The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced a scheduling partnership on Wednesday encompassing football and basketball with plans to apply it to other sports. Starting in 2017, each Big Ten school will play a Pac-12 counterpart annually in football. In a shocking development, this pretty awesome setup was the brainchild of former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther, who butchered Illini football schedules for close to two decades. (Why would a Big Ten team ever schedule a neutral site game in Detroit against Western Michigan 4 weeks after they visited Ann Arbor?! Why?!)
All orange-and-blue-tinged befuddlement aside, the Big Ten and Pac-12 entering into a scheduling arrangement is a natural extension of the link that they have because of the Rose Bowl and a way to add some high profile games to their respective football and basketball schedules without further expansion. Some thoughts:
1. TV Advantages – Having all teams participate in one inter-conference football game per year is a way to build a critical mass of quality games during September that can be guaranteed to the conferences’ TV partners while still giving each individual school enough flexibility to maintain rivalries (particularly Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, USC and Stanford with Notre Dame) and schedule the requisite MAC-rifice games. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany indicated that the Big Ten/Pac-12 games would likely be played during 2nd, 3rd and 4th weeks of the season. That would provide 4 “challenge” games during each of those weeks where one could be placed into every time slot. This can provide some real value to the respective TV packages of the Big Ten and Pac-12, as at the very least ABC/ESPN would avoid getting stuck with a Michigan/Ohio State vs. Random MAC School game in the 2:30 pm Central Time national window during the third week in September. The Big Ten Network and the nascent Pac-12 Network would also likely get multiple inter-conference games per year for both football and basketball, which could help each network get penetration into the other network’s home region.
2. More Big Ten/Pac-12 Bowls? – The Rose Bowl is obviously of critical importance to both the Big Ten and Pac-12, but the two leagues don’t play any other bowl games against each other unless it’s by accident. (I’m certainly spending my New Year’s Eve afternoon watching the Kraft Fight Hunger and Interim Coaches Bowl between Illinois and UCLA. Who’s with me?) The issue from the Big Ten perspective is that the West Coast bowls involving the Pac-12 (besides the Rose) have low payouts compared to the Florida-based bowls with SEC tie-ins (and even the Texas-based bowls with Big 12 tie-ins). The Pac-12 Rose Bowl tie-in largely masks the fact that the conference otherwise has the weakest bowl lineup of the AQ leagues (outside of the Big East) as its even its most desirable members, such as USC, don’t have good traveling reputations. Personally, I’d love for the Big Ten to mix in another bowl or two against the Pac-12, but I can’t see those New Year’s Day games against the SEC in Florida going away. For bowl purposes, nothing is more attractive than a Big Ten vs. SEC matchup (and they pay accordingly). As a result, any new bowls arrangements between the Big Ten and Pac-12 would likely need to be lower in the bowl selection order and require some significant payout offers out there. If the new 49ers and downtown Los Angeles NFL stadiums actually get built, they would have the potential to host new bowls that could pay enough to entice the Big Ten.
3. Improvements for Non-revenue Sports – On the whole, the Big Ten is probably bringing more revenue and brand name power to the table in this partnership compared to the Pac-12. However, the Pac-12 overall has extremely strong top-to-bottom athletic departments in all sports, which can potentially aid the Big Ten significantly. For instance, the Big Ten is a massive underachiever in baseball considering the conference’s resources and facilities. If each Big Ten school starts playing a couple of series every year against Pac-12 opponents (who make up an extremely strong baseball league), that can bring up the RPI numbers for all Big Ten teams, which could then result in more NCAA Baseball Tournament at-large bids and higher seeds. I’ve long thought that improving baseball ought to be a top non-football/basketball priority for the Big Ten and this Pac-12 partnership could be a way to kick-start it.
There could also be some phenomenal non-conference women’s volleyball matches. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already solidified themselves as the top two volleyball conferences in the country year-in and year-out. In this year’s NCAA Volleyball Tournament, 8 of the Sweet Sixteen and 3 of the Final Four were members of either the Big Ten or Pac-12.
4. Notre Dame Rivalries and ACC/Big Ten Challenge Staying Alive – The indications from Jim Delany point to this partnership not having any effect on the Big Ten’s other relationships, such as the traditional Notre Dame football rivalries and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for basketball. It’s telling that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said that he was actually kept apprised of the discussions between the Big Ten and Pac-12 and his relationship with Delany is characterized as “close”. While a lot of fans like to jump to conclusions that conferences will act in a manner to “force” Notre Dame to do something (whether it’s conference realignment in general or a scheduling arrangement), commissioners such as Delany and Pac-12 boss Larry Scott are much more pragmatic. As long as Notre Dame is independent, it’s ultimately extremely beneficial for both of their leagues to maintain high profile rivalries with the Irish if only because it helps out their TV packages quite a bit. Think about it: the Big Ten guarantees 1 or 2 Notre Dame games to its TV partners every September, while the Pac-12 always has an Irish game to offer in prime time on Thanksgiving weekend (and these include marquee matchups such as Michigan-Notre Dame and USC-Notre Dame that TV networks pay a heavy premium for). Delany and Scott don’t want to mess with that at all, which is why every time that a move that appears on its face might apply pressure on Notre Dame (such as the Pac-12 instituting a general rule last year that non-conference games should only be played prior to conference play) is explicitly caveated where it doesn’t end up affecting the Domers (where in the Pac-12 non-conference scheduling case, an exception was made for pre-existing contracts).
5. 8 Conference Games for Big Ten and 9 for the Pac-12 – Not surprisingly, the plans for a 9-game conference schedule for the Big Ten got nixed as a result of the new partnership. Having every school be able to play at least 7 home games per year has become sacrosanct to the Big Ten, which would’ve made it impossible to have a 9-game conference schedule plus a Pac-12 game plus allowing other existing rivalries (such as the Notre Dame matchups described above) to continue. The Pac-12 schools generally don’t have the same steadfast need to play 7 home games per year since they aren’t able to sellout their stadiums with Eastern Podunk State Polytechnic U coming into town the way a lot of the Big Ten schools can. On the West Coast, higher quality opponents are required to draw attendance, which is why even USC has long scheduled 2 major non-conference opponent every year (Notre Dame and a power conference team) despite with the 9-game Pac-12 conference schedule. As a result, it doesn’t surprise me that Larry Scott is indicating that the Pac-12 will maintain the 9-game conference slate for the long-term.
All-in-all, the Big Ten and Pac-12 partnering together is innovative in its simplicity. They are adding on higher quality games without taking away existing rivalries while creating better inventory for their TV partners. Both conferences have similar views toward academic excellence and maintaining strong top-to-bottom athletic departments. With the two leagues already linked in the general public’s mind due to the Rose Bowl tie-ins, the partnership announcement makes sense at the end of a year where conference realignment didn’t make sense at all to a lot of people (unless you’re one of the commenters on this blog).