Start with this point that the whole fiscal theory behind the move is questionable at best:
The core of the financial logic of expanding the Big Ten, and other league expansions, as Derek Thompson has explained, is cable television. The Big Ten has its own network and can charge cable operators to carry it. The more people who live in the Big Ten’s footprint, the more households will be paying their cable operators an extra dollar a month or so to carry the Big Ten network. Hence the logic of adding Rutgers and Maryland. While the athletic traditions of both schools are, respectively, mediocre and terrible, they geographically encompass large, populous regions whose cable television subscribers will, for the most part involuntarily, be paying the Big Ten conference a chunk of their cable television bills.
In other words, as a profit-making mechanism, this is essentially a scam. It relies on an opaque pricing mechanism (bundled cable television) forcing people to pay for a product they don’t want. Right now, it’s a highly lucrative scam. But bundled cable television pricing is not going to last forever, and possibly not very long at all. There is already a revolution in video content under way that is going to render the cable television bundle model obsolete. When that revolution has finished, the Big Ten will realize it pulled apart its entire identity to grab a profit stream that has disappeared.
In other words, if cable subscribers enter an era when they’re allowed to choose one from Column A and one from Column B, are there really enough interested parties in the new markets willing to sign up for Big Ten Network service? Chait argues that college football’s track record with conference realignment strongly suggests there isn’t. He makes that point well.
But the ACC, too, has utterly failed to deliver on its expectations (its championship games have been played before mostly empty stadiums), which explains why Maryland so eagerly bolted, and the league has desperately cast about for new recruits. Like the Big 12, the ACC learned that taking a bunch of fan bases that reside in the same general region and declaring that they should start caring passionately about beating each other is not enough to make it happen. And if you can’t gin up fan interest in a manufactured rivalry between real football powers like Virginia Tech and Miami or Nebraska and Texas, what possible hope is there for Maryland, Rutgers, and … anybody? Is there any possible outcome here for the Big Ten other than brand dilution?
“Gin up” and “manufactured” are loaded terms, but they’re accurate. And that’s where Delany’s gamble gets dicey. Because not only does he have to deal with the issue of building new customer interest in markets where there previously wasn’t much – and, really, how much is Maryland’s playing in the Big Ten versus the ACC going to ignite the DC viewing market? – he has to worry about turning off the Big Ten’s existing fan base as a result of spreading the conference too thinly. Ultimately, the real value of the college football product is that we care about it passionately. Screw with that at your own peril.
The superconference experiments failed because you can’t manufacture tradition, and tradition is the only thing college football has to offer. Without tradition, college football is just an NFL minor league. Big Ten football mainly consists on a week-to-week basis of games like Michigan versus Minnesota and Illinois versus Wisconsin. Those games have meaning to the fans in ways outsiders can’t grasp. The series have gone on for a century. They often have funny old trophies. Every game is lodged into a long historical narrative of cherished (or cursed) memory. Replacing those games with some other equally good (or, as the case may be, not good) program is like snuffing out your family dog and replacing it with some slightly better-trained breed. It is not the same thing. And that deep well of sentiment, not the conferences’ ability to exploit a series of local cable cartels, is its ultimate source of value.
All these guys, the Delanys, the Slives – they’ve all been told for so many years that they’re marketing geniuses that they’ve swallowed the hype completely. They’re not. They’re simply people who’ve been sitting in the right place and have taken the obvious steps (so far, anyway) to monetize our passions. Now we’re at a stage where the limits are being tested with unsettling notions like fourteen-school conference alignments, scheduling contortions and schools that seemingly change conference affiliations on a monthly basis (hey there, TCU!). Even most conference names are a joke now. If they’re not careful, at some point they risk their meal ticket saying the hell with it and walking away.
Smarter marketers than our current conference heads have made dumb moves. Sadly, the lessons from those episodes don’t seem to have registered.
What’s amazing about the college conference expansion fad is that the conferences are not even doing the normal dumb thing that every business does, which is to try to copy success. They are trying to copy failure. Everybody is racing to turn their successful product into the next New Coke.
Among other things, this is why I continue to be amused by people who think that there’s a logical limit to playoff expansion. To believe that the people making these decisions are guided by rational long-term thinking flies in the face of everything they’ve done for the last, what, 25 years? Hell, pick your own time frame there. The reality is that they’re bumblers who’ve been lucky. As Brian Cook put it the other day, “Jim Delany is a camel farmer who is sitting on a billion gallons of oil. He knows about camels. That is all.”
Invest with them at your own risk. As they say in the investment biz, past performance is no guarantee of future results.