Big Ten's biggest expansion gamble is itself

November, 20, 2012
11/20/12
2:00
PM ET
Maryland needs the Big Ten for money. Rutgers needs the Big Ten for the same reason, and also to escape the giant pit of quicksand known as the Big East.

But every major transaction offers something for both parties, and the Big Ten needs Maryland and Rutgers, too. The Big Ten needs their markets -- Washington, D.C., and New York -- for television and branding purposes, plain and simple.

Does Maryland obtain the D.C. market for the Big Ten? No, of course not. Does Rutgers do the same with New York? Fughetaboutit.

According to The New York Times' Nate Silver -- who, if you followed the latest election, isn't bad at this polling thing -- Rutgers and Maryland don't account for large percentages of sports fans in their respective mega-markets. Silver writes that Rutgers will rank near the bottom of the Big Ten in number of football fans, while Maryland will supplant Northwestern, the Big Ten's only private school, as the smallest football fan base in the league.

Is that a concern? Maybe a little. But the Big Ten didn't add Maryland or Rutgers for their fan bases and certainly not for their athletic prowess in the major sports (sorry, lacrosse fans). It added them for their locations, and what the existing Big Ten brand -- the one that netted a record $284 million in revenue last year and continues to grow despite mostly disappointing on-field results in recent years -- can do with a more frequent presence in these markets.

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, FileThe Big Ten's Jim Delany is aiming to create fresh bowl game matchups for teams in his league.
"It's a lot about that," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com on Tuesday from New Jersey, where he's attending the announcement of Rutgers' admission to the league. "There's a lot of awareness of different sports brands in different parts of the world, but it's very hard to get beyond awareness if you're not there. Now that we're here, we expect to work awful hard and be impactful.

"We're not going to be dominant, no one's going to be dominant. This is probably the richest corridor in the world."

The Big Ten will be in the corridor much more frequently beginning in 2014, as major athletic brands such as Ohio State football, Michigan football, Nebraska football and Indiana basketball make more regular appearances in the New York and Washington areas. When the winged helmets or the candy-stripe pants show up more often, the hope is that the market will pay attention.

During the last expansion cycle, I blogged a lot about which schools "move the needle" on the national landscape and which schools do not. Nebraska does. Maryland and Rutgers do not. But the existing Big Ten moves the needle, according to TV ratings and revenue figures. The Big Ten and SEC are in a class of their own in terms of popularity. And an expanded Big Ten with a larger East Coast presence should continue to move the needle.

This isn't about converting pro sports towns such as New York and Washington into college towns. That's not realistic. But the Big Ten already has a sizable presence in those cities, thanks to its alumni bases.

The top two cities for Michigan alumni are, not surprisingly, Detroit and Chicago. The third and fourth? New York and Washington. The top regions for Ohio State alumni outside the Buckeye State are Washington, D.C./northern Virginia and New York. It's the same for much of the Big Ten.

Delany said the Big Ten has approximately 540,000 alumni between northern Virginia and southern New England.

Those are the people who will want the Big Ten Network in their homes. Those are the people who might buy season tickets to Maryland football or Rutgers football just to ensure they see their favorite team in person. Those are the people who help make Big Ten football games some of the most watched in the country, even if they have little to no bearing on the national title chase.

"Whether you're talking expansion or bowl relationships, you're always looking at where your people are," Delany said. "Where you're going to recruit your students, where you're going to recruit your student-athletes, where your alumni live. So every analysis takes into consideration where you are, where you'd like to become stronger, where you can move.

"We're conscious of that in everything that we do."

It was front of mind in these moves, which Delany described as "an Eastern initiative with a Penn State bridge." The league will set up a satellite office on the East Coast as it looks to enhance its presence.

Delany told me Rutgers is a "real potential national player in athletics," because of its location, its strong academic reputation and, now, its new conference affiliation. But will Rutgers or Maryland become Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State? No.

It'll be great for the Big Ten if the Scarlet Knights and the Terrapins earn Big Ten bowl wins in football or national championships in other sports. But the two schools basically serve as platforms for the existing Big Ten to showcase its product in bigger markets.

"Nobody dominates in this kind of corridor," Delany said. "Maybe the [New York] Knicks when they're good, the Giants when they're good or the Yankees all the time. But we're a new element. We're here to compete, we're here to grow.

"You can't have influence without being here."

It has been a historic week for the Big Ten, which went two decades without expanding (1990-2010) and now has added two teams in as many days. Asked if further expansion is on the horizon, Delany said the Big Ten is "fine" at 14 but will continue to monitor the landscape.

But the real big day for the league will be when it announces a new television agreement in 2017. Keep in mind all the other conferences have had their turn and cashed in. The Big Ten is the last in line, and should get the biggest payout. Maryland and Rutgers should help in those efforts.

"We wouldn't have done it," Delany said, "unless we thought it was a positive."

There's a risk in any major venture, and this one is no exception. But the biggest gamble the Big Ten is making is on itself.

And looking at the league's recent trajectory as a brand, it's a pretty safe bet.

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