Longtime readers, hell short-time readers too since I bring it up all the time, of this site know that I was not born and raised in Big Ten Country. While the definition of what Big Ten Country has changed (again) in the past week, I never considered the greater Delaware Valley region to be included when people talked about the Big Ten.
Sure there are plenty of Penn State fans there, and with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the conference more east coasters became “Big Ten,” but when you ask someone to define Big Ten Country they will almost assuredly describe a cold, gray, possibly snowing, November morning in the upper midwest with burly dudes who were raised on a farm running into each other.
You don’t think of Philadelphia and you sure as absolute shit don’t think of Los Angeles.
I’ve been trying to puzzle through my feelings about the Big Ten adding UCLA and USC to the conference in 2024 and I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it yet. I’m hoping that by writing it down I’ll be able to get it all out of my system. The more I think about it, the less I like it, to be honest.
When the rumor was first announced, my initial reaction was “hell yeah, let’s get weird” because I think there will always be a part of me that wants to watch chaos unfold in sports. However, as it started to sink in that Wisconsin (and Michigan and Ohio State and Indiana and, well, you get the idea) would be traveling to L.A. multiple times a year for various sports...that just didn’t feel right.
Seeing Wisconsin play at Pauley Pavilion in basketball or the Rose Bowl in football is cool. Those are two iconic venues in college athletics, but those matchups shouldn’t be happening regularly. They should be special occasions that are used as fun trips for fans, not cross-country slogs that happen every other year because the executives at FOX Sports and ESPN decided that Mega Conferences were the future of college sports.
This move isn’t in the best interest of the athletes playing, the fans watching, nor the sports as a whole. Let’s just break down these three entities quickly:
- Increasing travel for all of the Big Ten teams and (massively for) the two L.A. schools isn’t good for the athletes. Even if there are upgraded travel amenities (like chartered flights for all teams, which has been thrown around as an idea) there is no way that going from LAX to State College, Pa. for a Wednesday night basketball game is going to be smooth. Have you ever been to State College? It’s basically only accessible by one (1) road and the tiny University Park Airport SHOCKINGLY doesn’t have any direct flights to/from Los Angeles.
- When a California recruit picks a California school at which to play sports, they probably expect that their family will be able to see them play a bunch. Well, now the closest road game for USC or UCLA (that isn’t the other one) is in Lincoln, Neb. Enjoy the trip, grandma!
- Road trips are more expensive/difficult when the schools in your own conference are two or three time zones away.
- There is no enmity between Wisconsin and either of those two teams. I legitimately don’t remember that USC even plays basketball most seasons and I haven’t cared to learn anything about UCLA football since the Badgers were beating them in the Rose Bowl. It’s the same thing with Rutgers and Maryland to be fair.
Now, as for The Sports themselves, I am going to focus mainly on football since that’s the reason these moves were made in the first place.
I like to think of myself as a pretty progressive person when it comes to changing things I love. I think the players being able to profit off of their name, image, and likeness is an unabashedly good thing. I think the transfer portal is a positive for player empowerment, etc., etc.
However, the slow transformation of college football from a collection of regionally based conferences that rarely play teams from outside that region to the era of a couple massive Super Conferences that is upon us is awful. College football is a regional sport, always has been and should have stayed that way.
There is a reason everyone hates the SEC, thinks the Big Ten is undeservedly pompous and doesn’t think about the Pac-12 at all until 11 p.m. on Saturday nights. It’s because the other regions of the country make fun of them in the name of their regional pride! People like to watch Ohio State play Alabama in January because, even though the players aren’t all from their respective regions, it’s a battle between Midwest Football and Southeastern Football and that rules.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll never cheer for Ohio State even if they are playing against the aliens from Independence Day and the safety of the world depends on the Bucks scoring a touchdown. But, I do like seeing Alabama lose, especially to a Big Ten team, because then the midwest wins and that’s the region I support.
College football going away from being a fiercely regional sport will eventually kill all that is fun and different about it. The path to becoming NFL Lite is paved with gold for TV execs, the coffers of major athletic departments and the various other power brokers in college sports who do not care what they break in their quest for one more dollar.
The fans of college football get nothing out of this. We don’t see a single dollar, in fact we’ll end up paying MORE money to follow the sport we love. Road trips to see your team cost more, tickets cost more, your cable bill goes up because the networks airing the games can charge the cable company more for their product and so on until you just can’t take it anymore and stop caring.
