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Column: The Big Ten is competing with (and beating) the SEC with its media deal

It’s almost as good as an on-field win. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Big Ten might not have won a national title since 2014, but the conference does have the general advantage of being good at both football and basketball AND having avid fanbases for both sports. Further, the conference is sizable at 14 teams spread across a highly populated geographic area.

In some ways, it’s enough to whet any advertiser’s appetite, which is why Big Ten media rights are some of the most highly sought after in all of sports.

The Big Ten is the most profitable conference among the Power Five, bringing in just under $769 million in 2020 (yes, when the pandemic happened). The SEC was $40 million behind, with the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 following after a large gulf.

This advantage has created a virtuous cycle for the conference. More revenue in the door means a greater ability to invest in more sports. This investment means an edge in recruiting, which means on-field advantages, which means more revenue.

Media rights take that cycle to another level.

While the current media deal, with football and basketball games mostly hosted on FOX and the FOX-affiliated Big Ten Network, the Big Ten brings in an estimated $440 million per year. A renegotiated contract which, as we’ve seen in the last week, is highly contested, could net the conference closer to $1 billion annually. Big Ten schools are already at a revenue advantage to every other conference, and this valuable of a deal would serve to further position the conference ahead of the SEC and the rest of the pack.

Scarcity is also playing a factor in the particular value of the Big Ten’s deal. The SEC — the only other Power Five conference actively gaining value with the absorption of Oklahoma and Texas — is locked into its new deal with ESPN for 10 years, starting in 2023. The conference won’t be in a position to renegotiate anytime soon. The Big 12 is losing value, while the Pac-12 and ACC, the less powerful players in their alliance with the Big Ten, are neutral at best. In short, there simply are no other hot deals for networks hungry for eyeballs to pursue.

Speaking of those eyeballs, the Big Ten deal would be a crown jewel even without scarcity, Many of the Big Ten’s brands have national fanbases (think of how many Ohio State fans there are in Arizona). Some of this is due to the fact the Big Ten has massive schools (just three schools — Northwestern, Nebraska and Iowa — have student populations of less than 40,000), but there’s also factors related to migration (again, think of Arizona). Finally, we can’t ignore that for some folks with no particular loyalties when it comes to college athletics, they might just choose a major brand like Ohio State or Michigan.

Further, a rising tide lifts all boats. Rutgers, despite the Scarlet Knights’ early struggles after joining the conference, has emerged with postseason-ready football and men’s basketball programs. Meanwhile, Northwestern is seeing massive donations to support growing athletic facilities that give even a nontraditional power an advantage on the recruiting front.

What’s this mean from a competitive standpoint? As alluded to previously, it means that off the field factors can lead to on-field impacts in the form of payments to schools as a result of the media deals. Better facilities and the ability to pay coaches more (whether to hire them outright or retain them) directly translates to a better quality product.

How do we know it works? Painful as it might be to admit, the Big Ten was in the tank in the mid-2000s. Just a few years removed from a national title, Ohio State was embarrassed in succession by Florida and LSU again on the title stage. Michigan fell off the radar entirely. Other Big Ten teams just couldn’t compete.

The war chest offered by the media deal with FOX meant that, by 2012, Ohio State could not only hire Urban Meyer but also recruit at a higher level. While Ohio State is naturally exceptional (the program could likely have afforded Meyer on its own accord), hires like James Franklin, Jim Harbaugh, PJ Fleck would be more challenging to retain without the cash influx from the media deal. As a case in point, look at the new deals garnered by the aforementioned coaches (plus Mel Tucker) that lock them in in ways that make poaching near impossible.

Finally, targets may choose Big Ten schools because of other factors, including lucrative NIL deals that might only be possible because of all the eyeballs watching Big Ten sports. These top prospects contribute to a better on the field product that starts the cycle all over again.