BTN Bias?

Submitted by schmakj on August 27th, 2009 at 11:07 PM

Is whoever in charge of the Big Ten Network biased about which “Greatest Games” make the cutting room floor? Whether they know it or not, is there some internal bias towards Ohio State, Michigan State, or, say it isn’t so, Northwestern?

When ESPN Classic once constantly ran classic college football game programming, I had friends who would immediately complain that that the producers were biased and the channel was run by [insert rival school here] alums, because they "always show Michigan losing." 

I was not convinced, as obviously one comment on one statistical data point (one game) is hardly convincing proof. However, I was always curious to somehow see if there was some bias in these programming decisions, and the BTN has given us a great opportunity to do so by listing every game which they label “Big Ten’s Greatest Games.”

[Obvious side note for people not paying attention: the Big Ten Network is biased towards the Big Ten, so clearly they only show games where a Big Ten team won OOC. I wanted to see if there was any suggestion of bias towards any specific conference teams].

I was curious, and deciphered the records of every Big Ten team in the classics upcoming in season 3. As Brian notes at the top, Michigan goes 5-4 in this season’s slate of classics, with 3 of those wins coming in out of conference (OOC) games.

After seeing some anomalies, I decided to look at all three seasons the BTN has aired this show. This provided 83 data points. Of these 83 games, 25 contests were Big Ten victories in OOC games or Bowl Games.

I give you the data first to see for yourself:

Team Overall Record OOC W Big Ten Record
Illinois 5-4 2 3-4
Indiana 5-1 0 5-1
Iowa 6-4 2 4-4
Michigan 13-12 5 8-12
Michigan State 7-7 2 5-7
Minnesota 6-4 0 6-4
Northwestern 7-2 0 7-2
Ohio State 11-11 4 7-11
Penn State 11-2 6 5-2
Purdue 5-6 2 3-6
Wisconsin 7-5 2 5-5

What jumps out: Penn State

The shocking statistic of the day is Penn State's record. They are 11-2. Compare that to the records hovering at 0.500 for OSU and Michigan. Penn State also has 4 games selected as some of the Big Ten’s Greatest Games when they were not in the conference - '83 Sugar, '84 vs BC, '85 vs Alabama, '89 Holiday Bowl. 

Also, which their two losses in great games? Iowa in 2002 and Minnesota in 1999. Apparently they have never lost any close games to the two Big Ten powerhouses...

Notable games missing:

¨     1999 - Michigan 31, PSU 27 - Tom Brady’s 10 point comeback road victory

¨     2002 - Michigan 27, PSU 24 - First OT game in Michigan Stadium history

¨     2005 - Michigan 27, PSU 25 - No description necessary

¨     2003 - Ohio State 21, PSU 20

¨     2002 - Ohio State 13, PSU 7

Do I believe that every one of these games should have been on the list? No. But none of them? Maybe the producers are saving the top flight great games for the headline games for the upcoming BTN seasons? Quite possibly.

Other interesting stats:

¨     Most selected - Michigan, with 25 games deemed “Greatest”

¨     Participation Ribbon - Indiana, with only 6 games

¨     Best winning percentage - Penn State, 0.846

¨     Best in-conference winning percentage – Indiana, 0.833

¨     Michigan is 2-3 vs Ohio State

¨     Michigan is 3-3 vs Michigan State, however that includes losses in 1990 and 2001, which, well, are obviously very controversial losses for Michigan

¨        Indiana, though selected the fewest, was 5-1 in their 6 games in conference

The other interesting numbers were Indiana and Northwestern, going 5-1 and 7-2, respectively. Their numbers were also not bolstered by any OOC victories. However, these sparkling records without OOC help for IU and NW could simply be the facts that:

a) They do not schedule marquee OOC teams to have an opportunity for good wins, and

b) They do not go to marquee bowl games and usually do not have the talent to win when they do make it to the interesting ones

c) Many of their wins against the traditional Big Ten powers are fascinating because they are simply expected, whether appropriate or not, to be the underdog

Conclusion? At the end of the day, I do not actually think this means anything, but it was certainly interesting. The Penn State anomaly is fascinating. Is the producer of the show a Penn State alum subconsciously, or just conveniently, forgetting about a 12 year stretch of failure against Michigan? Or are the producers just trying to push the bounds of the Big Ten Network further onto the east coast market, into New York and Washington DC, by pushing Penn State?

I do not know. It does show there is not an overwhelming bias against Michigan, if anything a slight lean for Michigan. If there is a BTN bias, I am glad it is not yet leaning towards Ohio State or Michigan State. Maybe it’s a testament to Michigan's prestige to have the most games coined “Greatest” so far, as it’s always a great game for someone else when they beat the Maize and Blue, or maybe the producers know that putting games which Michigan loses on the BTN will attract viewers from the other 10 schools in the conference (to root against Michigan). The same could be said for OSU’s similar record hovering around 0.500 - when they have a "great game" on BTN, fans will watch to see them lose.

[I should note: Michigan vs Florida in the Capital One Bowl from 2008 has been on BTN several times, however this game is not listed, so there still may be some games out there which are not included in these numbers.]

