How Jim Delany Made History

Submitted by oakapple on November 20th, 2012 at 2:28 PM

On September 27, I wrote: ‘The tidal wave of major conference expansion and re-alignment is complete. The “Big Five” conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12 – have reached equilibrium. None are likely to grow within the next ten years.’

Obviously I got that wrong. Way wrong. I don’t feel too badly about that. This move took practically everyone by surprise. (ESPN’s  Gene Wojciechowski seems to have been one of the few who predicted it.)

Still, I was wrong. It is worth exploring how.

The Four Axioms Revisited

In my last diary, I stated that conference realignment is governed by four axioms: money, football, academics, and geography. Stated more broadly:

  • Money. No school willingly changes conferences to make less money. No conference accepts a school if its existing members will lose money.
  • Football. No school moves willingly to a weaker football conference. No conference accepts a school that is below the league average in football.
  • Academics. No school moves willingly to an academically weaker conference. No conference accepts a school that is drastically weaker academically than the rest of the league.
  • Geography. The less sense a move makes geographically, the weaker the contracting parties.

Previously, I said that there’s no wiggle room at all in the first two axioms; there’s a bit of wiggle room in the third and fourth, especially for weaker leagues like the Big East.

I should have been more expansive about the second axiom, football. When a conference adds teams in pairs, it’s the combination that matters, not each school individually. Missouri never would have had a prayer of getting admitted to the SEC on its own, but it did obey the four axioms when you consider that it was part of a package deal with Texas A&M.

Those who criticize the Pac-12's addition of Colorado and Utah may be focusing too heavily on those schools' recent troubles. Historically, Colorado is #21 in all-time wins, ahead of every Pac-12 school except USC. Utah, at #36, is ahead of every Pac-12 school except USC, Cal, and Washington. It may not seem that way now, but for the Pac-12, Colorado and Utah were upgrades in the long term, assuming those schools don't remain long-term losers.

How Jim Delany Made History

This brings me to how Jim Delany made history: he broke the second axiom. No conference has ever voluntarily added two schools, both of whom were much weaker than the league average at football. With its .5283 all-time winning percentage, Maryland ranks ahead of just three Big Ten schools: Illinois, Indiana, and Northwestern. Rutgers, at .5048, ranks ahead of only the Hoosiers and Wildcats. (Neither percentage includes the 2012 season.)

These schools historically have played much weaker schedules than the rest of the Big Ten. Maryland, playing in the weakest of the Big Five leagues, has won the ACC championship in football just once in the last twenty years (2001). They’ve been in the final top-25 just eight times in the past 35 years. The Terps’ only period of comparative dominance was 1974–85, when they won the championship six times in twelve years. Before that, their last championship was in 1955. Against, the Big Ten, Maryland is a combined 4-44-1 all-time, with the majority coming against Penn State (1-29-1), whom the Terps used to play almost every year before the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten.

Rutgers’ history of futility is well known. The Scarlet Knights have finished in the top 25 just once in the last thirty-five years. They’ve never won a Big East championship; they could do so for the first time this season if they win their final two games. Knowing Rutgers, that’s a long shot. They’ve gone to just seven bowl games all-time, all minor ones, and only one before 2005 (in 1978).

Both teams have small stadiums by Big Ten standards. High Point Solutions Stadium in lovely Piscataway, New Jersey, seats 52,454, and Rutgers seldom fills it. They ranked fifth in Big East attendance last year, with an average of 43,761 fans. In basketball, Rutgers hasn’t fielded a winning team in six years. They averaged only a shade over 5,000 fans a game, good for 15th in a sixteen-team league. At Maryland, Byrd Stadium in College Park was expanded to 54,000 in 2008. Last Saturday, a home game against a top-10 Florida State team attracted just 35,000 fans.

You have to figure that recruiting and attendance at the two schools will improve after joining the Big Ten. Nevertheless, without very substantial program upgrades, it is likely that both Maryland and Rutgers will be bottom feeders in the Big Ten for many years to come.

Needless to say, this is quite a contrast from Penn State and Nebraska, who were championship contenders almost immediately upon joining.

Are the Four Axioms Busted?

We’ve learned that Money is King. Practically any deal is possible, if the money is good enough.

