Our Sports Conferences Win the Money Game, But Will They Lose Our Hearts?

It appears my alma mater will fall short of pre-season expectations in football. So I’ve pretty much already accepted the likelihood that the Wisconsin Badgers will disappoint their fans on the gridiron for at least the second year in a row.


But I’ve far from made up my mind about another aspect of the Big Ten: whether the conference’s planned expansion into one of the two biggest leagues in all the land, along with the Southeastern Conference, is good or bad for Flyover Country.


The trigger for the conference’s planned expansion to 16 teams from the current 14 was, of course, the news several weeks ago that UCLA and USC would be bolting the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten in 2024 for football at least.


And the linchpin for that dramatic announcement was anticipation of what would come soon after: news that the Big Ten struck a massive new, seven-year contract with the TV networks that was said to be worth up to about $7.5 billion, about a doubling of its current deals.


Certainly, this will be a dream for corporate sponsors as well as broadcasters, university coffers and many college athletes. “It’s hard to look into a crystal ball, but it clearly will open up more opportunities for marketers,” Allyson Witherspoon, Nissan’s chief marketing officer, told me.


Various pundits’ opinions have ranged from that of one USA Today columnist, who moaned that “college sports has become just another corporate proxy war,” to that of a Detroit sports reporter who insisted “the game day experience around the [Big Ten] conference will more or less stay the same.”


Flyover Country 1, Coasts 0


I started what I’m deciding about all of this with the pretty much visceral conclusion that it’s good when the heartland can beat the coasts at anything. In this case, the two conferences that have emerged as the remaining true “powerhouses” in collegiate sports have their homes, built their legacies and traditions, and continue to be based in Flyover Country.


I mean, this development would be akin to — what? The epicenter of the entertainment business moving to Nashville from Hollywood? Or Chicago taking over as the global financial heavyweight from New York?


The rise of the Big Ten and the SEC to dominate the coasts in collegiate sports isn’t something on that scale, but it certainly ranks as a rare occasion when the center of the country vanquishes the coasts in a significant entertainment and cultural milieu.


It’s kind of like enjoying the last Super Bowl where the combatants were both from Flyover Country, which I count as Super Bowl LV that featured the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeating the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021. (Before that, the last Big Game that didn’t include at least one team from the coasts was my personal favorite, Super Bowl LXV in 2011, when the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers.) Only, the tectonic shifts in college sports are much more consequential than the lineup in any Super Bowl.


There's also the recent legalization of "name, image and likeness" marketing deals for college athletes, which among other things means that their schools need to fare even better in the money game.


The reality, of course, is that money is calling the tune in college sports as never before. Advertisers love college football and basketball because of their huge and passionate fan bases and because there’s no substituting the live nature of the games at a time when cable-TV cord cutting is transforming the medium.


Indeed, the once-amateur nature of college sports and their participants is long gone. Now, schools and conferences must be able to keep up, and if the Big Ten and SEC can secure their futures by striking NFL-magnitude TV deals — rather than, say, watching the Atlantic Coast Conference or Pac-12 do so — then I’m all for it.


Game Day


But my satisfaction at seeing heartland conferences pull off these deals rather than their rivals on the coasts breaks down a bit when I consider the other implications of the essentially coast-to-coast expansion of the Big Ten, from Rutgers and Maryland to the schools in Los Angeles, and the lesser geographic ballooning of the SEC.


You can’t tell me that an every-three-years contest between, say, Indiana and USC is going to ignite intense game-day interest anywhere; nor is somehow trying to create a rivalry out of Penn State and UCLA, though both have pretty strong football traditions.


At the same time, the necessity for year-in, year-out schedules that equally pitch the coastal teams against the monsters of the Midwest will necessarily dilute the number of times that Wisconsin meets Michigan State, or Illinois clashes with Northwestern, or Iowa beats up on Nebraska.

Is it possible that the needs of accommodating games between UCLA and Purdue, and USC and Minnesota, could someday threaten cherished annual clashes including Michigan against Ohio State? And this is all proper speculation even before the SEC and Big Ten expand further in football, as they’re expected to, perhaps soon including Notre Dame.


Meanwhile, we still don’t know what’s going to happen for sure in other sports, but presumably at least other major ones, such as basketball, will follow. And while those developments, too, will enrich the conferences, their schools, and athletes and coaches, they’ll also bring up unique competitive considerations.


For instance, the achievements of Michigan State in men’s basketball are legendary. And even the run of my Badgers in making March Madness men’s tournaments in 21 of the last 22 years is pretty remarkable. But will the Spartans have to cede bragging rights in the Big Ten to the UCLA Bruins, who still own the most national titles in the history of the sport, 11, even though almost all were won in the John Wooden-coached era of the 1960s and 1970s?


“I think fans will decide” such questions, said Witherspoon, whose company is a major NCAA sponsor and has launched yet another season of “Heisman House” TV and online advertising featuring some of the most legendary stars of the college sport.


“Ultimately,” she added, “fans and games out there will drive that. The thing that is great about college sports is the passionate fan base, and when they’re engaged, they’re fully engaged. So fans will drive that evolution."