At the end of the day, this is simply another interesting distraction for me, and hopefully you too... The classics are great, but I could really use some live college football. Go Blue.



August 27th, 2009 at 11:19 PM ^

As a Northwestern grad, I can vouch for NU's presence being related to their nickname in recent years as the "Cardiac Cats". They've had some insane number of late game comebacks for wins. In fact, the '01 NU/MSU game listed as one of the 24 added to BTN's greatest games was my first ever NU game as a student. I agree with your point "c)", that many times people don't expect NU to be competitive against their team (which is getting silly, as Northwestern has been a decently solid program for a number of years now). Also don't forget that Michigan and Ohio State have had fewer Big 10 games with close scores, especially hearkening back to the days of the Big 2, Little 8. In other words, it was more likely that the parity present amongst the other (then) eight would create exciting "classics".


August 27th, 2009 at 11:35 PM ^

I remember that nickname...

I still vividly recall watching Northwestern in 2000 at Minnesota, when they won the game on a last second Hail Mary from midfield, with a perfect volleyball set by one receiver to the other in the endzone.

This followed their comeback which included five 4th down conversions. Oh my.

Then, the next week, Michigan played at Northwestern, and I will not recount any further what happened in that game...

The King of Belch

August 28th, 2009 at 5:20 AM ^

I can vouch for them being called the "cardiac Kids" myself.

And my question is: Why do people lead off posts with the statement, "As a [School X] grad...?" What does being a grad of any school mean in terms of saying something along the lines of "Northwestern has a history of plaing in exciting games"--does it take a Northwestern degree to figure that out? Does it give you more credibility?

Just curious wbout why so many choose to fluff themselves so much.

And Michigan has appeared in a lot o exciting games over the years, many of which have, unfortunately, been losses. You take the good with the bad. At least UM is featured (for those with the UM Radar thingy going all the time) so much.


August 28th, 2009 at 12:23 PM ^

Fluff myself? I'm stating a fact. Would you say I'm fluffing myself if I said I was an Iowa grad?

Why the hell else would I ever watch Northwestern games or have any knowledge of their football history? The only people in the stadium are students, fans of the opposing team, and geriatrics who got lost and aren't sure what's going on. I state that I'm an NU grad because it means I've been there for those games, fidgeting in nervousness, jumping for joy, trying to tell my heart that it's not healthy to beat that fast. Reading into it any further is just a function of your own insecurity.

MI Expat NY

August 27th, 2009 at 11:25 PM ^

There is a pretty good reason for why UM and OSU have losing records in conference "greatest games." For the rest of the Big 10, with a possible exception of PSU, a close win over UM or OSU is going to be more memorable and thus greater than a win over pretty much any other opponent.

If you wanted to discuss bias, probably the only metric that matters is the total number of wins. If you assume the targeted fanbase is that of the winning team, it's pretty clear that UM, OSU and PSU are the favorites in this series. All the loses are really for the rest of the conference.


August 28th, 2009 at 12:42 AM ^

"At the end of the day, I do not actually think this means anything, but it was certainly interesting."

If only more scientists were so honest about their research...


August 28th, 2009 at 8:31 AM ^

You forgot our favorite Big Ten team... Notre Dame. Unfortunately for the golden domers they are not fairing very well, and come in with an 0-3 record with a loss to MSU, and two on the docket for this season to Michigan. Finding a win for them is like trying to find an OSU bowl win. It ain't easy!


August 28th, 2009 at 8:42 AM ^

I suspect that not every game televised over the past 30 years somewhere is easily available for selection by the BTN for "Greatest Game" status. In other words, they are probably limited to a degree in what they have to "choose" from (or possibly even buy the rights to air). Over time, now that BTN televises it's own games they will have more options available.

Perhaps someone with a little more knowledge of how the industry works can elaborate...


August 28th, 2009 at 10:13 AM ^

wins against Michigan come so infrequently that anytime such a victory occurs, its an instant classic and "one of the best games ever" (in their minds). If that's the price to pay for being the winningest program in College Football, I'll pay it.


August 28th, 2009 at 1:41 PM ^

Besides the fact that a chronically lucky Northwestern team won a game in which they got their asses kicked all over the field by a team that couldn't stop blowing opportunities? I guess not.

I think about that game and it still pisses me off. That '95 Northwestern team was probably the luckiest team in Big Ten history. I hated that team and I have hated Northwestern ever since. The reason why they are 7-2 in the "greatest games" series is because they have gotten insanely lucky in so many close games since the beginning of the Barnett era. Then they overacheive with their conference record and get massacred in a bowl game when they finally face an opponent that doesn't get touchdowns called back because of penalties or fumble the ball away with less than two minutes to play.


August 28th, 2009 at 2:24 PM ^

UM's place as one of the elite programs in the country makes it a very big thing when they lose. I also believe that this is why the media is having so much fun predicting UM to do badly again this year and delights so much in putting RR on their imaginary "hot seat."

The media hasn't really had much opportunity to predict UM as a .500 or worse team in forty years or so; anytime they can do so, it becomes a "man bites dog" story in their eyes, and they milk it for every last drop. I am hoping that this is the last opportunity they get for a very long time.