Earlier this summer, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told Eleven Warriors that he did not expect the Big Ten to add more teams this year. Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti echoed that belief at Big Ten Media Days in July, saying that conference presidents and athletic directors had instructed him to focus on integrating USC and UCLA next summer.
Just nine days after Petitti’s press conference in Indianapolis, the Big Ten announced the additions of Oregon and Washington, who will join the conference alongside UCLA and USC in the summer of 2024.
What changed? The answer is the one you’d probably expect: More money – specifically, more TV money.
A primary concern leaders from many Big Ten schools had about the potential additions of Oregon and Washington was that they would have to split the conference’s revenue with two more schools. That concern was nullified when Fox, the Big Ten’s primary television partner, gave the conference more money – approximately $30-35 million per year for each of those two schools, according to Smith – to add the Ducks and Huskies.
As a result, Ohio State and the other 15 Big Ten schools (including UCLA and USC) will not see any decrease in revenue from what they were already projected to receive – a number estimated to be approximately $70 million per year for those schools – from their new media rights deal with Fox, CBS and NBC, while Smith believes Oregon and Washington will give the conference even more value in negotiations for future media rights deals.
“The original dollar figures that we had prior to Oregon and Washington coming in stayed the same for those institutions that were already in. Fox brought new money to the table for Oregon and for Washington that they provided,” Smith said during his press conference on Wednesday. “It wasn't diluted to us. The long-term play is that, hopefully, when we negotiate the next deal, that's valuable inventory. So year five or six, whenever assuming it’s Tony goes to negotiate a new deal, you have Oregon and Washington in your portfolio.”
Specifically, Smith believes Oregon and Washington will bring added value for streaming rights, which are likely to be a larger component in the Big Ten’s next media rights contract than the seven-year deal starting this year, which includes a streaming feature with Peacock but is primarily based around linear television broadcasts for football games, with Fox, CBS and NBC all set to broadcast games on their national networks weekly.
“They’re in markets, when you look at the demographics of the Northwest, it's a young population,” Smith said. “So when Tony gets to the point of renegotiating a new contract and we have streaming, that demographic might be more amenable to that type of platform.”
Beyond the long-term financial benefits that could come from the Big Ten’s two newest additions, Smith also believes Oregon and Washington will bring immediate value to the conference in terms of athletics and academics. Both universities are members of the AAU – as every other school in the Big Ten except Nebraska is – and both have been nationally competitive in numerous sports, including football.
“They’re AAU institutions, strong academic institutions,” Smith said. “They have proven themselves as institutions that invest in their athletic programs. They're valuable institutions to bring into our league.”
Because of all that, Smith said it was an easy decision to support the additions of Oregon and Washington as Big Ten members once it was assured that Ohio State and the rest of the schools already in the conference would only benefit financially.
“I have to compliment Tony. He did a great job as our commissioner, working with our television partners,” Smith told Eleven Warriors. “And so when he brought it to us, and it was non-diluted, we weren't taking a financial hit and they were getting paid with new money, for me, it became pretty obvious as something we should do.”
With USC and UCLA already set to join the conference next year, Smith believes it makes sense for the Big Ten to add two more West Coast schools at the same time. And while many have expressed concerns about the travel challenges – particularly for sports other than football – associated with four West Coast schools joining a conference otherwise composed of Midwest and East Coast schools, Smith believes the benefits of adding those schools will outweigh the drawbacks.
“It's gonna be exciting for our league, for Washington and Oregon to come in at the same time as USC and UCLA, and it's gonna be exciting for our fans when they go to Washington and go to Oregon. They’re cool places,” Smith said. “So I think there's a lot of positive elements around it. Sure, there are some negatives, but the positives outweigh that.”
That might be easier for Smith to say now that he won’t be overseeing Ohio State athletics when those four schools join the league, as he announced Wednesday that he will retire at the end of June 2024, one month before USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington become Big Ten members. But Smith says he’ll continue to be just as involved as he has been for the next 11 months in preparing Ohio State and the Big Ten for the integration of those schools.
“The way I'm gonna look at it is I still have the role as athletic director at Ohio State, so I'm going to represent Ohio State,” Smith told Eleven Warriors. “So our principles, our tolerances, everything from Ohio State is gonna still be in the room, and I'm gonna be forceful around that. But then, as always, I always try and do what's going to help the league do the best that they could do. But I’m still the athletic director.”
Smith acknowledged that adding Oregon and Washington to the league would only give Ohio State more competition in its quest for Big Ten titles but said that wasn’t a deterrent to adding two more teams.
“You got to think long haul,” Smith said. “If I was just thinking competitively? No, I don’t want to play them. But that's not how you do business.”
Ryan Day said Wednesday that he did not yet have any opinion on Oregon and Washington joining the Big Ten next year, keeping all of his focus on the season ahead with the Buckeyes entering their second week of preseason camp and the start of the 2023 season just three-and-a-half weeks away.
“Honestly, there's just so many things that are higher on the priority list for me right now,” Day said. “I kind of defer to Gene on those things, and I'll continue to do that, have conversations, but I think right now, like I can't get my mind off inside drill and kind of what went on in the red zone today and that kind of stuff. Gene's been such a great leader for me, and certainly these first few years kind of taking a lot of that stuff off my plate, it’s just let’s just focus on the team. That's kind of where my mind’s at right now.”