The rumors are flying almost daily now.
First it’s Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Connecticut that will join the Big Ten Conference. Then it’s Missouri, Nebraska, Rutgers and Notre Dame. The day after that it’s Maryland, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt.
The Big Ten expansion process is starting to look like the NFL draft — nothing anyone says should be believed. That includes Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany when he says that taking a pass on expansion and sticking with 11 teams is an option for the conference.
Maintaining the status quo is unlikely because the driving force behind Big Ten expansion is getting more eyeballs on television sets for its football games. If you consider the pervasive influence of money in big-time college athletics these days, you can’t help but conclude that expansion is inevitable and that the Big Ten will kick off the festivities by absorbing one, three or five schools.
But at what cost?
In addition to rendering the conference’s name even more mathematically incorrect, there will be some downside to a 14 or 16-team Big Ten, much of which has been buried deep in the discussion.
First and foremost will be the loss of traditional rivalries.
If the conference is split into two eight-team divisions for football, it figures that the University of Wisconsin’s games with Ohio State and Michigan will be much more infrequent. Those two schools won’t be split up in any new football alignment and UW’s solid program would probably be a must for the other division, meaning the Badgers almost certainly would be in a different division than the Buckeyes and Wolverines.
With seven games against division rivals and one or two against teams from the other division, games against the Big Ten’s big two would become rare for UW. The Badgers have played Ohio State 63 times in the last 69 years and Michigan 40 times in the last 51 years, but such games might be reduced to two or three per decade, diminishing rivalries that go back more than 100 years.
Over time, losing marquee names from the schedule and having fewer big-name attractions at Camp Randall Stadium could negatively affect the fans’ enthusiasm for UW football. And while some potential new matchups would be extremely attractive (read: Nebraska), UW has no history with any of the schools mentioned. So unless you’re dying to see UW play Rutgers, be prepared for even fewer big games.
Second, expansion for expansion’s sake could ultimately hurt the Big Ten where it counts most — in the wallet.
By expanding beyond its eight-state footprint, the Big Ten will seek to add more television households so it can grow the Big Ten Network and increase the rights fees it charges networks such as ABC, CBS and ESPN. But television shows still have to attract advertisers and would a Big Ten that includes Syracuse, Rutgers, Pitt, Connecticut and Missouri be must-see TV for college football fans?
Most conferences struggle with too few marquee games as it is. Assuming that Notre Dame continues to live in the last century and remains an independent, the only school being discussed for expansion that has any national appeal in football is Nebraska. If the Big Ten becomes watered down with marginal programs, it could end up with more dog games on TV than it has already.
Third, many men’s basketball rivalries will suffer the same fate as their football counterparts.
Don’t believe it? Just look at the bloated, 16-team Big East of recent years. In that conference, many traditional rivals play each other only once a year because teams have home-and-home series with only three of the other 15 teams. Do UW fans really want games with Missouri, Nebraska and Rutgers replacing games with Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois on their schedule?
Finally, the effect of expansion on non-revenue sports could be dramatic.
Everyone knows that non-revenue sports and the student-athlete experience usually take a back seat when there are hundreds of millions of dollars to be made. But with geography a secondary issue in expansion, it is likely that travel will become more inconvenient and expensive, particularly for non-income teams that seldom, if ever, use charter flights. Despite the potential financial windfall for schools due to expansion, those programs ultimately will suffer.