Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Can Big Ten Translate Dollars Into Wins?

The Big Ten made itself a boatload of cash during the BCS era while maintaining its status (at least for a time) as the most powerful conference in college sports. But sadly, despite its shrewd business deals that greatly enriched its member schools, the Big Ten fell well short in one important area.

Now the questions is, can the Big Ten convert all those dollars into wins in the College Football Playoff era?

Money-wise, the Big Ten was the biggest winner in the 16-year BCS era. The conference sent more teams to BCS bowl games than any other and signed the biggest TV contracts in the interim. Under the ruthless leadership of commissioner Jim Delany, who's been at the helm since 1989, the conference also greatly expanded its footprint from its original midwest base.

The launching of the Big Ten Network in 2007 was both revolutionary and a stroke of genius. While it's not the first network dedicated to a single conference (the late The Mtn. of the Mountain West was), the BTN is by far the most successful, now reaching over 90 million U.S. homes.

But despite the bulging bank accounts and membership ranks, the Big Ten took a step back on the field. As the BCS era went on, the football reputation of the Big Ten became greatly diminished. The conference appeared in just three BCS title games—all by Ohio State—and won but a single championship in 2002 when the Buckeyes beat Miami in a thriller marred by a late-game controversy.

The loss of football prestige could be seen clearly in the Big Ten's regression in the BCS standings.

Voters simply didn't trust the quality of Big Ten football after the Buckeyes lost badly in back-to-back BCS title games in 2006 and '07, and repeated losses by conference teams in the Rose Bowl. Of the eight teams that represented the Big Ten in BCS bowls, only Ohio State (6-4) and Michigan State (1-0) had winning records.

As the CFP era commences in the upcoming 2014 season, does the Big Ten have a chance to reverse that trend?

The outlook isn't good. Aside from Ohio State, the Big Ten continues to lag in recruiting, with only the Buckeyes landing in the top 10 (according to 247Sports) for the 2014 class, which included seven SEC teams. The addition of Maryland and Rutgers next season is purely a TV household money grab, and will do little enhance the conference's football prowess.

The decline of the Big Ten on the field has much to do with the dramatic falls of two powerhouse members. Michigan, the last team to win a national title before the BCS era (in 1997), has fallen on hard times after stagnating in Lloyd Carr's final years, followed by the implosion under RichRod and the potential train-wreck of a hire with Brady Hoke. Penn State, currently on probation with severe sanctions, is still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

The Big Ten is due to get another financial windfall after temporarily falling behind the SEC in the revenue arms race. The conference's current TV deal with ESPN expires after the 2016 season. And with Fox Sports, co-owner of the Big Ten Network, expected to make an aggressive play, the new contract will push conference member's annual take to exceed $35 million.

Big Ten Revenue Stream
Academic YearExpected Revenue Per School
2012-13$25.4 Million
2013-14$26.4 Million
2014-15$30.1 Million
2015-16$33.3 Million
2016-17 (Projected)> $35 Million

How to convert all that gold into victories on the field? That will be the Big Ten's challenge in the CFP era. Because of its huge fan base and reach in the major media markets (soon to include both New York and Washington, theoretically), the Big Ten will continue to get more than its fair share of teams in the lucrative six-bowl lineup of the CFP, and ergo, more cash.

But until it gets that elusive national championship, with a drought now reaching 11 seasons, all that money will buy the Big Ten little respect.

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