The Big Ten is attempting to change the narrative.
Failed division names, an overall lack of speed, expansion OCD and New Year’s Day bowl woes are just a handful of the convenient storylines cited while brushing off the B1G. Some of these pretexts are exhausted, unfair stereotypes of a conference, while others are the product of recent recruiting and on-the-field struggles.
It would be easy for the Big Ten to continue business as usual, ignoring the negative, choosing instead to cozy up to its mounds of television money that would even be the envy of Scrooge McDuck. With each team netting a record $25.7 million in 2013, the nation’s most profitable conference could conveniently put it in cruise control.
Instead, however, the B1G is pushing its chips to the middle of the table, targeting a market that has yet to be conquered, thanks in large part to an aggressive commissioner with a surprisingly good poker face.
Jim Delany—the same Jim Delany who crafted the out-of-touch and soon-to-be out-of-mind Legends and Leaders—is moving beyond his hackneyed division names. His latest strategy is centered on more: more eyeballs, more branding—and yes—more money.
It feels like the work of a bigwig on Wall Street, which just so happens to be the Big Ten’s latest target. The Big Ten is NYC bound and not stopping there.
"It's pretty obvious to us that the paradigm has shifted, and it's not your father's Big Ten,” Delany said via Brett McMurphy and Dana O'Neil of ESPN.
This movement was initially greeted with mixed reactions when the Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland in November 2012. At a time when expansion was in a relatively deep sleep—if such a state truly exists—Delany made a splash. To some, it was viewed as an unnecessary one.
Both programs have had their struggles. Rutgers, of course, has spent the offseason fighting off scandal, while Maryland has had issues winning games in major sports and also balancing its athletic department budgets.
The move to the Big Ten was a clear victory for both programs, although it remains to be seen if this positive impact will be reciprocal. Other than two more mouths to feed, what exactly will these two provide?
Although recent on-field results are what most will cite when grading an expansion acquisition, this was a business and branding decision. The addition of Rutgers and Maryland highlight a tactical, geographical movement, one that is all about television markets, eyeballs and having a presence on the east coast.
This presence will also include a Big Ten office in New York City, one that should open around the same time Maryland and Rutgers officially join in the summer of 2014.
Taking this strategy one step further, the B1G agreed to an eight-year deal with the Pinstripe Bowl, meaning a yearly visit to Yankee Stadium in front of the bright lights of NYC.
Delany celebrated the occasion by tossing out the first pitch before a Yankees home game, the beginning of an intriguing relationship the conference will look to build upon. It will take time, however.
With college football playing a distant second fiddle to professional sports in New York, this could prove to be a slow grind. Or, perhaps the influence will be inconsequential, and the interest in college sports will remain dormant. It’s a gamble Delany is willing to take and one the conference can bear because of its incredible financial security.
If the Big Ten can grab just a small piece of this untapped market share, the potential gain could be enormous. As Delany told ESPN's McMurphy:
When we began planning we had an objective to end up in New York at the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Not only is New York the financial capital, sports capital of the country, but it is the place you need to be if you truly want to present a national slate of bowl games.
With the EAST COAST covered, the Big Ten has also set its sights on California. The conference agreed to six-year affiliations with the Holiday Bowl (in San Diego) and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (in San Francisco).
While these bowl acquisitions aren’t a seismic shift in the yearly lineup, it represents a break from the norm. At the least, changing up the bowl locations provides a necessary shakeup. This doesn’t just apply to the Big Ten but all conferences.
Given the locations added, however, the cities involved give insight to the blueprint. Expand the brand in any way possible and target big cities outside of the current footprint to accomplish this goal.
The only items missing from Delany’s master plan, of course, are national accolades, and more specifically, national championships. Nothing showcases a conference quite like dominance on the game’s ultimate stage, which is likely why the SEC is poised to topple the Big Ten’s robust wealth in coming seasons.
Ohio State, which will start the season ranked in the top three nationally, has the opportunity to change the narrative all by itself. A magical 2013 run would have a greater impact than any billboard, network, expansion addition or bowl lineup modification. It would also be the ideal timing, as the Big Ten will officially kick off its East Coast movement one year from right now.
Regardless of how manageable the Buckeyes' 2013 regular-season trip might be, depending on one team to change the conference's narrative in one season is a long shot.
The narratives will remain, at least for now, but so will the robust yearly payouts. As the Big Ten goes after the Holy Grail that is NYC, on-field success could prove to be the tipping point. Although the B1G is still waiting for its first crystal football in some time, Delany is already figuring out who's next.
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