Will Big Ten Expansion Break the Big East?

The high-stakes game of conference musical chairs is on again. With the Big Ten investigating expansion, and the Pac-10 doing the same, one hopes the officials of the Big East conference aren't passively waiting for the music to stop, and that the Big East isn't left battered and without a BCS seat when it does.

There's been a lot of wild discussion in the press and the blogs. In a recent Sports Illustrated column, writer Andy Staples went so far as to propose that 64 teams bolt the NCAA and re-form into four 16-team mega-conferences. There's a better chance that my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates will win the World Series this year. Ain't gonna happen.

One blog in particular, however, written by a lawyer and Illinois fan in the Chicago area, has provided the best and most detailed analysis of Big Ten expansion that I've seen. The blog is called "Frank the Tank's Slant," and the writer's excellent series of entries on the topic begins with The Big Ten Expansion Index: A Different Shade of Orange. Several subsequent entries continue his discussion, and I recommend them for anyone interested in the subject. The author has promised his thoughts on the Big East in an additional post, but hasn't published it yet.

"Frank the Tank" examines a wide range of relevant aspects of conference expansion, with an intelligent, mature, and informed perspective. If I were to pick three points that come across most clearly in his series, they would be these: 1. When you think about conference expansion, don't think like a fan, think like a conference administrator or a university president. 2. It's all about the money. 3. The best choices for Big Ten expansion are Notre Dame or ... the University of Texas.

Yes, Texas. Don't laugh. Frank clearly shows why Texas would be a fantastic choice for the Big Ten, making a splash comparable to the addition of Penn State, and how Texas would benefit to the tune of $10 million a year or more by jumping from the Big 12. Texas would bring a huge television audience to the Big Ten Network, including two of the top ten TV markets in the nation.

Which brings us to point 2: It's all about the money. Or at least largely about the money. And, really, that's related to point 1 as well, why you have to think about conference expansion as though you were a conference administrator or a university president.

The difference in conference TV revenues is staggering. Frank the Tank quotes figures reported in an ESPN "Outside the Lines" comparison (available at http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=4757335).

Citing the latest figures available in late 2009, the ESPN report revealed these annual TV revenues:

Big Ten: $242 million
SEC : $205 million
Big 12: $78 million
ACC : $67 million
Pac-10: $58 million
Big East: $33 million

Look at those numbers. Note the big drop-off between the top two conferences and the three conferences in the middle, and then the second big drop-off to the Big East at the bottom.

The total for the Big East actually may be somewhat higher than $33 million. The Big East signed contracts with ESPN and CBS in 2006 for both football and basketball reportedly worth $250 million for 2007-2013. But Russ Sharp, WVU's associate athletic director for finance/administration, recently said that the conference's basketball TV revenue-sharing averages about $2 million annually for the 16 schools, which would put that amount alone at $32 million. Additionally, the Big East football schools each receive about $2 million per year in football TV revenues (not counting bowl revenues). If those numbers are accurate, that means each of the Big East football schools would receive a total of $4 million per year in TV revenues.

In stark contrast, each school in the Big Ten receives $22 million per year in TV revenues.

That's a per-school difference of $18 million a year.

Based on that alone, any Big East school would be foolish to turn down an invitation from the Big Ten, and that doesn't even touch on the large financial advantage in research money that accrues to Big Ten schools, nor on the difference in academic prestige associated with the Big Ten universities. If you think the Big Ten's TV revenues are impressive, consider the money associated with the Big Ten conference's academic counterpart, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which consists of the Big Ten conference schools plus the University of Chicago. The CIC website notes that "CIC universities engage in $6 billion [that's billion] in funded research each year ($3.2 billion from federal sources)."

I sure hope the people at the Big East offices, and the Big East university presidents, aren't sitting on their hands while the Big Ten deliberates.

To be fair, I'm not sure there's anything the Big East could do to preclude a raid from the Big Ten. But I have two wishes that I hope the Big Ten fairies will grant.

The first one is that the Big Ten won't expand beyond adding a 12th school. And I don't think it would be in their benefit to do so. Adding a 12th football team will give the Big Ten the ability to split into two divisions and hold a conference championship game -- the pot of gold at the immediate end of their expansion rainbow. Expanding beyond 12 schools, however, would mean that the Big Ten's financial pie would have to be divided into additional slices, so it doesn't make sense to me that the Big Ten would do that. Dividing the league revenues into 14 or 16 shares presumably would cancel any gains to be made by having a conference championship game -- unless those additional schools would bring enough additional TV revenues from their distinct markets to make further expansion worth it.

