Big Ten Football Weighs Benefits & Costs Of 9th Conference Game

May 24, 2011 / Football

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The last time Ohio State’s football team played in the BCS National Championship was at the end of the 2007 season. The Buckeyes got there by winning four non-conference games against lower-level Youngstown State and three other teams — Washington, Akron and Kent State — that finished a combined 11-26.

The Buckeyes heard some criticism about their schedule, lost at home to Illinois, didn’t play Iowa or Indiana in the Big Ten, didn’t have Nebraska in the conference and didn’t face a Big Ten title game at the end of the regular season.

And in the end, they had a chance to win it all, which is kind of the point of the whole thing.

Consider what Ohio State might have to face a decade later in pursuit of that same goal. If, as expected, the Big Ten agrees on a nine-game conference schedule that would likely debut in 2017, the situation would be far different than 2007.

Ohio State already has a high-profile non-conference home game scheduled with Oklahoma in 2017, and Athletic Director Gene Smith said last week those types of games against a national powerhouse will not vanish from the schedule with a nine-game Big Ten season.

Smith also said the other two non-conference games might include two MAC-type schools some seasons. But in other seasons it would include one MAC-type school and another mid-level school from a BCS conference, such as Colorado, Cincinnati or Vanderbilt, three schools coming up in future seasons.

Now add in a ninth Big Ten game, which in 2017 would be on the road against possibly Iowa or Michigan State, as well as the conference title game.

Boy, 2017 seems a lot more fun and exciting, doesn’t it?

“I think our fans would like to have nine [conference games], and television would like to have nine,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said.

Boy, 2017 seems a lot more difficult, doesn’t it?

“Absolutely,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “As a head coach, it’s going to change the league.”

That, by the way, is why among the coaches at the Big Ten meetings in Chicago last week, there was nearly unanimous support to stay at eight games.

Getting to a national championship game, getting a second at-large BCS berth for the Big Ten, getting the six wins necessary to qualify for any bowl — all those become more difficult with nine conference games, and the coaches are very aware of it.

“Every team in our league, if you ask the head coach, would be an eight-game (proponent),” Bielema said.

Dollars and sense

Yet nine games is almost certainly coming, already tentatively approved in a preliminary vote several months ago. Why? Partly because the cost of non-conference games has gone up over the last few years as much as the price of gas.

Ohio State will pay Colorado $1.4 million to play at Ohio Stadium this season, while games against even MAC teams are now costing close to or more than $1 million. Those games used to cost home teams maybe half that much.

For conference games, the Big Ten uses a formula that maxes out at a $1 million payday for the visitors. So, for instance, would Ohio State rather pay $1.4 million to play Colorado; or $1 million to play Minnesota, Iowa or Northwestern, the three conference teams the Buckeyes won’t face this year?

Smith pointed out that financially and selfishly, it still makes more sense for Ohio State to stay at eight conference home games, because for the Buckeyes that extra non-conference is always at home and still a money-maker worth millions.

In fact, guaranteeing every team seven overall home games a year — either five in the Big Ten and two non-conference or four in the Big Ten and three nonconference — is the No. 1 consideration in this move.

It’s also the reason it probably won’t take effect until 2017, because chunks of the non-conference schedules before then are already planned.

“That’s part of our budget, to have seven home games,” Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez said.

But those home games for the big schools aren’t the moneymakers they used to be.

“The gap has shrunk,” Smith said. “I was moving down the path [toward favoring nine conference games] because it’s harder to schedule teams now unless you want to pay $1.5 or $1.6 million. Ultimately, I shifted to nine because it’s better for the league overall.”

That’s because teams with smaller stadiums have even more difficulty paying the increased fees for non-conference opponents. Those games draw smaller crowds than an extra game against a Big Ten power would.

Pros and cons

With a move to nine conference games, the league might lose some gate revenue. Smith, however, pointed out that there would be increased television fees. And TV money is a reason to do a lot of things in college football.

But the Big Ten could more often miss out on the $4.5 million payout that goes to the conference when it gets a second BCS team.

In the 13 years of the BCS, while the overall strength of the conference has been frequently derided, the Big Ten has received that second BCS bid 10 times, more than any other conference. The Southeastern Conference has done so seven times, the Big 12 six times and the Pacific-10 (which has stood alone in playing nine conference games in recent years) just three times.

As Bielema and others pointed out, the SEC has 12 teams in two six-team divisions with a title game, the model the Big Ten is moving to this season, and still plays just eight conference games. If it works for the conference that has won the last five BCS national titles, the coaches figure it should work for the Big Ten.

However, the Big 12, now with just 10 teams, is moving to nine conference games in a round-robin format this fall. The Pac-10, expanding to 12 teams this fall, will keep its nine-game conference schedule over the objection of some coaches.

So for at least the next six years, the Big Ten will maintain its competitive edge when compared to those conferences.

After that, the Big Ten regular season should include more games of interest. And the Big Ten bowl season may include fewer.

Leave a Reply