Will Big Ten expand further after seismic power grab? Here's why that may not be the case

·5 min read

By 2025, the Big Ten will have 16 members. The coming additions of USC and UCLA extend the league from sea to shining sea. The obvious question is what, or more precisely, who, is next.

Notre Dame is the prime target but that’s been true for decades now.

The Big Ten has almost always wanted Notre Dame, but the Irish long ago put them in the friendzone. Thanks for asking, but we treasure our independence and the ACC is always there to serve our needs.

The Big Ten has remained undeterred, believing that maybe if it just went to the gym a little more or cracked a few more jokes then Notre Dame would see what it was missing and commit.

Well, this time the Big Ten is sitting out front in a Lamborghini, waving the keys to its new LA beach house and saying it’s now or never. While no one is sure what Notre Dame will do this time, let’s just say the Irish are at least taking a second look.

If the Irish say no, again, then the obvious move for the Big Ten is just to stay out West and take the whole place.

If you’re going to have 16 teams, why not 20? Add Cal and Stanford for the academic prowess and Bay Area. Grab Oregon and Washington for some competitive teams and the Pacific Northwest. Be the league of the Midwest and the West. The Big Ten always loved the Rose Bowl. Now they can own it all.

The hook here is whether four more schools are even worth it, and this is part of the media rights mentality that isn’t getting a ton of attention.

A detailed view of the Big Ten logo is seen during the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 4, 2021. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
A detailed view of the Big Ten logo is seen during the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 4, 2021. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Industry sources said the Big Ten was on its way to signing a deal that would pay at least $1 billion per year. Adding USC and UCLA will only drive that number higher, but not merely because they are big brands from a big media market.

The real value, sources said, is that the Big Ten made itself even more coveted by gutting the competition.

Right now Fox controls half of the Big Ten television rights. Two other entities are expected to split the other half. The main candidates are obvious:

* ESPN (which has exclusive rights to the SEC).

* NBC (which would like to pair games around Notre Dame).

* CBS (which just lost its SEC affiliation).

* Turner Sports (which would like to get into college football).

* Various streaming platforms and tech companies (namely Amazon and Apple) that could jump in.

Until Thursday’s expansion news, all of the above were staring at a college football media landscape where the broadcast rights for Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 were either up or about to come up in the next few years.

The ACC, meanwhile, is signed until 2036. The SEC/ESPN deal goes until the 2033-34 college season.

The Big Ten was the big draw that was available, but if you were, say, NBC or CBS, the Pac-12 and to a lesser extent the Big 12, it was a pretty nice consolation prize. If you couldn’t afford the sky-high demands of the Big Ten, you could make a deal with the Pac-12 and go from there. It wasn’t a total disaster.

Well, it would be now.

The Big Ten isn’t just the biggest fish in the pond. After decimating the Pac-12, it’s essentially the only fish.

The Pac-12 no longer has its marquee national program (USC) or its biggest media market (Los Angeles). The Big 12, which will lose Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC after the 2024 season, are in the same boat. The number of games featuring the remaining teams that can draw big numbers — 4 million or more viewers — is limited.

Not only are the Pac-12 and Big 12 weakened right now, but the disastrous decision last January by the Pac-12 and ACC to not agree to a proposed playoff plan that included automatic bids leaves the future in doubt.

Whatever playoff format exists after the current four-team system ends following the 2025 season is now unlikely to include automatic bids. It is expected to be drawn up by the Big Ten and SEC, who due to their strength will likely maximize access for their schools by favoring at-large selections. Or they could simply stage a tournament among themselves.

The race to win the championship of the Pac-12 or Big 12 would have been of national relevance (and thus a television draw) under a 12-team, six-automatic-bid playoff. Now it may not matter at all. Weak will become weaker without access to the postseason.

So in one surgical move — taking just two Pac 12 schools — the Big Ten has not only left the Pac 12 drifting, but created a reality where it is the only appealing television package.

If NBC and CBS want to broadcast the sport then they have to pay up for the Big Ten. There is no consolation prize. The Big Ten is the last house for sale in the neighborhood. That urgency alone is worth huge amounts in up-bidding that wouldn’t exist if the Pac-12 was still a viable Plan B.

There is the added angle, per SportsBusiness Journal, that Fox has executives Mark Silverman and Larry Jones “taking active roles” while serving as advisers for the Big Ten in the league’s negotiations with other media companies. As such, Fox is part of driving up acquisition costs for some of its chief media rivals, a wide-ranging victory for the company.

So while more schools out west might make some sense, the Big Ten doesn’t need any of them right now. It got its foothold in California already and drove up its value by becoming the only show in town.

If this is just about television money, and Notre Dame is still holding out, then 16 might be enough.

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