The Big Ten announced earlier this week it will no longer play just eight conference games when Rutgers and Maryland join the league in 2014. Now the debate centers on nine or 10 contests. The Big Ten should go with 10.
The argument largely boils down to the non-conference and the revenue reaped by an extra home game. With three non-conference games to play around with, Michigan could schedule three at home in the years they have five Big Ten road games, bringing in a marquee name in one of those three matchups, and then play two at home and one on the road against a high-caliber opponent in the years the Wolverines have five league games in Ann Arbor.
In this scenario, every year Michigan can guarantee at least seven home games, and considering that The Big House brings in about $5 million per game, having seven vs. six games at Michigan Stadium is significant for the bottom line of the entire athletic department.
Going to 10 conference games puts teams in a bind - do they continue to schedule non-conference games against top-tiered opponents or do they schedule two patsies that do no require a home-and-home, thus guaranteeing seven home games every year? That is a decision each athletics director will have to evaluate based on the financial implications.
However, there is an expected cash windfall coming to the Big Ten when it signs its next TV agreement with ESPN (or someone else) after the 2016 season (and don't be surprised if Commissioner Jim Delany tries to negotiate a new deal before then) and from the additional revenue due to the Big Ten Network with the expansion of markets that Rutgers and Maryland will bring.
Can the additional income expected to arrive at the Big Ten headquarters in Chicago compensate for the loss of a home game? That is the million-dollar question, but one that the league should know by the time it votes on a nine- or 10-game slate this spring. In fact, that decision will probably be based on whether the conference feels confident that it can compensate for a lack of a seventh home game every other year.
If it can, then it makes sense to go to 10 because of the competitive elements involved.
Consider that more intra-conference matchups would be more appealing to television bigwigs, and to the fans shelling out thousands to attend games in-person (especially suite holders). Would you rather see Michigan play Maryland and Wisconsin or Ohio and Memphis?
"I don't see any reason to play the Mid-American Conference," said former offensive lineman Clay Miller, in town this week for the Michigan Alumni Network Dinner and a veteran of nine-game Big Ten schedules from 1981-84. "I understand the economics of it because we get an extra home game, but ultimately to me, when you're a student-athlete, you didn't come to Michigan to play those schools. You came to play the Big Ten, Notre Dame and the other major programs in Division I like Alabama and Southern Cal.
"And as a season-ticket holder, what's the better value for my money - paying to see some some lousy team in the MAC that is an easy win or another Big Ten team that will create real excitement and energy? It's pretty obvious."
The inferior MAC teams might be easier to beat, keeping a record unblemished longer, but with the creation of the four-team playoff (sure to grow) in 2014, and an emphasis on selecting conference champions, the Big Ten victor, whether it's unbeaten or has one loss or even two losses, will earn an invite to the dinner table most years.
Going from nine to 10 also eliminates the imbalance in home vs. away games, which will undoubtedly create squawking among fan bases that feel their team had a more difficult road to a potential Big Ten Championship berth. And they'd be right. Playing 10 conference games creates a scenario of five and five, lessening the debate.
It won't end the argument of course - only playing the other 13 teams will do that - but 10 is better than eight and better than nine because fewer teams are avoided every year, fostering a more even playing field. Again, not perfect, but with six intra-division games and four crossover contests, it is unlikely one team could so greatly benefit from the programs it misses.
The Big Ten should have a decision within a few months, and we can re-examine this discussion again, but if the finances work, going to 10 would provide greater entertainment value, greater competition and would boost the profile of the Big Ten overall.