The New Big Ten

Today I was invited to Ohio State’s homecoming game.  What traditional Big Ten team is the opponent this year?  That’s right — Rutgers.  Wait, what?

Oh, yeah.  Ugh.  This is the year the Big Ten adds the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the Maryland Terrapins to the conference.  I don’t know whether Ohio State will be any good this year — I’ll write something about that later this week — but I know that Rutgers and Maryland aren’t likely to increase the Buckeyes’ strength of schedule any.  Last year the Scarlet Knights were 6-7 in whatever conference they were in (was it the Big East?) and the Terrapins were a hardy 7-6 in the ACC.  Will they be any better this year?  Heck if I know, but I do know that a homecoming game against Rutgers doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping.

I get what the Big Ten is doing.  College sports these days is all about money, and money flows from TV revenue.  The Big Ten wants the Big Ten Network to be carried on the cable packages in the big media markets on the East Coast, and it also hopes to increase sales of jerseys, hats, and other paraphernalia.  Does that mean lots of New Yorkers and inside-the-Beltway types will decide to watch Big Ten football this year and wear Big Ten gear?  I doubt it — unless they’re alums and were going to be watching the games, anyway.  I’m not sure that New Yorkers pay any attention whatsoever to college football, and the main sport in D.C. is politics.  But there’s probably enough Big Ten alums in the two markets to make cable companies include the Big Ten Network, and that’s what matters.

I think adding Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten is lame, and when I see the devious looking Maryland Terrapin sporting the Big Ten logo, as in the illustration accompanying this post, I cringe.  They may make a lot of money through this expansion, but they’ve really undercut the tradition in a conference that had a tradition second to none.  No amount of money is worth that.

 

Big Ten, Big Money, Big Changes

This week the Big Ten announced that, beginning in 2014, Rutgers and Maryland will join the conference.  That will bring the number of schools to 14 — and many people think the Big Ten is likely to add two more teams to end up at an even 16, with two eight-team divisions.  The pundits are talking about North Carolina, Kansas, Georgia Tech, and other schools as potential candidates.

One of the traditional Ohio State fight songs — Across the Field — ends with the line “so let’s win that old conference now.”   Thanks to Commissioner Jim Delany, it’s not the old conference anymore.  With the addition of Nebraska, and now Rutgers and Maryland, what used to be a northern, Midwestern conference now stretches from Nebraska to the Atlantic Ocean and from northern Minnesota to below the Mason-Dixon line.  Everyone knows, too, that the expansion is all about money.  The Big Ten wants access to the New York City and Washington, D.C. TV and fan base markets and believes that adding Rutgers and Maryland will provide that access.  Rutgers and Maryland are joining because they will get far more money from the Big Ten than they would from the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference, respectively.

What does it mean for Big Ten fans?  Sure, it means Big Ten teams will play schools who aren’t traditional powerhouses or traditional rivals — but Ohio State already does that, with its preseason schedule and with perennial Big Ten doormats like Indiana.  Rutgers and Maryland may not be top 20 football programs, but neither are most of the teams the Buckeyes play in their “pre-season” schedule.  If the addition of more teams means that the Big Ten schedule gets extended  and Ohio State loses a few games against the likes of San Diego State, I’m not going to cry about it.  The only problem I would have is if expansion causes Ohio State to not play Michigan every year, or puts the Buckeyes in a division featuring a bunch of new eastern teams.

What does this mean for college football?  I wonder how, with everyone chasing the almighty dollar, NCAA members can continue the pretense that college athletics is just about sacred concepts of amateur competition.  College football and, to a lesser extent, college basketball generate huge amounts of money — amounts so huge, in fact, that universities will abandon conferences they’ve belonged to for decades to get a bigger piece of the pie.  College football is saturated with TV money, product tie-ins, merchandising deals, sponsors, and other revenue generators.

So how can the NCAA justify suspending student-athletes who (in the recent case involving Ohio State) sell memorabilia for a few thousand dollars or a few free tattoos?  At some point, will someone choke on the hypocrisy?

