After around two decades of speculation and proposals, Penn State will be announcing today that it’s adding a Division I hockey program. Now, as someone that attended Illinois, which only has a club hockey team, I have a fairly rudimentary understanding the hierarchy of college hockey that’s a bit different than the worlds of football and basketball. (Note that the woman that cuts my hair lived in Grand Forks up until a couple of years ago, so I do at least have a monthly discussion about North Dakota hockey.) Still, this is an important story from a Big Ten and national perspective since Penn State’s new program is going to have massive implications on the hockey world, and by extension, the overall athletic programs of a whole slew of universities.
Make no mistake about it: there WILL be a Big Ten hockey conference. There is no “if” here. A large contingent of college hockey fans want nothing to do with the concept and are trying to talk themselves into thinking that Penn State will simply be satisfied in joining the CCHA or that Minnesota politicians will intervene a la Texas pols with the Big 12, but that’s just wishful thinking on their part. We can talk all day about North Dakota’s and Denver’s rivalries with Minnesota and Wisconsin in the WCHA and how the smaller Michigan-based schools financially depend upon getting annual visits from Michigan and Michigan State every year, yet it will be of no use because (a) Penn State wouldn’t be adding a very expensive sport if it didn’t have assurances that a Big Ten hockey league (and the TV opportunities and ticket sales that come with it) would come to fruition and (b) pretty much all of the powers that be in the Big Ten except for maybe Minnesota wants the league to form BADLY. Last year, the Big Ten actually had discussions with Miami, Bowling Green and Western Michigan about becoming hockey-only affiliate members. Think about that for a second: considering how much we concentrated on how only elite and financially viable football programs could justify Big Ten expansion in that sport, Jim Delany and company have been so interested in forming a hockey league that they were considering to add MAC schools in order to make it happen. That’s a pretty clear indication of the Big Ten’s modus operandi with respect to hockey. I’m sorry WCHA and CCHA partisans – the loyalties of all of these schools are to the Big Ten first and foremost.
The Big Ten Network is certainly an important factor in the Big Ten’s desire to form a hockey conference sooner than later. Unlike Big Ten-sponsored sports, the television rights for hockey games are controlled by the various hockey conferences (in terms of relevance to the Big Ten, the CCHA and WCHA) and individual schools can negotiate their own TV packages. This is a pretty good deal for a school like Minnesota, which is the dominant school in a hockey-crazed market and where the Gophers have a lucrative deal with Fox Sports Net North, but it hasn’t been great for the availability of hockey games on the Big Ten Network. (I’m going to talk about Minnesota a lot in this post since that’s the Big Ten school where hockey is arguably the most important while having very strong WCHA rivalries.) Hockey is the clear #3 TV college sport in Big Ten markets after football and basketball, yet the lack of control over hockey TV rights means that there’s only a smattering of games on the network every year. By forming the Big Ten hockey conference, all of those TV rights would be under control of the Big Ten and the conference can place more games on the Big Ten Network and even sell more widely distributed packages to outlets like ESPN.
Hockey is fairly valuable programming for the Big Ten Network. Unlike baseball as of now, the hockey programs in the Big Ten are national powers and have fan bases that generate revenue and TV eyeballs in solid amounts. Hockey games will almost certainly fill Friday prime time slots every week (when football and basketball games in the Big Ten are never played, anyway) and fill out an array of Saturday and possibly even Sunday time slots. Also, in terms of subscriber revenue, hockey is going to provide more leverage for the BTN to garner higher rates in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from cable providers in the future.
(EDIT: In addition, and maybe most importantly, hockey is critical for the Big Ten Network in terms of building its online platform. While all conference football and men’s basketball games are shown on television, most hockey games will likely end up streamed over the web, so that sport will become the primary driver for the BTN’s online content. College hockey is actually a great vehicle for selling online streaming packages because it has a “sizable niche” audience – small enough where it doesn’t make financial sense to put every single game on TV, but large and passionate enough that the BTN can still make money selling those non-TV games online.)
Is hockey power Minnesota going to like giving up its local TV deals and WCHA rivalries? Probably not, but the Gophers are going to get ZERO slack when their football program, which just suffered an embarrassing loss to South Dakota, is making literally tens of millions of dollars per year off of the backs of Ohio State and Penn State. A school like Penn State risked a whole lot of local TV opportunities for football which dwarf regional hockey deals in order to support the Big Ten Network, so the expectation is the very least that Minnesota could do is allow the Big Ten leverage the one sport where the Gophers have a legit marquee team.
Now, the long-term hope is that a Big Ten hockey conference could spur other schools with high-level club programs such as Illinois and Indiana to create Division I programs, as well. In fact, the Gopher hockey beat writer of the Star Tribune pointed out that Illinois in particular is being named as a potential hockey school. As someone that loved going to club hockey games in Champaign (although I’m pretty sure the rink was constructed at some point right before the downfall of the Roman Empire), the prospect of an Illini varsity hockey program is spectacular. Granted, it will be difficult enough to raise enough money for new facilities and enough scholarships to satisfy both the hockey team itself and additional women’s sports in order to comply with Title IX, but having a Big Ten hockey conference in place was the only way that adding hockey could even conceivably be an option for Illinois. Neither Illinois nor any other Big Ten school is going to lay out all of that money so that it can play a bunch of games against the Ferris States of the world – they all need Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to come to town annually to make it worthwhile.
The flipside is the potential fallout in the WCHA and CCHA when the Big Ten teams leave. Dave Starman of USCHO has a better evaluation of the possible domino effect than I could ever put together, so be sure to check him out. (The one caveat is he’s still holding out the possibility of Penn State joining the CCHA, which I see as a futile discussion.) Can a school such as Lake Superior State survive without home dates from the Big Ten schools in the CCHA? Could this be a preview of Notre Dame’s ultimate intentions for other sports, where it has a choice of staying the Midwest-based CCHA, head west to the WCHA, maybe head out to Hockey East to give it an East Coast presence, or create a entirely new conference altogether? (How about a conference headed up by Notre Dame, Boston College, North Dakota and Denver? That would be an extremely strong contender to the Big Ten.) The possibilities are as endless as all of the permutations put together of BCS conference alignments in the blogosphere over this past year.
Still, the ultimate upshot is that college hockey is going to get a massive boost in exposure when the Big Ten forms its league and elevates the sport across its TV platforms. Kudos to Penn State for taking a leap into Division I hockey that is going to open up opportunities for Illinois and other Big Ten schools.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from You Hoser)