Now that the first round of the latest expansion in college football is complete we can evaluate which conference or institution benefited the most. Without question the winner here is the Big Ten, thanks to the Pac-10 acting as its royal taster.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the royal taster, allow me to explain what is, quite possibly, the worst job in the history of the world. Back in monarchical times (for you kids, that’s when there were kings besides Burger King) attempting to assassinate a king through poisoned food was far too commonplace for a king’s liking. Therefore the king assigned a member of his court the unenviable task of tasting his food first. If the royal taster failed to drop dead from poisoning, the king figured he was able to safely dig in without immediately dropping over dead.
In terms of recent college football expansion, the Pac-10 was the Big Ten’s royal taster.
What the Pac-10 did for the Big Ten was test the waters and taste the possibilities of expansion. The Big Ten was able to sit back, king of the castle, and watch the Pac-10 taste the food… and then see if it remained standing. Though the Pac-10 was unable to follow through on all of its ambitions, and suffered the embarrassment associated with that, the Big Ten now knows it is safe to take a big seat at the expansion table and scarf up whatever it wants, from teams in the Big East to the previously un-gettable get – Notre Dame.
The Big Ten is in the catbird seat, even if it appears as though it is standing pat right now. Even old battleaxes like former Notre Dame coach turned ESPN talking face, Lou Holtz, has “re-thought” his opinion on Notre Dame’s independence and now believes the Irish should join – yep – the Big Ten.
Holtz: “… I think Notre Dame ought to seriously consider joining the Big Ten. Because what I see happening, I see four or five superconferences.”
Of course any representative of ESPN has good reason to promote Notre Dame’s inclusion of the Big Ten. After all, ESPN is the conference’s biggest, and most prominent, TV partner. Notre Dame is routinely college football’s biggest TV draw. While the viewer is sometimes appears confused about who signs Holtz’s paychecks (Notre Dame, his former employer, or the Big Ten, his current employer), it is murky whether the about-face from a college football legend is motivated authentically. Regardless of motivation, however, there is more momentum behind Notre Dame joining the Big Ten than ever before.
A big reason why many (including me) are arguing Notre Dame should join the Big Ten is money. Few college institutions have been as overtly and unapologetically motivated by money than Notre Dame. Now no conference holds more cards than the Big Ten, especially since it pays out the most money of any conference to its affiliated schools… in the neighborhood of $20M per institution. Notre Dame responds to money, the Big Ten has it. The reality is now that the Big Ten is a more financially lucrative partner than independence.
While there are many financial reasons for the Big Ten to continue pursuing expansion, there are also “product quality” issues to consider. For example, with each passing day during the offseason another story or seven seems to surface about the varying temperatures of hot that plague Rich Rodriguez’s seat up in Ann Arbor. The point? Michigan is no longer a big time threat, or a big time draw, in the Big Ten. What Rich Rod has done to Michigan – attempt to completely transition it with new players and schemes – clearly has not worked in the two plus years he has been at the institution. Unless by “work” we mean force self-inflicted penalties and fail in conference play – and against Ohio State.
The Big Ten has the money, the leverage, and the space available to add a high profile, major draw institution to its ranks. Notre Dame joining the Big Ten would be a massive boost to its already successful cable network, as well, creating even more wealth for the conference that already enjoys the most by comparison.
Of course that is just Notre Dame. With talk of Texas A&M moving to the SEC cooling, the Big XII(ish) standing pat, and the Pac-10 announcing it is done with its expansion efforts, the Big Ten has enough leverage to dip into any willing conference. Athletic departments currently collecting puny checks from the Big East must listen to what the Big Ten can present – especially with more momentum behind Notre Dame moving to the conference than ever before.
The Big Ten is the Big Winner from this round of expansion because it has emerged with the most leverage to continue expansion momentum and add real financial value to the conference. No conference or school has emerged with more power to influence the future of college football than the Big Ten. And it will be fun to see what happens next.