But before we abandon the Four Axioms, let’s remember this:

  • Until now, no conference has violated the Football axiom by adding teams so far below the league average. The Football axiom is more of a guideline now, and not an inexorable command. But I wouldn’t count on it being violated regularly.
  • The Academics and Geography axioms both held: Maryland and Rutgers, both AAU members, are well within the Big Ten academic profile, and both are adjacent to its geographic footprint.

Do Fans Matter Any More?

I could have added—but did not—a fifth axiom:

  • The Fans. No school or conference makes a voluntary move that alienates its fans.

Jim Delany busted that axiom too. Now, let’s stipulate that fans are a fickle bunch, and there’s no change that everyone likes. Some people still think it was a mistake to add Penn State and Nebraska. But most Big Ten football fans could relate to those moves. Nebraska and Penn State will always be red-letter games on most schedules in the conference. From the schools’ perspective, most Penn State fans long ago realized that football independence was no longer practical for them. Nebraska fans surely miss the old Big Eight rivalries, but the Big 12 had become a Texas/Oklahoma-based league, in which the Cornhuskers were increasingly outsiders.

In contrast, very few Big Ten fans outside of Penn State will look forward to playing Maryland and Rutgers. Many will resent it, as there will be fewer games between historic Big Ten foes, like Michigan and Wisconsin. Reactions of the Maryland fan base have been decidedly mixed, although Terrapin fans are gradually figuring out that this is in their best interests. Only at Rutgers is the move an unvarnished blessing: when the alternative is the Big East, who wouldn’t prefer the Big Ten?

Is Jim Delany Canny or Crazy?

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated has a good article explaining what the Big Ten stands to gain by adding Maryland and Rutgers. If the Big Ten could get carriage on basic cable in every household in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, it would bring in another $200 million in revenue per year. This is highly unlikely, but Delany doesn’t need anywhere near all of it for Maryland and Rutgers to be cash-flow positive for the conference. And that’s before you consider the Big Ten’s primary television rights deal, which is up in 2017, and will surely be worth a lot more with two new markets in its footprint.

Skeptics will point out that Maryland and Rutgers can’t deliver their television markets, the way Nebraska did. That is true. But the NY–Philly–Washington axis is so heavily populated that it might not matter. If Delany just gets just a decent fraction of it, the conference will make more than it did in Nebraska.

You can fault Delany for many things, but the one thing he surely knows is how to count money. That is pretty much all that he does. If you’re a betting man, you shouldn’t bet against Jim Delany’s ability to turn sports into cash.

None of this is to deny the very real fan anger at what is obviously a money grab with no other benefits. But remember, the money doesn’t just fund private jets for athletic directors. It also funds the rowing team at Michigan and the hockey team at Penn State. If the conference is going to make a move with only one purpose, money, you can at least be fairly confident that Delany got that right.

For a contrary view, check out the bearish analysis from Nate Silver, the New York Times statistical guru who forecasted all 50 states correctly in the presidential race. As good as Silver is in his own sphere of expertise, this was just a one-off blog post. Delany has spent years studying this. My bet is still on Delany.

What Happens Next?

Many message board participants see a push for 16-team conferences. This is wrong. Expansion is about making more money, not fielding some arbitrary number of teams. For the Big Ten to expand again, it’ll need two more schools that:

  • Are eager to make a move
  • Provide access to substantial markets that the Big Ten isn’t already in
  • Are academically and geographically suitable

Currently, the Big Ten pays nearly $25 million per school in media rights, and that could grow to about $43 million per school when the conference negotiates its next media deal in 2017. Hence, the next pair of schools would need to bring in about $90 million per year just to break even, or else they’d dilute the average pay-out. Jim Delany doesn’t do deals to break even. In fact, the next pair probably needs to bring more than 100 million, as there’s clearly no point in making a move if it’s just a push. It needs to be compelling.

The ACC will almost certainly take another school from the wilting Big East, most likely UConn, but possibly Louisville, to get back up to an even number of football schools.

I noted in my last expansion diary that the Big 12 has structural reasons for actively preferring a 10-team league. As Former interim commissioner Chuck Neinas told Fox News, “Let's face it, they're making as much money as for the (Sugar Bowl) as the SEC and as the Pac-12 and Big Ten are making for the Rose Bowl and they only have to share it with 10 teams.”

