With all the beaten-to-death talk of Big Ten expansion and conference shuffling, it seems as though most pundits have simply accepted it as fact that leaving the Big 12 is an easy call for both Missouri and Nebraska.
More money, more power, more prestige. What’s not to like?
University of Oklahoma President David Boren clearly thinks otherwise. When it comes to the potential demise of his school’s home conference, Boren contends that “if any member decided to leave, they would regret it later on.”
If it’s so obvious to everyone else that the Big Ten is a financial no-brainer for the Big 12 candidates, what does Boren see that no one else does?
Well, Boren clearly has a stake in keeping the conference intact, which raises the possibility that the ex-senator is playing politics. If you asked me to make the case for Boren, though, I’d hit on five key points:
No conference values its reputation more than the Big Ten. For decades, these schools have fancied themselves college football’s most exclusive club.
Now, though, they’re considering letting in a couple interlopers to help boost the bottom line. Think the bluebloods would be all that thrilled about socializing with the nouveau riche?
The flip side: The Big Ten as we’ve come to know it ceases to exist. It morphs from one of the last true bastions of college football history into a bloated monstrosity. Its tradition — the foundation of the conference’s identity — gone.
As appealing as expansion may seem to Big Ten fans in theory, the potential to dilute its valuable brand is definitely there.
Obviously, this is all about money. The real question: Will there be as much to go around in the Big Ten as everyone thinks?
Right now, the Big 12′s TV contract sucks. On the other hand, between its deal with ESPN/ABC and its network, the Big Ten is raking in the dough.
Yet, what happens when the Big 12 redoes its own TV deal? What if the Big 12 builds its own network in concert with the Pac-10? Either way, there will be more money to go around.
Meanwhile, if the Big Ten expands, the conference members would be splitting all those ducats among 14 or 16 teams, not 11. Even if the pot expands, there’s no guarantee the conference schools themselves would continue to pull down as much.
Like the rest of the Big 12, Mizzou and Nebraska feed from the the Texas breadbasket. Leave the Big 12, and they risk losing that talent connection.
Instead, the Tigers and Cornhuskers will have to mine the Midwest for players. That involves creating new sets of relationships in a region where the player pool is already drying up. And when the talent starts to go, so does the quality of play.
Herein lies the true gamble in hitching up with the Big Ten.
The slow southward migration of the population has been the sociological theme of U.S. history in the past quarter century. The Rust Belt has hemorrhaged the manufacturing jobs that long sustained the region’s economy, leading to a great diaspora to areas like the Sun Belt, California and Texas.
Fewer people, fewer jobs, less money — read the writing on the wall. It’s a death spiral, and without a massive shift in demographic and economic trends, it won’t end well for the Midwest.
We’re not talking about Saw I-VI here, but the final outcome won’t change.
(The results of that dispersion are showing up on the field of play as well. Fewer top-notch prospects are coming out of traditional strongholds such as Ohio and Michigan.)
Which brings us back to…
Plot the demographic dominoes out 15 years from now.
With the area’s population declining, fewer people are growing up dyed-in-the-wool fans of the Big Ten. The conference’s ratings are declining, as is the quality of the product on the field.
All of a sudden, that lucrative TV contract isn’t worth so much. Neither is a Big Ten membership.