There was a time when college athletics’ Big Ten Conference consisted of 10 schools, primarily in the Midwest, regionally appropriate. What a quaint idea.
Then, the conference began to spread its wings. It became 11 schools in 1989 with the addition of Penn State. In 2010, Nebraska was added as the Conference started ignoring geography. That led to the addition of Maryland and Rutgers in 2012, turning the Big Ten into the Big Fourteen, although they never got around to changing the name.
Then came the bombshell announcement this summer that USC and UCLA would be moving into the conference in 2024, stretching its reach from sea to shining sea. It’s about 3,000 miles from New Brunswick, N.J., home of Rutgers, to Los Angeles, where USC and UCLA are situated. That’s a long ride for the softball or tennis teams to make.
What a swell idea.
It is not new, however. The Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns are headed for the Southeast Conference, increasing SEC membership to 16 schools with little concern for its original geographic concentration of the south and southeast.
What’s a thousand miles here or there for the swim teams or the fencers to travel for conference competition?
Now, of course, these conference expansions have nothing to do with softball, tennis, swimming or fencing. The driving force are the monoliths of college athletics – football and basketball.
Like so much else in college athletics the moves of schools are all about money and those two are revenue-generating sports, lots of revenue. The bigger the conference, the more the revenue.
Consider that in fiscal year 2021, the Pac-12 distributed just $19.8 million to its member schools and that the Big Ten handed out $46.1 million per school. The accountants at USC and UCLA saw that rather dramatic discrepancy and the athletic programs packed their bags and followed the money. The SEC was even more generous with $56.4 million distributed to member schools.
The departures of Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 Conference on life support. Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston are headed there next year but those are distinctly lower profile. The same is true now of the Pacific 12 with USC and UCLA headed for the exit and two others, Washington and Oregon wondering if the Big Ten is interested in even more expansion.
There is one elephant in the room. Notre Dame, probably the most glamorous name in college football, remains an independent, unaffiliated with any conference.
Wouldn’t the Irish be an attractive football addition? The SEC and Big Ten almost certainly think so.