Big Ten Expansion and the New World Order #5: Best Case Scenarios

There are a number of goals that the Big Ten has with regard to Big Ten expansion. As I understand it, the three main goals, in order of priority, are thus:

1. Make more money via the Big Ten Network.
2. Improve the CIC by adding high-level research institutions (which would make more money on the academic side).
3. Improve the level of athletic competition within the conference (which leads to better games, which leads to better television ratings and attendance, which makes more money through BTN ads, ticket sales, and renewed contracts with national sports networks like ESPN and CBS).

Looking at these goals, I would infer that the best-case scenario is to make the Big Ten Network into a national television network carried on basic cable, while adding top rate academic and athletic institutions. The resultant question, of course, is whether or not this can actually be done.

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to attempt to figure out the optimal selection of feasible additional schools in order to accomplish these goals and then attempt to determine whether this selection of schools would be adequate. To do so, we need to consider and prioritize the desirable attributes of potential candidates and use them to evaluate possible candidates for expansion.

Criteria for Selecting Among the Big Ten Expansion Candidates:

1. Size of fanbase—The most important factor of any potential candidate is the size of its fanbase. If a school’s fanbase is small, as is the case with schools like West Virginia, then adding them does no good because they will not produce many viewers for a game and by extension, they will not add much revenue to the Big Ten Network. Nor will they be very appealing with regards to producing nationwide (or even regional) broadcasts because the ratings will be much lower than for other upper-tier programs.

2. Strength of football program—Adding strong football programs is key for the Big Ten. Strong football programs have two features that are important with regard to expansion. First of all, strong football programs typically have more devoted fanbases, meaning that they bring in stronger support on a local basis and draw more attention from their alumni. As such, fanbases of stronger programs are generally more likely to petition their local cable companies to add the Big Ten Network, which provides the Big Ten with leverage during negotiations with cable companies. Second of all, strong football programs bring more general interest in their games from a regional and national standpoint, which increases ratings of their game, which in turn increases the amount of ad revenue that the Big Ten Network gets for their games.

3. Strength of academics—Academics are important to the Big Ten for many reasons. First of all, the Big Ten has an academic wing, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which includes all of the Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago. The purpose of the CIC is to have high-powered research institutions work on collaborative research projects together, which brings in large amounts of money in the form of grants from the federal government and other third parties. The amount of money brought in by athletic departments pales in comparison to the amount of money brought in by research initiatives by Big Ten universities, so there is no chance of the Big Ten inviting any school that cannot pull its weight with regard to getting these opportunities. Incidentally, the alumni bases of these schools are generally found throughout the country, rather than heavily concentrated in their localities, because employers nationwide will recruit graduates of academically high-powered institutions.

4. “Cultural fit”—This is a tricky trait to qualify. Basically, the “cultural fit” of any potential addition is its ability to identify itself as a Big Ten school and act as an equal and integral member of the conference. This is important for the purposes of stability and prosperity. Adding a school that is unlikely to fully identify itself as a Big Ten school over time leads to infighting and instability.

This actually befell the Big 8 when they added the Texas schools and became the Big 12. After joining the conference, Texas did not act as an equal partner. Instead, they used their weight to create a number of rules and administrative changes, including unequal revenue sharing, the move of Big 12 headquarters to Dallas, and higher academic entry requirements, all of which served to alienate most of the other Big 12 schools and led conference loyalty to deteriorate. This story by the San Antonio Times covers the events that led to Texas joining the Big 12, and while it is biased towards Texas’ point of view, it does illustrate the sources of the rifts we see in the Big 12 today.

Currently, while individual Big Ten schools will often have disagreements with each other, they are generally resolved without issue and the conference acts as a unified body, which has allowed the conference to do things like create the Big Ten Network. In order to ensure that this does not happen to the Big Ten, any expansion move should add teams that can develop viable rivalries with other Big Ten teams, not break up any current major rivalries, utilize a system of equal revenue distribution, and allow all members equal input on the running of the conference. Any expansion candidate would have to abide by these measures.

5. Strength of basketball program—The Big Ten is and always has been a football-first league. Furthermore, football programs bring in much more money into the Big Ten than basketball programs. That said, basketball is a revenue producing sport and accounts for a lot of the Big Ten Network’s programming, so adding good basketball programs is beneficial.

6. Strength and Number of Other Varsity Sports—This final category is important in the Big Ten because the Big Ten Network partially fills its airtime with a lot of other live events. It is especially interested in adding other baseball and hockey teams, as those sports bring in decent ratings. Furthermore, an additional hockey team would allow for the immediate creation of a Big Ten hockey conference, or some other type of Big Ten hockey championship, which would involve some of the best hockey programs in the country, including Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.


