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Big Twelve? Conference expansion could have implications for Ohio State

Graphic by Melissa Braunlin

Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee voiced his support for the Big Ten conference’s investigation into the benefits of adding a 12th team in a meeting with Lantern editors earlier this month.

“I’ve made very clear that I am supportive of asking the question [of how the Big Ten would benefit from adding a team],” he said.

The Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors, of which Gee is a member, decided at a meeting in early December that “the timing is right for the conference to once again conduct a thorough evaluation of options for conference structure and expansion,” according to a statement issued by the Big Ten.

The process is expected to take 12 to 18 months, and no action on expansion is expected in the near future, according to the statement. The conference has considered expansion several times since the addition of formerly independent Penn State in 1990, but Gee said he senses that the talks are more serious this time.

“As athletic directors, we discuss it every single year. This year … we felt like the timing was right to begin to look at all the issues to see what the real pros and cons are,” OSU athletic director Gene Smith said in a December press conference.

Scheduling questions
If the Big Ten decides to add a 12th team, it raises a bevy of new questions, regardless of which school joins. At this point in the process, nobody has the answers.

The Big Ten nimbly solved the problem of naming the conference when it expanded to 11 teams by subtly hiding the numeral “11” inside the conference’s logo, but the math becomes more difficult when it comes to scheduling opponents.

“The dominant issue will be the fact that there is an inelegance in having 11 teams,” Gee said. “We can’t quite play each other quite like we want to.”

A 12-team structure would lend itself to a format with two divisions of six teams each, similar to the structure of the Southeastern Conference and Big 12.

Both of those conferences hold a championship game between the division winners as the last game of the regular season. True OSU football fans can already imagine the problem that this would create: What would happen to the OSU-Michigan game, traditionally the last game of the regular season for both teams?

Along with Penn State, Michigan is assigned to a game with OSU every year, while the other eight schools follow a rotation to fill the six remaining conference games on the schedule. Each Big Ten school follows this format, with its own pair of designated opponents.

“I don’t know why that would change,” said Shelly Poe, OSU’s director of athletic communications for football. Poe said that discussions about scheduling rivalry games would likely occur later in the expansion process.

Big Ten spokesman Scott Chipman said that there were no updates to announce since the December meeting of the Council of Presidents/Chancellors.

Notre Dame unlikely to join
Based in part on geography and academic quality, Missouri, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse have been the subject of media speculation as candidates for inclusion in the Big Ten.

The biggest name, though, is Notre Dame, which is currently a member of the Big East conference for basketball, but is independent in football.

Notre Dame is a “very fine institution,” Gee said, but is not among the 62 members of the Association of American Universities, to which all 11 current Big Ten schools, as well as the other rumored candidates for inclusion, belong.

“We want to play in an academic consortium in which we have like kinds of institutions,” Gee said. “That will be very important to us.”

Lack of membership in the AAU would not necessarily preclude an invitation to the Big Ten, Gee said.

“I would not say that it’s absolute, but we certainly want to have like-minded institutions,” he said. “For example, there could be some institutions that are really elegant undergraduate institutions that don’t meet the criteria of the AAU, [which is] made up of these massive research institutions.”

Notre Dame placed 20th in the most recent edition of U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings, higher than all Big Ten schools except Northwestern.

For its part, Notre Dame has stated that it does not plan on joining the Big Ten. The school’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, told the Chicago Tribune in December that “our strong preference is to remain the way we are.”

“It’s not on the radar,” said John Heisler, a Notre Dame spokesman, in an interview with The Lantern. “When the subject was discussed, our athletic director … made it clear that the independence of our football program has been a long-standing tradition and continues to be important to us.”

TV contracts figure prominently
College football is tradition-heavy, but it’s also big business. Notre Dame and NBC have a contract to televise Notre Dame football through 2015. The New York Times placed the contract’s value at $15 million per year, while The Chicago Tribune reported a value of $9 million per year.

By comparison, the Big Ten has contracts with multiple broadcasting companies to help fund a variety of televised varsity sports. The Big Ten Network and an agreement with Fox that runs through 2027 (with an option for five more years) could pay each school an average of $10.18 million per year if it reaches its financial projections, according to the Sports Business Journal.

The network “is obviously on a very successful trajectory,” Smith said in the press conference.

The conference also pulls in an average of $100 million per year from its 10-year deal with ESPN (which runs through 2016) and another $2 million per year from its 10-year deal with CBS. Combined, these deals will pay each Big Ten school about $927,000 per year over the life of the contract, according to the Sports Business Journal.

Last year, OSU also signed a media rights deal with IMG College and RadiOhio worth almost $128 million over 10 years.

Given the numbers involved, television contracts will undoubtedly be a major factor in determining the possibility of any Big Ten expansion.

“As you look at the college landscape across the country, and look at television contracts that are coming up within the next five to eight years, this is probably the right time for us to see if there’s any value to try and add a team or teams,” Smith said.

Even if a 12th team added to the conference’s television value, the conference currently shares its television revenue among its member schools. Adding another team would also mean a thinner slice of the proverbial pie for each school.

“That is an issue for us; do we divide it 12 ways or 14 ways?” Gee said. “What do we do?”
As for Notre Dame, the school’s decision to remain independent “has a lot more to do with our priorities than it does with business issues,” Swarbrick told The Chicago Tribune.

Representatives for Missouri and Pittsburgh, the other schools subject to the most frequent speculation, did not return calls seeking comment.

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