Monday, December 28, 2009

Big Ten Championship Game is Perilous

The Big Ten is actively pursuing a 12th team for the purpose of becoming eligible for a conference championship game. Whether Joe Paterno and Barry Alvarez are pushing for a conference championship game because of the expected financial windfall it would bring, or because they’re actually concerned with the “perception” of the Big Ten as both have claimed remains to be seen. Either way, if the Big Ten adds a member, then a conference championship game is coming to the Big Ten.

The trouble is that I don’t think anyone knows whether that’s a good idea or not. I’ve always been happy with the fact that while the SEC and Big XII lose out on BCS bids because of their conference championship games, the Big Ten gains BCS bids because it doesn’t have one. Despite its reputation as a mediocre conference—a reputation that has often been earned—no other conference has produced more BCS bids than the Big Ten. It’s not a coincidence that the conference without a championship game leads the country in BCS bids. Ironically, Joe Paterno and Barry Alvarez are advocating a Big Ten Championship game because they believe the Big Ten is falling behind in "perception" compared to other conference when, in fact, not having a championship game is the only thing keeping the Big Ten's perception from becoming even worse. The other side of the argument is that the SEC and Big XII bring in enough revenue from their conference championship games that each of their member institutions get roughly a $1 million payout every year that Big Ten schools don’t get.

The default setting for most fans is idealistic rather than materialistic. Fans care a whole lot more about the Big Ten’s reputation—which relies heavily on National Championships, BCS bids, and bowl performance—than they do about how much money the Big Ten rakes in. According to Stewart Mandel, each Big Ten school brings in roughly $22.6 million per year. The additional million that could be added via a Big Ten Championship game seems like “small potatoes” compared to that. Certainly, I wouldn’t think it would be worth losing out on extra BCS bids and National Championship Game appearances. I feel that way, though, because I am a fan and it doesn’t cost me any money to feel that way. If I were a President of a Big Ten school, I might be able to forget about “reputation” for an extra million bucks. So, whether a conference championship game is good for the Big Ten depends entirely on your viewpoint.

I’ve been against a Big Ten Championship game because of the obvious advantage the conference has received by not having one. However, it's hard to deny that strictly financially speaking, it is worth losing a BCS bid every other year if it means an additional $12-$14 million for the conference (which is an estimate of what SEC and Big XII Championship Games bring in annually). A second BCS-bid is worth $4.5 million. So, even if the Big Ten loses a second BCS-bid every year due to a championship game, having the game would still net $9-10 million annually. Obviously, a Big Ten Championship Game would not cause the conference to lose a 2nd BCS bid every year. In fact, it would be much less than that. In the 12 years of the BCS, the SEC has lost just two bids as a result of its championship game and the Big XII hasn’t lost a single bid. That means while the SEC has likely brought in over $100 million from its conference championship game over the last 12 years, it has only lost roughly $9 million due to lost BCS bids. The Big XII—while also likely bringing in over $100+ million over that time—hasn’t lose a single dime from lost BCS bids. Financial people will tell you that’s a pretty good argument for having a conference championship.

I’m not convinced that the Big Ten would be as immune to losing bids as the SEC has been. The Big Ten has received two BCS bids in nine of the twelve years since the BCS was implemented. Of those nine two-bid years, the Big Ten did not have a 3rd team strong enough to factor into the BCS discussion in six of those years. The SEC has been so successful at placing two teams into the BCS despite its conference championship game because it often has more than just two elite teams and/or teams that would still receive a bid even with a loss. #2 Tennessee lost in the SEC Championship Game in 2001 and the SEC still garnered two BCS bids. Alabama and Florida—losers of the last two SEC Championship Games—both received bids despite the losses. Depending on how the Big Ten would’ve been divided up, a Big Ten Championship Game could’ve cost the conference as many as six bids since the BCS began. That would’ve been frustrating from a fan’s perspective, no doubt, but that still only would’ve netted a loss of roughly $27 million which is paltry compared to the $100+ million that would’ve resulted from having the championship game in the first place. So, the Big Ten would almost assuredly lose BCS bids as a result of a championship game and likely at a higher rate than the SEC. However, like the SEC has proven, there is substantial money to be made in the process.

