Unsurprisingly, most of the questions Kevin Warren fielded at this year’s Big Ten Media Days were about the additions of USC and UCLA and the potential for additional conference expansion in the future.
Less than one month after the Big Ten shocked the world of college sports by announcing UCLA and USC would join the conference in 2024, Warren was on stage at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to open the conference’s preseason football media event on Tuesday. And he expressed excitement about the future of a conference that will soon include two new schools from Southern California and potentially even more new schools to come.
“We were very pleased with our 14 existing Big Ten institutions, but we are incredibly excited to welcome two new members in 2024 to the Big Ten,” Warren said. “These are two incredible academic and athletic institutions in a strong location in Los Angeles with great rich history and tradition, who are innovative, who are forward-thinking, who are bold, who will make us even stronger as a conference.
“Because where we are right now, I'm focused on being realistic about the state of college athletics. About accepting our responsibility to shape college athletics, lead college athletics, fortify college athletics. To be bold, to be strong, to be innovative.”
While the Big Ten’s move to add USC and UCLA seemed as if it came out of nowhere, Warren said his interest in bringing the Trojans and Bruins into the conference was years in the making.
“When I was interviewing for this job back in 2019, I studied every one of the universities across the country. And one of the things that jumped out about USC and UCLA and even the market of Los Angeles is that we have – the largest section of Big Ten alumni, other than in the Midwest, is in Los Angeles,” Warren said. “And there's so many opportunities that exist across the country.
“I've spent a lot of time even before I came to the Big Ten, once I accepted the job in the Big Ten and even these last couple years always analyzing each and every school and what it means just for college athletics, what it means for the Big Ten Conference and to make sure that any time we have an opportunity to add incredible value that we are prepared. So a lot of work that we've done on any potential expansion, we've done it multiple years ago, and we're always in a perpetual state of analyzing the goodness of fit for any institutions that would come into the Big Ten Conference.”
Of course, the Big Ten is also currently working on securing a new media rights deal – one Warren says he hopes will be finalized “sooner than later” – and he’s excited about the value of bringing the Los Angeles media market into the conference. With Rutgers and Northwestern also in the conference, the Big Ten is now represented in the nation’s three largest media markets.
“We will have a footprint in the three major media markets from New York to Los Angeles to Chicago, which will allow us to be even bolder when it comes to corporate partnership and activation,” Warren said.
Warren said USC and UCLA will both immediately enter the Big Ten as full members with full shares of the media rights deal when they join the conference in 2024.
One concern about the additions of USC and UCLA is it could make travel more difficult for the rest of the teams throughout the conference, given that the 14 schools currently in the conference are located in or near the Midwest. Warren believes it’s a benefit for the conference, though, to have a footprint that will now spread from coast to coast, particularly from a television standpoint.
“We're in four time zones, we will be in 2024: East, Central, Mountain and West. So now we'll be able to provide content all the way from the morning into the night and lead into some really incredible programming,” Warren said. “I think the value of being across four time zones, for multiple reasons, is really important.”
Warren says the Big Ten has established a “readiness committee” that will help it prepare for USC and UCLA’s entry into the conference over the next two years, and that the conference will discuss what makes sense for a scheduling standpoint to ensure that travel is not too taxing on the conference’s athletes.
What the Big Ten’s scheduling looks like in football and other sports come 2024 could depend on whether the conference continues to add new teams between now and then. And Warren said additional expansion is an avenue the Big Ten will continue to explore, though it won’t do so haphazardly.
“I get asked every single day, ‘What's next?’ It may include future expansion, but it will be done for the right reasons at the right time with our student-athletes,” Warren said. “We will not expand just to expand. It will be strategic, it will add additional value to our conference, and it will provide a platform to even have our student-athletes be put on a larger platform so they can build their careers, but also that they have an opportunity to grow and learn from an education and from an athletic standpoint.”
As you might expect, Warren did not identify any specific targets for expansion. Warren did not answer directly when he was asked about the possibility of Notre Dame joining the Big Ten during a brief scrum with reporters following his press conference.
“We already have them in our conference for hockey. You know how much I love Notre Dame,” said Warren, who attended law school at Notre Dame. “As of now, they’ve been proving that they can make it without being in a conference, so we’ll keep doing what we’re doing and see how everything plays out.”
Two words Warren did use throughout his press conference on Tuesday, however, were “bold” and “aggressive.” That’s the approach Warren wants the Big Ten to take as it continues to build for the future, which certainly suggests he believes the conference’s most recent additions won’t be the last.
“I'm embracing change. I'm going to be very aggressive. I've been that way my entire career,” Warren said. “And I just want to make sure we build an environment – because our student-athletes and our fans and our universities deserve that – so I just want to make sure that we're aggressive of how we build this. We've got to do it in the right way for the right reasons at the right time. But we're going to look back over this period, and we're in a stage of probably about a five-year period of change.”
“I want to make decisions that when we look back 30 years from now, that people will say that the Big Ten Conference was ahead of the curve in making these decisions.”
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told Eleven Warriors on Tuesday that he has not spent a lot of time thinking about further expansion for the Big Ten, but that the conference will consider the same factors it weighed with USC and UCLA if it ends up adding more teams.
“We're strong right now. Picking up UCLA and USC made us stronger. So my primary focus is on who we are right now,” Smith said. “And we know the landscape’s changing, it's gonna change, so I really haven't thought about the criteria for the future that we would consider. Obviously, the criteria that we used once USC and UCLA approached us will still be in play. We want good academic institutions. We want institutions that have great competitive success, institutions that fit our culture. And so if we ever look at it again, we're positioned well, but that's not something that's top of mind for us right now.”