabilized the ACC, so both teams will have incentive to consider a strong offer from the most solid - and profitable - conference in the country.

Not to be overlooked, both schools are members of the AAU. For all of these reasons, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, other rumored candidates, make no sense at all. (Edit: Thanks to the commenter below for noting that Georgia Tech was indeed admitted to the AAU in 2010.)

Of course, there's nothing saying the conference realignment scheming makes sense to those of us out in the real world who really just care about watching Ohio State beat That Team Up North in a few short hours...

Additional Footnotes: As Sarah noted in Tuesday's Skull Session, people were none too happy when Penn State joined the league, either... This 2010 article about expansion provides a great infographic that illustrates why Rutgers is a solid addition to the league.

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