Is the Big Ten about to make its most radical expansion move ever, a big play for the East Coast media markets?
This afternoon the Internet is on fire with well-sourced rumors that as early as this week, the Big Ten will expand to 14 members by adding the University of Maryland and Rutgers University to the conference. The impetus for this move is obvious. Maryland is located in the suburbs of Washington, DC and presumably the Big Ten Network would end up in many households in that region. Rutgers is in the New York media market, and therefore the same logic applies.
I have to confess to some reservations about this move. Here's what I said way back in 2007 about the possibility of these moves:
- Rutgers: 1) Athletics: Meh. The Scarlet Knights have always been a supposed sleeping giant. They did play in the first college football game ever, so they have that going for them. Rutgers finally seems to have found a really good coach who actually wants to be at Rutgers [this was Greg Schiano, who now is in the NFL], and combined with the departure of Miami, BC, and VT from the Big East, could emerge as a perennial contender in the Big East [still no conference titles five years later]. Could they compete with Michigan and OSU for Big Ten supremacy? Seems pretty unlikely. Rutgers has had a bit more success in basketball, but not much. Rutgers has a fairly new football stadium (opened in 1994), but at 41,000 would be the conference's smallest football stadium by far (Ryan Field seats around 49,000; IU's Memorial Stadium will seat somewhere between 53,000-54,000 when the current construction is complete) [Rutgers Stadium since has been expanded and now seats 52,400, a few hundred seats fewer than IU]. 2) Academics: Rutgers is ranked #60 in the US News rankings, right in the middle of the pack. That wouldn't be an issue. 3) Media markets. Rutgers is in the NYC market, the Holy Grail for conference commissioners and TV executives (is there a difference anymore?). My main concern would be whether Rutgers is of any significance in the NYC market. Do Rutgers games have any ratings pull? Would any cable subscribers in New York or Connecticut care if the BTN were on their cable system? I'm less than overwhelmed by Rutgers.
- Maryland: I'm trying to list all theoretical candidates in contiguous states, not just the real candidates, if there are any. Maryland doesn't immediately come to mind as a state anywhere near Big Ten territory, but it's right there south of Pennsylvania. 1) Athletics: Maryland isn't a football power, but has had a nice run in recent years [again, this was 2007. Things haven't gone so well for Maryland since then]. Maryland is more of a basketball school, and in light of that seems quite unlikely to leave the ACC. 2) Academics: Maryland ranks #54 in the USN&WP sweepstakes, right in the heart of the Big Ten. 3) Media markets: Baltimore, of course, and Maryland seems to be a bigger draw in the shared Washington TV market than Rutgers is in New York. In sum, it seems that Maryland has everything the Big Ten would want except for any inclination to join [All predictions wrong or your money back].
As an aside, here's what I said about Nebraska at the time:
- Nebraska. 1) Athletics: legendary football program, nothing on the basketball side. Long history of Big 8/XII membership and a division that it should dominate. I'm guessing that NU fans wouldn't like the move. 2) Academics: #98. See Kentucky and Mizzou. 3) Media: nothing of note. Still, the state follows Husker football with religious fervor. Would the Big Ten be better off with a populous state like Missouri that seems lukewarm about its flagship university, or a less populated, rural state like Nebraska where it seems that nearly everyone is invested?
Actually, the Nebraska discussion isn't truly an aside, because it leads to my next point. If this is true, and the Big Ten is going to be adding Maryland and Rutgers, then the move appears to be a departure from the philosophy that led to Nebraska in the first place. When the conference added Nebraska, it's beyond doubt that Missouri and probably every other team from the Big XII North would have jumped to the Big Ten in a heart beat. And on paper, Missouri looked better than Nebraska, because of the state's population (6 million, compared to 1.8 million in Nebraska) and two major media markets. Yet, for all of its resources on paper, Missouri has never emerged as an elite program in either football or basketball. When answering the question I posed above, the Big Ten chose the latter. They chose a new member that didn't look great on paper but that had a legendary football program. If Maryland and Rutgers are to enter the fold, then they would seem to be in line with a philosophy that would have led to Missouri being chosen over Nebraska.
Rutgers has a below average tradition in both football and men's basketball. In football, the Scarlet Knights have done well in a Big East that is not really a major conference anymore. In basketball, Rutgers hasn't appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and hasn't won a game in the Tournament since 1983. Maryland football had some success in the early 2000s but is average at best historically. Maryland's basketball program is by far the best of the four major programs that would be added, and is definitely above average. The Terrapins beat IU in the 2002 NCAA title game and Maryland has been a contender over the years in the competitive ACC. Still, Maryland's 2001 and 2002 Final Four appearances are the only such appearances in school history. I'll admit that I like the idea of playing Maryland regularly in basketball, and Maryland certainly is a basketball school, but so are Purdue and Illinois. The Maryland basketball program isn't on the same level and the Nebraska or Penn State football programs.
For all the talk about footprint and media markets and academic standing, the Big Ten is an athletic conference. The Penn State and Nebraska additions made sense for athletics. These moves, if they happen, will best be understood as a cash grab. I'll certainly welcome these schools if it happens, but at first blush I'm not thrilled.