The news of USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten rocked the college sports universe last week. Widely seen as a positive from competitive, recruiting and financial perspectives, as the Big Ten now effectively owns the three largest media markets in the country, the move nonetheless reflects the theme of expansion to super-conference that began last summer when Texas and Oklahoma announced a move to the SEC.
The thing is, however, that expansion began well before summer 2021. The Big Ten, for instance, hasn’t had 10 teams since 1990 when Penn State joined the conference. The conference also famously poached Nebraska from the Big 12 in 2011, at the same time Texas A&M and Missouri made the jump to the SEC.
(We won’t get into the ridiculousness of conference nomenclature, including how the Big 12 can barely seem to support 10 teams.)
2011 was also roughly the year that geography lost all sense of relevance when it came to conference organization. Texas A&M and Missouri, formerly as part of the Big 12, definitely brought a western tilt to the southeast, but West Virginia joining the Big 12 the following season couldn’t be explained away.
For the Big Ten today, we will see the impacts of that soon, with the Big Ten now set to play every week in three different time zones (while skipping Mountain Time altogether).
Let’s pause here, because 2011 could have gone very differently for the Big Ten. The acquisition of Nebraska could just have easily gone a different direction — a more southern one.
Adding a new team to the Big Ten in 2011 made a lot of sense, as the conference had boasted an odd number of members for 21 years, which made things like protected rivalries and divisions challenging to implement. The small conference size also made it impossible to host a conference championship game, which, looking forward several seasons, would prove problematic from a competitive standpoint.
At the time Nebraska joined the Big Ten conference, there was debate around if the Huskers were the right add, or if the Big Ten should go bigger and add Nebraska plus an additional two teams to bring the total to 14.
So, what if Missouri had come to the Big Ten in 2011 instead of going to the SEC? There was lots of discussion among Big Ten fans around adding the combination of Nebraska, Notre Dame and Missouri at the time.
The obvious expansion candidate — or what has seemed obvious for many years — had been Notre Dame. The bad blood that’s existed since Notre Dame was denied entry to the Western Conference (the predecessor to the Big Ten) still has not abated as the Fighting Irish continue to rely on the strength of their own brand. Notre Dame rejected the Big Ten’s invitation to join the conference in 1999, seemingly still smarting from their wounds a century before. Perhaps even Notre Dame, the most stubborn of major programs, has finally gotten the message, though, as deals with the ACC have effectively made them a member of that conference.
Missouri, meanwhile, was on the rise in 2011. In football, the Tigers had won the Big 12 North in 2007, 2008 and 2010 all under head coach Gary Pinkel. The men’s basketball team had made the Elite Eight in 2009. The Tigers also boasted a proud wrestling tradition which would have fit all too well within the Big Ten. Furthermore, teams not named Texas or Oklahoma were struggling in the Big 12 at this time due to the structure of revenue sharing in the conference. In other words, it would be too easy to poach rising programs from this conference where they weren’t compensated, which is exactly what the Big Ten and SEC did by nabbing three teams in one year.
Speaking of which, then there was Nebraska — the first expansion team in the Big Ten in more than two decades. Sure, the Lincoln media market was small (much smaller than St. Louis, mind you), but the Huskers boasted a national fanbase who truly seemed to believe their beloved Nebraska was just a step away from its former greatness. It fit with the conference, and now, Nebraska seems as old and natural a rival within the Big Ten as any of the other storied programs.
But Nebraska proved just a start. Then came 2014, when the Big Ten nabbed Rutgers and Maryland, thereby gaining a foothold in both the New York City and Washington D.C. media markets.
In retrospect, the Big Ten’s expansion has been a massive win, for all the same reasons the addition of USC and UCLA have been so applauded in the last week. Rutgers and Maryland bring new media markets which have already made the Big Ten media rights deal the most valuable. The two schools, while not bringing in any football championships, have done remarkably well in other areas, winning men’s and women’s basketball conference championships and NCAA Tournament bids, lacrosse accolades, field hockey championships and others.
The Big Ten, like the Pac-12 and ACC, has tended to favor relevant, academically rigorous brands. That’s one of the reasons why bringing on USC and UCLA feels less abnormal of an expansion.
There is also the consideration that there are conferences that poach and others who do the poaching. The SEC and Big Ten are the destinations, while the Pac-12 and Big 12 have proven to be departure points. When West Virginia joined the Big 12, they made an egregious strategic error in moving from the dying Big East to a decaying Big 12 rather than attempting to make a move with the ACC. What we’ve effectively seen is a sort of relegation, with the best teams from conferences like the Mountain West and the American Athletic Conference moving to Power Five conferences.
Teams like Cincinnati are boosting their resumes to get to one of the top conferences with larger media deals, more persuasive recruiting pitches and actual chances to make the College Football Playoff field each year.
Alone in the Power Five, the ACC has remained very much on the sidelines of these discussions. Interestingly, the conference’s long-standing media rights deals make it extremely prohibitive for teams to leave — something which went into effect after Maryland left the conference back in 2014.
Looking at the holistic picture, with the benefit of more than a decade of hindsight, the Big Ten handled the 2011 expansion opportunity expertly. Missouri has not done well in the SEC. It’s not a large or valuable brand and regularly gets beat up in both football and basketball, and doesn’t strategically expand the SEC’s footprint into more valuable territory.
Of course, the same could be said for Nebraska, who’s never won a conference title in the Big Ten. However, Nebraska does bring the storied tradition and national fanbase that is lacking from a program like Missouri. And for what it’s worth, they’re okay at wrestling, too.
In 2011, Nebraska did serve to stabilize the Big Ten, enabling expansion to a size where the conference could host a championship game that improved the conference’s reputation, expanded the pie of media rights and opened the door to a framework for future expansion. It also feels apparent that a rapid expansion involving Nebraska, Missouri and Notre Dame would have been too much too fast and would not have garnered the same long-term benefits we saw from the longer approach.
Would the result have been similar had Missouri or Notre Dame been that first expansion team rather than Nebraska? It’s likely the Big Ten would have still opted for continued expansion in the future, but that expansion might have targeted different candidates. On that note, it feels less likely that the coup of capturing two major TV markets in one swoop would have been as successful.
In other words, it feels like much of the success the Big Ten has had in growing its brand and value in the last decade have come from the conference making all the right decisions on its path to growth where others have struggled — decisions that have made it one of the most relevant conferences in sports.