Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Maryland, Rutgers and another realignment frenzy

A couple of months ago I opined that "we might finally be entering a period of stability in the conference realignment shuffle." Turns out I was wrong:
Just 24 hours after The University of Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten, Rutgers, the only major college football program in the New York metro area, announced that it will leave the Big East to join the Big Ten.
The move is based on two important factors in college sports: finances and prestige. 
The Big Ten Conference is comprised mostly of large, public research universities located primarily in the Midwest. Despite its name, the conference until this week included 12 teams: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Northwestern, the only private school among the group. 
The additions of Maryland and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, bring the total to 14.
Although the Big Ten has traditionally been a midwestern conference, the additions of the University of Maryland and Rutgers theoretically give the conference access to lucrative television markets in the District of Columbia, Baltimore, New Jersey and the New York City area. In an era when collegiate conference alignments are being dictated by football rather than basketball and by television sets rather than by geography or tradition, this is a good thing for the Big Ten.

The problem is that the Big Ten's moves are certain to set off another wave of conference realignment, as both the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East, which are currently home to Maryland and Rutgers, respectively, seek to replace the schools that they've lost. In the case of the Big East, this likely means the loss of Connecticut to the ACC. How the Big East, whose 2013 membership is already set to include far-flung schools such as Boise State and San Diego State, will react to this development remains to be seen.

It also remains to be seen if the additions of Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten will be beneficial to all three parties. Forbes columnist Patrick Rishe sees the deal as "win-win-win," while ESPN's Adam Rittenberg describes the move as a gamble the Big Ten had to make. Dan Wetzel is more skeptical, asking "why in the world would the Big Ten, which is already struggling on a national level in its historic flagship sport of football, take on two programs known for decades of struggles?" Jonathan Chait is even more pessimistic:
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.
ESPN's Darren Rovell, meanwhile, casts doubt on the idea that Rutgers can deliver the New York City television market. It's well-known that NYC is not a college sports town, but apparently the Big Ten and its broadcast partners think that there are just enough Scarlet Knights fans in and around the five boroughs to make the addition of Rutgers worthwhile. Only time and TV ratings will tell.

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