Last month, the Big Ten secured a major coup, in adding Notre Dame to the conference in hockey, starting in the 2017-2018 season. The move gave the Big Ten access to another influential, high quality program that should help the conference secure more than one postseason bid a season on a more regular basis. But it also created a problem.
Seven teams is a bit of an uncomfortable number for scheduling. Eight would make much more sense, no? Speculation that the Big Ten could add another affiliate member centered around one big program, but now it appears that is off the table.
Arizona State will reportedly not become an affiliate member of the Big Ten, per WCCO in Minnesota. The Sun Devils, who currently compete as an independent, will reportedly decide between the WCHA and the NCHC.
So, what's next for the Big Ten then? Per the article:
The Big Ten, which for more than a hundred years did not have any affiliate members, thought it would be prudent to see how those three new affiliate memberships go before adding any more of them, a source said, and for now at least, is content with seven men's hockey teams.
The conventional expansion wisdom is that a program like ASU would be attractive, given their proximity to a huge city and TV market, but that isn't really how non-revenue sports works. The TV audience, right now, for Big Ten hockey is so small that "markets", especially for newer programs, aren't really a factor.
The president of the Big Ten Network, Mark Silverman, told Land-Grant Holy Land earlier this year that the conference's network aspires to go where fans want them. Though he wouldn't speak specifically to Arizona State, Silverman echoed sentiments that a hypothetical more western partner could produce a potential opportunity, if the demand was there.
"We're always looking to expand the network. Johns Hopkins was already in Maryland so we already had the distribution. We've never added a school other than football or basketball where we looked to grow the network," Silverman said.
"As long as we produce compelling programming, if there's enough fans that want to watch us, hopefully we could be distributed in those areas."
If you're a fan of Big Ten hockey, this is probably for the best. The Big Ten needs to improve the depth of the conference, especially with Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin struggling a bit, and Arizona State just isn't very good right now. Given their geography, it's also hard to imagine them staying in the Big Ten for the long term.
Seven might not be a perfect number right now, but waiting a few years to see if other Big Ten programs can start a hockey team (maybe they can use some of that new Fox money), or if a more attractive regional program (like a North Dakota, or even a Miami), is probably the best bet.
You shouldn't expect the Big Ten to stay at seven forever, but don't be surprised if it does for multiple seasons before making any changes to membership.