The Chicago Tribune reports today that the Big Ten has received a study from William Blair & Co., a Chicago investment banking firm, that analyzed five expansion candidates: Rutgers, Syracuse, Pitt, Missouri and Notre Dame. According to the Tribune’s source, the report indicated that the Big Ten members would be able to increase their current payouts of $22 million or more with expansion with the “right team or teams”. The source also said that these were the “obvious candidates” and other schools could be considered.
I’ve worked on enough business deals and seen enough positioning in the media through the years (whether we’re talking about trades in sports or political wrangling) to know that leaks to the press rarely occur without a purpose that was authorized from above, especially when dealing with places that have tightly-run ships like Jim Delany’s Big Ten. So, what was the purpose of this leak? Was it to put cold water on the thoughts of Texas or even other schools like Nebraska or Maryland joining the conference? Maybe Notre Dame is a legitimate candidate after all and we shouldn’t assume that they’ll never join? Is it to try to get Big Ten fans comfortable with the idea that the 12th school isn’t going to be nearly as sexy as we hope? Or could it be a classic stalking horse case, where the Big Ten is effectively telling the rest of the Big XII schools like Texas and Nebraska, “Just so you know, we make more TV money than you do now. We’d make a lot more money if we take Missouri and we’re willing to do it, while you’d make even less. So, maybe we should do lunch?”
All of those reasons are certainly possible. My personal opinion is that it would be unconscionable to have Texas alums legitimately considering a move to the Big Ten (and generally not having a knee-jerk reaction to it in the same way as Notre Dame alums) and then add a school like Rutgers or Missouri instead, but I’m just an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. Teddy Greenstein, who wrote the Tribune article, is of the opinion that Rutgers is at the top of the list (if you discount, in his words, the “pipe dreams” of Texas and Notre Dame). Now, I believe that Greenstein is one of the better writers in the Chicago sports media (and believe me, having suffered through a period where both Skip Bayless AND Jay Mariotti were competing columnists here at the same time, I appreciate the good ones), but I have to take issue with this line of thinking:
Fans wonder: Does New York care about Rutgers? The simplest answer: When Rutgers wins, yes.
During Rutgers’ football nirvana season of 2006, its game against Louisville on ESPN drew an 8.1 rating in the New York market, a “phenomenal number,” according to one TV executive. That night, the Empire State Building was lit up in scarlet.
This anecdote continues to keep coming up and it’s a red herring. I fully expect any school that’s competing for a possible slot in the national championship game to receive incredible ratings in its home market, even in a historically poor college football town like New York. That’s not the issue! Here’s what I stated in the original Big Ten Expansion Index post:
It must be emphasized that Football Brand Value puts much more weight on the long-term history and financial underpinnings of a program over short-term or recent success. Thus, Team A that has sold out 80,000-seat or even 100,000-seat stadiums for decades whether it wins or loses is much more valuable than Team B that only sells out a 40,000-seat stadium when it’s in the national championship race, even if Team A has had a mediocre seasons recently and Team B happens to rank in the top 3 of the BCS rankings this year. The “What have you done for me lately?” attitude of most sports fans doesn’t apply here. Instead, the proper question is the opposite: Even if the target school goes 0-12 in a season, will it still attract TV viewers and attendance? In other words, the true value of a football program is really measured by how much attention it still receives when it’s down as opposed to how much attention it gets when it’s up. The Big Ten will only consider programs that have large and real hardcore fan bases that will stick them in good times and bad as opposed to programs that have bandwagon fans that will bolt when there’s a 7-5 season.
The fact that then-35-year old Danny Almonte led his baseball team to the Little League World Series and was front-page news in New York for the better part of a month in 2001 didn’t turn the NYC market into a “Little League” town. Even the New Jersey Nets could deliver the New York market once a decade when they’re competitive. The problem is the other 9 years in the decade when they’re non-entities, where the fact that they play a few miles away from Midtown Manhattan becomes irrelevant. Taking the NBA analogies further, commenter Dcphx brilliantly described Rutgers as “the 7′ 3″ athletic center that NBA GMs can’t avoid drafting.” My initial response was that I was worried that Rutgers would be the expansion equivalent of Michael Olowokandi. Like NBA GMs ignoring the fact that Olowokandi didn’t have a post-up game, basic boxing-out fundamentals, or any discernible basketball skills whatsoever other than being REALLY tall, it feels like a lot of people (particularly the TV executives that are disproportionately based in the NYC market) are blinded by the size of the the New York market or even just the New Jersey portion of it with respect ot Rutgers without taking into account their actual athletic history (whether it’s in football or basketball). Upon further review, the thought of adding Rutgers might even be closer to the Pistons drafting Darko Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony in 2003, where a team on the precipice of a championship felt it was better to keep its “chemistry” than adding a guaranteed superstar to a top-of-the-line squad. As applied to Big Ten expansion, concerns about “geography” are the equivalent of the Pistons wanting Darko for “chemistry”. (FYI – if you’re able to combine my concurrent dreams of being a conference commissioner and NBA general manager, I will turn into warm puddy.)
Let’s think of it this way: the Big Ten has spent the last two decades waiting around for Notre Dame. During that process, they’ve actually looked at Missouri, Syracuse, Rutgers and Pitt several times and they were never deemed worthy of being invited before. They’ve also given up conference championship game revenue during that period of time as a result of waiting for the Irish. The Big Ten then took a massive risk of building its own TV network (which a lot of people ridiculed at the time), which has now paid off in spades in the form of TV revenues that far surpass what Notre Dame receives from NBC. This means that the Big Ten has never had more leverage in terms of adding schools in its entire history. So, after all of this time and at the height of its power, is the Big Ten really going to cash in all of its chips after all of that time on a potential project like Rutgers? A “safe but not glamorous” choice like Missouri? Is the Big Ten, with all of its financial advantages today, really going to add a school that doesn’t bring as much to the table as Penn State did to the conference or even Miami did to the ACC? While there might be some Big Ten ADs out there like Ron Guenther that think small, Jim Delany is a big-time visionary and I have full faith that he’s not going to push a move just for the sake of making a move. If the Big Ten doesn’t add Notre Dame, then it’s going to go after a school that’s even better (not secondary choices that are lower in terms of impact). Call me naive, crazy or one-track minded, but money has a way of making “pipe dreams” on paper in sports fan terms become much more realistic.
(UPDATE: This was written without taking into account today’s story, but The Rivalry, Esq. has a great look charting the ups-and-downs of talk regarding various Big Ten expansion candidates.)
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from Chicago Tribune)