The Big Ten, despite being a bad basketball conference that hasn’t won a title in 17 years, has a penchant for pushing the college sports world in new directions.
It was the addition of Nebraska that kicked off the 2013 realignment wave that killed the Big East, resuscitated it as a zombie league, and created a conference that now stretches from Connecticut to Tampa to Dallas to Wichita.
Now, the conference has turned its eyes specifically on the basketball status quo, as reported by friend of the blog Jon Rothstein.
While the ACC announcing a 20-game schedule for 2020 might have been seen as an outlier due to the conference’s bloated size, the Big Ten reportedly committing to a 20-game schedule, and committing to it a year earlier than the ACC, means that more conferences will follow suit in the near future.
This makes a lot of sense for the Big Ten, ACC, and other power conferences who will eventually adopt it. In theory, you’re replacing non-conference games against weaker opponents with stronger, conference opponents. You can also protect more rivalry games, so maybe Purdue and Indiana will actually get to play home-and-homes every year. That’s good!
But there’s also a lot of ancillary stuff, which will undoubtedly have effects on the rest of the college basketball world.
In Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany’s mind (or at least what he’ll be selling to the media), the non-conference games that would get removed are the weakest of the weak — the buy games where rich teams pay bad teams a fistful of cash for the right to beat the snot out of them for 40 minutes. If this were true, it would have significant effects on the smaller conferences in America. Look no farther than Texas Southern, who cashed a host of checks en route to playing 16-straight road games to start their 2016-17 season. The cash they were paid to take some beatings went a long way to filling the coffers of their athletic department.
Envisioning the death of these games and by extension the death of low-major athletic departments is the pessimistic way of looking at this.
I don’t think it’s the most likely.
The Big Ten actually provides the blueprint for the best-case scenario for teams looking for a payday. In football, the Big Ten decided that it would ban its member institutions from playing FCS opponents. They also decided to play a nine-game conference slate. That’s as close to an analogue as what’s going on in basketball as you’re going to get.
What happened was pretty simple: Big Ten teams started chucking a lot more money at bad teams.
Relative financial lightweight, Northwestern, is paying Nevada, a mediocre-to-bad team, a hearty $1.2 million this season. For comparison, back when there were eight-game conference schedules and no restrictions on FCS opponents, Northwestern paid $500,000 to Northern Illinois, a far better opponent with a higher anticipated attendance, and $350,000 to Western Illinois to fill out their 2014 schedule. That’s a huge uptick in money. It happened because smaller programs suddenly had more leverage. And that’s why it’s likely to happen in basketball.
The most likely games to get replaced are not the buy games. Power conference teams need to put some cupcakes on the schedule the same way weaker conference teams (and probably Georgetown this year) like to put non-Division I schools on their schedule. Teams need time to gel, and laying 115 on an overmatched opponent is a good way to test what you’ve got going on. What teams won’t need with two more power conference opponents on their schedule is quality home-and-homes against mid-major competition. The middle class of college basketball will feel the brunt of this change. Why would Michigan State schedule Illinois State if it can just get Illinois and Penn State later? MVC and A-10 schools already struggle to schedule big-name teams. Soon, it might be nearly impossible.
The buy games will remain, and there will be less space to slot those games in. Stable (if not growing) demand and a dwindling supply means more expensive guarantees. Texas Southern will not be hurt by this change. Illinois State and similar schools will be.
And so will the fans.
While power conference faithful will rejoice in getting to see home-and-homes with rivals every season, other fans will continue to see the mid-major vs. high-major excitement relegated only to the NCAA Tournament. While Thanksgiving tournaments, conference challenges, and equipment-company-sponsored events will provide some spark to the non-conference slate, it’s still the weakest part of the college basketball calendar. It’s a shame that power conference teams will travel to smaller gyms even less than they already do.
That will be the real legacy of this shift.