In an interactive room on the first floor of his league’s semi-new headquarters, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren met two reporters from the athlete to discuss a mountain of problems facing college sports.
By the time Warren was ready to retire to his second-floor office, expansion was almost a throwaway issue when it became an issue. “In terms of Big Ten membership,” Warren was asked, “things happen out of the blue here from time to time. Do you expect (the conference) to stay with the current 14 teams?”
Warren began a lengthy response about how he likes the institutional structure of the Big Ten and why academic focus remains an important tenet alongside athletic ability. He then added: “But apart from that, just to be aware of the world we live in. We just have to be kind of thoughtful and mindful. How will collegiate athletics develop? But for now, I look forward to finishing this academic year strong.”
As non-answers go, it was vague and intentional. Six weeks later, Warren’s formulation appears prescient. On Thursday, the Big Ten welcomed USC and UCLA as their 15th and 16th members, landing perhaps the most surprising coup of the realignment era. It was staggering in both its strength and its underhanded secrecy. It also left more questions than answers for the Big Ten, its member schools, its newcomers, and the rest of the collegiate athletic landscape. Here are 10 big topics for league officials to think about in the coming days and weeks.
Three years after the birth of the Big Ten, the seven founding members met on December 1, 1899 at the Chicago Beach Hotel to consider expansion. Three Midwestern institutions applied for membership: Indiana, Iowa, and Notre Dame. Indiana and Iowa sent representatives to pitch and were accepted as members, joining Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue, Chicago, and Illinois. Notre Dame did not send a delegate and his application was rejected.
Thus began a long and at times hostile relationship between the Big Ten and the small Catholic university east of Chicago. At one point, the Big Ten attempted to ice out the Irish, but ties thawed in the 1940s when Notre Dame competed with several league programs annually. In 1999, a full century after Notre Dame first considered joining the Big Ten, the resolutely independent Irish turned down an invitation from the Big Ten. But as the tectonic plates of realignment rumble, Notre Dame may consider joining the Big Ten if independence means meaninglessness.
The Big Ten was just weeks away from announcing a lucrative media rights deal that is expected to bring the league more than $1 billion annually. It had already received final pitches from NBC, CBS, ESPN and Amazon Prime to join FOX as the Big Ten football rights holder. Now the league must recalibrate its value with two recognizable brands in the country’s second-largest media market.
The Big Ten and their media partners will now control 72 league-only games (up from 63) and between 30 and 40 non-conference games (down from 25-35). The league has already had some of the highest-rated college football games in the country, but now there’s potential for USC and UCLA to take on Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and other Big Ten teams in high-stakes regular-season matches. The additions will change the negotiations and likely shift the announcement schedule from mid-July to September. Ultimately, adding the Los Angeles-based universities could help the Big Ten distribute significantly more revenue than the $55 million they currently provide to their institutions.
A day after USC and UCLA were announced as future Big Ten members, the Pac-12 announced it would be eyeing expansion candidates. The 10 Remnant issued statements expressing disappointment at the schools’ departure to join the Big Ten. What neither of them mentioned was what they would do with the opportunity to join the Big Ten.
Several Pac-12 programs contain academic and football profiles worthy of discussion in Big Ten communities including Washington, Oregon, Arizona State and Utah. It also carries over to the ACC, where other universities match this profile. The question is, will the Big Ten consider adding UCLA and USC as a single step or simply as the first salvo in a concert of change?
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Administrators seemed keen to ditch the current geographic division structure, and those thoughts are now cemented as UCLA and USC have joined the Big Ten. It’s ridiculous to suggest that USC would play in a West division and then face powerhouses Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan every four years. The media partners of the Big Ten would also rightly disapprove.
However, there are questions that remain. Would the Big Ten transition to a non-divisional structure with their new rights deal in 2023, or wait until 2024 to completely rebrand themselves when USC and UCLA begin football competition? If the Big Ten remains a 16-team league, would they enact a 3-6-6 plan with three protected annual opponents and then rotate the other 12 twice over a four-year period? Perhaps the league could adjust some of those protected streaks at the end of each four-year block to put USC and UCLA through more opponents on a regular basis. The possibilities are endless.
On November 20, 1946, a relationship began when the nine-team Big Ten and the defunct Pacific Coast Conference signed a five-year agreement to send their champions to the Rose Bowl. It was dropped at the time because West Coast officials were keen to invite the Army. But the PCC and Big Ten stood firm against the criticism. Illinois and Michigan voted against the move and ironically played back-to-back in the first two contract bowls.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 eventually became like-minded peers. They worked together to negotiate television rights in the 1980s and ran the Rose Bowl as equal partners alongside the Tournament of Roses Parade. They joined forces with the ACC in the short-lived alliance. This move significantly changes the landscape between leagues. The Big Ten is the power player and the Pac-12 has become a subordinate.
Whether for a Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Championship Series, or the College Football Playoffs, the Rose Bowl stood like an oak tree amidst the winds of change. It exerted its greatest influence in 1994 and 1997, costing college football winner-take-all title games. The Big Ten and Pac-12 exerted influence to ensure the Rose Bowl remained first among equals in terms of timeslots and ratings.
No company had faltered more after the USC-UCLA news than the Rose Bowl. The Bruins play their home games at the Rose Bowl. No team has played more in the bowl game than the Trojans. The magnetism the location held for Big Ten fans will dissipate once UCLA’s regular-season games begin. With one bold swipe, the Big Ten and their two newcomers debased the historic bowl game.
Football is leading the way in every facet of expansion, but Big Ten basketball fans can’t help but delight in regular visits to UCLA’s vaunted Pauley Pavilion. Likewise, the Bruins must enjoy the prospect 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 straight seasons (if the pandemic year is removed). Both UCLA and USC have excellent coaches in Mick Cronin and Andy Enfield. Your athletes will enjoy more consistent high-level environments and better TV exposure than what they see in the Pac-12.
Few athletics departments can match UCLA and USC when it comes to producing Olympians. It spills over to excellence in non-income sports, from track and field and gymnastics to baseball and softball. Although football is the primary driver of this expansion, every competitive and public sport will benefit from USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten.
The Big Ten’s baseball programs have long struggled to gain seats in NCAA tournaments, including this year when Rutgers, runner-up in both the regular season and the tournament, failed to qualify despite 44 wins. USC and UCLA should help the league’s RPI immediately and provide recruiting opportunities and warm-weather games in March and April.
This will be a challenge for Big Ten schools, especially outside of football. According to numbers received from the athlete Through Open Records requests, the league’s 13 public universities spent an average of more than $4.85 million on travel in fiscal year 2021. The cost of charter flights will skyrocket, and there will be more commercial flights for Midwestern Olympic sports teams that regularly travel by bus. Costs will also increase for UCLA and USC with longer flights.
It can force league plans to think differently. It could involve travel partners so a team can compete against USC and UCLA for three days, or do the same for those schools when they travel to Michigan and the state of Michigan.
The league’s network has increased its stake from 51 percent when it debuted in 2007 to 49 percent in 2012 to now 39 percent. It has successfully integrated and added Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers into its orbit during previous expansions. It will seek to do the same with USC, UCLA and Southern California and do what the Pac-12 network couldn’t, which is full market penetration.
(Top photo by Kevin Warren: Michael Conroy/AP)