As you may have surmised by now, I’m not especially happy with the advent of the Big Ten Network, now just a month away.
I’ve griped about the fact that it’s likely going to screw up my Ohio State television viewing, as I live out of market and — hello, looking to buy a house in Pittsburgh — likely will be for a while. I’m wondered about the outrageous rates BTN wants cable companies to pay — almost double that of the NFL Network for what will essentially be a regional sports channel. And I’m pissed off at everyone involved — although I reserve special loathing for BTN — because of the apparent lack of progress in getting cable systems signed up. I mean, guys, you told us in May there were 40 systems ready to go — when do we get to hear about those?
Here’s another reason to be grumpy. The conference’s athletics directors will apparently begin serious discussions about adding a 12th team, a marquee name, to help bolster the popularity of — and the demand for — the new network. That, of course, would come with divisions, division championships, a conference championship game and all the associated hoopla.
I normally consider traditionalists with a little skepticisim. I think they tend to miss out on some fun stuff while they’re busy being stuffy. But I don’t mind saying I don’t think I like the possibility of a larger conference and a title game. Emphasis on traditional rivalries would be lost, for the sake of a contrived championship. Look at last year’s Michigan game. Instead of playing for a slot in the national championship game — in what was absolutely the biggest game of that century-old rivalry — we would have been playing for a slot in our own conference title game. Or if it works out that Ohio State and Michigan are in different divisions, would we be playing each other again the following week?
And how do you divide up those divisions? As it stands now, the conference’s big three — Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — would probably all end up in an eastern split and have to deal with each other just to get to the title game. And then you play whom? Minnesota? Illinois? Would Wisconsin just be the defacto western division champion every year?
Ah, but you first have to figure in the team to added. And let’s be clear — when the Big Ten starts calling, that first call will be to South Bend. I don’t know where Notre Dame’s contract with NBC stands, but if they’re close to the end of that deal , and Jim Delany does some serious money-whipping, they might be convinced to join. If not, I think WVU would probably be next on the priority list, followed by … uh … Pitt? The pickins get kinda slim, and then you’re fighting against your stated purpose of attracting a new big-time school to the conference. Pitt might be a decent choice because you’d have to assume their rivalry with Penn State would be renewed — unless Paterno figures out a way to weasel out of that one as well — but as someone who lives here, I can say that there isn’t a great deal of excitement about Pitt football among the locals, much less those who might be interested in selling television packages featuring an “improved” Big Ten conference.
So let’s say it’s WVU. In a geographical arrangement, you’d have to have Penn State, West Virginia, Ohio State, Indiana … and both Michigans? Purdue and one of them? Jesus, imagine telling Jim Tressel he now has to get through Penn State, WVU and Michigan every year, just to get to the title game? Tress might even say a bad word about that one. There’s no question that part of me finds the prospect of adding a WVU or a Notre Dame to the rotation — whatever form that rotation takes — would at least be interesting. But I think we’d be losing something as well.
But I think the bigger issue here is one of timing, and what it says about BTN’s progress. We’re a month away from both the start of the season and the network’s launch. The cheery pronouncments about how many cable systems will be signed up we were hearing in the spring have dwindled. And then the ADs start talking about adding a school and re-aligning the conference, so BTN is more attractive. That says to me, boys and girls, that negotiations with cable companies aren’t only not going well, but they’re going straight in the crapper. If I didn’t have DirecTV already — and the Crappy household does not — I wouldn’t be especially confident about seeing any BTN programming anytime soon.