Conference realignment speculation is a key part of the offseason blogging playbook, but it's typically not something we need to dig into until the true doldrums around May, but the Big 12 had other ideas. Thanks to some curious and forceful statements from Oklahoma's administration, we've already written about the potential for Oklahoma to join the Big Ten someday.
Now, it seems that UConn, yes, the one all the way in Connecticut, is being talked up as a possible candidate for Big 12 expansion. Just yesterday, our friends at the excellent SB Nation Indiana blog, Crimson Quarry, wrote that the Big Ten should beat the Big 12 to the punch, and expand to add UConn themselves.
There's no indication that the Big Ten is looking to add any more teams in the near future, but perhaps our Indiana friends raise a good point. Should the Big Ten grab the Huskies? Let's take a look at what that would mean
What would UConn hypothetically bring to the Big Ten?
The biggest advantage? An elite basketball program that would help solidify the Big Ten's place as an elite conference for basketball, both Men's and Women's. The UConn Women's basketball program is completely without peer in the sport, and the Men's team has won four national titles, including two since 2010.
Further Big Ten expansion would dilute conference schedules even more, but I'm not sure many Buckeye fans would complain if they lost a game against say, Nebraska, or Iowa, or Purdue, and replaced it with at least one annual game against a program like the Huskies.
Last year, UConn finished 74th in the Director's Cup, which measures athletic success across all sports. That would be the second lowest score in the Big Ten, ahead of only Rutgers (who finished 104th). I'm not sure how UConn's performance in things like say, volleyball or tennis would change fan's perception of the program. The Huskies have a hockey program (and one with some upside), an excellent soccer program, and a baseball program with a pulse. That might be enough for many fans.
Buuuuut what about football?
Other sports are great, but when it comes to the finances, and general fan interest, football is king. And here, the picture isn't so kind of UConn. The Huskies have never finished the season in the AP Top 25. Since joining the FBS, they've been ranked for a grand total of six weeks, ever, with four of those being the 2007 season, a year they finished 9-4, and lost to Wake Forest in a bowl game.
The recent history is even more brutal. UConn hasn't finished with a winning season since 2010, and has only recorded three seasons with SRS ratings above 3.00. That's bad! The Huskies also sit in a state that produces very little high-end FBS talent, and must fight in a crowded northeast for what's left.
Bob Diaco seems to have the Huskies playing more competitive football (they were, after all, the only team to beat Houston this season), and even in a tough American conference, UConn could be in the conversation for bowl games on a regular basis. But structurally, this would probably be the worst football program in the Big Ten right now. Yes, even more than Purdue, and honestly, even more than Rutgers. And even after getting plugged into the Big Ten money machine, it's hard to imagine UConn being an above average Big Ten football program in the short or medium term.
Since football is so important, why would the Big 12 want UConn? Or the Big Ten?
We don't know for a *fact* that they do. But UConn's biggest hypothetical appeal isn't their basketball program, and it certainly isn't their football team. It's their geography. Specifically, their proximity to TV markets.
The Big 12 currently lacks a lucrative TV network, which has made some administrators (i.e, Oklahoma) worried about the league's long term health and stability. They can't really launch one unless Texas decides to give up the Longhorn Network, or fold the rest of the conference into it, but let's say, hypothetically, that the rest of the league does this. A hypothetical Big 12 network would still be disadvantaged compared to say, the Big Ten or the SEC, since outside of Texas, they lack both national brands, and programs near major population centers. There aren't a lot of TV sets in Stillwater or Ames, after all. So the conventional thinking is that they should expand to a major population center.
Enter UConn, which boosts proximity to NYC, and their own Hartford-New Haven TV market (which is the 30th largest, bigger than Kansas City or Columbus). The thinking is that UConn could do what Rutgers did for the Big Ten, proving a way to get the Big 12 Network on basic cable in major northeastern markets, making everybody a lot of money, while also getting another eastern time zone school for WVU. Hey, it worked for Rutgers!
Do you think that would be a good idea for the Big 12?
I don't. I don't even think a conference network is very likely, since Texas doesn't have a financial incentive to make network concessions, and given the instability with the cable TV market, and ESPN specifically, I'm not even sure they could launch one and hit the revenue targets they want even if everybody decided it was a good idea.
The Rutgers and UConn situations are a little different too. One of the reasons it made sense for the Big Ten to make a play for the NYC market is because a *ton* of Big Ten grads, and fans, already live there. Michigan has a huge NYC area alumni presence, as does Penn State. Ohio State does as well. Even if Rutgers sucks forever, those B1G transplants aren't going anywhere, and interest in seeing Big Ten games in that market will still exist.
That isn't the case for the Big 12, where only Texas has much of a presence in the area. Using LinkedIn Alumni data, even without Rutgers, a conservative estimate would have the Big Ten with three times as many grads living in metro NYC as the Big 12, and WITH Rutgers, it becomes an even bigger blowout. UConn also isn't actually *in* the NYC media market, it's in Hartford. That's still a big market in its own right, but it isn't the same. (Edit: As a commenter points out, the state of CT is split between the two) Would UConn be the same moneymaker for the Big 12? I have my doubts.
But even if it was, I'm not sure that changes anything for the Big Ten. UConn to the Big 12 doesn't kick BTN off NYC basic cable. It probably doesn't prevent the Big Ten from holding events in New York's elite venues, like MSG or Yankee Stadium. There's a gazillion eyeballs there, and given the foothold other B1G institutions have in the market, I wouldn't consider UConn to the Big 12 as a "threat" to anything a Big Ten fan would care about.
Would you be happy with UConn to the Big Ten?
As a fan, I'd be perfectly happy if the Big Ten never expanded again. Further expansion means fewer games with traditional Big Ten opponents, and dilutes conference history and identity. Since I'm not a university employee or a financial stakeholder in BTN, I don't personally care how much money any specific entity gets, especially since I don't think Ohio State is financially prevented from competing at a high level.
But if the league needed to expand again, provided that one of the other schools brought in high level football (like an Oklahoma, Texas or Notre Dame), I'd be okay with adding UConn. That cements the B1G as both a midwestern and northeastern conference, gives Rutgers (and Penn State) another local rival (don't @ me with your WE HAVE NO RIVALS baloney, Penn State fans), and bolsters the basketball and soccer credentials of the league. Adding an eastern team that stinks at football isn't the end of the world, given the divisional imbalance at the moment.
If the Big Ten expanded and added two teams with poor football programs in the name of "markets' or something else, I would be upset. But if you aren't good at football, at least be good at something, and UConn certainly is.
In my personal opinion, I think the ACC, somehow, would be the best landing spot for the Huskies, but if that never works out, and the Big 12 falls apart, maybe the Big Ten would be okay. Maybe.