High-risk, high-reward move for Big Ten, Delany

Shifting events to East Coast could alienate fans or tap underserved markets

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany addresses the media during the NCAA basketball Big East/Big Ten news conference at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany addresses the media during the NCAA basketball Big East/Big Ten news conference at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

IOWA CITY — Through force of will and expansion, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has pushed his conference from its century-old lakes-and-plains heritage to a bi-regional behemoth that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains.

With the Big Ten adding Rutgers and Maryland officially this summer, Delany decided to tap into the world’s richest corridor, ranging from Washington D.C. through New York City. The Big Ten announced Tuesday it will shift its men’s basketball tournament to Washington D.C. in 2017. It was another step for the league to become active and permanent in the Northeast. As Delany said Tuesday on a streamed news conference “to be there, you have to live there.”

But will it work?

“It’s clearly not a slam dunk,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who has authored 22 books and considered an authority on sports economics. “The Big Ten is a traditionally Midwest market. They have expanded that out to Nebraska and the other way toward Penn State successfully. The challenge is, No. 1, the Big Ten hasn’t been in the East. No. 2, the markets that they’re hitting are mainly the greater New York market and the D.C. market and both markets amply served by professional sports. Certainly it’s going to be more difficult.”

In two months, Rutgers and Maryland will turn the Big Ten into a 14-member league located in 11 states. Within the last year, the Big Ten moved its headquarters from a quaint building in Park Ridge, Ill., to a massive new structure down the road in Rosemont. The league added a secondary office in New York City and a satellite office in Washington D.C.

The Big Ten’s cosmetic makeover is symbolic of its financial growth. Nearly a decade ago, Delany pushed for a league-owned network, which now claims more than 52 million homes. Big Ten dispersals have soared from around $15.6 million in fiscal year 2006 to $25.4 million in 2013. According to a report by the Lafayette Courier-Journal, each Big Ten school expects to pull in $44.5 million from league coffers through new media deals in the 2017-18 school year.

But adding exposure is vital to gaining subscribers and accumulating wealth. To establish a Northeast foothold, Delany invited and accepted Rutgers and Maryland in November 2012. He signed an agreement with the Pinstripe Bowl, which allows for Big Ten signage at Yankee Stadium. The Manhattan office will be operational by June. Monday, Delany and the league announced an eight-year deal to play eight games against the Big East annually to open college basketball season. That adds valued inventory for the league’s media partners and gains exposure in larger Eastern markets. Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University will become an affiliate member this fall for men’s lacrosse.

Delany plans to regularly rotate the men’s basketball tournament from its highly successful Midwest locales — the last two tournaments produced were the most well-attended in its 17-year history — to the East Coast. The 2017 tournament at Washington’s Verizon Center is the just beginning. The Big Ten has more than 91,000 alumni in the Beltway according to the Washington Post, and Delany hopes to routinely attract for the tournament and other events.

There are risks associated with an Eastern push. Three years ago, Big Ten basketball schools played eight league opponents twice and two schools once. Next year, teams will play home-and-home just five times with eight single-plays. Big Ten football programs formerly played each other at least six times over an eight-year period. With divisional play now set, Iowa, for instance, won’t play at Ohio State until at least 2020.

While adding Nebraska was widely celebrated, Maryland and Rutgers were jeered by fans and even coaches. Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo said last fall, “I’m a traditionalist. I’m not excited about Rutgers and Maryland in the conference.” Maryland’s fan base nearly revolted over moving from the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Rutgers has failed to establish excellence in football or basketball. Only Penn State is within driving distance of either school, and the Eastern push threatens to alienate the league’s strong fan bases.

“One of the issues is how Rutgers and Maryland perform,” Zimbalist said. “Maryland, of course, over the years has had a very strong basketball team but hasn’t had a good football team. Rutgers has not particularly stood out in either sport. Like is the case in most sports leagues, if you want to attract a fan base, you’ve got to have an exciting team usually with exciting players. It’s not clear how quickly that will happen for Rutgers and Maryland.”

Delany said Tuesday he’s “confident” BTN will become fully distributed in the region. But that’s where the challenges escalate, Zimbalist said.

“Clearly the Big Ten Network is one of the driving forces behind this expansion,” Zimbalist said. “I have to say that, although it’s been successful so far, I think they’re going to have trouble with their model going forward. They have the third tier of events for football and basketball, and then they have all of the non-revenue sports. It’s not very precious programming.”

Delany — and the league — is banking on his East Coast gamble. If it’s successful — like starting BTN — it could cement his legacy as perhaps college sports’ greatest commissioner. If it fails, it’s possible the fabric that binds the Big Ten could start to fray.

“I think there are challenges,” Zimbalist said. “Delany is smart. The Big Ten has a lot of resources. It plays an exciting brand of college sports. I think it’s something that can happen. It might take a while. Whether it fully takes hold or not, it’s going to be difficult to say.”

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