In an interactive room on the ground floor of his league’s semi-new headquarters, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren met with two reporters from Athleticism to discuss a mountain of issues facing college sports.
As almost a throwaway question as Warren was ready to move away from his second-floor office, the expansion became a topic. “As far as Big Ten membership goes,” Warren was asked, “things happen out of the blue here from time to time. Do you (the conference) plan to stay in the current 14 teams? »
Warren began a lengthy response about how he likes the institutional structure of the Big Ten and why academic focus remains a key principle with athletic prowess. Then he added, “But that being said, just to be aware of the world we live in. We just have to be a little thoughtful and careful. How will college athletics evolve? But right now, I’m thrilled to end this academic year strong.
As for the non-responses, it was vague and deliberate. Six weeks later, Warren’s formulation seems prescient. On Thursday, the Big Ten welcomed USC and UCLA as its 15th and 16th members, pulling off perhaps the most surprising stunt of the realignment era. He was shocking in both his strength and his stealthy secrecy. It also left more questions than answers for the Big Ten, its member schools, newcomers, and the rest of the college sports landscape. Here are 10 big topics league officials will need to think about in the days and weeks ahead.
Three years after the birth of the Big Ten, the seven founding members held a meeting on December 1, 1899 at the Chicago Beach Hotel to consider expansion. Three Midwestern institutions have applied for membership: Indiana, Iowa, and Notre Dame. Indiana and Iowa sent representatives to pitch and were accepted as members, joining Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwest, Michigan, Purdue, Chicago and Illinois. Notre-Dame did not send a delegate and its candidacy was refused.
This began a long and sometimes contentious relationship between the Big Ten and the small Catholic university east of Chicago. At one point the Big Ten tried to ice out the Irish, but relations thawed in the 1940s with Notre Dame competing each year with several league programs. In 1999, a century after Notre Dame first considered joining the Big Ten, the fiercely independent Irish rejected an invitation from the Big Ten. But as the tectonic plates of realignment rumble, Notre Dame could consider Big Ten membership if independence means irrelevance.
The Big Ten were just weeks away from announcing a lucrative media rights deal that could bring the league more than $1 billion a year. He had already received the latest offers from NBC, CBS, ESPN and Amazon Prime to join FOX as the Big Ten football rights holder. Now the league must recalibrate its value with two recognizable brands in the nation’s second-largest media market.
The Big Ten and its media partners will now control 72 league-only games (down from 63) and between 30-40 non-conference games (up from 25-35). The league has already hosted some of the highest-rated college football games in the country, but now it’s possible for USC and UCLA to play Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and other Big Ten teams in high-stakes regular season games. The new additions will alter negotiations and likely shift the timing of announcements from mid-July to September. Ultimately, adding the Los Angeles-based universities could help the Big Ten disperse far more revenue than the $55 million they currently provide to their devolved institutions.
A day after USC and UCLA were announced as future Big Ten members, the Pac-12 announced it would be considering expansion candidates. The 10 survivors released statements expressing their disappointment with the schools leaving for the Big Ten. What neither of them mentioned was what they would do with the possibility of joining the Big Ten.
Several Pac-12 programs feature academic and football profiles worthy of discussion in Big Ten circles, including in Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Utah. This also spills over to the ACC, where other universities fit this profile. The question becomes, are the Big Ten considering adding UCLA and USC as a singular move or just the first salvo in a concert of change?
Divisions and schedules
Administrators seemed eager to abandon the current geographic divisional structure and those thoughts are cemented now that UCLA and USC have joined the Big Ten. It’s ludicrous to suggest that USC would play in a West Division and then meet the powerhouses of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan once every four years each. The Big Ten’s media partners would rightly disapprove of that as well.
There are questions that linger, however. Would the Big Ten transition to a non-divisional structure in 2023 with their new rights deal or wait until 2024 to completely rebrand themselves when USC and UCLA begin competitive football? If the Big Ten remains a 16-team league, would it adopt a 3-6-6 schedule with three annual opponents protected, then rotate the other 12 twice over a four-year period? Perhaps at the end of each four-year block, the league could adjust some of these protected series to get USC and UCLA through more opponents with consistency. The possibilities are limitless.
On November 20, 1946, a relationship began with the nine Big Ten teams and the defunct Pacific Coast Conference signing a five-year deal to send their champions to the Rose Bowl. It was rejected at the time because West Coast representatives wanted to invite the military. But the CCP and Big Ten resisted the criticism. Illinois and Michigan voted against the move and, ironically, played back-to-back in the first two contract bowls.
The Big Ten and the Pac-12 eventually became like-minded colleagues. They worked together to negotiate television rights in the 1980s and operated the Rose Bowl as equal partners alongside the Tournament of Roses Parade. With the ACC, they regrouped in the short-lived Alliance. This move clearly changes the landscape between the leagues. The Big Ten is the power player and the Pac-12 has become a subordinate.
Whether it was for a Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Championship Series or the College Football Playoffs, the Rose Bowl was like an oak tree amidst the winds of change. It had the most influence and cost in college football’s title-winning title games in 1994 and 1997. The Big Ten and Pac-12 were influential in ensuring the Rose Bowl remained first among its equals for timeslot and rankings.
No entity was left shocked more than the Rose Bowl after the USC-UCLA news. The Bruins play their home games in the Rose Bowl. No team has played in the bowl game itself more than the Trojans. The magnetic pull the location had on Big Ten fans will dissipate once regular season games begin at UCLA. With a bold move, the Big Ten and its two newcomers have devalued historic bowling.
Football is leading the charge in all facets of the expansion, but Big Ten basketball fans can’t help but be excited about regular trips to UCLA’s vaunted Pauley Pavilion. Likewise, the Bruins must take advantage of the prospects of playing basketball games at elite Big Ten venues, such as Indiana’s Assembly Hall, Purdue’s Mackey Arena and Michigan State’s Breslin Center.
The Big Ten led the nation in men’s basketball attendance for 45 consecutive seasons (removing the pandemic year). UCLA and USC have excellent coaches, Mick Cronin and Andy Enfield, respectively. Their athletes will benefit from more consistent high-level environments and better TV exposure than they see in the Pac-12.
Few athletics departments can compare to UCLA and USC when it comes to producing Olympians. It spills over into excellence in unpaid sports, from track and field and gymnastics to baseball and softball. While football is the primary driver of this expansion, each sport will benefit from the competition and exposure of USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten.
Big Ten baseball programs have long struggled to earn NCAA tournament berths, including this year when regular-season and tournament runners-up Rutgers failed to qualify despite 44 wins. USC and UCLA are expected to help the league’s RPI immediately, in addition to providing recruiting opportunities and warm-weather games in March and April.
This is going to be a challenge for Big Ten schools, especially outside of football. According to figures obtained by Athleticism thanks to open records requests, the league’s 13 public universities spent an average of more than $4.85 million on travel in fiscal year 2021. The cost of charter flights will skyrocket, and there will have more commercial flights for Olympic sports teams in the Midwest who regularly travel by bus. Costs will also increase for UCLA and USC with longer flights.
This may force league schedules to think differently. It could incorporate travel partners to allow a team to compete against USC and UCLA over a three-day period or do the same for those schools when they travel to Michigan and Michigan State.
The league network has grown its capital from 51% when it started in 2007 to 49% in 2012 and 39% today. It successfully brought Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers into its orbit in previous expansions and added those markets to the fold. It will seek to do the same with USC, UCLA and Southern California and do what the Pac-12 network could not, which is achieve full market penetration.
(Top photo by Kevin Warren: Michael Conroy/AP)