Immediately after the Big Ten announced its groundbreaking multi-billion dollar TV contract, the jokes about Illini football began to fly on Twitter.
Illinois and Rutgers cashing those checks like pic.twitter.com/peZhMBfg47— BUM CHILLUPS AKA SPENCER HALL (@edsbs) August 18, 2022
Comedy hits because it helps people cope with the harshness of reality. In the Illini’s case, they are the benefactors of relationships formed in the Great Lakes region in the 1890s, but— in the eyes of the college football world — they have not consistently done much on the field the last 60 years to deserve benefiting from the lucrative Big Ten deal. So these jokes at the Illini’s expense help the college football world cope with the Illini’s perception as undeserving of lucrative media deals.
The Illini have been to a Rose Bowl here, a Sugar Bowl there, and once in a while they will pull an upset worthy of national attention. But overall, they do very little in football to bring acclaim to the Big Ten. And football, for better or worse, guides the majority of media rights decisions.
In the mid-00s, The Illini rode the coattails of Ohio State, Michigan and a few others to the formation of the Big Ten Network. The network opened the door for record-breaking TV revenue in the Big Ten.
Next, in the early 2010s, the Illini piggybacked off the Big Ten Network’s ability to charge a premium in New York City and Washington, D.C. following the strategic decision to add Rutgers and Maryland. Now, the Illini are the benefactors of the largest media rights deal in college sports history.
The Illini, however, could at some point in the future be forced to face the harsh realities of modern college athletics in ways they never have before.
Realignment is Ruthless
In modern college athletics, schools realign themselves in the years and months leading up media rights negotiations. The realignment takes place in the form of schools leaving behind their decades (and sometimes century) old friends. While administrators claim that they are making a lifetime decision in adding a new school or changing a conference, the reality is that they are just trying to position themselves for the next media rights negotiation. These decisions are cold and ruthless.
We have seen the ruthlessness of media rights induced realignment break up the great Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry. It ended Texas’ and Oklahoma’s relationship with its longtime in-state rivals.
Most recently, UCLA and USC chased the media rights bag to join the Big Ten, thereby ending a century-long relationship with its west coast brethren.
This relationship included the Rose Bowl game and fan favorite rivalry “weekenders” in the Bay Area, as well as cozy scheduling for basketball and non-revenue sports. Illinois, on the other hand, has not been subjected to the ruthless free market of college sports. They been protected by the cozy status of being a member of the Big Ten. But, how long will this continue?
The Illini’s privileged status in the Big Ten
As the realignment rapture creates existential angst among those left behind, Illinois has comfortably sat on its couch watching the realignment dominoes fall. They have had the luxury of making unimaginative football coaching hires like Ron Turner and Lovie Smith while suffering little to no monetary consequence to the athletic department outside of paying coaching buyouts.
At the same time, schools that have maximized their football potential at a high level — much higher than the Illini — are left wondering where they will fit as the realignment dominoes fall.
While the Illini have stayed at or near the bottom of the Big Ten, Washington has won PAC-12 titles, and even made the College Football Playoff. Oregon has turned itself into a football power. Florida State has won numerous national titles. Clemson has cemented itself as a king in the sport. Miami has built two dynasties and could very well be on its way to another with Mario Cristobal.
In a free market, these schools are all attractive candidates. The Illini are currently not an attractive candidate. But rest assured, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, USC, and whatever power the Big Ten adds — whether Notre Dame or the aforementioned PAC-12 or ACC schools — know how attractive the Illini are on their own. The big question is when will the other Big Ten schools put revenue maximization over friendship.
The Big Ten probably has an ideal number that it is looking to reach in terms of members. They will continue to expand until they reach that number. Then, they will stop expanding and, as the football powers in the Big Ten look to maximize TV revenue, one of the following will happen: (1) the powers will either leave to form a super league, (2) the powers will ask the lesser Big Ten schools to leave or (3) the powers will relegate the lesser schools to the less lucrative position of accepting less in media rights revenue. The Illini must avoid being a lesser school when this happens.
The floor must be raised
Even if the ruthless free market decides to knock on the Illini’s door, the good news is that they have time to get their football act together.
The Big Ten’s next media rights negotiation won’t take place until the early 2030s, and they have a lot of media money at their disposal. In fact, they have more than any school in the powerful SEC. They also have a coach in Brett Bielema with a blueprint for permanently raising a program’s floor. Bielema played at Iowa under Hayden Frye. He was a defensive coordinator under Bill Snyder at Kansas State and Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. All three coaches wrote the book on overcoming geographic disadvantages in recruiting to create programs that are nationally competitive.
None of those coaches, however, were part of a billion-dollar media rights deal. They did not coach in the world of NIL nor did they coach in the world of the transfer portal. These are all things Bielema can use to his favor. He has also made good hires in defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and he leveraged his coaching network to bring in highly sought-after offensive coordinator Barry Lunney. So, there is reason to be optimistic about Bielema raising the Illini’s floor as a program.
While the headwinds of realignment could one day adversely affect the Illini, they have time to get their act together. They cannot, however, assume that they will suffer no realignment consequences if they remain the consistently lifeless program they have been since the fallout of the slush fund scandal.