Big Ten, Big Lame

The Big Ten — having ditched decades of tradition by deciding to split into divisions and play a conference championship football game — has decided to make matters worse by giving the divisions the lamest names imaginable.

I am not exaggerating.  One division will be called “Leaders” and the other will be called “Legends.” Seriously, who came up with these names?  Did the Big Ten actually pay some marketing gurus for these ludicrous efforts?  And were the names tested before focus groups of teenage nerds who love Dungeons and Dragons?  Why settle for “Leaders” and “Legends”?  Why not call one division “Ring of Power” and the other “Battleaxe of Gondor”?

The Big Ten Commissioner tried to lessen the excruciating embarrassment by saying that “Legends” refers to the many Heisman Trophy winners and College Football Hall of Fame members from the Big Ten, and “Leaders” recognizes the leadership position of Big Ten schools.  That explanation is the skimpiest fig leaf ever.  It’s obvious that whoever devised these names doesn’t know beans about the Big Ten or its history.  If you have to have a “Leaders” division, wouldn’t one of the teams any knowledgeable person would automatically put in that division be the University of Michigan — whose well-known fight song egotistically refers to the Wolverines as “the leaders and best”?

These pathetic division titles make the Big Ten look like some desperate wannabe that hopes to build its rep through big-sounding names rather than through actual gridiron accomplishment — like the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza tried to encourage people to call him “T Bone.”  C’mon, Big Ten!  Leave such humiliating social-climbing antics to the lesser conferences, like the Big East or the Mountain West.  If you want to be the Big Ten, it’s time to act like it.

Please, Don’t Mess With The Game (Fin)

The Sox fan pointed out yesterday that, in the hoopla surrounding the Buckeyes’ first game, I failed to comment on Wednesday’s announcement of the Big Ten divisions and scheduling.  Ohio State and Michigan fans everywhere who were concerned that numbers-crunching, revenue-addled Big Ten administrators might ruin The Game can breathe a sigh of relief:  Ohio State and Michigan will play every year, in the last game of the regular season, once the Big Ten starts divisional play.

What about the fact that Ohio State and Michigan are in different divisions?  Well, what about it?  The divisions are phony constructs anyway, developed just to allow the Big Ten to play a conference championship and collect the additional TV revenue that every major college seems to crave above most everything else.  The important thing is that the The Game will still have prominence as The Game — the tradition-rich, bitter, end-of-the-season capstone of the Big Ten regular season.

As for the divisions themselves, the Big Ten clearly tried to achieve competitive balance and probably did so.  Two of the traditional football powers — Ohio State and Penn State in division X, and Michigan and Nebraska in division Y — are in each division and will play each other every year, and those teams also get a guaranteed out-of-conference game against one of the non-divisional powers, with Ohio State facing Michigan and Penn State facing Nebraska.  In addition to Ohio State and Penn State, division X will include Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue, and in addition to Michigan and Nebraska division Y will include Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan State, and Northwestern.  Ohio State thus gets to continue to play Illinois every year for the Illibuck trophy.

It would be interesting to know whether the outcry about moving the Ohio State-Michigan game had any effect on the scheduling decisions made by the Big Ten, but we will probably never know the full story.

Please, Don’t Mess With The Game (Cont.)

Please, Don’t Mess With The Game

Please, Don’t Mess With The Game!

The post-expansion rumblings from Big Ten headquarters are troubling because they indicate that conference officials may decide to mess with The Game.  The latest article quotes Michigan’s Athletic Director as making comments that raise serious questions about whether Ohio State and Michigan will continue to play their end-of-season showdown game.   Michigan’s AD says he would not place Ohio State and Michigan in the same conference, because if they are in different divisions they could play, again, in the conference championship game.  If that happens, he argues that the teams logically should not play in the last game of the regular season, because then they could conceivably have to play back-to-back games.

My concern about Big Ten expansion all along has been that it will wreck Big Ten traditions like The Game.  The Ohio State-Michigan game is generally recognized as the single greatest rivalry game in all of sports.  It is hard for me to believe that Big Ten officials would be so idiotic as to tinker with their annual marquee match-up, but the comments of Michigan’s AD certainly suggest that possibility.

