After a long Chicagoland winter that included coaching my twins (and future hopes and saviors for the Illini men’s and women’s basketball programs) in the Naperville YMCA Kindergarten Basketball League, it’s time to get back to blogging. Fortunately, not much has occurred on the conference realignment scene since December when the Big 12 was coming right off of the sting of being left out of the College Football Playoff. After some expansion rumors that included Cincinnati and Memphis, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and his conference brethren have a long string of denials about any desire or need to expand. Personally, I don’t believe them – I think the Big 12 is fully aware that they need to expand for the long-term. Whether the Big 12 has any consensus on who they should expand with is an entirely different matter, particularly when those additions will need to come from the pool of non-power schools.
Interestingly enough, the latest expansion scuttlebutt is coming from the Big Ten. Granted, it’s only for hockey, but it’s still an intriguing indicator for the Big Ten’s overall plans (as you’ll see further down in this post). The Minneapolis Star Tribune had an in-depth article last week about how Penn State’s successful start to its hockey program is spurring schools across the Big Ten and the rest of the country to consider adding the sport. Arizona State recently announced that it will be starting a Division I hockey program… and according to the Star Tribune, the Sun Devils have been speaking to the Big Ten about its conference home on the ice:
Arizona State and the Big Ten both confirmed they’ve discussed a hockey future together. An outside school competing in one Big Ten sport already occurs in men’s lacrosse with Johns Hopkins.
Two other conferences with a major presence in the Midwest, the WCHA and the NCHC, are also engaged in conversations with the Sun Devils.
“I think being in a conference with like institutions is important,” [Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer] Heppel said. “[Arizona State] is going to have to think about that from an institutional and sport perspective. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have a historic relationship.”
Heppel oversees men’s hockey for the Big Ten, so her on-the-record quotes directly about Arizona State indicate that this isn’t a fly-by-night rumor.
My knee-jerk reaction: Sounds good to me. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has said before that the Phoenix market is actually home to more Big Ten alums than Pac-12 alums. If you’ve ever visited the Phoenix/Scottsdale area (particularly in the winter and spring), you could certainly believe it with the overwhelming number of Midwestern transplants and retirees (even compared to other Sun Belt locations like Florida). Phoenix/Scottsdale is to Chicago snowbirds as Miami/Ft. Lauderdale is to New York City snowbirds. Arizona State isn’t an AAU institution as of now, but it’s one of the largest universities in the country with respected graduate programs (even with the party school and Girls Gone Wild reputations of its undergrad population). Plus, the fact that Arizona State is in the Big Ten’s brother of the Pac-12 makes a bit easier to envision the Sun Devils as a hockey member compared to, say, Notre Dame.
At the same time, the Big Ten has the opportunity to make this into a broader relationship beyond hockey. For example, imagine if Arizona State commits to playing 1 or 2 Big Ten football teams per year, 2 to 3 non-conference basketball games, and several non-conference baseball games (where the Big Ten legitimately needs help from a powerhouse in that sport like ASU). That’s not a huge commitment from either Arizona State (and they may have wanted to schedule those types of non-conference games on their own, anyway) or the Big Ten, yet it starts building a more in-depth presence in the Phoenix area, which is a key market for Big Ten alums.
A related consideration is if other Big Ten schools will start adding hockey to further grow the league organically. If I had $100 million to spare, I’d start up an Illinois hockey program tomorrow. Alas, I don’t have that type of coin laying around and it doesn’t appear to be coming from other possible benefactors (such as the rumored interest of Jimmy John Liautaud, who is the founder of Jimmy John’s). This is unfortunate since the Illini hockey club has performed well for decades along with having a passionate fan base and that could be supercharged if it turned into the only Division I hockey program in the state of Illinois. Alas, Illinois has everything that it needs from a competition and fan base standpoint to support hockey, but none of the financial support right now.
