Monday, December 31, 2012

A few reasons to be bullish on Big Ten football

I am admittedly a fan of Big Ten football. In the interest of maintaining some level of objectivity on the blog I tried to avoid being openly defensive about the league’s prospects. Since objectivity is not a huge issue on a blog that receives tens of visits per month, I want to engage with some comments that a friend of mine sent in response to my recent post on the Big Ten’s bowl season prospects.

His points are as follows:
- The Big Ten’s bowl lineup is unfavorable
- B1G draft picks perform strongly in the NFL
- Demographic shortcomings are overstated
- Cultural issues (coaching salaries/oversigning)

Bowl Lineup

I’ve written about this one tangentially (check out the top section of this post), but it bears repeating. The Big Ten, by virtue of being located almost entirely in a region that no one wants to visit in late December or early January, would be the visiting team for nearly any bowl. The fact that they compound the problem by playing the Pac-12 in Southern California, the Big 12 in Texas and the SEC in Florida is icing on the cake.

The trouble with this explanation is that it is unlikely to change. I don’t see the Big Ten passing up the matchups that are so unfavorable on the field because they are great off of it. Outside of the Big Ten, the SEC and Big 12 have the most-followed teams (if you don’t believe me you can check it here). Combining already-large fan bases results in participants getting the biggest possible payouts from bowls. Put another way, if you want the Big Ten to match up against some patsies from the Mountain West or whatever is left of the Big East, expect reduced income from those games – good luck getting athletic departments to buy into this.

There are some small reasons to be hopeful here. Commissioner Jim Delany has mentioned diversifying the bowl lineup out of Florida and Texas a bit. Playing in the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium would almost certainly be a pseudo-home game for the league, which would be nice. Short of getting a lot of bowls (not just one or two) into the league’s area, this will probably remain an area of weakness that contributes to an annually less-than-stellar performance in the bowl season.

My friend correctly notes that placing two teams in the BCS is a problem for the league inasmuch as it pulls lower teams up to bowls for which they are not qualified. This is a tough one to believe because the competition (read: SEC) also gets two BCS teams nearly every year and seems to do just fine.

Forecast: Don’t expect improvement here

Performance of Big Ten draft picks

This is more of an argument that things aren’t as bad as the record indicates, for reasons listed above and below. I am sympathetic to this argument but I want to hold off on replying until I spend some more time on it. Look for another blog post to address the performance of each conference’s draftees, just don’t look for it soon.

Forecast: Might make you feel better about the conference, won’t make it stop losing


The Midwest is not growing much. This is not news to anyone who follows census data (you don’t follow census data?). Five states in the Big Ten footprint lost seats in the House of Representatives following the 2010 Census – six if you include new member Maryland. This all speaks to a relative decline in the national share of population for the Big Ten region at the expense of the South and West.

As of the realignment moves that have been announced to date, however, the Big Ten still has most populous footprint among major conferences. Assuming that split states (e.g., Florida, Texas, South Carolina) are 50/50 between the two conferences[1] with a claim to them, the Big Ten leads the way by a significant margin over the ACC, Pac-12 and SEC. The Big 12 and several smaller conferences trail far behind. Even the proportion of population under 18, which I expected to swing heavily against the Big Ten, is relatively strong compared to other conferences.

Under 18 Population
% U-18
Big 12
Big East
Big Ten
Source: US Census Data, Sports + Numbers analysis

More than just population, though, the population’s interest in and ability at football are key. Several articles have addressed this point (see here, here, here and here). If you don’t have a chance to look through all of those links I can summarize briefly. The states in the Southeast are far and away the leaders per capita at producing Division I football players and NFL players.

Maybe this is due to longer practice seasons made possible by the weather, maybe potential players in other regions end up playing basketball or baseball at higher rates. Whatever the cause, this is a long-lived phenomenon not likely to change quickly. One possible ray of hope on this is that the share of NFL players from the South has recently declined somewhat – though the Midwest has also declined – and new schools Rutgers and Maryland should help recruiting in the improving Northeast.

