Big Ten expansion fallout: 10 lingering topics league officials must now ponder

In an interactive room at the ground floor of his league’s semi-new headquarters, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren met two reporters from The Athletic to discuss a mountain’s worth of issues facing collegiate sports.

As almost a throwaway question as Warren was ready to step away to his second-floor office, expansion became a topic. “Regarding Big Ten membership,” Warren was asked, “things happen out of the blue here from time to time. Do you anticipate (the conference) remaining at the current 14 teams?”

Warren began a long response about how he likes the Big Ten’s institutional structure and why academic focus remains a key tenet along with athletic prowess. Then he added, “But that being said, just to be mindful about the world we live in. We just have to be kind of thoughtful and mindful. What will the evolution of college athletics be? But right now, I’m excited about finishing up this academic year strong.”

As non-answers go, it was vague and purposefully so. Six weeks later, Warren’s phrasing appears prescient. On Thursday, the Big Ten welcomed USC and UCLA as its 15th and 16th members, pulling off perhaps the most surprising coup of the realignment era. It was jarring in both its strength and stealth secrecy. It also left more questions than answers for the Big Ten, its member schools, its newcomers and the rest of the college sports landscape. Here are 10 big topics for league officials to ponder in the coming days and weeks.

Notre Dame

Three years after the Big Ten was born, the seven founding members held a meeting Dec. 1, 1899 at the Chicago Beach Hotel to consider expansion. Three Midwest institutions applied for membership: Indiana, Iowa and Notre Dame. Indiana and Iowa sent representatives to make a pitch and were accepted as members, joining Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue, Chicago and Illinois. Notre Dame did not send a delegate and its application was denied.

That began a long and at times adversarial relationship between the Big Ten and the small Catholic university located east of Chicago. At one point, the Big Ten tried to ice out the Irish, but relations thawed in the 1940s with Notre Dame competing annually with several league programs. In 1999, a full century after Notre Dame first considered joining the Big Ten, the fiercely independent Irish rejected a Big Ten invitation. But as realignment’s tectonic plates rumble, Notre Dame may consider Big Ten membership if independence means irrelevance.

media rights

The Big Ten was only a few weeks from announcing a lucrative media rights deal likely to pay the league more than $1 billion annually. It already had received final pitches from NBC, CBS, ESPN and Amazon Prime to join FOX as the Big Ten’s football rights holder. Now, the league must recalibrate its value with two recognizable brands in the nation’s second largest media market.

The Big Ten and its media partners now will control 72 league-only games (up from 63) and between 30 and 40 nonconference matchups (up from 25-35). The league already had some of the nation’s highest-rated college football games, but now there’s the potential for USC and UCLA to face Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and other Big Ten teams in high-stakes regular-season matchups. The new additions will alter the negotiations and likely shift the announcement timeline from mid-July to September. Ultimately, adding the Los Angeles-based universities could help the Big Ten disperse significantly more revenue than the $55 million it currently provides to its vested institutions.

Ripple effect

One day after USC and UCLA were announced as future Big Ten members, the Pac-12 announced it would eye expansion candidates. The 10 holdovers issued statements expressing their disappointment in those schools departmenting for the Big Ten. What none of them mentioned is, what they would do with the opportunity to join the Big Ten.

Several Pac-12 programs carry academic and football profiles worthy of discussion in Big Ten circles, including Washington, Oregon, Arizona State and Utah. It also spills over to the ACC, where other universities fit that profile. The question becomes, does the Big Ten consider adding UCLA and USC as a singular move or simply the first salvo in a concert of change?

Divisions and schedules

Administrators appeared keen to ditch the current geographical divisional structure and those thoughts are cemented now that UCLA and USC have joined the Big Ten. It’s ludicrous to suggest USC would play in a West Division and then meet power players Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan once every four years apiece. The Big Ten’s media partners would rightly frown upon that, too.

