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Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Can Big Ten score without ND, Texas?

By Adam Rittenberg

In an e-mail about expansion sent to Ohio State president Gordon Gee in April, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany wrote, "Also need to make sure we leverage this to increase chances of hr additions."

It doesn't take a code breaker to know what Delany meant by "hr additions."

When it comes to conference realignment, there are two obvious big prizes, or home-run additions, available: Texas and Notre Dame. Those two athletic programs bring the most fans, the most money, the biggest markets and, perhaps most important, the least amount of risk for a league. Both institutions are also very strong academically and fit the Big Ten's criteria outside of sports (Notre Dame isn't an AAU member, but the Big Ten has already tried to add the school before, so the conference is comfortable with ND's academic rep).

If you add Texas and/or Notre Dame, you have improved your league. End of story.

But what if the Big Ten's expansion doesn't include Texas or Notre Dame? Can the Big Ten still score without hitting a home run in expansion?

Some talk about Delany like he's the Babe Ruth of college sports because of all the clout he possesses. Without Texas or Notre Dame, Delany might start drawing comparisons to David Eckstein or Juan Pierre.

Keep in mind that the Big Ten has never been desperate to expand. The existing product of 11 members is both healthy and lucrative. And while adding a championship game in football will be a result of any expansion, it hasn't been the driving force behind the expansion push.

The Big Ten wants to strengthen its already strong brand. It wants to increase subscriptions for the lucrative Big Ten Network and bring in new media markets. It wants to increase its number of alumni in the northern half of the country to combat the population shift to the South. It wants more marquee games for its marquee sports. It doesn't want to sacrifice what makes the league cohesive, especially at a time where discord is tearing apart other conferences (ahem, Big 12).

Can the Big Ten achieve these goals without Texas or Notre Dame? Yes, but there's a lot less certainty.

Delany and his staff have been studying this since last fall and crunching all the numbers, and they won't expand without a strong belief that new members can help the conference grow. They already have a strong belief in the Big Ten's existing product.

The expansion candidates not named Texas or Notre Dame have their pluses. Nebraska is a big name in football with a national fan base, tons of tradition and a location near the Big Ten footprint. Rutgers is located near the nation's biggest media market (New York City). Missouri, Pittsburgh and Syracuse already have rivalries with Big Ten members Illinois and Penn State. All are solid academic institutions.

But all these candidates carry greater risks for the Big Ten. They're not slam dunks or home runs.

The Big Ten can reach its goal through an expansion that doesn't include Texas or Notre Dame.

The league just needs to find ways to manufacture runs.