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big ten conference

The Madness of Big Ten Expansion

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets offense runs a play against the Maryland Terrapins defense during the second half at Byrd Stadium on November 3, 2012 in College Park, Maryland. A packed house in Maryland.

College football expansion is all about money. On this everybody agrees, and so the Big Ten’s additions of Maryland and Rutgers are being met mainly with angry denunciations of their greed, along with a sprinkling of cynical congratulations for their financial savvy. It’s more or less the same sort of comments you’d read when some venture capital firm buys the local factory and shuts it down.

It’s certainly true that, on paper at least, the Big Ten is making what appear to be shrewd financial decisions with its expansion plans. The conference is expanding its television footprint and thus extracting a bigger share of basic cable dollars.

But the first question the conference hasn’t quite answered here is, why should these schools care about making more money? Money is obviously vital to college athletics as a threshold question. If you’re running an athletic department, you need to bring in enough revenue to fund your operations. But beyond that threshold, you don’t need more money. Universities are nonprofit institutions. There are no stockholders. At some point, more revenue simply means that athletic directors need to find more things to spend their windfall on.

And all the evidence suggests that a conference like the Big Ten is well past that point. A year ago, the University of Michigan hired as its head football coach Brady Hoke, who announced that he would have walked to Ann Arbor for the job and accepted it without even asking what he’d get paid. Michigan’s athletic department tripled his salary anyway. Gotta spend the money on something, right?

It may make sense for the conference’s athletic directors and conference officials to expand their budgets, because doing so will tend to increase their own salaries. But the institutions themselves derive no benefit from letting the athletic bureaucracies engage in empire-building.

Let us suppose, however, that it is perfectly sensible to think about college athletics as Fortune 500 companies — that they should amass as much money as possible, because somehow it will always be put to good use. Moves like bringing Maryland and Rutgers into the Big Ten do not make any long-term sense even on purely financial grounds. On close inspection, it looks more like a financial maneuver that could extract short-term value from the product at enormous long-term cost.

The core of the financial logic of expanding the Big Ten, and other league expansions, as Derek Thompson has explained, is cable television. The Big Ten has its own network and can charge cable operators to carry it. The more people who live in the Big Ten’s footprint, the more households will be paying their cable operators an extra dollar a month or so to carry the Big Ten network. Hence the logic of adding Rutgers and Maryland. While the athletic traditions of both schools are, respectively, mediocre and terrible, they geographically encompass large, populous regions whose cable television subscribers will, for the most part involuntarily, be paying the Big Ten conference a chunk of their cable television bills.

In other words, as a profit-making mechanism, this is essentially a scam. It relies on an opaque pricing mechanism (bundled cable television) forcing people to pay for a product they don’t want. Right now, it’s a highly lucrative scam. But bundled cable television pricing is not going to last forever, and possibly not very long at all. There is already a revolution in video content under way that is going to render the cable television bundle model obsolete. When that revolution has finished, the Big Ten will realize it pulled apart its entire identity to grab a profit stream that has disappeared.

Now, to be sure, it will all be worthwhile if the Big Ten’s new members have fully acculturated themselves. It is possible that, in a decade or two, pulling apart century-old rivalries between Midwest institutions to replace them with matchups like Maryland-Minnesota and Rutgers-Iowa will seem like a brilliant piece of insight. Proud alumni will walk around New Brunswick and College Park wondering how they had ever got on without the Big Ten. Cultural artifacts like Paul Bunyan’s Axe and the Ten Year War will be part of their shared campus heritage.

But it seems highly unlikely. We have already tried two major experiments in grafting geographic appendages onto existing conferences. In 1994, the first superconference came into being: the Big 12, combining the best remnants of the old Southwest Conference with the Big Eight. The new league would be like the old ones, but more competitive and exciting. It would be, above all, lucrative. It was greeted with such headlines as “Big 12 hits paydirt” and “Big might be even better for new league.” Imagine — Nebraska versus Texas! Oklahoma versus Texas A&M!

The Big 12, of course, was a total failure. On paper, it looked like Nebraska versus Texas would become one of the great rivalries on football. But Nebraska fans didn’t want to start a new rivalry with Texas. They wanted to keep playing their old rival Oklahoma at the end of every year. And when the old arrangements had grown obsolete, there was nothing holding the league together. Nebraska has since left for the Big Ten, Colorado for the Pac Ten, and Missouri for the SEC.

In 2004, the Atlantic Coast Conference brought in powers Miami and Virginia Tech, and Boston College the following season. The new super-league would, again, be powerful and rich. It was greeted with headlines like “College football's newest power conference could prove to be its best” and “Expansion Puts ACC on New Level.” The television contract was staggering.

But the ACC, too, has utterly failed to deliver on its expectations (its championship games have been played before mostly empty stadiums), which explains why Maryland so eagerly bolted, and the league has desperately cast about for new recruits. Like the Big 12, the ACC learned that taking a bunch of fan bases that reside in the same general region and declaring that they should start caring passionately about beating each other is not enough to make it happen. And if you can’t gin up fan interest in a manufactured rivalry between real football powers like Virginia Tech and Miami or Nebraska and Texas, what possible hope is there for Maryland, Rutgers, and … anybody? Is there any possible outcome here for the Big Ten other than brand dilution?

The superconference experiments failed because you can’t manufacture tradition, and tradition is the only thing college football has to offer. Without tradition, college football is just an NFL minor league. Big Ten football mainly consists on a week-to-week basis of games like Michigan versus Minnesota and Illinois versus Wisconsin. Those games have meaning to the fans in ways outsiders can’t grasp. The series have gone on for a century. They often have funny old trophies. Every game is lodged into a long historical narrative of cherished (or cursed) memory. Replacing those games with some other equally good (or, as the case may be, not good) program is like snuffing out your family dog and replacing it with some slightly better-trained breed. It is not the same thing. And that deep well of sentiment, not the conferences’ ability to exploit a series of local cable cartels, is its ultimate source of value.

What’s amazing about the college conference expansion fad is that the conferences are not even doing the normal dumb thing that every business does, which is to try to copy success. They are trying to copy failure. Everybody is racing to turn their successful product into the next New Coke.

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Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images