Big Ten athletic directors have talked about playing more league games in football for quite some time.
There's support from various parts of the league. At the Big Ten's spring meetings last year, then-Michigan athletic director Bill Martin told me, "As the guarantees [for nonconference games] go up and up and up and the fans want to play our sister institutions in the conference, to me it's a no-brainer. Play 'em."
Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi added: "I do believe some day that you'll see more games played within the Big Ten."
That day could be coming very soon.
As an 11-team conference, the Big Ten faced a major mathematical obstacle to playing nine conference games: one team would be limited to eight league games every year. This snag will no longer apply beginning in 2011, as Nebraska joins the Big Ten as its 12th member.
Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne mentioned the possibility of playing a nine-game league schedule in the Big Ten at the news conference announcing Nebraska's arrival to the league. If it happens, Osborne said he'd fight to keep nonconference games at home to ensure the Huskers had at least seven home dates per season.
There are certainly pros and cons to increasing the number of league games, and Big Ten athletic directors expect to debate them in August during their next scheduled meeting in Chicago.
"Unless you’re really hot, fans are finding that some of the preseason games, they just don’t appreciate," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "They’d rather see you play every Big Ten opponent. If you went to nine games, you’d be bringing in one more Big Ten opponent, which would make your season-ticket package more attractive."
An additional league game would significantly impact future nonconference scheduling, much of which has been finalized far into the future. Burke noted that some of the scheduling contracts include penalties for teams that back out and can't find suitable replacement teams. The demand for home games among Big Ten schools with massive, revenue-generating stadiums, also could further diminish the quality of non-league games.
And really, how well has the Pac-10's nine-game conference schedule worked out? The league gets multiple BCS berths about as often as snow falls in Los Angeles.
Then again, there are pluses, at least for some of the folks involved.
"It sure would help with scheduling," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "Scheduling has become very difficult with 12 games, and fans aren’t crazy about I-AAs, and athletic directors aren’t crazy about the fees that we're paying some schools to come in. So nine games would certainly satisfy those two people, but there are other factors involved."
Among those factors are the well-compensated men whose employment hinges on wins and losses.
"Just to be a contrarian, maybe we ought to go to 10 [league games]," Burke said. "They never said you couldn’t do 10. I think the coaches would probably throw me out of the press box."
Revenue is another issue with increasing conference games, as six teams would have five Big Ten home dates, while six other squads would have only four. But Burke doesn't see the imbalance as a potential deal breaker.
"We do a lot of revenue sharing in the league," he said. "We have [minimums] and [maximum] in terms of the gate sharing, so there’s probably a way to do it. ... Maybe there’s a way to take those teams that have the fifth [Big Ten home] game that year, they end up sharing a little bit with those who have four games, just to try and get a more level revenue budget year to year."
Alvarez isn't sure how much momentum a nine-game league schedule has, but the door definitely remains open heading into the August meetings.