The Big N Conference and Athletic Realignment

Mentioning the name “Big Ten” evokes certain sentiments in the minds of many Americans. Although the conference is much more than just smashmouth, low-scoring football games played on chilly November days under gunmetal skies in places as exotic as Iowa City, Ann Arbor, and West Lafayette, football certainly does rule the roost in the conference. But there has traditionally been much more to the conference than big-time football.

As a doctoral student and a fan of so-called “minor sports” such as wrestling, I appreciate the other benefits of the Big Ten. The academic wing of the Big Ten (plus the University of Chicago, a former conference member in athletics before moving to Division III), the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, is an outstanding resource that helps make accessing research materials from other member colleges much easier. And the runaway financial success of the Big Ten Network helps make athletic programs a more free-standing enterprise, reduces student subsidies for athletics, and provides coverage of a wide range of sports besides football and basketball.

Few other conferences are as financially stable as the Big Ten—the Pacific 12 and Southeastern Conferences are the only other truly stable conferences. While the ironically named Big Ten swallowed up its twelfth member (Nebraska) in the last round of conference realignment, the Pac-12 added Utah and Colorado while the SEC added Missouri and Texas A&M. Three other large-school conferences (the ten-member Big 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Big East Conference—which also has members who do not play football) have been trying to survive, as one is unlikely to remain near the top of the athletic pecking order in another round of realignment.

The current conference order seemed fairly stable (minus the strange moves made by the Big East Conference) until this week. I was watching the Ohio State-Wisconsin football game Saturday afternoon when I saw an item on the bottom of the screen mentioning that the University of Maryland was in serious discussions to move to the Big Ten from the ACC. Sure enough, that move was made official on Monday, with the clear reasons for the expansion being Maryland’s large budget shortfall in athletics and the goal of adding more TV revenue in the next round of negotiations. Rutgers followed on Tuesday, with a big move from the struggling Big East Conference.

The fourteen-member Big Ten (let’s just call it the Big N, shall we?) may not be done adding members. Sixteen members is an appealing number, with potential candidates in the Universities of Virginia, North Carolina, Kansas, and Connecticut as well as possibly Notre Dame, a longtime point of discussion. Despite the increased amount of travel that college athletes must endure and the weakening of regional rivalries (such as Wisconsin versus Iowa in football), superconferences appear to be the way of the future. It is likely that the SEC and Pac-12 will add members to get to sixteen schools, with some merger of the ACC and Big East making up the fourth power conference. Everyone else will be fighting for scraps at the proverbial kids’ table.

I would love to hear predictions for how the big-time college conferences end up shaking out and whether academic factors will continue to be important for the Big Ten. Your comments and predictions are encouraged!

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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