Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Big Ten Expansion, Part One: Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Part one of a three-part series. Parts two and three will be linked here once I, you know, write them.

During the long, long offseason from college football, fans on message boards around the world occasionally fend off boredom by contemplating the very nature of their conference. For Big Ten fans, this means addressing the number eleven.

Eleven means that expanding the conference slate from eight to nine games is impossible. 11 participants times 9 games equals 99 slots to be filled, which means someone gets a bye -- and that team will be making ten other teams mighty unhappy, even if it's Minnesota, which isn't going to compete for the conference title even with a free win. So unless the conference members agree to a true round robin and decide to eat up 10 games of an 11- or 12-game schedule with the same familiar foes year after year, the Big Ten will always contend with the ugly eight-game schedule, which ensures that every team will not play two conference teams in a given year.

Some people talk about contraction. Some people are fools. On the surface, booting a team from the conference makes sense; after all, this is the Big Ten, and eleven minus one is ... heyyy! But who would go? If the current marketplace still wishes to offer the illusion of tradition, the charter members of the conference -- Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin -- would retain their seats. Iowa and Indiana have been members for over a century, and in five short years Ohio State will reach that same milestone. Michigan State joined the conference in 1950; with nearly six decades of membership, as well as multiple titles in football and basketball, the Spartans have certainly earned their place. And Penn State? Are you crazy? Penn State has the kind of tradition and prowess that moves a conference as stalwart as the Big Ten to consider such radical things as expansion. It's clear, then, that forced contraction is nonsense. If the makeup of the conference needs to change, it must be by the voluntary withdrawal of one or more schools -- not likely -- or by expansion.

Why is expansion in the news? Because of this:

The creation of the Big Ten Network means conference officials likely will discuss expansion again, commissioner Jim Delany said Wednesday.

"I think we need to look at it in the next year," he said during a wide-ranging interview with Des Moines Register reporters.

Adding a 12th team likely will be revisited because of the network, which is scheduled to launch Aug. 30, Delany said. An additional big-name university in a large television market means more exposure for the network and its sponsors.

That says it all. We're thinking expansion for financial reasons. We have a TV network now so that we can make more money. The network has sponsors who want to make more money. A twelfth school could be added to increase the market for our TV station and line the pockets of our sponsors who, incidentally, would give more money to a twelve-team conference than to an eleven-team conference. And round and round we go.

Why are we thinking about expansion? Is it because the conference faces a problem with eleven teams that would evaporate with twelve? No. Filthy lucre is the one and only reason. A twelfth team gets you the boon of a conference championship game. The Big XII has one -- Dr. Pepper pays good money to attach its (his?) name to that game. Plus it's another night to cash in with the network and the other advertisers. You get to pick a site (and sporting arenas and chambers of commerce would be willing to grease the wheels a bit to get your conference title game to their city, wouldn't they?). You get to sell tickets! You get to dub a Clear Victor! And you don't even have to try -- people will tune in! Fans will attend! Sponsors will cut checks! It's the same as it ever was -- and MORE!

The Big Ten has managed, one way or another, to tolerate co-champions when it needs to. There's a certain amount of grousing when people examine the conference schedules and see that, somehow, Purdue has managed to miss Michigan and Ohio State for the sixth year in a row. But then the season starts and the games begin and at the end of the year, one team's 8-0, or two teams are 7-1, or it's 1990 and four teams wind up at 6-2. And there are always the shoulda-woulda moments ("We shoulda played Ohio State last year, we woulda beat 'em and gone to the BCS where we belonged!") but nobody gets too worked up about them.

If a pressing need exists, or a worthy candidate expresses interest in joining, expanding the Big Ten is a fine idea. But when the motivation for seeking out a twelfth team is less about strengthening our academic and athletic relationships and more like selecting the most lucrative location for a new Starbucks or Walgreen's, it becomes a very unwholesome proposition indeed.