There are questions that linger, however. Would the Big Ten go to a division-less structure in 2023 with its new rights deal or wait until 2024 to completely rebrand itself when USC and UCLA begin football competition? If the Big Ten remains a 16-team league, would it enact a 3-6-6 schedule with three protected annuals and then rotate the other 12 twice over a four-year period? Perhaps at the end of every four-year block, the league could adjust some of those protected series to cycle USC and UCLA through more opponents with regularity. The possibilities are endless.

Pac-12 relations

On Nov. 20, 1946, a relationship began with the nine-team Big Ten and the defunct Pacific Coast Conference signing a five-year arrangement to send their champions to the Rose Bowl. It was panned at the time because West Coast representatives were interested in inviting Army. But the PCC and Big Ten stood firm against the criticism. Illinois and Michigan voted against the move and, ironically, played consecutively in the first two contracted bowls.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 eventually became like-minded colleagues. They worked together to negotiate television rights in the 1980s and operated the Rose Bowl as co-equal partners alongside the Tournament of Roses Parade. With the ACC, they joined together in the short-lived Alliance. This move clearly alters the landscape between the leagues. The Big Ten is the power player and the Pac-12 has become a subordinate.

Rose Bowl

Whether it was for a Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Championship Series or the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl stood as an oak tree amid the winds of change. It exerted the most influence and cost college football winner-take-all title games in 1994 and 1997. The Big Ten and Pac-12 wielded influence to ensure the Rose Bowl remained first among equals for time slot and ratings.

No entity was left reeling more than the Rose Bowl after the USC-UCLA news. The Bruins play their home games in the Rose Bowl. No team has played in the bowl game itself more than the Trojans. The magnetic pull the location had over Big Ten fans will dissipate once regular-season games begin at UCLA. In one bold stroke, the Big Ten and its two newcomers devalued the historic bowl game.

basketball

Football leads the charge in every facet of expansion, but Big Ten basketball fans cannot help but get excited about regular trips to UCLA’s vaunted Pauley Pavilion. Likewise, the Bruins have to enjoy the prospects of playing basketball games at the Big Ten’s elite venues, such as Indiana’s Assembly Hall, Purdue’s Mackey Arena and Michigan State’s Breslin Center.

The Big Ten has led the nation in men’s basketball attendance for 45 consecutive seasons (when removing the pandemic year). Both UCLA and USC have tremendous coaches in Mick Cronin and Andy Enfield, respectively. Their athletes will enjoy more consistent high-level environments and better television exposure than what they see in the Pac-12.

Olympic sports

Few athletics departments can compare with UCLA and USC when it comes to producing Olympians. It spills over to excellence in non-revenue sports, from track and field and gymnastics to baseball and softball. Although football is the primary driver in this expansion, every sport will benefit competitively and in exposure from USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten.

The Big Ten’s baseball programs long have struggled to earn NCAA tournament slots, including this year when regular-season and tournament runner-up Rutgers didn’t qualify despite 44 victories. USC and UCLA should help the league’s RPI immediately, plus provide recruiting opportunities and warm-weather games in March and April.

Travel

This is going to be a challenge for Big Ten schools, especially outside of football. According to numbers obtained by The Athletic through open-records requests, the league’s 13 public universities averaged more than $4.85 million on travel in fiscal year 2021. The cost of charter flights will soar, and there will be more commercial flights for Midwestern Olympic sports teams that regularly travel by bus. Costs also will grow for UCLA and USC with longer flights.

It may force league schedules to think differently. It could incorporate travel partners to allow one team to compete against USC and UCLA over a three-day period or do the same for those schools when they travel to Michigan and Michigan State.

BTN

The league’s network has shifted its equity from 51 percent when it debuted in 2007 to 49 percent in 2012 to now 39 percent. It successfully integrated Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers into its orbit during previous expansions and added those markets to the fold. It will seek to do the same with USC, UCLA and Southern California and do what the Pac-12 Network could not, which is achieve full market penetration.

(Top photo of Kevin Warren: Michael Conroy / AP)

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