Now taking these factors into account, I can now speculate on the best set of additions to the Big Ten, as well as whether these additions would be capable of turning the Big Ten Network into a nationwide television network. It is easy to wipe some oft-named schools immediately, namely Missouri and Rutgers, both of whom have lackluster athletic programs that cannot deliver viewers beyond their immediate localities. The same goes for a number of dark horse candidates, including Boston College, Connecticut and Colorado. Taking the remaining viable to semi-viable candidates, I have Notre Dame, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Maryland. The next step is to evaluate these candidates:

Notre Dame
Pros: Notre Dame has a large fanbase that is a major presence throughout the nation. They have one of the most storied football programs in the country. They also have many competitive non-revenue sports that could draw viewers outside of football and basketball coverage. Notre Dame also has running Rivalries with Big Ten schools Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue.

Cons: While Notre Dame is a cultural fit from the standpoint of being a Midwestern school, their devotion to being an Independent means that the integration of their football team into the Big Ten could prove difficult. Many Notre Dame fans would oppose the move and that discontent could introduce an element of instability into the Big Ten. Also, while Notre Dame’s academics are excellent, they are not a major research institution, nor are they a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), which would be a drawback with regards to the CIC.

Other Notes: Notre Dame’s basketball program has enjoyed somewhat limited success over the years and would be a middle of the road program in the Big Ten.

Pros: Like Notre Dame, Nebraska has one of the most storied football programs in the country. While their fanbase is not necessarily one of the biggest in the country, it is certainly one of the most passionate, meaning that Nebraska’s television ratings have generally been high. Nebraska’s non-revenue sports have been generally strong, including excellent programs in men’s gymnastics, women’s gymnastics, and women’s volleyball, and nationally competitive baseball and softball teams. Nebraska would be a good cultural fit, as they have a distinctly Midwestern identity and could easily create rivalries with Iowa, Penn State, and Michigan, among others.

Cons: First of all, Nebraska has a terrible basketball program that has never won an NCAA Tournament game. While their football program has historically been a major player on the national scene and is paid attention to by the nation for that reason, the population that is heavily invested in Nebraska athletics is relatively small. Finally, while Nebraska is an AAU member, their academics would rank among the worst in the Big Ten if they joined.

Pros: Kansas has one of the most storied basketball programs in the country and is one of the few basketball programs that could be a major financial benefit for the Big Ten Network. Kansas has a decently sized and devoted fanbase. Kansas’ football program is very old and has recently experienced one of the best seasons in its history. Kansas also has a number of longstanding non-revenue sports. Like Nebraska, Kansas would be a very good cultural fit although it would be somewhat more difficult to develop rivalries in the Big Ten.

Cons: For the most part outside of basketball, Kansas’ athletic programs are decidedly mediocre. While Kansas has a decent fanbase, they are not a major presence nationally. Kansas is an AAU member, but like Nebraska, Kansas would be at the bottom of the Big Ten academically. Kansas basketball is followed nationally, but fails to deliver a large geographic area, although it can, in theory, deliver a larger local population than Nebraska.

Other notes: While a number of Kansas’ non-revenue sports have had a lot of success in the past, they have not been doing very well recently.

Pros: Texas has a huge and very devoted fanbase. Texas’ has one of the most storied football programs in the country. As such, Texas football draws tremendous TV ratings. Texas is an AAU member with very strong academics that are approximately equal to Wisconsin’s. Their basketball program has seen its fair share of success, winning two NCAA titles in the ‘90s (the only in their history). They only have 18 varsity sports, but they are generally excellent, including their baseball program, which is the winningest team in college baseball by any measure (wins, winning percentage, CWS wins, etc.).

Cons: Texas is a questionable cultural fit. If Texas were to join the Big Ten, they would have no natural rivals unless someone joined with them. They would also have to interact as equals with the rest of the Big Ten schools, something they didn’t do in the SWC or the Big 12. Finally, they would have to be committed to the Big Ten forever (for all intents and purposes). All of these are potential pitfalls, assuming that the Big Ten can even get Texas to join in the first place, which is difficult for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to an imperfect fit, state politics, and competition for their services.

Texas A&M
Pros: Texas A&M has all of the pros that Texas has, but to a lesser degree. Their fanbase is large, but smaller than Texas’. They draw good ratings, but worse ratings than Texas. Their academics are good, but not as good as Texas’. And so on and so forth.

Cons: Like Texas, Texas A&M is a questionable cultural fit. However, this is only due to the lack of natural rivals and not being a Midwestern school. It has nothing to do with fears about the school not being willing to interact with the other Big Ten schools on an equal basis.

Notes: For the most part, Texas A&M is to Texas as Michigan State is to Michigan.

Pros: Syracuse basketball, despite only having won one NCAA Basketball championship, is the fifth winningest men’s basketball program of all time. While Syracuse football has struggled recently, their football program is a storied one. Their fanbase is moderately large and has a major presence in New York City. Although Syracuse is a private school and not a Midwestern school, they would still be an adequate cultural fit, as they fall in the same region as Penn State and would have an immediate rival in Penn State, and possibly Illinois as well. While Syracuse doesn’t have a huge number of non-revenue teams, it is worth noting that they have a number of great ones, most notably their men’s lacrosse team. Syracuse is an AAU member.

Cons: Syracuse’s historically strong football team is going through a lengthy streak ranging from appalling to mediocre. While being an AAU member, Syracuse is not a major research university, ranking 199th in the country in terms of research expenditures. Indiana is the last in the Big Ten at 127th. Indiana spends over $100 million a year on research. Syracuse spends under $40 million a year.

