Looking Into The Big Ten Magic Eight Ball

As a two-time B1G Ten alumnus, I was outraged. Apparently, the Pittsburgh Panthers were up for grabs and somebody in Chicago was asleep at his desk and lost the chance to add a marquee program to the conference.

Pittsburgh and the University of Syracuse bailed on the Big East to jump at the invitation to join the Atlantic Coast Conference. Pittsburgh caught my eye because they are spotted in the eastern part of the region, so it has an athletic program familiar to B1G fans and would be an easy travel for conference non-revenue sports clubs.

Pittsburgh would renew its rivalry with Penn State, add a new metropolitan TV market for the Big Ten and bring an elite basketball program as icing on the cake. What’s not to like? Besides, I do not want to see other conferences eclipse the Big Ten. It is enough that the SEC is out there. A football competitive ACC is too much to bear.

That is a purely selfish alumni attitude, of course. So, in times of confusion I turn, as I am sure you do, to my Magic 8 Ball for answers.


Question: “Is college conference expansion really about football money?”


Magic Eight Ball: Definitely.

There are 1,300 member institutions in the NCAA. Only 22 of them have a self-sustaining athletics program according to figured compiled by USA Today and shown on businessofcollegesports.com. Eight of them are members of the Big Ten. Neither Pittsburgh nor Syracuse makes the list.

If you are tracking the Benjamins, it just makes sense that the Big Ten Conference will not add programs that cut the revenue split of current members. The conference prefers to add programs that bring more to the pie than the slice they take out.

Penn State, the most recent program to join the conference (1990) sets the bar. The Nittany Lions generate $106.6 million in athletic revenue to cover $88 million in expenses. Other conference high rollers are Ohio State ($123.1 million) and Michigan ($106.8 million).

In football, Big Ten schools average $40.6 million revenue to cover $17.9 million football expenses leaving a football profit* of $22.7 million to subsidize non-revenue athletic programs. Only the SEC exceeds this performance.

There is a wide range to the figures, with Penn State’s football revenue ($70 million) on the upper end and, surprisingly, Purdue ($18.1 million) on the low end.

In contrast, Pittsburgh reports $22.6 million in football revenue and Syracuse $19.2 million. That is about the same as Northwestern. There is no “We are Penn State” in a Panthers’ petition to join the Big Ten.

Question: “But, wouldn’t Pitt fill a hole in the Big Ten’s footprint?”

Magic Eight Ball: Outlook not so good.

We aren’t thinking of old school network broadcasting television, are we, where a handful of executives determined what was shown in local sports markets? That thinking is as archaic as newsprint. ESPN and cable changed everything.

The Big Ten Network already covers the Pittsburgh metro area with Penn State. The Nittany Lions have an equal to Syracuse pulling power in the New York TV market asserts Frank the Tank (an Illinois grad) in a revealing 2009 post The Big Ten Expansion Index. Penn State provides BTN a football draw in the urban markets of the Mid-Atlantic States that overlap the ACC, which is still more of a basketball conference than football.

Question: “So, is Notre Dame going for this?”

Magic Eight Ball: No way!

Notre Dame touts its football independence, but the fact is that its broadcast revenue would leap by about $10 million per year as a B1G member. The conference splits $212 with member schools, roughly $20 million annually per school. The Irish’ broadcast revenue is about $9 million, plus another $1 million from basketball broadcasts. Thus, Notre Dame receives less broadcast revenue than Indiana does.

So why does Notre Dame work against its financial self-interest in its desire to remain independent? It’s a catholic thing to do. Catholicism is the heartbeat of the Fighting Irish. Its the nationwide pull is on the Catholics who see UND as THE Catholic football team.

That’s the appeal of the Big East to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish competes in non-football sports against other Catholic universities. The appeal draws high school recruits from Catholic school pipelines across the country. It is also the crux of long and bitter memory.

The Fighting Irish once wanted to join the Big Ten. The Big Ten turned them down, even when it was Frank Leahy and Knute Rockne doing the asking, in decisions tinged in anti-Catholic bigotry. Fighting Irish fans have never forgotten, or forgiven. It was an emotional catharsis to them to turn down the Big Ten’s invitation in 1999.

If Moses came down from the Mount bearing tablets with the message “Join the Big Ten” written by the hand of The Lord, Irish fans would revolt—while muttering “false profits,” or something.

Question: “If the Irish are off the table, how about the Texas Longhorns?”

Magic Eight Ball: Maybe.

But is Texas interested in the B1G? That is questionable and problematic.

The Longhorns’ $94 million revenue from its football and basketball program is the highest in the nation, easily matching the value Penn State brought to the conference in 1990. They are the only non-SEC school to pass the PSU test.

What’s more, The University of Texas-Austin has the academic and research chops to appeal to the Big Ten presidents and Faculty Senates members. When it comes to expansion, the Big Ten may give more weight to the research fit than other conferences would.

But Texas does not want to share the revenue of its newly created Longhorn network, the ESPN-fueled venture that is at the heart of the Big 12’s strife. That drove Texas A&M to the SEC and inspired Oklahoma to petition the Pac-12 for admission with Oklahoma State and, surprisingly, Texas in tow.

The Pac-12 turned Oklahoma down, citing the same reason the Big Ten would have given if asked. The conference values equality in relationships…and revenue. They will not share revenue with schools that will not share with them. Oklahoma is a small market state. The Sooners and Cowboys do not have enough BTN value-add to entice a Big Ten invitation.

Question: “So, does the Big Ten stand pat?”

Magic Eight Ball: Reply hazy. Ask again later

The Pac-12’s rejection of the Texas/OU/OSU membership bid stopped the break-up of the Big-12 that surely would have followed. Everybody, including the Big Ten, gets a breather to assess how the dust settles.

Texas may need time to see the benefits of sharing revenue to preserve a league. Or, they may find how difficult it is to make an independent, single school network financially viable. Notre Dame needs more time to make the radical choice to join a secular public conference.

Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg suggests that the Big Ten is better off as a 12-team conference. And this report says that Jim Delany, who has done a lot of homework on this topic, is quietly exploring Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech as options.

Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese ranted about the ACC’s raid on the Big East on WFAN-NY. He had a telling comment about the Big Ten that is the perfect close to this story.

“You know who’s going to be the winner in all this when it’s all is said and done if you want to talk about conference? Big Ten. The Big Ten is sitting there, they took Nebraska, they’re on the sidelines, they’re watching all this chaos, everybody’s going to be taking people. And you know you could be standing there all alone at the end? Notre Dame and Texas. And the Big Ten would not be accused of raiding because they’re just going to be sitting there.”

*NOTE: NCAA athletic programs are non-profit. But excess revenue over expenses,” or “excess revenue” is unwieldy. So I convey that thought with the short and easy “profit.” So when I write profit, you think “excess revenue” OK?

Anthony Brown is the lead editor of Redskins Hog Heaven and a staff writer at This Given Sunday.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.