With Rutgers and Maryland, Will the B1G’s Numbers Keep Going Up?
21.5 million. That’s the number to keep in mind when assessing the Big Ten’s latest expansion move. It represents the number of persons 12 or older who live in the New York, Washington, and Baltimore media markets. That’s a lot of people. So many people that to equal those three markets, you’d have to add together the six largest markets currently in the Big Ten’s footprint. (Those markets: Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.)
I’ve heard from commentators (and people who have lived there) that college sports don’t move the needle very much along the East Coast, where they’re lousy with pro teams. I can’t argue that, but again, 21.5 million. You don’t have to move that needle very much to capture an audience similar to the size of the audience in, say, Minneapolis that will watch Minnesota-Michigan State this week. (If a Rutgers-Ohio State game pulls a 1.5 rating in New York, that’s the same size audience that will watch Minnesota-Michigan State in Minneapolis if it pulls a 10.9 rating, which it probably won’t.) You may question whether adding Rutgers and Maryland will do much of anything to increase the Big Ten’s TV ratings or BTN’s subscriber base. I know this much: neither of those will go down or stay the same. Again, 21.5 million.
I can hear the objections already. “It’s Rutgers and Maryland. They’re not all that good at football.” Again, I can’t argue that. There is no evidence, however, that fans are in danger of abandoning their teams because they find the competition uninspiring. We have not even approached the point where we get too disgusted with the business end of college football to keep watching it. Every bowl game, even the ones played in the third week of December, finds a decent-sized audience. We’re on the verge of adding a playoff system as rigged as a Soviet election — and we’re actually excited about it. Our love and devotion to our teams shows no bounds, not even the bounds of common sense. There are 124 schools in the FBS, and a good 30 of them — some in our own conference — can’t put a team on the field that is so bad its fans won’t watch it. Apple doesn’t even have that kind of loyalty. The argument is counterintuitive anyway from a fan’s point of view. If you like watching your team, you probably like watching them win more than you like watching them lose. So what’s it to you if the conference adds a couple teams you don’t think are very good?
I don’t think you should worry that we’ve reached the saturation point in college football. The East Coast is the last part of the country to be taken over by the sport. It may seem unlikely to happen but at one time interest in NASCAR was intensely regional too. Nobody really knows if better competition will make more people care about Rutgers and Maryland. Nobody doubts that a Big Ten affiliation will make both schools wealthier.
So what should we Big Ten fans be worried about? The first thing is that the effect this will have on recruiting will be unequally spread across the conference. The New York/New Jersey, Washington, and Baltimore areas have given Big Ten schools many of the offensive skill players they couldn’t find at home. Just looking at running backs alone is intoxicating: Ron Dayne, Mike Rozier, Ronnie Harmon, Shonn Greene, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell … that’s quite a list and it’s not close to complete, mostly because it only includes players from New Jersey or New York City. For the schools that will get to play Rutgers and Maryland every year, access to these recruits will go up. The schools left out by divisional alignment will still benefit but not as much.
The second thing to worry about is how, at least in football, the Big Ten is now going to be two conferences with a scheduling agreement and a regional playoff game rather than one smoothly integrated conference. There are many details to be worked out but if we wind up with the SEC’s 14-team model (six divisional games, one annual protected crossdivision rival, and the other six teams rotating) your team’s interaction with the other division is going to be comically limited. For instance, assuming they stay in opposite divisions and the rivalries don’t get reconfigured, the average Wisconsin football player will go his entire career without facing Iowa, even though the schools are about three hours apart. Most Big Ten teams will face any given MAC school more often than they will face an unprotected rival from the other division.
The third thing to worry about is that expansion won’t stop here. The pressure to go to sixteen teams may prove too much to resist. The schools interested in and capable of moving are somewhat limited as well. If you thought Rutgers and Maryland were a bit underwhelming athletically, the fifteenth and sixteenth schools are likely to be even more so. We may dream of a superconference that includes, say, Texas and Georgia Tech (which fit the Big Ten every way but geographically) but the reality is more likely to be along the lines of Kansas and Buffalo (which fit the Big Ten every way but athletically).
Until that day — if it ever comes — welcome, Rutgers and Maryland.