I do not care about watching Wisconsin play USC in football unless it is on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl.
I do care about Wisconsin playing Iowa on a chilly November Saturday in Iowa City because that is a game I’ve seen dozens of times in my life. It’s a game I’ve talked shit about to the many (one might say too many) Iowa fans that I know (and like!) for 12 months because Wisconsin won last year’s game. It’s a game that I’ve lost bets on to my old boss (an Iowa grad), it’s a game that I remember watching in an apartment on Dayton St. with Matt Rock (all of our other friends were in Iowa at the game) and slowly realizing that the apartment below us was filled with Hawkeyes because the windows were open and we would alternate cheering based on how the previous play went, it’s a game that matters to me and presumably you too.
The game matters because of a shared history. It matters because of proximity. It matters because living in the midwest as a Wisconsin grad means the next cubicle over at work probably contains an Iowa grad or your neighbor is a Minnesota grad or your douchey accountant that you don’t really like but they do a good job is a Michigan grad. Wisconsin vs. Minnesota matters. Michigan vs. Ohio State matters. Indiana vs. Purdue matters. Hell, USC vs. UCLA matters! Purdue vs. UCLA does not matter and, quite frankly, it never will.
It is long past time for college football to return to a more regional sport. Adding Nebraska to the Big Ten was weird, but ultimately made at least some sense due to being close-ish to the rest of the conference. Bringing Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten was dumb and didn’t do anything except make Big Ten Network more valuable as a cable property. Adding USC and UCLA means...well, it means that college football as we know it will be ending soon.
A conference that spans from Los Angeles to Piscataway, N.J. is not a serious conference. It is a money-making operation and, to be fair, quite a good one. The new TV deal for the Big Ten is going to be bonkers big and that’s all that matters to the decision makers in college sports. Destroying everything that people actually like about college football is just an unimportant byproduct of future billion(s) dollar television contracts.
Is it possible that I’m being dramatic and that this is just another Big Change to college sports that we’ll adapt to and everything will be fine? Yes, I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s likely. This is the type of shift that tears at the very fabric of the sport. It will make people care less and it will lead to fans tuning out and becoming passive supporters of their team. The connection that fans, many of whom are alumni, have with their colleges and their college football team is strong. But outside forces have been tearing and clawing and weakening that connection and eventually...it will break.
I will always love the University of Wisconsin and their college football team but eventually, after decades of college football not loving me back, I’ll stop caring. I am a passive fan of the NFL, MLB and NHL now after growing up an extremely active fan of all three. There are varying reasons for my lapsed fandom, but I think it’s important to note that no fan is 100% loyal. If things keep getting worse, and adding USC and UCLA to the Big Ten to set up a future super conference is certainly making things worse, fans will stop caring. I will stop caring.
I don’t want to stop caring about Wisconsin football. It has been an important part of my life for, well, all of it. To bring this back to the Philadelphia suburbs, my father is a native of Stevens Point and a Wisconsin grad. Since I was little I have loved Wisconsin football.
We would watch games together and talk about Mike Samuel and Ron Dayne and Jim Leonhard and Nick Davis and Jamar Fletcher and Vitaly Pisetsky. When I decided to go to Wisconsin my dad, who always told me the choice was up to me, was excited that I made the “right” one.
College sports fandom are feelings that are passed down through generations. You hate Minnesota because your parents hate Minnesota as their parents hated Minnesota before them. It’s the same for Gophers fans. I don’t have any feelings towards Rutgers, except bemusement, and I don’t have any feelings towards UCLA, except that I’m sure their students enjoy winter more than Wisconsin students do.
There is a line that we all have when it comes to losing interest in things. I’m sure for some people, Penn State joining the Big Ten was a bridge too far. For some NIL was the breaking point. Even when these super conferences come to pass I’m sure I’ll still pay attention to college football in passing, but I won’t go to any games, I won’t have thoughts on the battle for Wisconsin’s third string QB and, worst of all, I won’t care if my kids care about Badgers football.
That makes me sad.
College football, and eventually all college sports, are slowly dying due to greed and the considerations of a few powerful people and entities. I hope something is able to alter this course we are on, but I don’t see any reason to be optimistic about that.