The SEC does not have the Big Ten’s demographic problem: the south is still growing, and it’s the nation’s dominant football conference. Historically, the SEC does not expand in states where it already has members, and all of the available trophy programs are in those states. Should it choose to expand, the next logical step might be Virginia and Virginia Tech, though it is not clear if those two programs bring enough revenue.

I cannot see a money-making expansion path for the Pac-12. They’d need to make another play for Oklahoma and Texas, which they already tried and failed.

I won’t make the rash statement again that major-conference realignment is done, but the four axioms I introduced in my previous post still hold largely true. The more conferences expand, the harder it is to find logical moves that make money.



November 20th, 2012 at 2:50 PM ^

You and I should do a dueling column. :)

Money rules all. And you are seriously discounting the money B1G will make just from the conf championship game if there are only 4 super conferences. It will be multiples of what we make today. That alone would pay for two additional teams.


November 20th, 2012 at 4:25 PM ^

I'm curious about your comment regarding the conference championship game. The B1G already has one of those, so how could it make "multiples of what we make today" by adding two additional teams?

The only financial benefit from expanding that anyone has touted, is getting the Big Ten Network into more households. That has nothing to do with the conference championship game, which is on Fox. Teams like Rutgers and Maryland, who'll hardly ever play in that game, do not make it more valuable.


November 20th, 2012 at 2:50 PM ^

I don't think most of the axioms were ever valid. There is very limited sample of data on college football expansion, with what was is available, it could be argued that the Big 12 was a stronger football conference than the B1G at the time that Nebraska switched conferences. Additionally, schools accepted members that broke some of the axioms in search of "stability." 


November 20th, 2012 at 4:09 PM ^

If all conference moves over the last 20 years are considered, there are a lot of them: certainly enough to draw conclusions. If you run through them one by one, but you'll see the four axioms are practically always true.

There is no plausible argument that the Big 12 was a stronger conference than the B1G at the time Nebraska switched. Texas A&M and Missouri were publicly and conspicuously looking at other options. Four schools at least listened to an offer from the Pac-12. After that fell through, it took Colorado about 15 minutes to make a switch. Did you see any Big Ten school even sniffing elsewhere? Of course not.

In my statement of the axioms, you'll note the word voluntarily. I didn't explicate what that meant...but yeah, when your back is against the wall (usually because you've lost members), the necessary actions to survive are not voluntary. When the axioms are violated, it's usually because someone's back is against the wall.


November 20th, 2012 at 5:58 PM ^

Pre-realignment, the Big Ten had a total of 25 BCS appearances; 19 for the Big 12. The Big Ten had six teams who'd been to the BCS at least twice; the Big 12 had only three (Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska). The Big Ten has placed an at-large team in the BCS eleven times, and every year since 2004. The Big 12 has done so once (Kansas in 2008).

It is true that the Big 12 was killed mostly by its revenue-sharing deal, but that deal came directly out of the fact that so many of its members were weak. In the years the Big 12 had a conference championship game, the "Big Three" (TX, OK, Neb) won 12 out of 15. The Big Ten didn't have a championship game in those years, but during the comparable period, nine of its eleven members won or shared the title at least once.

There are obviously many stats you can use, but at the time Nebraska made the switch, you'd have had trouble finding very many people who thought they were moving to a weaker league by any definition. This year it's definitely true, but these moves are made with a 20+ year horizon.


November 20th, 2012 at 3:02 PM ^

The new logo has always been the greatest clue to the future of the league. After we take a couple years to digest Rutgers and Maryland, I predict we add two more teams and end up with these divisions:

EAST: Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers, 1 of Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia

NORTH: Michigan, STAEE, Purdue, Northwestern

SOUTH: Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, 1 of Louisville, Missouri, Cincinnati

WEST: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota

I would group the North and South into one conference/league (help, I'm running out of names for these groupings) to preserve a few rivalries, and group the EAST and WEST together. Strength-wise, it works out depending who the 15th and 16th teams are.


November 20th, 2012 at 3:26 PM ^

Maryland and Rutgers are obviously "market moves", opening up the DC, NY and Philly markets for exploitation. It's genius because it's less about the attraction of the schools themselves, and more about the market their footprints provide access to. While the schools' alumni bases create instant consumership for the BTN, the market expands next to sports bars and restaurants assuming the conference brand provides must-see TV. All that will take is providing tournament basketball matchups on BTN.

We're looking at two more unnamed schools who will be the jewels of the B1G on the east-coast (after PSU). UNC and Duke as a package? Cuse and Pitt? UConn?

