When the Nebraska Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten Conference in 2012, the move made sense to many in the conference and around the country. Nebraska is a large land-grant university with a football-centric fanbase, and the state shares a border with Iowa. The addition seemed to be, and largely was, a natural fit from athletic, academic and cultural perspectives.
Then came the unexpected additions of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins in 2014. Maryland and New Jersey share a border with Pennsylvania, technically making them contiguous additions to the Big Ten footprint. But Maryland was a prototypical ACC basketball school, and Rutgers’ football program played in the American Athletic Conference alongside the likes of USF and Temple.
The move was a headscratcher for most people who followed college sports, until then-Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany clarified that adding Rutgers and Maryland put the New York television audience squarely in the Big Ten’s footprint, which positioned the Big Ten Network to capture the most lucrative media market in the nation. Former Ohio State President Gordon Gee was more blunt, saying in 2013 that “[The addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten] gives us 40 to 50 million more viewers, makes the BTN worth more money than God.”
Understandably for the time, many fans of Big Ten schools were confused and upset by the move and its profit-oriented rationale. How could a historic college athletics conference sacrifice a century’s worth of history for the sake of television broadcast rights?
Then last year, out of seemingly nowhere came the news that forever changed the landscape of college athletics.
OFFICIAL: USC will join the Big Ten Conference in 2024.— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) June 30, 2022
Overnight, the Big Ten had leapt across the country and added two schools from Los Angeles, thereby cementing its position as the next strongest conference in the country after the SEC. The move also separated the Pac-12 from the LA media market, and took away its only blue-chip football program. At that point, the Pac-12, Big 12, and ACC all occupied a new tier beneath the Big Ten and SEC, but above the G5 schools.
Now in 2023, college athletic conferences are no longer tinkering around the edges of what’s possible. With the addition of the Washington Huskies and Oregon Ducks to the Big Ten, the conference has now ballooned to 18 members. The Big 12 has now stabilized following the loss of the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns to the SEC, and have become aggressors in their own right. Though the ACC’s most powerful schools may grumble, that conference is protected by a strong grant of rights agreement, which makes it difficult for member institutions to leave.
Infamously, the Pac-12 has now lost all but four schools, and its continued existence beyond 2024 is very much in doubt.
For now, the major conferences appear to be finished with expansion until next summer at the soonest. But considering the dramatic realignment moves that have occurred in the past few years and the pace at which they’ve increased, what can we expect in the summer of 2024 and afterward?
Major conferences will continue to eye Notre Dame
Notre Dame has been famously independent for well over a century. Its alumni and donors relish being unaligned with any conference, and would no doubt be furious if the Fighting Irish were to ever fully join a conference. However, at some point in the future, the guaranteed extra funding that a power conference can provide through a media rights deal will likely be too much to pass up. It may be tomorrow, or it may be a decade from now, but eventually the Irish will be unable to compete financially with the facilities upgrades, coaching contracts, and recruiting amenities that Big Ten and SEC schools can provide.
It’s easy to presume that if they had to join a conference, Notre Dame would either join the Big Ten or their current quasi-home, the ACC. But Notre Dame is the belle of the conference realignment dance, and any league would open their doors wide to them if they knocked, including the SEC.
After all, given the west coast expansion that the Big Ten has done recently, a reasonable argument could be made that Notre Dame would see significantly reduced travel costs by joining the SEC. Their furthest SEC destination would be Austin, Texas, at around 900 miles from South Bend, which would be much preferred over the ~1,800 mile journeys that they would need to make to LA, Seattle, or Eugene.
The Irish have mostly sat by and watched as the rest of the college football landscape changed around them during the past two years, but don’t expect them to stay on the sidelines forever.
The ACC will be on the defensive
The Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles are arguably the biggest football brands that have yet to join either the Big Ten or SEC. Despite some persistent rumors over the past month, a move from either of them into the Big Ten seems somewhat unlikely, especially in the near term.
As mentioned earlier, the ACC grant of rights agreement would likely cost either of the schools well over $50 million to break, and like Oregon and Washington, they would probably have to make due with a smaller BTN payout for the first 4-6 years of their time in the Big Ten.
But eventually, the math is going to work in favor of Clemson and Florida State. The exact terms of their agreements with the ACC are somewhat murky, but presumably the exit fees and penalties would decrease as we approach the 2036 expiration of the ACC grant of rights. Someday between now and then, the benefits will likely outweigh the costs, and both schools will look to bolt.
The SEC has historically been reluctant to raid the ACC, which also has a media rights agreement with ESPN, while the Big Ten presidents will likely balk at the idea of taking schools that are not in the Association of American Universities. That said, the prospect of landing the two biggest fish left in the pond will be too much to resist for one of those conferences, but it’s anyone’s guess which will land them.
From the perspective of an Illini fan, adding Notre Dame, Clemson, and/or Florida State doesn’t change much in the immediate term. But adding additional big names to the conference would add to the value of the Big Ten’s media product, which in turn means bigger payouts to member institutions. Since the Big Ten distributes media revenue evenly among its members (for now), Illinois has much to gain from smart additions to the conference.