Following conference expansion rumors are a lot more fun when you can view them as just an intellectual exercise, and not something that directly impacts your favorite team. Right now, the Big 12 in back in their perpetual "will they, won't they" game of expansion, which is huge news if you're a fan of a team a team trying to get in, but the impact on the Big Ten at the moment is probably minimal.
Whatever decision the Big 12 makes would impact The American, and potentially Conference USA or the Sun Belt, but thanks to the TV agreements that the other major conferences have secured, it's highly unlikely any of the power conferences will make any moves until the end of their current TV agreements.
But it's not like those agreements all expire in like, 2040. By the mid-2020s, in less than a decade, everyone's contracts will end, including the Big Ten's brand new contract that could be worth about eleventy billion dollars. And when that happens, all bets are off.
Could the Big Ten look to expand again in the near future? Should they? Who might they look at? Because inquiring minds want to know, let's take a closer look.
Why would the Big Ten hypothetically consider expansion? 14 teams is already kind of a lot
The most obvious answer, of course, is money. The Big Ten Network has been a fabulously successful product, not just in terms of production value and exposure, but financially as well. One of the recent reasons for BTN's financial success has been their expansion into the DC and New York media markets, via the additions of Maryland and Rutgers. Those programs have mostly stunk on the football field. They might stink on the field throughout the bulk of this current TV deal. But thanks to Big Ten saturation in those cities, and expansion of BTN coverage, it's making everybody a lot of money. Well, not Rutgers, but it will eventually make Rutgers a lot of money.
Who knows what the TV industry looks like in 2024. There's reason to be more skeptical of how much higher TV rights deals can go. But if there's more blood to be squeezed from this rock, expanding into other TV markets could potentially be another way to do it.
Is a money grab the only reason the Big Ten could hypothetically consider expansion?
It's probably the most likely reason, but it doesn't take too much imagination to think of other ones. We don't know exactly what the College Football Playoff will look like once it hits its second contract, but it seems reasonably likely that the field will expand. Depending on what other conferences do, it is possible the conference could have an incentive to expand in order to give them a better chance at making that playoff, especially if the western flank of the conference continues to underperform compared to the eastern side.
It's also possible that a program could be available that is so enticing, the conference could completely change their long term plans in order to secure that program. I can think of two that would fit under this category.
Okay. If the Big Ten decided to expand, who could be on the table?
We can make a few educated guesses here. First, given how important academic prestige is to conference administrators, it's a safe guess that the conference wouldn't add a team that didn't have a strong research tradition unless they had an amazing athletic program or a really good reason. So that rules out schools like West Virginia, Cincinnati, any commuter campuses, BYU, most of the Big 12, and others. Remember, it's worth pointing out that how U.S. News & World Report ranks how "good" a college is, and how a Big Ten administrator might, are two different things.
Typically, it's a safe assumption that if the Big Ten wanted to add another program, it would probably come from the prestigious Association of American Universities. That list includes every Big Ten program except Nebraska, who got kicked out right after they joined the Big Ten.
If we just took a look at that membership list and tried to isolate programs that had a snowball's chance you know where of joining the Big Ten, we'd come up with Texas, Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Kansas, Iowa State, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.
Is it possible the Big Ten could take a look at a program outside of that group?
Sure. Notre Dame, after all, isn't in the AAU, but nobody would look at Notre Dame's addition to anything as diluting the academic clout of the university. In the unlikely event that Notre Dame wanted to join the Big Ten for all sports (they're a future Big Ten member in hockey), no Big Ten university president would complain.
I am willing to consider a scenario, albeit an unlikely one, where the Big Ten chases a very successful athletic program that does not hit AAU classification, but is close. In a hypothetical world where the Big Ten would need to add Oklahoma in order to get Texas, I think leaders could be persuaded to keep academic concerns to themselves. It's also possible that over a stretch of eight or so years, a school could raise their profile to get close enough to a research benchmark that the conference could take them anyway. UConn is the school that comes to mind there, but perhaps there are others.
In the interest of being thorough, Syracuse was an AAU member until 2011. If the Big Ten was interested in Syracuse, I doubt that'd be the deal breaker.
Are all of those schools equally likely?
No. After all, if a program doesn't offer a new TV market, an expansive athletic brand or a strong football program, there isn't much of an appeal, at least from the Big Ten's perspective. That rules out Pitt, Iowa State, Syracuse and probably Virginia (unless UVA was needed to grab a more attractive ACC property). A school with an already stable conference home with large TV payouts isn't likely to want to leave either, which removes SEC programs like Missouri and Vanderbilt. Notre Dame also isn't joining a league unless they're required to because of the playoff, and even then, alumni and donors would probably raise hell to keep them out of the Big Ten.
In my humble opinion, if the Big Ten decided to expand, I think the single most likely candidate would be Kansas. The Jayhawks bring AAU membership, new TV markets in the west, a national basketball brand, and a football team that will get plenty of exercise (if they had everything, they'd already be in the Big Ten, right?). Following that, you're looking at Texas, one of the ACC programs (Georgia Tech, UNC, Duke, maybe UVA), and then UConn.
Wait, Texas? Like, for real?
I wouldn't sleep on this. When the next TV deals are done, the idea that Texas and/or Oklahoma would want to leave the Big 12 isn't crazy. Both programs could likely get better TV revenues than they would in the Big 12, and they'd be free from the membership squabbles and competing interests of Big 12 membership.
I would expect every other conference to make strong pitches to add Texas, whose athletic department, brand, and recruiting territory would make it the most attractive program that could go on the proverbial market. Academically, the Big Ten would be the best fit, but the Pac-12 or SEC could make compelling cases as well for different reasons.
Should we root for this? Would this be good?
I can only speak for myself. Any additional teams, of course, would mean Ohio State would play other Big Ten West programs less. If you care about regular matchups with say, Northwestern, or Iowa, or Wisconsin, you should probably root against expansion, no matter what.
I think it's possible, depending on the teams, that expansion could improve the actual quality of product. North Carolina is good at virtually every sport, and is a fun road trip. So is Texas. Kansas would cement the Big Ten as a basketball power. So would UConn. But adding say, Kansas and UConn would make Big Ten football unquestionably much worse.
I think 14 teams is fine. I'd be fine with the Big Ten staying that way indefinitely. If they can make a run at Texas in a few years though, that's probably fine too.
Things are quiet now. But you shouldn't plan on them staying quiet forever.