Current Sports Quick Take: Big Ten Expansion
Current Sports beat reporter Justin Walsh challenges the Big Ten expansion of UCLA and USC.
The topic of conference expansion and realignment is one that has become an increasingly tough conversation to have over the last couple decades. The rise of television ratings (and the subsequent rise in revenue as a result of said ratings) have created new issues in the world of the NCAA across the board, with few being as controversial as conference realignment in recent years. Realignment in itself is not a bad thing, but when the primary motivator behind said realignment is increased revenue and when that motivation overpowers logistical concerns such as geographical location and scheduling feasibility, it can become a major problem. I believe the way the Big Ten is going about their attempt at expansion is foolish and driven purely out of greed and will almost certainly lead to major issues in both the short and long terms.
The national focus on football is without question the driving force behind the realignment taking place. The reason behind the move is increased revenue, but the increased revenue only happens because millions of people around the country will tune in to see their teams go at it every Saturday. As a result, all other sports were seemingly put on the back burner when discussions of the Big Ten’s expansion took place. In the world of football, the move makes sense, given the current landscape of college football. More and more teams are leaving major conferences to join others and certain conferences are losing ground quickly in terms of prestige and talent. The two major conferences that will undoubtedly be big-time players in the college football world for the foreseeable future are the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The SEC’s acquisition of Oklahoma and Texas kickstarted the recent talks of realignment and clearly had an influence on the Big Ten’s decision making on the matter. Adding USC and UCLA was clearly a retaliation move by the Big Ten designed to keep them on the same tier as the SEC, and it has worked to a certain extent. The rest of the college football landscape has been shaken to its core as a result, as the other “Power Five” conferences suddenly are quickly being left behind. The future of the sport is murky at best but it certainly seems that the possibility of two or three “super conferences” dominating the game is likely as a result of the recent moves.
The Big Ten’s expansion to the west coast has been one of the biggest stories in college sports since it was announced this past summer, for good reason. The inclusion of UCLA and USC (and more importantly the Los Angeles television market) will bring in heaps of revenue to the conference and further legitimize the Big Ten as one of the premier conferences in college sports moving forward, particularly in football. Football brings in the vast majority of revenue for most major universities, so it makes sense that most decisions when it comes to overall athletics at said major universities are influenced in favor of football. The problem with that approach is that in some cases, the decision that is best for football can be incredibly detrimental to other sports that deserve a chance. That is the case concerning the Big Ten’s expansion.
The inclusion of USC and UCLA in a conference made up of universities mostly located in the Mid-West brings up logistical issues, even in football. The idea of the USC football team flying to Piscataway, New Jersey for a conference game against Rutgers once every year or two is laughable. The idea is palatable, however, due to the incredible amounts of revenue the football programs bring in. Those teams can afford to fly across the country multiple times a year to play their conference opponents because of the television ratings, ticket sales and other various sources of revenue they bring in. Men’s basketball doesn’t bring in the same revenue as football, but those accommodations can still easily be made due to the revenue stream from the sport. For nearly every other university-sanctioned sport, however, this expansion brings up major issues that will not be easily fixed. For example, according to CollegeFactual.com, the Michigan State football team pulled in a net profit of $24,954,745 last year. The 2022 Big Ten regular season champion MSU women’s soccer team, on the other hand, lost a total of $1,137,151 over that same time frame. In fact, according to the site, football and men’s basketball are the only two sports at Michigan State University that profited in the last year, meaning they gained more money in revenue than they paid in expenses. Everybody else ran a negative. Adding travel and accommodation expenses to and from L.A. potentially multiple times a year could easily influence MSU to see them as unsustainable due to the perpetual net losses the university would continue to take. Michigan State has shown a willingness in the past to cut certain programs viewed as unsustainable in the interest of the big boys (hello, Spartan Swim & Dive) so it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say these sports could find themselves in danger of being eliminated in a similar fashion. These sports being eliminated would be an incredible detriment to the student body as well as the culture of the university as a whole.
The topic of expansion is certainly one that can be hotly debated from both sides, as there are valid arguments from both sides of the issue. However, the way the Big Ten has handled its expansion is foolish to me, as it seems like simply a retaliatory move made with one sport in mind while the others were simply ignored in favor of football. This situation could easily play out in a number of ways, but it is hard for me to see any way for the situation as presently constructed to work itself out smoothly.