Any permutation of those teams will light up the BTN in east-coast market sports-bars and households. It's that simple.

It's not about catering to alumni bases and their football fans anymore. On the east-coast, college basketball is king; the footprint is set, and the money piles are lined up for two more teams. I am genuinely excited to see what big fishes get reeled in for Michigan to play at Crisler (and to a lesser extent, at the Big House).


November 20th, 2012 at 3:46 PM ^

Why stop here.  Why not add Virginia and UConn.  This will further penetrate the east coast viewing markets.  Both are good academic institutions so that will appease the academians.  Both are no worse in football than Minnesota or Illinois.  Both have solid Basketball programs and olympic sports.  Realign and rename the divisions as follows:  The "Lakes" Division: U of M, OSU, PSU, Indiana, Rutgers, Maryland, UConn, Virginia.  Puts U of M and OSU in same division with high probability last game of season has division title implications.  Put the others in the "Plains" division: NE, WI, MSU, Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois.  Get to the 16 team super conference and be done.  This further enhances the necessity and purpose of Delaney's east coast office for the B10.  UConn helps add the Boston area market and Virginia adds to the Washington DC area.


November 20th, 2012 at 5:14 PM ^

I almost feel like we are trying to grab a couple east coast schools that have good lacrosse teams so we can start grabbing some lacrosse fans since the sport is on the up and up.  I feel like Lax will be another hockey soon maybe even surpass it someday.


November 20th, 2012 at 9:27 PM ^

The timing of all this is interesting, is it not? I found your original post to make sense, particularly in light of public statements by Delaney and other ADs in the B1G. So, what changed?

Well, the PAC-12 deal fell through. Then ND aligned with the ACC and dumped Michigan from the schedule and potentially was going to dump other B1G teams. Anything else? Maybe we could add the end of the CCHA and addition of men's lacrosse.

So, I will accept the premise of "money über alles". Copy ND and expand to the east. Add one or two teams to help with the cable market, but I think adding four teams makes more sense and fills in the schedules lost by ND and PAC-12 changes. Meanwhile, this sets in motion the potential cannibalization of the ACC (and side effect of screwing ND). If the latter occurs, then the leftovers of the Big East and ACC and ND regroup, right?

Ultimately, I think it is too soon to judge what is going on until we see the dust settle. If the rumors of the B1G continuing to expand are true, and no one has said anything contrary yet, then the SEC will likely step up and maybe the Big 12 too. I'm not sure if this is chess or dominoes, but it is an interesting game.


November 20th, 2012 at 9:56 PM ^

It IS all about the "superconferences."  Four superconferences can run their own, eight-team "National Championship" with no chance of lawsuits from those who are "left out."  They can make a ton of money and not have to share it with the "have-nots."  

Instead of going through the hassle of a "breakaway division," all the four conferences have to do is grow and have their own, closed playoff, which will result in money that makes what is floating around now look like pocket change.


November 21st, 2012 at 12:21 AM ^

There is only one constant in all the moves and changes, and that is money.  Both football strength and geography are components of money.  A weak football program generally doesn't attract the fans and television viewers (money) that a stronger one does, and geographical distance affects both expenses and revenue.  Academic strength is very important to some conferences, like the B1G, not so much to others, like the Big 12. No BCS conference concerned with academic reputation would woo teams like West Virginia or Boise State. 


November 21st, 2012 at 4:03 AM ^

In fact, the next pair probably needs to bring more than 100 million, as there’s clearly no point in making a move if it’s just a push. It needs to be compelling.

The next pair:

Boston College with the Boston cable TV market.

Notre Dame with their national audience.


November 21st, 2012 at 7:47 AM ^

Skeptics will point out that Maryland and Rutgers can’t deliver their television markets, the way Nebraska did. That is true. But the NY–Philly–Washington axis is so heavily populated that it might not matter. If Delany just gets just a decent fraction of it, the conference will make more than it did in Nebraska.


I totally agree.

Nebraska's population is 1.8 million.  Let's assume every man, woman and child there tunes into BTN to watch Husker football when their team is on the road.  Now compare:


Maryland -                5.8 million

Washington D.C.-  0 .6 million

New Jersey-            8.8 million

Philadelphia-          1.5 million

TOTAL-                   16.7  million


It's not really hard to see where this is going.