The Big Ten continues the march to increase its presence on the East Coast by adding Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse as the conference’s first-ever affiliate member and the Pinstripe Bowl based at Yankee Stadium in New York City as a bowl tie-in. These moves aren’t necessarily earth-shattering in the way that the expansion with Maryland and Rutgers was back in November, but they show how Jim Delany and the Big Ten’s university presidents are aiming to make the league as much of an East Coast conference as it is a Midwestern conference.
As far as men’s lacrosse programs go, Johns Hopkins is considered to be the gold standard with more national championships than any other school and clung onto independence in the same way that Notre Dame continues to do so for football.* At the same time, the Big Ten has long had the stance that schools with either “all in” or “all out” (hence the hardline resistance to ever offer schools like Notre Dame any non-football membership). So, it was a bit of a surprise when news broke a few months ago that the Big Ten and JHU were exploring an affiliate relationship. Johns Hopkins then formed a Blue Ribbon Committee that ultimately recommended that the men’s lacrosse team should join a conference last month in a fascinating report. Among the requirements that JHU deemed to be important were an initial membership period of 5 years and that the school could maintain its current TV contract with ESPNU. A number of Big Ten observers thought that the latter TV rights item would be an obstacle on paper (since increasing the inventory of desirable non-football/basketball programming has been a primary goal of the Big Ten Network), but that was assuaged by the fact that Johns Hopkins would not receive any conference revenue (which would make any potential complications as to how an affiliate member would partake in the BTN money trough moot).
(* For anyone that remembers the original version of The Official Preppy Handbook, I always recall that lacrosse was listed as a preppy sport simply because people from Baltimore loved it and that the city was “very prep”. That’s quite a jarring characterization these days for people that have seen The Wire.)
Looking back, this was a perfect storm for both parties to get to this position: the Big Ten needed 1 more school to create a men’s lacrosse league after it had added Maryland and Rutgers, Johns Hopkins had been concerned about how conference realignment was changing its ability to remain independent in men’s lacrosse even before it had failed to make it to the NCAA Lacrosse Tournament for the first time since it began in 1971, and JHU would provide the Big Ten an elite academic research powerhouse located in close proximity to the conference’s other Eastern members and the very best program in the history of the sport. Plus, the only sports that Johns Hopkins sponsors at the Division I level are men’s and women’s lacrosse*, while the rest of its athletic department operates under Division III. Finally, if JHU ends up joining the Committee of Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which is the academic research consortium that includes all 14 Big Ten members plus the University of Chicago, then it’s a coup in terms of prestige. (For whatever reason, Penn State’s official press release on the new Big Ten lacrosse league is the only place that I’ve seen that mentions Hopkins contacting the CIC.) All of those factors make this situation quite unique compared to thoughts of adding Notre Dame for various non-football sports or, say, Boston University for hockey. As a result, I don’t see the addition of Johns Hopkins for men’s lacrosse as any indication of a broader intent by the Big Ten to search for affiliate members in other sports. Johns Hopkins was the right program in the right sport with the right academic profile at the right time for the Big Ten.
(* Interestingly enough, the Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse program is going in the opposite direction of choosing independence after having been a member of the American Lacrosse Conference. The ALC featured three Big Ten programs, including national powerhouse Northwestern. I’m personally not a fan of JHU going in this direction as the school would have technically been “all in” with the Big Ten for all of its Division I sports if women’s lacrosse had joined, but it’s less of an issue since men’s lacrosse is clearly the marquee program there. It’s akin to Notre Dame stating that it would join a conference football but go independent in its other sports, where pretty much any league would say, “That’s kind of weird, but HELL YES, we’ll take that deal!” Also note that Northwestern and Maryland have more women’s lacrosse national championships between them than all of the other schools that sponsor the sport *combined*, so the intense competition level may have also been a factor for JHU. That being said, there still seems to be somewhat of a door open for the women’s program to join the Big Ten down the road, as the powers that be have claimed that they “haven’t discussed it” yet.)
Meanwhile, a little further north, the Big Ten and New York Yankees announced that the conference will have a tie-in with the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for the next 8 years (with the opponent almost certainly coming from the ACC). From the standpoint of increasing the Big Ten’s mindshare on the East Coast, the tie-in makes perfect sense. The long-term goal of Jim Delany is to make the Big Ten into the de facto “home conference” for the New York City market in the same way that it is in Chicago already. To be sure, that’s a monumentally tough task (as the number of Big Ten grads in the Chicago market is massive by comparison), but the hope is that the cumulative effect of the presence of Rutgers, the Pinstripe Bowl tie-in, and the fans and alums from other Big Ten schools that have a large presence in the NYC area (particularly Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State and now Maryland) will gain traction there in a way that none of the other conferences would be able to (which is arguably a risk well worth taking considering the size and power of that market). In an interesting marketing wrinkle, the Big Ten will actually have a fixed sign in Yankee Stadium along the first base line along with being part of the rotating ads behind home plate during regular season Yankees games starting in 2014, which might end up being the best advertising that the conference could get in that market.
Whether the Pinstripe Bowl will actually be a great deal for traveling fans is a different matter. Believe me – I love New York City and enjoy the idea of playing a bowl game there, but most of the Big Ten territory prefers its winter destinations to be escapes from the cold weather of the North*. At the same time, Yankee Stadium isn’t in Manhattan or even in a neighborhood comparable to Wrigleyville in Chicago. (As a White Sox fan, it always amuses me when people complain about the “bad” neighborhood that surrounds U.S. Cellular Field as being a drag on attendance since it makes it clear that they’ve never visited the Bronx.) I could see how Rutgers, Penn State and Maryland could travel up to the Pinstripe Bowl fairly easily, but it remains to be seen how the rest of the conference would travel there.
(* If the speculation is true that the Big Ten bowl rotation will consist of the Rose, Orange, Capital One, Outback and Holiday at the top, a mix of the Kraft Fight Hunger, Pinstripe and Gator/Music City at the next level, and a new Detroit Lions bowl against the ACC and maybe the Heart of Dallas in the old Cotton Bowl at the bottom, then I’ll be pretty happy with that lineup. It would hurt to lose the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl since the Phoenix area is such a large home base for Big Ten transplants, but the Kraft Fight Hunger is going to turn into a top notch game when it moves to the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara and I will always quickly find any excuse to head out to San Diego. I’ll have a more in-depth analysis of the entire Big Ten bowl lineup once it’s officially confirmed.)
The overall message from the Big Ten today is that it’s going full steam ahead in heading to the East Coast. I’ve long been confident that the strategy will work around leveraging Maryland to get into the Washington, DC and Baltimore markets (which will only be further aided by adding Johns Hopkins as an affiliate member), yet the New York City portion of this cycle of expansion and bowl contracts will determine whether Big Ten is going to end up being the second most powerful sports entity in America after the NFL in 10 years or we’ll be sitting around wondering why the conference had chased after cable network fool’s gold. There’s a better chance for the former to occur than what a lot of conference realignment skeptics believe, but the latter could certainly still happen.
(Image from Baltimore Sun)