John Shipley: Big Ten expansion will make it harder for Gophers football

John Autey/Pioneer Press/TNS
·4 min read

In its awkward transition from amateur to professional sport, college football has reached the full flower of its sustainability phase, which is why we find universities and conferences grasping at dollars like a man inside a cash booth. So it is that we prepare to welcome UCLA and Southern Cal, the struggling icons of West Coast football, as the 15th and 16th teams in a formerly Midwestern conference still called the Big Ten.

The move, reportedly near completion as of Thursday afternoon, is clearly an answer to the Southeastern Conference adding Oklahoma and Texas to its now 16-program league. The Big Ten, with its own network and big-money deal with Fox Sports, is the leader in television revenue and loath to surrender that title to the SEC, which despite being generally better at football doesn’t have the media markets to compete with the Big Ten.

In that sense, adding the only two major college programs in Los Angeles is a great move. With USC and UCLA, the Big Ten will be the nation’s only coast-to-coast conference — and because the Trojans and Bruins are the only college powers in L.A., will have cornered the nation’s second-largest media market. That will allow the Big Ten to negotiate an unparalleled television rights deal and provide its schools a mammoth annual financial guarantee so they can: pay for all the debt they’ve incurred to build new facilities; provide equitable academic and nutritional support to student-athletes already getting most of their financial aid through the athletics department; and continue to make their football and men’s basketball coaches the highest-paid state employees from California to New Jersey.

Sustainability. It always seems impossible in college athletics, and yet somehow never is.

But for what is at heart a football move, because that’s where the new money comes from, it doesn’t do much, if anything, to help most of the Big Ten’s football programs. Not competitively. The Gophers haven’t been able to win a seven-team Big Ten West Division. Now they have to be better than two additional programs if the conference adopts a true regional split — and it should because that’s the way sports divisions work. Sending Purdue east will make it a true east-west split and immediately add some substance to what has been the Happy Loman of the Big Ten’s brother divisions as soon as Fall 2024.

It’s great news for the Gophers’ most successful programs — volleyball, track and field, softball, and men’s and women’s hockey among them — because they’ll continue getting the state-of-the-art facilities and support that has helped make them national players. With all that TV money pouring in, non-revenue sports won’t have to sweat out football attendance numbers as much.

This, presumably, is the selling point for USC and UCLA — guaranteed money. Will it make it easier for the Trojans to get back to winning national titles? Maybe. The SEC and Big Ten dominate recruiting. According to 247Sports.com, 20 of the top 30 2022 recruiting classes belong to SEC and Big Ten teams — and that includes Top 20 classes from Missouri, which struggled to compete as a Big 12 team before joining the SEC, and traditional SEC also-ran Kentucky.

If there is a Big Ten recruiting boost to be had — Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan have Top 6-rated 2022 classes — certainly teams with the history and recruiting bases of Southern Cal and UCLA are candidates to ride that wave. That would be bad competitively for Minnesota football, even if only one of those teams is placed in the West Division.

Fortunately for sustainability’s sake, that doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore. While football remains the vault for all college sports, it’s becoming less and less tied to a program’s competitive success (i.e. attendance) because of the guaranteed TV money. Just being a Big Ten also-ran is a lucrative gig.

That’s good for Gophers athletics writ large because despite being in ascendance, the football team struggles to fill its relatively small stadium. But if you’re waiting for the Gophers to win a piece of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1967, well, these next two seasons are big. Because in two years, it will become even more difficult.

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