Big Ten Expansion Will Generate Big Bucks
DETROIT - With the Big Ten and other college conferences scrambling to expand their ranks, analysts say big money is driving the trend.
The Big Ten is about to expand from 11 schools to 12 with the addition of Nebraska, and perhaps as many as 16 eventually. At the very least, that probably means splitting the conference into two divisions with a new postseason championship game in football worth perhaps $15 million in TV and other revenue.
But some experts on college sports worry that a realignment of conferences will create an "arms race" that might leave smaller schools behind.
Karen Weaver, athletic director at Penn State-Abington who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the launch of the Big Ten Network, said that conference expansion likely means more TV revenue for bigger schools that join the superconferences but less cash for schools left out.
"It's going to create this widening gap of haves and have-nots. I do worry about it," she said. "It's going to be harder and harder because the arms race is going to be fed by all these millions of new dollars coming in from these television deals."
Expansion of the nation's various athletic conferences is driven, in part, by the financial success of the Big Ten Network, which launched in 2007 as the nation's first sports channel owned by a league itself. Already profitable, the network would create an even bigger powerhouse if the conference adds more teams - and it would encourage the creation of similar networks by the Pac-10 and other conferences.
The last time the Big Ten expanded was 1990, when Penn State joined as the 11th school. Nebraska's regents voted Friday to accept an invitation to become the 12th conference member.
The Big Ten recently hired a Chicago investment firm, William Blair&Co., to analyze whether five different schools would add enough revenue to justify expanding the league beyond 11 teams. The Chicago Tribune reported in March that the firm told the Big Ten that expansion indeed could produce greater profits.
The five schools analyzed were Missouri, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers.
While not part of that analysis, Nebraska has a fervent following and is a strong draw for TV ratings despite the state's lack of a major TV market.
Colorado last week joined Nebraska in leaving the Big 12, opting to join the Pac-10 and giving that conference access to the Denver TV market.
Meanwhile, Texas is reported to be staying in the Big. 12, which would keep the conference viable. Regents at Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State - all Big. 12 members - have scheduled meetings today and Wednesday to discuss conference allegiances. Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott told the AP on Monday that Texas had declined an invitation from his conference.
Notre Dame, which belongs to no conference in football, has long been considered the greatest prize of all. As an independent school, it enjoys an NBC contract worth a reported $15 .million per year. But as more and more schools join the new megaconferences, Notre Dame might find itself unable to stay independent for much longer, with its most likely partner being the Big Ten.