I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what all happened Thursday. The tweet below is still just so surreal.
There’s mixed emotions about this to be sure. I first became an Illini fan when we had 11 teams in the conference. Now there’s 16 schools stretching from coast to coast.
I’ve always felt something special about playing Purdue, Northwestern or Wisconsin. Beating those teams always felt a little better regardless of the standings because of how close (geographically and culturally) most Illinois fans are to the fans of those schools. I do hope some semblance of the Big Ten’s Midwestern flavor can be maintained in this new era, but I’m also accepting of the reality that even more change and expansion is coming.
What will that change look like? What schools would be considered? Obviously I have no inside knowledge, so I’m guessing just like the rest of us, but there are some clues that came out yesterday that could point us in the right direction. The main factor to consider here is potential revenue for the Big Ten Network from football, but potential members will likely also need to be members of the American Association of Universities (AAU). I say “likely” because that rule was relaxed somewhat when Nebraska joined the conference.
As a Midwestern football powerhouse for well over a century, Notre Dame is likely the Big Ten’s biggest remaining target. Located in South Bend, Indiana, Notre Dame is in the heart of historical Big Ten country, so its addition would not add any new geographic footprint to the conference, but financial value of the Fighting Irish lies in the sheer size of their national fanbase. The Notre Dame administration has been fiercely independent for as long as their program has existed, and they are still technically independent despite being in the ACC for all sports except football.
That said, some cracks in Notre Dame’s determination to stay independent may be forming.
Source on Notre Dame: "It's really unsustainable to be an independent now."— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) June 30, 2022
A source told me that if Notre Dame were to withdraw from the ACC, it can play football wherever it wants. It would have to pay exit fee and grant of rights fees for its other sports.— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) June 30, 2022
The financial lure of the Big Ten Network is very powerful. But I think the ACC views getting Notre Dame to be a football conference participant (while hanging on to its existing members) as its sole objective in this round of conference realignment. ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips (former Northwestern AD and Illini basketball player) is one of the savviest administrators in college athletics, and I’m sure he has some tricks up his sleeve. I wouldn't be surprised if the ACC brings in Notre Dame for football and hangs on to Clemson, giving them two viable College Football Playoff contenders and solidifying that conference’s place in the future.
Just like USC and UCLA, I don’t think you can take one without the other. The Bay Area metro is the fifth-largest urban area in the United States with just shy of 8 million residents. That’s a huge market for the Big Ten Network, so adding both Stanford and Cal should be a financial slam dunk if the schools want to join the conference. Both would also be massive wins on the academic front as well.
Neither school has had great success in football or men’s basketball in the past couple of years, but I would view this potential through much the same lens as the additions of Maryland and Rutgers: not so much for the programs themselves, but for the television market that they lie within. Besides, a regular Stanford/Northwestern faceoff would be very fun, and as an Illini fan I’m itching to get back at Cal for the 2019 Redbox Bowl.
Staying on the west coast, the addition of both Oregon and Washington was hinted at earlier:
Both are solid football programs and have previously qualified for the College Football Playoff. Oregon and Washington are also AAU members, so no issues there either. From a geographic standpoint, the Big Ten would be grabbing the Seattle market as well as a chunk of the Portland market (Eugene is about 90 minutes south of Portland). That’s good for about 6 million residents combined between the two areas.
If this ends up coming to pass, bringing in Oregon and Washington would be another major win for the Big Ten from both a football competition standpoint as well as a television revenue perspective.
This addition would be more of a flex or power move aimed at the ACC/SEC compared to the more financially lucrative additions above. But bringing two-thirds of the Research Triangle and its roughly 2 million residents into the Big Ten would add considerably to the conference’s athletic and academic prestige. The obvious pull here are the two basketball programs, which share the most storied rivalry in the history of the sport.
With the PAC-12 and Big 12 both effectively gutted of their best football programs, only the ACC stands relatively unscathed among the non-Big Ten/SEC Power 5 conferences. Commissioner Jim Phillips will no doubt fight hard to keep it that way, but as the recent changes have shown, money talks louder than any historical ties or good feelings.
Who else could come out of the woodwork and join the Big Ten? Who knows! There are clearly many schools looking to get into the conference, and Kevin Warren has earned the right to be picky. USC and UCLA were no-brainers from an athletic, academic, and financial perspective, so I can understand why that move happened as quickly as it did. But it could be a few more days before the next dominoes fall. Aside from the ones listed above, I could potentially see Arizona and Arizona State leaving to either the Big Ten or SEC as a package deal, while Virginia and Virginia Tech find themselves between two powers and could leave for greener pastures together or separately if the ACC becomes vulnerable.
Regardless, Illinois is in the enviable position of having a secure place in the second-most powerful college sports conference in America. Josh Whitman has the Illini in a great position to be successful going forward, and he’s certainly sleeping easier than his counterparts at schools like Oregon State, Iowa State, or Utah.