Tate: Singin' the expansion blues
If you’re willing to be overmatched, try debating Jim Delany. He’s the top commissioner in sports and has kept the Big Ten on the cutting edge. How can you criticize a genius who is so smart, so experienced and so focused on future $$$s?
Obviously, when he announced, “Go East, young man,” he didn’t walk in blindfolded. The expansion came after extensive study. And he articulated his recent power play brilliantly:
“What drove us to go someplace else (Rutgers and Maryland) was just the fact that there’s a paradigm shift, and that institutions that get together for academics or athletics have got to be cognizant of the fact that they are competing for students, for student-athletes, for research dollars, for the best levels of collaboration.”
Did he mention TV sets? Come on, Jim. Wasn’t that what this was all about?
Being smarter doesn’t win elections. Delany couldn’t carry the Midwest masses, not if this was done in the daylight. Let’s be frank. A lot of us flat-out don’t like it. It isn’t the loss of geographic integrity. It isn’t just the 12- and 15-hour drives from Illinois and Iowa. It isn’t simply the ridiculous travel requirements for all those non-revenue sports.
Most troubling is the inevitable loss of traditional football and basketball games. In football, Illinois should play neighbors Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue every year. These are close, long-term natural rivals. These are the games that the fans want to see. These five should never be off the UI football schedule.
In the present divisional alignment, the UI already lost Iowa. And if, as Maryland President Wallace Loh let slip, the Illini are moved in 2014 to the Legends Division, the Illini could get Iowa back but lose the frequency of showdowns against Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue, plus the always-anticipated opponent that Illinoisans love to challenge, even at great risk, Ohio State.
What were they thinking?
We won’t know about divisional reshuffling for a while. But if, for example, Maryland and Rutgers move into the Leaders Division, and if Illinois is switched, get this: Assuming the UI would play two opposite-division foes in home-road arrangements, the UI could play football against Purdue in 2014-15, and not again until 2020-21 at the earliest or 2022-23 at the latest. There could be a six-year lapse.
Crazy! Purdue is a short bus ride away and in the same conference. But this possibility is based on scheduling, which would annually pit Illinois against the other six same-division members and would bring in two members from the opposite division for two-year terms.
Depending on how the divisions are adjusted, Illinois will find itself playing Rutgers and Maryland as often or more often than several natural rivals. To which I say: “Phooey quadrupled!”
From the viewpoint of Midwestern fans, whose opinions don’t matter, Rutgers resides in a different world and has a marginal football brand, having finished in the Top 25 once in 35 years. Maryland is only slightly better and of little interest here.
Nebraska seemed like a reasonable fit because (1) an 11-team conference is awkward and (2) the Cornhuskers have a grand football history. The folks there approved the move. This is different. These Eastern schools have little in common with the Big Ten, Maryland fans in particular aren’t happy with the move, and their appearances in the Midwest will resemble nonconference games.
Don’t blame Rutgers and Maryland. They were broke and looking for a buck. Both had to cut multiple sports as casualties of the fiscal insanity sweeping the nation. And Rutgers had further concerns as the Big East appeared to be coming apart at the seams.
Speaking from the Washington Post, columnist Mike Wise called the Maryland decision “an impulsive cash grab.” The Terrapins threw away the grand tradition of ACC basketball for the money expected from the Big Ten broadcasts. This wasn’t put up to a fan vote because it would have failed.”
Maryland had one thing to sell, a media market that includes the District of Columbia, supposedly well-stocked with football fans from the Midwest. When Delany hears about a top-10 media market, his eyes light up. He’d probably be interested in Atlanta (Georgia Tech) if he didn’t have to vault Kentucky and Tennessee, and he already is rumored to be practicing his leapfrog techniques to reach the nation’s No. 8 market (or is Texas too distant?).
Rutgers falls in this big-market category. But while Delany has run numbers showing 20 million people in the New York media market, he may be overestimating college football interest there. Few sectors of this country have a smaller percentage of college football fans than New York and, face it, Rutgers gets a modest portion of that small percentage. Rutgers attracts far fewer actual fans than those who support the Hawkeyes, Badgers and Buckeyes, who rule their states and turn Saturdays into a must-see experience. Competition between the two Michigan schools only seems to heighten interest in that state.
So it may be a tall order for master negotiator Mark Silverman to sell the BTN to cable outlets in New York and New Jersey, but it is essential because the pie will be split 14 ways instead of 12.
Whatever the money distribution turns out to be, it won’t change the fact that all the original Big Ten members are losing traditional and valued rivalries. And a lot of folks, like me, could be turned off by that.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.