First a disclaimer:
If you’re a fan of…er…hold on it’s here somewhere…um…uh…oh here it is- Maryland and Rutgers you might want to skip this article.
Bigger Doesn’t mean Better- Discuss
Let’s begin. This week the Big Ten announced that two new schools would be joining the conference. Their names are unimportant- the big driver in this deal is where they are located. Each represents access to a major east coast television market, New York/New Jersey and the greater Washington DC area.
- This deal represents a failure by the Big Ten. The conference has long pursued Notre Dame to join the conference. ND makes geographical and historical sense. Its Midwest location lends itself to easy travel for many current Big Ten programs and already play the Irish. Most importantly, its national brand recognition is on par with Michigan and Ohio State, which none of the other recent conference additions can claim. But the Irish have repeatedly spurned the Big Ten. The pursuit of these lesser east coast schools is an admission of failure to get make the ND deal happen.
- This deal is about real estate. Location, location, location. Previous Big Ten expansion was paraded as the addition of historical and academic equals. This week’s additions are about access. The Big Ten doesn’t give a rip about the fans of these two programs. The Big Ten does care about the large number of conference alumni who live in these TV markets who will now clamor for the Big Ten Network (BTN) to be added to their cable package. Good news! Walmart is expanding and your mom-and-pop store is in the way! You’ve hit the real estate lotto, please sign for your check and clear out your personal items on the way out!
- This deal isn’t about the fans. Close your eyes and read the names of these new additions out loud to yourself. Now imagine writing a check for your season tickets with a home slate consisting of them, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, a service academy of the your choice, and a MAC school. Maryland and Rutgers have been elevated from disappointing non-conference opponents whom you would hope to never see again, to disappointing conference opponents coming repeatedly to a Big House near you. Feel the joy!
- This deal isn’t about athletes. Nobody grows up dreaming about glorious victories over Rutgers or Maryland. Playing these schools is even less exciting for the athletes than the fans who grew up on steady diet of nationally known conference opponents.
- This deal lessens that chance of big time non-conference opponents. The bigger Big Ten will make its case for inclusion in the new play-off system based on dollars of revenue not its on-field product. Athletic Directors will maximize the number of lucrative home games by loading up on non-conference cupcakes who don’t require home-and-away agreements.
- This deal is about football. Football is the main revenue source of the BTN.
In order to understand this deal, you need to understand how to sell pizza. Ann Arbor is home of Domino’s, and despite what their latest commercials say they don’t make the greatest pizza in the world. In fact, if I were line up ten random pizzas for a taste test, Domino’s would probably finish 11th. But the company is phenomenally successful by selling an adequate product, at a cheap price, conveniently located near you. It’s hard to imagine anybody going out of their way to pickup a Domino’s pizza, but price and convenience are differentiators when selling a commodity product.
Rather than being a commodity, you want to be a premium product. A premium product can be sold at a higher price than a commodity and dictate its place in the market.
The Big Ten whiffed on their pursuit of Notre Dame. The addition of the Fighting Irish would have allowed the Big Ten to dictate favorable terms to regional cable networks.
This failure has diminished the brand of Big Ten.
The backup plan, as shown by the pursuit of Maryland and Rutgers, is now to pursue a commodity strategy. Unable to improve its product qualitatively, the Big Ten is embarking on a plan to simply push its current product into to new television markets. It makes sense on a spreadsheet, but long term it does nothing to improve ability of the Big Ten to compete against the nation’s only current premium conference, the SEC.
This expansion will help the Big Ten will generate dollars, but it does nothing to extend its reach into the south which regularly produces much of the nation’s football talent.
The Big Ten needs to move quickly to correct this fundamental problem threatening its long-term health.
If not it might as well choose “has been’s” and “never were’s” for division names, because SEC dominance will only increase.