My second wish is that the Big Ten reaches west, not east. Another raid on the Big East could be devastating. If the Big Ten wants to tap into the New York City market, it could invite Rutgers, UConn, or maybe Syracuse. Of those, it seems to me that UConn would offer the most potential benefit, reaching not only New York City but also into New England. That's a lot of TV sets. I don?t know whether UConn measures up to Big Ten standards in terms of academics and research. Rutgers also could be attractive to the Big Ten from a TV market perspective -- if it truly delivers an audience that Penn State doesn't already deliver.

What about Pitt? Pitt would doubtless leap to accept a Big Ten invitation, and Pitt has the size, athletic prowess, and academic stature to be attractive to the Big Ten. It's an old rival of Penn State and sits squarely within the Big Ten footprint. Pittsburgh is the 23d top TV market in the nation. To my way of thinking, however, the Pittsburgh television market is already secured for the Big Ten by Penn State. For that reason alone, I would be surprised if Pitt were invited to join the Big Ten unless it was one of multiple schools invited to capture the eastern TV region.

Obviously if Notre Dame is willing to join the Big Ten this time around, that would be a coup for the Big Ten conference. To me, it?s the perfect marriage. It makes a lot of sense financially for both parties. Notre Dame could gain $10 million a year by just saying yes. But Notre Dame might be determined to remain a football independent yet again.

If the Big Ten does look west instead of east, the University of Texas makes a great deal of economic sense for both the school and the Big Ten. Texas is also a match in terms of academics and research.

"Frank the Tank" isn't the only one who sees the benefits. Columnist Teddy Greenstein wrote in the Chicago Tribune on February 11, "Texas provides an almost ideal package of big-time football, top-flight basketball, strong academics (47th among national universities, according to U.S. News & World report, tied with Penn State), an outstanding brand, an impressive non-revenue sports program, a $16 billion endowment and, of most importance, a huge potential revenue source. The Big Ten Network would love to delve deep in the heart of Texas. Only Notre Dame would present as enticing a package."

True, the map doesn't place Texas contiguous to the current Big Ten states, and the Longhorns' teams would have to travel farther, but those aren't overriding considerations. I don't imagine that airfares from Austin to Chicago or Columbus are appreciably greater than travel costs to Stillwater or Ames. Texas politics could enter the picture, however, and it's possible that the Texas legislature could gum up the works.

Could the Big Ten look elsewhere? Of course. Indeed, it apparently is casting a wide net. An article in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday, February 19, quoted Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez as saying that the Big Ten has received preliminary reports from a firm hired to gather all the relevant expansion information for the conference, that 15 schools are being considered, and that Texas and Notre Dame are not on the list. If that last part is true, it's very surprising. It's extremely hard to imagine that the Big Ten won't consider both Texas and Notre Dame. The article also indicates that Big Ten commissioner James Delany could make a recommendation to the university presidents this summer. In a comment that makes this Big East fan shudder, Alvarez said, "I think it could be one (school), or I think it could be multiple."

If not Texas, and not Notre Dame, then maybe the Big Ten will look to Missouri. Not only is Missouri a state that's geographically connected to the current Big Ten footprint, but the University of Missouri would bring with it sizable television markets in St. Louis (number 21 nationally, larger than Pittsburgh) and Kansas City (number 31). In December, after the Big Ten announced it would look into expanding, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (a University of Missouri grad) spoke glowingly of the Big Ten's academic stature relative to the Big 12: "I'm not going to say anything bad about the Big 12, but when you compare Oklahoma State to Northwestern, when you compare Texas Tech to Wisconsin, I mean, you begin looking at educational possibilities that are worth looking at.... If they want to talk, we should talk, and we should listen."

Obviously, the Big 12 conference could take a serious hit if the Big Ten were to take either Texas or Missouri, and if the Pac-10 would also take Colorado. Both outcomes are real possibilities.

In any event, we'll hope that the Big Ten expands by only one school, and looks to the west rather than the east. In that best of scenarios, where would that leave the Big East?

Check back tomorrow for Part II of this in-depth and penetrating look at the ramifications of possible Big Ten expansion

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