When sport is one day something taught in history books by our AI-governed future psuedostate, we’ll look back at the comical bloat of Wednesday night’s Big Ten Tournament opener in Manhattan as the moment someone smart with money finally looked up and said, “What exactly the fuck are we doing here?”
Minnesota and Rutgers, two schools with zero cultural or meaningful connection that are nearly 1,200 miles apart by land, playing conference tournament basketball, on a Wednesday, in February, in a state and arena where no teams in that said conference exist.
This quote, from a comically sad Washington Post piece on a scalper’s Wednesday night outside the Big Ten Tournament, perhaps sums it all up best.
Eventually, a young man approached Flynn as he tried to offload his final four tickets. “What is this?” he asked Flynn, pointing to a bright advertisement of the tournament on the side of Garden. “Big Ten basketball,” Flynn replied, before asking the kid if he needed any tickets.
This is the Big Ten Basketball Tournament in New York City, a hilarious representation bordering on parody of the sporting & sports media landscape in 2018 .
The reasons for why it’s so wildly, aggressively stupid to host the event in New York City are so well-established at this point I’m wasting line-space on the screen. There’s, you know, basic geography — that inconvenient truth that New York City doesn’t reside the Big Ten footprint at all! There’s no Big Ten school anywhere within the state borders of where the conference championship game! Neat.
Of course, that’s just the start. The scam goes levels deep. The entire Big Ten basketball season had to be compromised and manipulated and played on short-rest so the conference could play inside Madison Square Garden, an arena most Midwesterners don’t give a shit about, because the Big East has primary rights to the venue. The conference is playing third-fiddle of conference tournaments in a city that already has too much shit going on it it to keep track. The weekday schedule, traditionally picked up some by ESPN, will be relegated to BTN for the entirety because of the moved-up timeframe. Programs that plan to contend in the NCAA Tournament will go two goddamn weeks without playing live basketball, a formula sure to certainly not make the conference look asinine on the opening weekend of the tournament.
The Big Ten, an athletic-conference that purports to be about student-athletes and connecting alumni back to universities through the success of said student-athletes, is sacrificing on-court success to capitalize on short-term monetary gain. It no longer gives a shit about the quality of the product it provides, only capitalizing on a stupid market inefficiency sure to correct and leave everyone holding the bag in years to come.
It’s a core problem, funny enough, that’s one often plaguing the entire sports media landscape that will eventually have this entire house of cards come crashing down. It’s heavy, single-reason, single-channel bets. Publishers shift entire business models on Facebook and Google algorithms, the careers and livelihoods of thousands can come crashing down based upon one simple code change from a Mountain View-based 31-year-old product bro. Pivot to video, pivot from video, gaming search engines for SEO traffic. Indiana at Purdue: Odds, stats, game start time, how to watch, scores, more, please click this link so I can feed my family. I’ve been complicit in some of this, because that’s what any and every person working in digital sports media’s been coached to do for years. Vox. ESPN. Gannett. Bleacher Report. CBS. It doesn’t matter. We’re all aboard the goddamn Titanic. Do not board this stupid goddamn ship, the bow’s already rising and the violinist just fell off the starboard side.
The Big Ten’s miscalculations are much the same: a heavy, heavy bet on a single dying platform, television. The Big Ten’s sole driving factor behind adding new members to the conference was market size, and any other statement made by the league office is a lie -- for there is no other reason for anyone to choose Rutgers over, say, Missouri or Kansas to join your conference. Those additional theoretical TV eyeballs were supposed to drive up the rights fees the conference could gain, and perhaps, it did. The Big Ten’s in a second year of TV deals that run through 2023 and net the conference a whopping $2.64 billion.
The problem? As consumption patterns Rights fees are outpacing the costs networks can recoup from advetisers at about double the rate. The Big Ten’s egregiously massive deal now feels like an albatross. It’s a yet another short-term bet by Delany, who’s counting on the market for rights improving by 2024, when every single indicia would seem to indicate the rights bubble is nearing burst. When it does, the big stupid TV money will go away at least temporarily, and we’ll be left with a bloated, shitty product that no one wants to watch.
Jim Delany’s primary saving-grace is one that the NFL has similarly relied upon for a decade: inertia. Big Ten alumni bases are so large and passionate that their consumption patterns will not change like the rest of the world is trending. We can feed you shit, because the shit is painted in Scarlet and Gray, or what have you, etc. That Indiana and Purdue fans care so damn much about the product they’re providing that they’ll go through all means to consume it, bloated and shitty be damned. Non-traditional networks like FS1? Sure. Friday nights? Why not! Sub-out more traditional rivalries for annual games with Rutgers, Maryland, and Nebraska. Gotcha! How about traveling to New York and DC to attend conference tournaments? Yes you will! The entire premise is that Indiana fans will walk to the ends of the earth to consume a random Rutgers matchup on a weeknight, even if the product is bad, because well, uh, they always have, I guess, or something.
It’s the kind of willful blindness and lack of foresight that ends entire industries. While, say, the tech world can be utterly dystopian in it’s desire to disrupt and innovate everything, the sports & media industries together joined at at the hip are by and large the antithesis. It’s groupthinky, copycat status-quoism, where leaders are permanently a reactionary step behind the obvious data trend. Jim Delany, hi, I’m talking directly to you.
The problem with gaming algorithms and advertisers is that both catch up. Someone smarter and with a buck to make off of your dumb decisions takes that market inefficiency and makes millions. Shitty, bad content and services gets filtered out. Organizations that rest on poor models and inertia die out. Perhaps, the Big Ten is a very nice, prospering suburban 1988 K-Mart.
The internet and over-the-top age that seems on the horizon over the next twenty years is well-poised to democratize how sports are consumed by fans. Chances are you’ll be able to consume Indiana State broadcasts as easily as you will Indiana broadcasts. Hell, that’s a trend we’re already seeing. What games are featured by big cable networks will matter less. Subscriber fees to cable companies won’t have near as big of a role as they do today. You’re going to be able to watch what you want to watch — and quality suddenly becomes more important than gaming the system.
This is the Big Ten’s fatal miscalculation: that the conference will never have to rely on the quality or storylines provided in the on-field or on-court product because it’s too big to fail. We already know conference administrators don’t actually care about winning, this week wouldn’t exist were that the case. But the lone item the conference cares about — money — they believe doesn’t require a great on-field product to be generated. The history is too established, the patterns of consumption are far too developed. Live sports are bubble resistant. And as long as Ohio State football exists, the advertisers will keep writing the checks to networks, and the networks will pass that money on to schools.
So, tonight, enjoy the Big Ten basketball in New York City. It’s making your school money, perhaps, in the short term.
Just remember last night, and this week, ten years from now.