If you think money cures all, you haven’t watched Purdue play football this year.
On September 1, 2007, the Big Ten Network aired its first football game. It would prove to be the most important Big Ten football game to be played in the past 7 years.
That is not a good thing.
On that fateful Saturday, Michigan took on the defending I-AA champions Appalachian State. In the greatest game ever aired on the Big Ten Network, Michigan lost in stunning fashion.
The game has marked a crossroads for the Big Ten, as its football fortunes have dropped off to become a laughingstock while its bank accounts have become the envy of every other conference.
Michigan entered that game as a Top 5 team. They have not been a top 5 team since.
The Big Ten entered that season as arguably the best in the country – 3 teams finished in the Top 10 in 2006 and Ohio State/Michigan played the biggest regular season game of the 2000s in terms of interest, quality and ratings.
The Big Ten felt emboldened by its success and made a move that is, by far, the biggest move in the history of college football.
No, that’s not hyperbole. The Big Ten starting its own network has literally changed the fabric of the sport.
The realignment craze that followed? Due to the Big Ten Network.
The Pac-12 Network? The impending SEC Network? Due to the Big Ten Network.
The dramatic increase in televised college football games? Due to the Big Ten Network.
In fact, you could make a logical argument that the financial success of the Big Ten Network – showcasing once and for all how undervalued college football TV contracts were – led to the four-team college football playoff that will start next year.
Of course, during the seven-year period of unmatched financial growth, the Big Ten’s actual football product has devolved into by far the worst of the “Major” five conferences, and neck and neck with the American at the moment.
For all the ridicule Louisville received for its soft schedule to open the year, it slightly obscured the fact that Ohio State’s schedule is just as bad. With the notable exception of Wisconsin and depending on Michigan’s fate, Ohio State is likely to play the softest schedule in the history of the program.
In 2007, Ohio State made the BCS title game – despite a home loss to a 3-loss Illinois team – thanks to one of the strangest seasons, if not the, in college football’s recent history. They were blown out in the title game by a 2-loss LSU team.
A year later, Penn State entered November undefeated and ranked #3 before losing to Iowa. That was five years ago. That was the last time the Big Ten had a national title contender in November.
The conference has won 1 Rose Bowl game since the 2000 season. The conference paid out more than $25 million to each school in the last fiscal year.
How is this possible? We’ve been led to believe that money equals success in college football. It is thought that more money means better salaries for coaches and better facilities to lure recruits.
When it comes to on-field success, money falls behind something far important – exposure. In essence, the Big Ten sold its exposure for money. It’s not working.
While the Big Ten trumpets the fact they have a “national” network, that is hardly the case. ESPN is a national network. So is ESPN2. So is Fox Sports 1. So are broadcast channels. They are available on basic cable on almost every cable system in the country.
The Big Ten Network is a regional network. It is on basic cable only in Big Ten country.
I live in Washington, D.C. I get the Big Ten Network. But I pay extra for it because I’m addicted to sports. It’s part of the “sports geek” package that includes ESPNU, CBS Sports Network and BEIN Sport.
If you’re a high school recruit, the lure of playing a national network – the quaint notion that kids call sell parents on being able to watch every game – is a fallacy. If you live where I live, you can’t watch your kid play every week in the Big Ten unless you pay extra. It’s a small but important difference.
It dramatically limits the exposure – why do you think the Big Ten Network does not release rating information? Because a fraction of the ESPN audience is watching their games.
More importantly, the Big Ten moving to its own network opened another void. Suddenly, ESPN had more slots to fill than usual. The noon hour used to be the Big Ten showcase. For a decade, it seemed that ESPN and ESPN2 did nothing but show Big Ten games after College Gameday. It used to frustrate me as a fan, then living in Connecticut, to be cut off from almost every other conference – namely the SEC – to watch Northwestern/Minnesota games.
The void was filled, in spectacular fashion, by the SEC. The Noon game on ESPN – once a Big Ten stranglehold – has been commandeered by the SEC. Think of just this season alone. There has been Miami/Florida, Missouri/Georgia and South Carolina/Tennessee in those coveted timeslots, drawing millions more for an audience than the Big Ten.
The Big Ten left to collect a paycheck. The SEC stepped in and now collects five-star recruits. Is it any wonder that the SEC’s run of dominance coincided with the launch of the Big Ten Network? They have, and will always be, the two dominant conferences in college football. The Pac-12 controls the West but the time difference will always keep it third. And the ACC and Big 12 will forever and always be top-heavy conferences run by a select few on the football side.
The power balance, though, is thrown off because of the SEC’s collective dominance over the past decade. It’s not just Alabama and Florida – like the Big Ten is just Ohio State and Michigan. It’s South Carolina. It’s Auburn. It’s LSU. It’s Tennessee. It’s Arkansas. It’s different.
The Big Ten is now so money-driven that it’s about to submarine the football side even further in its never-ending chase for cash.
The SEC and Mike Slive would still be at 12 teams if it didn’t stumble into a gold mine known as Texas A&M. For the all the insults hurled at Texas A&M prior to joining the SEC, which included my own, the fact remained that it was a football school, through and through, that had success. They dominated the last vestiges of the Southwest Conference. They competed in the Big 12. Furthermore, they opened up Texas.
The Big Ten added Nebraska in 2010. They added a great football program, and the state of Nebraska.
The SEC added Texas A&M in 2012. They added a good football program, and the state of Texas.
You see the difference?
Even in power grabs for eyeballs, the SEC outmaneuvered the Big Ten – at least in football quality. Missouri has been a consistently good to great team under Gary Pinkel for nearly a decade, even reaching #1 in 2007. The 2012 season was an obvious outlier due to an abundance of injuries – just ask Mark Richt about that.
The Big Ten doesn’t care about on-field performance. They care about market size. That’s why they gobbled up Rutgers and Maryland, two of the most mediocre football programs you could possibly imagine that happen to be within a stone’s throw – okay, a 30-minute stone’s throw – of two of the largest media markets in the country.
For the Big Ten, in the words of Chief Wiggum, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Starting in 2014, all that will matter is the college football playoff. It is becoming increasingly apparent that strength of schedule is going to play a dominant role in selecting these teams, as it should.
The Big Ten, in its infinite wisdom, believes that its path to schedule strength is no FCS games and more conference games.
Have you seen the Big Ten teams? Playing more is not good.
The competitive imbalance may – should? – cripple Ohio State’s chances for a BCS title through no fault of its own. If you don’t play anyone good, how do we know if you’re any good?
The Big Ten is a terrible football conference. The Big Ten is a rich football conference.
Which is more important?
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