Instead, from what I’ve heard for at least the past year, Nebraska is by far the closest to jumping up to Division I hockey. The Cornhuskers’ new Pinnacle Bank Arena has icemaking capabilities and the school is also opening a new separate ice arena that can easily be used as a practice facility. Since Nebraska has the expensive physical facilities in place already, they’ve already fought the vast majority of the battle in starting a program. Nebraska has a top tier fundraising operation, as well, so they can get the money into place once they’re given the green light. There have been rumblings about Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa looking at hockey, but if you’re a betting person, you should wager heavily on Nebraska as the next existing Big Ten school to add the sport.
What does this mean for Big Ten fans that don’t care about college hockey? Well, one open question is whether the possibility of Arizona State joining the Big Ten hockey league means that it will blow open the door for more affiliate Big Ten members in hockey or other sports. From my vantage point, not necessarily. Just as Johns Hopkins was a special case as a Big Ten affiliate in being an academic and men’s lacrosse powerhouse, Arizona State hits a lot of metrics for the Big Ten in terms of being in the Phoenix market and a friendly Pac-12 for other sports that don’t exist for other members. Big Ten hockey fans might dream of adding the likes of Boston University, Boston College and Notre Dame if the league were to let in Arizona State, but that doesn’t seem likely (not the least of which is the fact that the Hockey East is a tough nut to crack even with dangling the prestige of the Big Ten). Instead, look at some of the more unique outliers that wouldn’t have the same poaching hurdles. For instance, MIT has Division I men’s and women’s rowing (where just as Johns Hopkins is Division III for all sports except lacrosse, MIT is Division III for all sports except rowing). Could that be leveraged into a relationship between MIT (which would be academic dynamite for the Big Ten presidents) and the Big Ten? What about academically prestigious schools in the Sun Belt that could add firepower to Big Ten baseball, such as Rice or University of California system members? The possibilities are endless, but the Big Ten is also likely to be very conservative in its affiliate member picks.
Separately, the Big Ten is on the precipice of negotiating new TV deals that will start after the 2016-17 season. As Ed Sherman pointed out in the Chicago Tribune last week, the Big Ten is in a great position as the only major pro or college sports property to come onto the market for the rest of this decade. It can expect Fox to bid aggressively for tier 1 rights as well as current rights holder ESPN. In my opinion, the Big Ten will likely end up with a setup similar to the Pac-12, where tier 1 rights are split between ABC/ESPN and Fox while the rest go to its conference network of the BTN. I don’t think there’s much chance of the Big Ten taking all of its rights to Fox even if Rupert Murdoch makes a blood money Godfather offer. The ratings for Big East basketball on FS1 have been depressing beyond belief and, contrary to the rantings of some Big East haters out there, it has nothing to do with the Big East conference itself. Any random game on ESPN and, for that matter, ESPN2, is going to have a massive amount of more exposure compared to the exact same game on FS1. That speaks to a problem with the channel itself – it depresses ratings simply by channel location whereas ESPN boosts ratings.
Believe me – exposure matters greatly to the Big Ten. The money obviously matters, but that money is only there because the Big Ten has had the best TV exposure of any conference for decades. As Sherman noted in his column, the Big Ten had ESPN, CBS and BTN (a partial Fox property) all covering portions of the Big Ten Tournament. That’s akin to the setup that the NFL has – they’re essentially getting paid a lot of money by everybody in the media business. I don’t think the Big Ten is going to step away from that approach – they want as many high profile outlets covering their games as possible. So, I don’t see the Big Ten being willing to move games from ABC and ESPN to FS1 and FS2. Regardless of how Big Ten fans might personally feel about ESPN commentators (and IMHO, Big Ten fans complain too much about them as a whole), it’s horrific for conference exposure to move off of the Worldwide Leader. However, I could certainly see the Big Ten being happy with games that are currently on ESPNU and ESPNEWS being moved to over-the-air Fox and FS1. That points to maximum exposure with a ton of checks being cashed from Disney and Fox with some side basketball money from CBS.
With that, it’s time to fill out my bracket and prepare for watching basketball in the middle of the day. (My Final Four picks: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova and Iowa State, with Kentucky over Villanova in the national championship game.) Enjoy the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament!
(Image from SI.com)