*Since the BCS began in 1998

Although “second” BCS bids are certainly important for bragging purposes, they pale in comparison to being selected to play in a National Championship game. Losing out on that opportunity is much more harmful to a conference’s reputation than losing out on a second BCS bid (although the financial loss is the same, believe it or not). Since the BCS was formed in 1998, the SEC and Big XII have lost a total of five National Championship Game participants. In the SEC’s case, it has lost two guaranteed National Championship scenarios. In 2008, Florida and Alabama played in the SEC Championship Game meaning both could not play in the National Championship Game. Otherwise, two SEC teams would’ve played for the National Championship. The exact same scenario unfolded this season. Meanwhile, the Big Ten hasn’t lost a single BCS bid or National Championship Game participant over the history of the BCS. That is an advantage that has allowed the Big Ten to “save face” during a stretch of disappointing football.

On a school-to-school basis, the idea of a conference championship game will appeal much more to the Indiana and Northwestern’s of the Big Ten. They are unlikely to ever be adversely affected as a result of a conference championship game. They’ll simply cash their $1 million checks and say, “Thank you.” Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn St, however, are the teams that will likely have their roads to a BCS game or the National Championship game made more difficult by the adoption of a championship game despite the foolhardy suggestion to the contrary by the Barry Alvarezes and Joe Paternos of the world. For those schools, the $1 million payout may not be worth it. So, while the money brought in would benefit the conference as a whole, it would unlikely benefit the elite programs of the conference nearly as much. That’s why there might be a divide in opinion of a championship game based on the various fanbases. It’s likely that Ohio St, Michigan, and Penn St., fans will look less favorably on it than fans from other schools. As you can imagine, I’m not happy about the fact that Michigan will probably have to beat Ohio State twice in the same season before it can even play in a National Championship game. The extra $1 million that the Michigan Athletic Department would pocket isn’t nearly worth making that theoretical situation a reality. Considering adding a 12th team would also significantly weaken the Michigan-Ohio State game, make it more difficult for the conference to receive multiple BCS bids, and make it harder for a Big Ten team to get to the National Championship game, the Big Ten better make this a "Notre Dame or bust" situation. Otherwise, Big Ten football is about to change forever and, other than a few lousy bucks, it won't be for the better.

Note: This post assumes that any school that is added would bring $22.6 million (Mandel’s estimate of a break even point) annually to the conference via renegotiated TV contracts and nothing significantly more or less.


redhog1 said...

I've read your posts closely. You just not have convinced me that Mich and THEosu should not be in the same division. Your main assumption seems to be that Michigan and THEosu are so superior to the rest of the conference that it would be unfair to place the two superpowers in the same division. I just don't see enought support for that to outweigh the many "traditional" and "logisitical" issues (meaning the logisitical challenge of getting to NC game playing THEosu twice in a season). It seems if you just accept that WE-R-U (i.e. PSU) and Iowa and then a spattering of others are occasionally worthy, then this huge issue Mich-THEosu goes away. thougths?

Jake said...


Putting Michigan and Ohio State in the same division wouldn’t be the end of the world. In fact, it could be argued that stacking one division might benefit the conference. Just look at the Big XII. Whoever wins the Texas-Oklahoma game pretty much has a guaranteed win in the Big XII Championship Game and the loser generally has an easy route to the conference’s 2nd BCS bid. It wasn’t meant to be that way but I don’t think the Big XII is complaining. I just don’t think a conference would ever intentionally stack one division with the best teams in the league. Plus, the Big Ten will more than likely look to divide the divisions geographically like every other 12-team conference has done. That leaves North/South or East/West. East/West is just not a good idea with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State all in the same division. That leaves North/South which does a pretty good job of keeping existing rivalries and balancing the divisions equally.

The one drawback is the Michigan-Ohio State situation. I would be all for manually creating divisions irrespective of geographic location.

If you want Michigan and OSU in the same division, you’d have to stack the other division with Wisconsin, Penn St., Iowa, and Michigan State.
It might look like this…

Division 1
Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, and Northwestern

Division 2
Wisconsin, Penn St., Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, new team

I would be fine with this. I think it’s OK for Michigan and Ohio State to be in the same division if the other division is stacked. However, manually creating divisions would mean the Big Ten would have to ignore precedent set by every other conference (meaning ignore geographic relevance). I don’t see that happening.