Forecast: The Big Ten remains the biggest by population but with a shrinking advantage over the competition and a lower per-capita output of football players than the South. A foothold in Virginia or North Carolina would significantly improve the outlook going forward.

Cultural Issues (Coaching salaries and oversigning)

These are really two issues but I am putting them together for a reason. They both reflect a view from the school that winning is hugely important to the point of ignoring other things that would seem to be important ($$$ away from the alleged mission of the school, some athletes finding no scholarship available).

Salaries for head coaches have skyrocketed around the country. The Big Ten has taken part in this surge and now has five of the top 20. This gap is about salaries for assistants.

Avg. Head Coach
Assistant Coaches per School Avg.
Big 12
Big East
Big Ten
Source: USA Today Database, Sports + Numbers analysis

The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 are all within about $200k on their average salaries for assistant coaches (per school). The ACC comes in $300k above the Big 12 and the SEC comes in a further $230k above the ACC. This additional money allows schools to keep a coach who might otherwise leave to be the head coach at a smaller school, and recently Arkansas took advantage of the culture of high assistant coaching budgets to lure Bret Bielema from Wisconsin where he was frustrated about losing assistant coaches. Between the shocking Bielema defection and the money committed to assistants at Ohio State, the rest of the Big Ten looks set to grudgingly get on board or be quickly left behind.

On oversigning, I want to be clear that I do understand college football is a business. I’m not arguing against this for the “purity of the game” so much as being a place to draw the line on how you treat your very modestly compensated players. I think at a minimum we can all agree that it helps those schools that practice it in the form of deeper rosters, better recruiting rankings (which beget additional good recruiting rankings as schools can tout theirs and their conference’s strength) and denying players to schools that might challenge them (e.g., South or Central Florida, nearby ACC schools).

Some great work has been done naming and shaming the worst of these cases, and several SEC schools do not permit the practice, but this remains an issue despite baby steps from the SEC on it. I mean, ESPN’s SEC blogger (linked previous sentence) even soothed his readers by noting that the tighter rules wouldn’t end the practice. Still, the overall trend is toward ending the practice and that will benefit the Big Ten, which has not allowed it since 1956.

Forecast: Very favorable. Look for the Big Ten to start paying up (see below) and the SEC to continue limiting oversigning.

BONUS POINT – The Big Ten Network

This comes back to the demographics point somewhat. The Big Ten is a collection of very large schools in relatively large states. Jim Delany, the longtime commissioner, found a way to tap into that for some extra spending money by creating the Big Ten Network. The BTN makes money through rights fees from cable subscribers (approximately $1.25 per month within the conference footprint) though Fox Sports owns just over 50% of the venture so the schools share the remainder. The payouts currently sit at $7.2 million per school. These should increase with expansion since improving the demographic outlook appears to be the goal of the exercise and can only way to improve it is to add new territory (and new cable households).

It is hard to overstate how important this is for the Big Ten’s outlook. Currently, the conference pays out just over $20 million per school (similar, but slightly different numbers here). This is in line with the other top conferences and slightly ahead of where the SEC is. The Big Ten, however, has their first and second tier rights (think games on ABC, ESPN or CBS) up for bid in just a few years and can expect those fees to skyrocket. When the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 went out to bid, they got rights fee increases of 30%, 60-70% and 300% (the Pac-12 used to have a really terrible deal) respectively. If the Big Ten can get increases anywhere in the same ballpark as the increases won by other conferences they will jump out way in front even before the BTN comes in with increased payouts.

Forecast: Shockingly favorable. All this money should help even up some of the shortcomings on assistant coaching salaries and facilities relative to other conferences. The SEC may be able to match the revenue here with a renegotiated CBS deal post-Texas A&M and a cable net with a higher fee on a smaller base but they are the only ones.

[1] South Florida is not pulling Florida for the Big East just like smaller Texas schools are not pulling Texas away from the SEC/Big 12. Deal with it.

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