The Best Match For The Big Ten

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - December 23, 2009
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Having worked most of the bugs out of its own network, the Big Ten is now focusing on adding a 12th member to take advantage of a big money conference championship game. The idea is sound in both a financial and a competitive sense.

The game itself would bring in millions for the already wealthy conference and provide it with an excuse for dumping its long-held tradition of not scheduling games after Thanksgiving. While not the only reason, a lack of talent helps, the Big Ten will always be at a competitive disadvantage come Bowl season after sitting on the shelf for a month or more.

The question isn’t should they or will they, but who is going to be the target. The usual names have appeared: Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Missouri to go along with Rutgers, Syracuse, Cincinnati or Louisville. Some have merit, others are just ridiculous.


 

While the conference will talk about the importance of bringing in a highly ranked educational institution, this will be mostly a football decision. The final target will be a team that can compete as at least as a mid-level contender that brings with it a juicy television market.

Cincinnati brings a 12-0 record, the No. 33 television market, a No. 1 ranking by DesignIntelligence for its interior design program , and a fine men’s basketball program. Unfortunately, the Bearcats are a second thought in their own state because Ohio State dominates every patch of ground from the Michigan border to the Ohio River.

Syracuse logs in at No. 80 on the media market list with some bleed-over into New York City. It satisfies the educational requirement with a No. 53 ranking by US News & World Report, and each year some 23,000 applicants apply for 3,000 freshman slots. But the Orange are awful. Their inclusion would help the conference’s basketball rankings, but the only benefit of adding Syracuse to the mix would be to give Indiana a battle for last place.

Rutgers is similar to Syracuse, only better. It boasts a top academic reputation and is sandwiched between the New York and New Jersey television markets. But Rutgers’problems are twofold - it is far away and leaves something to be desired athletically. Even in today’s world of rapid transportation, geographic proximity plays a big role in conference makeup - members of the Western Athletic Conference notwithstanding. Transportation costs have gone crazy, and even the Big Ten is careful not to throw money away. Plus, Rutgers’ 48-34 record in the middling Big East since 2003 hardly makes it a championship contender.

Louisville would give the conference a much-needed boost in its basketball prestige, but this is a football position and the Cardinals’ team has been in a free fall since it went 11-1 in 2006.

Missouri offers both St. Louis (No. 21) and Kansas City (No. 32) and a 58-31 record in the Big 12 since 2003. It’s geographically appealing and provides for regional rivalries with Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. But can the Big Ten convince Missouri to abandon a conference in which the Tigers have had ample success for one that, at least for the time being, is of lower quality.


Notre Dame adds a national television audience that would bolster the Big Ten Network and an excellent academic record. According to athletic director Jack Swarbrick, a move to the Big Ten would actually increase the school’s earnings. Notre Dame currently gets $9 million from NBC; Big Ten schools got $20 million as their share of the conference television and radio rights. The Big Ten has targeted Notre Dame on other occasions, and Swarbrick said the school is happy with its present situation - content being the big fish in a very small independent pond rather than being the fourth-best team in the Big Ten.

Pittsburgh is not the biggest name on the list, but the Panthers are the best fit. The Steel City is the No. 23 media market, and the state offers a wealth of athletic talent. Pitt vs. Penn State would give the conference another natural rivalry to go along with Michigan-Michigan State, Michigan-Ohio State, Indiana-Illinois and Illinois-Northwestern. The school plays in the Big East, making the purge easier than going after Missouri, and it has one of the best young basketball coaches in the country. Jaime Dixon won’t help the school make the Big Ten football championship game but will add a lot of excitement and stress come March.

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