Big Ten reassess division names
It took two words, Legends and Leaders, to humble one of the most powerful men in college sports.
Actually, it took tens of thousands of words written and spoken about Legends and Leaders to make Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany think twice about what his league had done.
The reaction to Legends and Leaders, the names the Big Ten selected for its new football divisions in December 2010, was, with a few exceptions, scathing. Legends and Leaders became national punch lines for a conference that had already absorbed more than a few body blows.
Chosen to "reflect Big Ten traditions and values" and acknowledge the league's past (Legends) and future (Leaders), the division names instead were called confusing, arrogant, too similar-sounding, ambiguous and, yes, lame.
"We've had enough experience with names and expansion and development of divisions that we know that you rarely get a 90 percent approval rating," Delany told WGN Radio in Chicago shortly after the announcement. "But to get a 90 percent non-approval rating was really surprising. It showed that we didn't connect with our fans in a way that we wanted to. It's humbling, to say the least."
Despite the initial backlash and concerns about sustainability, the Big Ten decided to hold off on changing the names. Delany wanted to let them "breathe a bit" and reassess after the 2011 season.
The league hired an independent market research firm to survey Big Ten football fans about Legends and Leaders during the season. The goal was not only to see who liked the names and who didn't, but whether the names could connect with fans and, ultimately, if the names would remain.
Surveys were distributed on game weekends at 10 Big Ten stadiums this past fall, as well as at the league's inaugural football championship in Indianapolis. Fans completed the surveys online.
The results are in, and ESPN.com got the first chance to see them.
Bottom line: Legends and Leaders will remain through the 2012 football season.
Here's the part that will surprise some folks: Many Big Ten fans seem to want it that way.
Of the 516 fans surveyed, 57 percent either liked the division names "somewhat" or "very much." About 35 percent disliked the names somewhat or very much, while only 8 percent were neutral.
The study found that fans warmed up to the names as the season went along and saw them as unique and reflective of Big Ten history.
It also found that despite strong awareness of the names -- 91 percent of respondents knew about Legends and Leaders -- many fans felt they were confusing. The confusion went away for some when the names were explained through public service announcements and other marketing ventures.
The chief complaint, even among some fans who liked the names, was that they didn't know which teams went in which divisions. Unlike other leagues, the Big Ten decided not to use directional designations, even vague ones like Great Lakes and Great Plains, because it created the divisions based on competitive balance rather than geography.
Yet despite some drawbacks, the names seem to be catching on a year after being panned.
"When the names came out, people were confused," said Brian Powell, owner of The Brand Explorers, a Houston-based firm that conducted the study. "People scratched their heads and said, 'I don't know what they mean. I don't know how they came about. I don't know where my team fits.' As season moved along, people became more comfortable.
"As that understanding improved, you certainly saw the division name acceptance start to improve."
The survey included "core" fans ages 18-66 (average age of respondents was 36). Of the respondents, 56 percent were football season-ticket holders (43 percent for five years or longer); 72 percent were Big Ten students or alumni and 90 percent watched four or more Big Ten games during the 2010 season. The survey also identified fans who use social media and the web for Big Ten football information.
There were few differences in the demographics between those who liked the names and those who didn't. Surveys were distributed to fans who visited the Big Ten's mobile tour, which, among other things, displayed the new football championship trophy. The tour stopped at 10 campuses for games featuring 11 of the league's 12 teams. (Illinois didn't play at any of the tour stops; Illini fans appeared at the tour stops and could receive the survey, league officials said.)
The survey elicited plenty of opinions on both sides. One respondent wrote that Legends and Leaders are "unique and interesting. Fits the integrity of the conference." Another wrote that the names "really mean something. It is more than North and South."
"Fans are saying, 'It's what our universities are all about. It's not just a representation of whether we're someplace on a map. It's what we do, it's what we are,'" Powell said. "That's a pretty powerful message."
On the flip side, one fan called the names "silly and pretentious." Another wrote the names are "too grandiose," adding that "it'll sound embarrassing when some 3-9 team is in the Leaders Division year after year."
Among those opposing Legends and Leaders, 87 percent advocated directional designations and remained steadfast even when educated on how the Big Ten arrived at its selections. One wrote that the directional names "cannot really be misinterpreted." Powell said that while there's a portion of fans who will never like Legends and Leaders, the Big Ten must keep exploring the "barriers to acceptance" and whether continued education or other factors can change their minds.
One potential concern when the names were revealed -- that both began with the letter "L," which alludes to losing -- wasn't raised in any of the survey comments, Powell said.
Seventy-six percent of respondents felt the names were unique -- including 65 percent of those opposing the names -- while 64 percent felt they honored the Big Ten's history. The problem: Only 41 percent said the names are easy to understand.
The best remedy to the confusion seems to be time. Powell tracked the approval of the division names during the season through two-week moving averages, which showed a gradual increase in approval from Week 1 to Week 12.
"People were saying things like, 'In the beginning they were confusing but they're starting to grow on me,'" Powell said.
He has recommended that the Big Ten launch a campaign in 2012 built around division alignment. Future Big Ten PSAs also could be focused on where teams are placed in the divisions.
As for the legitimacy of the survey, Powell said, "There's no positive or negative slant in this report at all. Would I only provide positive feedback? Absolutely not. My job is to essentially report what the fans say."
And at least for now, the fans say Legends and Leaders are here to stay.
Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.