Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Requiem for the Big Ten

R.I.P., the Big Ten. 1896-2012.

It had a pretty good run, more than a century. It's the oldest athletic conference in the country, home to some of the most storied programs and most towering figures in college football. It developed the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, perhaps the most intense rivalry in sports.

But all good things have to come to an end, and that's what the Big Ten apparently is going to do today. Ironically, Rutgers--one of the schools that was involved in the creation of college football nearly 150 years ago--may be involved in its demise. It hasn't made a move yet, but the Maryland Board of Regents is expected to vote today on whether to leave its long-time home, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and join the Big Ten. With Maryland mega-booster Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour--(the responsible party for those hideous uniforms)--behind it, expect a slim but controversial pass. After Maryland joins, Rutgers is expected to follow. Oh, we'll still have the Big Ten, but it'll be the BTIN--Big Ten In Name Only.

As someone who's been religiously following the Big Ten and college football for about a decade, I may be through with both. The rampant cynicism is just a little too much for something that's supposed to take your mind off the cynicism everywhere else. (Remember, I work in DC.)

Geography? Tradition? Common sense? Eh, screw it. There's money to be made. Who cares if it transforms the Big Ten from one of college football's cherished institutions to just a collection of schools? Who cares if it will have strapped college budgets booking charter flights from Omaha to DC? Big Ten used to be an idea--a place where parents worked their tails off at farms and factories to send their kids to land-grant schools to play hard-nosed, unvarnished football. OK, Northwestern isn't a land-grant school, but you get my point. With all due respect to Rutgers and Maryland, they don't fit.

But hey, this is a business. It's the entertainment business. I have no illusions about that. But this decision is the kind of penny-wise, pound-foolish fool's gold that business executive types so often fall for.

Neither Maryland nor Rutgers have particularly storied programs or strong followings in football. That's not what the Big Ten is after. The basic idea behind adding them is it'll give the Big Ten a toe-hold in the DC and New York media markets, the Holy Grail of television advertisers. Roll in the big bucks.

This is a severely flawed notion. As a resident of the greater DC area, I can report that this is not a college football town. There are probably more Midwestern transplants rooting for current Big Ten teams in the city itself than Maryland fans. The Terrapins share the limited native Washingtonian college football base with Virginia Tech and even Navy. And while I'm not very knowledgeable about New York, I'm lead to believe that you could fit all of the New York-based Rutgers fans into a single Buffalo Wild Wings. The Big Ten might as well add West Point-based Army.

After adding Maryland, DC cable companies will be jumping over each other to add the Big Ten network? Ludicrous.

Jim Delaney, the Big Ten commissioner, is reportedly obsessed with demographic numbers, and is understandably concerned about Midwestern decline.

In politics, there's been a big debate between numbers-based statisticians and instincts-based political pundits and consultants. The statisticians lead with their hero Nate Silver of the New York Times, and won, with their 2012 electoral predictions hitting the mark. Count me in with them--with a caveat. Sometimes, the stats lie. Or, rather, sometimes, the numbers you choose to look at lie. See, the thing is, the statisticians and the pundits are both using their gut--just in different ways.

In this case, Delaney needs to look at all of the numbers, not just the ones that tell him what he wants to see. He needs to look at the Maryland penetration in DC and the Rutgers penetration in New York. He needs to look at the number of Big Ten fans decrying this proposal. (Hell, you don't need to, I'll tell you--it's near 100%). And he needs to look at the things that numbers can't quite get at--like, why do Big Ten fans watch Big Ten football?

I'll at least tell you why I do. I'm a Purdue fan--born and raised in Indianapolis, and from a strong Purdue family. My grandfather taught there. My dad went there, and has been to both of Purdue's Rose Bowl appearances--although he doesn't care half as much about it as I do. My best friend is a die-hard Boiler friend, and took me to their games growing up. Although I didn't go there, by going to a small school without a DI athletic program, that pretty much left Purdue as the default choice.

As I went out into the world--and my Midwestern background became a bigger part of my identity--I found myself watching Purdue, and the Big Ten, every Saturday. I was living in Boston, trying to cut it as an intern at "The Atlantic Monthly," feeling a little out of my depth, and I watched Big Ten football. I then went to a small newspaper in Lorain, Ohio, outside of Cleveland--a dying steel town ridden with crime--and I watched Big Ten football. I was in one of the richest cities in the country, and in one of the poorest, and in both cases Big Ten football reminded me where I fitted in. I chatted with fellow Midwest transplants in Somerville as Iowa claimed the Big Ten title in 2004, and I watched laid-off auto and steel workers stand on bar stools to celebrate when Ohio State beat Michigan to claim the 2006 Big Ten title. Sorry, I just can't imagine the same thing if it was Ohio State-Rutgers.

And I can't imagine getting excited about a collection of random teams. I just can't. I mean, DC's not even that big of a town. Why isn't the Big Ten courting USC or UCLA? Let's get Boston College, and add New England to our grasp! If geography, tradition, and common sense are meaningless, what exactly is the limit here? (Please don't give me the "contiguous states" thing, that's clearly a myth.)

Big Ten meant something to me, and I think it meant something to all of its other fans, as well. I know that even in my first year after graduation, in 2004, that the Big Ten wasn't totally Midwestern. (Definitions vary, but I'm pretty sure the Eastern Midwest line is the Allegheny Mountains, so Penn State is a bit of an outsider.)

Purdue is, let's face it, a rather mediocre football program. But even while my team was down, I followed the conference each year--hoping that the various powers will represent the conference well, and rooting against its most loathsome members, such as Michigan or Indiana. I went out of my way to watch these games. There were must-watch games. When was the last time you went out of your way to watch teams in your NFL division play, if it didn't affect your team?

Conferences are a big part of what makes college sports special. The West Coast has the PAC-10 (now 12), the west and Plains Midwest has the Big 12, and the east coast has the ACC and Big East. I can't think of another sport where fans connect so much with conference identity--with the possible exception of Major League Baseball, due to philosophical disagreements over the designated hitter rule. You screw with that at your peril. How much money will the Big Ten lose if its fans in New York stop tuning into its title game? Has Delaney considered that number?

Mainly, the Big Ten is worried about losing out. The move to mega-conferences may be unstoppable. Better to add New York and Washington than get stuck adding St. Louis and Pittsburgh when the music stops playing. What Fox and Mickey Mouse want, Fox and Mickey Mouse get. (Read my post on Star Wars if you don't believe me.) The steady drumbeat of television has steadily beaten down college football's peculiarities and irregularities. Many of its cherished rivalries are already gone--Texas/Texas A&M, Kansas/Missouri, Pittsburgh/WVU, and perhaps even Notre Dame/Michigan. The almighty dollar rules--I get that. But are they being pound-foolish?

The bottom line is, when this is over, I may be out. And if I'm out, I'm guessing a lot of other folks will be, too.

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