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BENNER: Big Ten follows the no-boundaries, big-money pack

November 24, 2012

It has become clear that, in the new world order of big-time intercollegiate athletics, here are the things that really matter.

Eyeballs.

Eyeballs on television sets.

Eyeballs on television sets on cable/satellite systems.

Eyeballs on television sets on cable/satellite systems that carry sports programming.

Eyeballs on television sets on cable/satellite systems that carry sports programming that is attractive to advertisers.

Eyeballs on television sets on cable/satellite systems that carry sports programming that is attractive to advertisers who know that those eyeballs love the beer and circus of big-time intercollegiate athletics, especially football.

And that pretty much sums up the Big Ten’s pursuit of the University of Maryland and Rutgers University as its 13th and 14th members.

It makes a boatload of dollars, but it makes no sense.

It was one thing, back in the 1990s, to reach across a state line and add Penn State University to the Big Ten. Penn State had a great academic portfolio and a tradition-laden football program.

Penn State fit … even to those of us who hang on to the silly notion of conferences representing a region and, specifically for the Big Ten, the Midwest.

It also was acceptable, more or less, to do a slight westward ho and add the University of Nebraska to the Big Ten fold two years ago. Nebraska, too, was a good academic and athletic fit. It also provided the additional bonus of boosting the membership to 12, which in turn allowed the league to go to divisions and add a lucrative championship game.

And Indianapolis thanks you very much.

But Maryland and Rutgers?

Neither is a fit. Maryland and Rutgers are no more than eyeballs on television sets in large East Coast markets.

While the Big Ten Network and the league’s other media rights agreements have provided a cash bonanza to the members—an estimated $24 million per school per year—that evidently was not enough. They want more, and Maryland and Rutgers, theoretically, can deliver lots more.

It was interesting that the Maryland/Rutgers news broke on Nov. 17, and on the next night, CBS’ “60 Minutes” featured a piece on the athletics arms race, which is rocket-fueled by football.

Too bad the timing wasn’t such that the “60 Minutes” report couldn’t have added this post-script: Maryland will pay an exit fee of $50 million—$50 million!—to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Rutgers, meanwhile, will have to cough up a reported $10 million to bail on the Big East. Pocket change.

From a money standpoint, it would be a huge step forward for Rutgers to get into the Big Ten. But competitively—especially in men’s basketball and even with a football program that has made big strides—I predict the Scarlet Knights will be a perennial second-division team.

As for Maryland, if I’m an alumnus, I’d be irate over the loss of tradition and of geographic rivals. The Terps were charter members of the ACC. It’s their bloodline. And while they should be competitive in basketball, their football program will struggle. Guaranteed.

Good news for Indiana and Purdue, I guess. Someone they can beat.

Maybe it just doesn’t matter anymore who plays where. All that matters is eyeballs and televisions. There is no logic. There’s just more money to be made.

Speaking of which, each month I write a big check to the cable company. And if the Big Ten Network weren’t on my system, I would find a provider that did carry it.

It’s all about eyeballs on televisions … including mine. Like most of us, I just can’t say no.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
 

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