The Big Ten West has been the butt of a lot of jokes: It’s the Big Ten Worst. The East winner gets a bye before the College Football Playoff. It’s second-division football.
They write themselves.
That’s because Purdue, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota are tied atop the division at 4-3, and Wisconsin is one game back. The potential for a five-way tie at 5-4 is real.
As is the chance that the division winner will be a double-digit underdog to either Michigan or Ohio State in the conference title game.
But as a self-professed sports-media junkie, I wonder whether the parody … sorry, I mean, parity … in an inferior division will hurt the league’s viewership when its new media-rights deal kicks in.
Starting next season, Big Ten games on Saturdays mostly will air in three consecutive windows on Fox, CBS and NBC (although they’ll share CBS’ window for one season with the SEC). On the American football landscape, only the NFL has such an arrangement with broadcast TV networks.
The networks reportedly will pay the Big Ten $8 billion in the seven-year deal, which also includes cable channels FS1 and Big Ten Network and NBC’s streamer, Peacock. The deals also include men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports, but let’s be honest: Football is the driving force.
So I wonder: Will the networks get the bang for their buck if the conference remains Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and everyone else?
The Big Ten’s deal dwarfs that of its chief rival in the marketplace, the SEC, which begins a reported 10-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN in 2024. That’s $1 billion-plus a year for the Big Ten and $300 million for the SEC, which seemingly delivers top games every week and has accounted for five of the eight CFP titles.
But those values have nothing to do with conference success. They have everything to do with conference reach.
“The thing that the SEC fails to remember is, on a purely football level, yeah, everyone’s going to watch the biggest teams, the biggest games, but it is such a secular area,” said Pete Fiutak, publisher of collegefootballnews.com. “The Big Ten is so much more massive when it comes to prestige and academics and alumni base and money.”
Fiutak, who lives in the northern suburbs, appears Tuesdays on The Score’s “Bernstein and Holmes” show, as well as national outlets such as Fox Sports Radio, CBS Sports Radio and SiriusXM. Next year will mark his website’s 25th, quite an accomplishment considering he started it all by himself.
“Just the markets,” he continued. “They’ve got Chicago, they’re getting L.A. with USC and UCLA [in 2024], they have whatever college football exists in New York, they have Philadelphia. All the big markets. What do you have if you’re the SEC? Dallas, Houston, those are top 10; Atlanta. They just don’t have the TV markets.”
Fiutak said that begs the question of why the SEC hasn’t pursued the Pac-12’s Arizona State, which would bring the Phoenix market, ranked 11th in the country, and perhaps Arizona. If the Big Ten is heading west, why shouldn’t the SEC? Of course, the Big Ten might beat the SEC to the state, or maybe it’ll head for the Seattle market, ranked 12th, which would bring Washington and perhaps Oregon.
“You’re just trying to acquire massive amounts of people that you can sell for your TV and media rights,” Fiutak said.
It’ll be interesting to follow the Big Ten’s viewership next season, before its migration west. There are sure to be matchups scheduled for windows that will raise eyebrows. But according to Fiutak, the networks won’t mind.
“On a weekly basis, no, the matchups aren’t going to be as sexy as the SEC at the very top,” he said, “but there’s just so many more Big Ten fans nationally than there are for the average SEC team.”