Big Ten officials and others need to realize that a Big Ten championship game played at a neutral site cannot possibly supplant The Game.  Sure, the winner of the Big Ten championship game will go on to the BCS, but that game will be missing what makes the Ohio State-Michigan game so special.

Much of what makes college football the greatest sport of all is the history underlying the match-ups, the storied venues like The Horsehoe and The Big House where the games have been played for decades, the home field traditions, and the collective memories of the joys and heartbreaks that true fans have experienced in the games against their arch-rivals.  Sports fans elsewhere understand the deep feelings at play in these rivalry games.  They watch the Ohio State-Michigan game because they recognize the strong emotions, they appreciate that the players on both teams are playing their guts out because they so desperately want to beat their despised (yet respected) opponents, and they identify with heavenly highs experienced by the fans of the winners and the crushing despair inflicted on the fans of the losers.  The Big Ten Championship Game will have none of that.

Rather than messing with The Game, Big Ten officials should be doing whatever they can to avoid making The Game into just another game.

The Post-Big Ten Expansion, Impending Divisional, Corporate Naming Rights Championship Game Blues

The Big Ten football meetings occurred yesterday and produced good news and bad news for football traditionalists.

The good news is that the Big Ten is going to move from an eight-game in-conference schedule to a nine-game in-conference schedule to try to preserve rivalries.  If that means that Big Ten teams will play a conference opponent rather than a cupcake, I’m all for it.  (Let’s hope, though, that the extra conference game doesn’t keep Big Ten teams from scheduling tough out-of-conference opponents, as Ohio State has done recently with Texas, USC, and Miami.)  The other good news is that further expansion is on hold, for now at least, and Notre Dame is off the table as a candidate.  The Irish apparently want to keep their independent status in football, and I say more power to them.  The reality, however, is that there are significant financial pressures favoring expansion, so our respite from more expansion talk is probably only temporary.

In my view, the bad news is more significant than the good.  The conference will split into two six-team divisions, there will be a conference championship game, and — horror of horrors! — the “naming rights” for the championship game will be sold.  So, instead of “The Game” ending the season for Ohio State and Michigan, we will have to endure a post-rivalry Blanditron Corporation Big Ten Championship Game at some non-campus location like Chicago or Detroit.  Sorry, but it just doesn’t have the same emotional clout for me.

A lot of this has yet to be worked out, of course.  The conference hasn’t decided which teams will go into which division — do you divide them east-west, north-south, or alphabetically? — or where a championship game will be played.  For now, all we know is that the Big Ten world is changing, and 2010 will be the last year for the conference in its hallowed, currently recognizable form.  Let’s enjoy it, in all its fleeting, tradition-rich glory!

A Bit More On Nebraska

The University of Nebraska – Lincoln, the newest member of the Big Ten conference, fits very comfortably among the ranks of Big Ten schools.

Nebraska is a land grant university that was chartered in 1869 and is a member of the Association of American Universities.  In the fall semester of the 2009-10 school year, Nebraska had more than 18,000 undergraduate students and more than 4,500 graduate students.  The school clearly has significant research capabilities; for the year ended June 30, 2009, the school received more than $122 million in research funding.  Like Ohio State, Nebraska is located in its state’s capital city named for a well-known historical figure; Lincoln, Nebraska is a city of 250,000.  The Nebraska website has a helpful alphabetical listing that compares Nebraska’s enrollment data (and other information) to that of other schools in the conference.

Most of us know Nebraska through its athletic program.  The football Cornhuskers play in Memorial Stadium (capacity 81,067), which has sold out for more than 300 consecutive home games.   Nebraska can boast of five college football national championships, including three in the 1990s, when Nebraska had one of college football’s most dominant programs.  Nebraska also has won national championships in men’s gymnastics, women’s volleyball, and . . . women’s bowling.   (As a native of Akron and a lifelong bowler, I have to give props to the Lady Cornhusker Keglers.)

I think Nebraska will be a good fit for the Big Ten, and Big Ten football fans who like traveling to away games — of which there are many — no doubt are looking forward to seeing a Big Ten clash in Memorial Stadium, one of college football’s most storied venues.  They will get their chance starting in 2011.