Note: For the sake of comparison, Notre Dame ranks 148th, spending over $75 million a year. Syracuse ranks below every other Big Ten candidate that I’ve mentioned and would be a big problem academically.

Pros: Pitt has strong football and basketball programs. Their academics are great, both in terms of research and undergraduate education. Of all the candidates under consideration, only Texas is comparable to Pitt academically. Pitt is also an excellent cultural fit with the Big Ten, as they lie within the footprint and have a natural rival in Penn State. Piit has a number of reasonably competitive non-revenue sports, including track and field, wrestling, and volleyball, among others.

Cons: Pitt’s biggest negative is that their fanbase is not particularly big and is located within the Big Ten footprint. It also often fails to fill their stadium, a big negative. Furthermore, while their football and basketball programs are strong, they are not consistently able to bring high levels of attention nationally.

Pros: Maryland has a reasonably large fanbase that involves a large portion of the mid-Atlantic region. Their basketball program is very strong, although it has been somewhat mediocre over the past several years. Academically, Maryland is very strong as well. Their non-revenue sports rank among the best in the nation, particularly in soccer and lacrosse.

Cons: Maryland’s football program is not very good. This is a huge problem for the football oriented Big Ten. Furthermore, Maryland has very strong ties to the ACC, making them a potentially poor cultural fit, although Penn State would be a natural rival.


Looking over the teams in question, two things are immediately clear:

1. Notre Dame absolutely must join the Big Ten if the BTN is to become a national network.

2. Texas absolutely must join the Big Ten if the BTN is to become a national network.

Despite the potential cultural pitfalls both programs represent, they are indispensible because of their athletic programs and fanbases. This leaves Nebraska, Kansas, Texas A&M, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Maryland. The Big Ten can take one of these teams, thus expanding to 14, or three, thus expanding to 16.

Of the teams remaining, I do not believe that any fanbase has a large enough national presence to make a substantial impact as to whether the BTN could become a national network. Therefore, I will not consider the size of a fanbase as a major factor when evaluating these remaining candidates. As such, I will move on to the quality of football programs as the most important remaining criteria, as high quality football programs breed national interest, even for fans that have no major stake in the game. Here, Nebraska clearly stands out well enough to overcome the weaknesses of its academics and basketball program. So I will add Nebraska as the 14th team.

Of the remaining candidates, Kansas and Syracuse have top-tier basketball programs, and are good fits, but are very mediocre at football and are weak academically. Pitt and Texas A&M are generally good, but not great athletically and strong academically, but would not add anything new to the conference. Maryland adds a strong, but not elite basketball program, great academics, and great non-revenue sports, but the weakness of its football program coupled with its rather poor cultural fit make Maryland the weakest of the bunch.

I see four options here. First, the Big Ten could add the all-around solid programs of Pitt and Texas A&M. This would provide the Big Ten with an extra interesting conference game each week in football, some more relatively strong basketball programs, and two more good research institutions. Second, the Big Ten could take Kansas and Syracuse, which would make the Big Ten into arguably the best basketball conference in the country. Third, the Big Ten could take a combination of the schools from option 1 and option 2, making the Big Ten a stronger basketball conference without weakening the football side of things. Finally, the Big Ten could do nothing after adding Texas, Notre Dame, and Nebraska.

I actually favor the last option. While it would mean that there would be one fewer conference game per week than there would be in a sixteen-team conference, the number of games between the best teams in the conference would increase. Furthermore, a sixteen-team conference would be a major logistical challenge that could confuse and put off fans, weakening the Big Ten’s brand. Finally, adding any two football programs to a conference that would include the five winningest teams of all time (Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Texas)* would, in my opinion, unnecessarily dilute the conference. And because football is by far the most important sport to television, adding additional basketball programs at the expense of football seems to me to be a poor move. Meanwhile, the addition of Texas is satisfactory from an academic standpoint and Texas and Notre Dame bring in fairly good basketball programs, so the Big Ten shouldn’t be adversely affected in this respect.

The remaining question is whether the Big Ten Network could become a national network if the Big Ten added Notre Dame, Texas, and Nebraska. Unfortunately, I am inclined to believe that the answer is no. While the network could expand substantially, as Notre Dame, combined with Michigan, could theoretically deliver the Northeast and New England, in addition to the ability of Texas and Nebraska to deliver most of the plains states. I could even make a stretch and say that the combination of Notre Dame, Texas, and the overall strength of the conference could deliver the Pacific states and the rest of the western half of the country. However, I simply do not see this network capturing SEC country. None of the Big Ten teams would have a major presence in SEC country and the football fans in the Southeast are much more likely to watch SEC games over Big Ten games because the quality of the regional SEC games would generally comparable to whatever the BTN produces and the regional SEC games would be of greater relevance to the fans there. As such, the demand for the BTN would be very low and cable companies wouldn’t add them.

*Penn State is the 7th winningest team of all time, with 812 wins. Alabama comes in 6th with 813.

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