J.R. Ewing said...

I'm with you, you don't cost yourself BCS game berths, just maybe national title berths. You can even gain a BCS spot (i.e. like if Nebraska had upset Texas this year) or in a rare case, a title berth (perhaps a boost to SoS if you were in 3rd but close to 2nd).

One thing to think about, when these games happen (speaking from experience), you get all the travel and expense of a bowl game (including ticket price close to $100) to present a matchup you typically see at home regularly for your usual season ticket price. And don't forget the Jerryworld $6 coke or $8 hot dog. But I digress...

You probably did this as well, but I put a little pen to paper to see how your division breakdown would have played out in Conference Title Games. In any given year, you never know how the power may fall.

So I looked at final standings, threw how Pitt might have done in there, applied reasonable tiebreakers, etc.

Great games
2006 - Michigan vs. Ohio State (thriller last game of season replayed, many wanted this in Glendale).
2002 - Iowa vs. Ohio State (both 8-0 in conference)

Good games
2009 - Iowa vs. Ohio State (rematch w/o much national implication, but regular season game was OT)
2007 - Michigan vs. Ohio State (rematch of 21-10 OSU victory in AA)
2005 - Michigan vs. Penn State (PSU looking to avenge only conference loss)
2003 - Michigan vs. Ohio State (rematch w/o much national implication)

How did this happen games
2008 - Michigan State vs. Penn State (PSU crushed them by 31 pts the last game of season and it wasn't a fluke)
2004 - Michigan vs. Purdue/Pitt

2004 and 2005 featured great N/S imbalance, but in different directions.

2004 had Ohio State and Purdue at 4-4 as the best in the South. Pitt was 4-2 in the 7 team Big East and got the Big East BCS berth by virtue of 4-way tiebreaker. Four North teams finished ahead of OSU/Purdue, and a fifth (MSU) had the same record.

2005 had Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, and Wisconsin all tied at 5-3. Michigan gets the tiebreaker by being 2-1 vs. others, and 1-0 against Northwestern (also 2-1 against others).

As for how this compares to other conferences...due to Big 12 North ineptitude, I would say that the Big XII has had about one really good matchup (2007 Mizzou vs. OU) over that timeframe. 2003 was a great upset of OU, but nobody really was thinking KSU vs. OU was some sort of epic matchup. This years game seemed a mismatch on paper, but at least featured two ranked teams that hadn't played each other.

The ACC about the same, FSU vs. Virginia Tech (2005, inaugural) the only noteworthy game. For the ACC, not even a BCS Title game sniffer in a decade (lots of Wake and BC).

The SEC, has had decent matchups every year except maybe 2002 (UGA d. Ark). The last four I would say were "great" (BCS title in the balance for one or both, evenly matched teams). 2003-5 were "mediocre" (all 10 pts or more and weren't expected to be close).

Jake said...


It looks like we would've seen a Michigan vs Ohio State rematch three times since 2002. Assuming Michigan gets back to where it was, I would guess three times in eight years would be on the low end. One thing is for sure, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry would be at an all time high. I don't think there is any risk of saturating it. The risk is having to beat Ohio State (or vice versa) twice to get to a National Championship game.

Here is a question for you, do you think if the Big XII could do it all over again that it would put Texas and Oklahoma in opposite divisions? It's hard to argue that having them in the same division has hurt in any way except it has resulted in weak Big XII Championship Games.

J.R. Ewing said...

Probably not. The Big XII geographically just splits up so well N/S. Texas and OU would never want to give up their annual game in Dallas, so if you did split them, you'd have to create some permanent rivals, which doesn't make sense for Tech, Baylor, or A&M (who had essentially never played a North team before). And you couldn't do OSU vs. OU, unless you had two permanent rivals.

Having been at school at the time of the change, there was really very little to lead one to believe OU would be a South power. They hadn't made a decent bowl since 1988 and Switzer had long left town. It was supposed to be Nebraska from the North (with CU and KSU challenging) with A&M and Texas for the (admittedly weaker) South (one or the other had won every SWC title since 1984, saving a couple of Arkansas titles).


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