The conventional way to view conference expansion is that "it's all about TV." The resource that conferences seek when they extend into new markets is made up of Nielsen households.
But there is a potentially more valuable resource: blue chip recruits. If the end goal is football success, recruits matter more than advertising revenue. In a free market, that revenue could be used to acquire better players. In the black market created by the NCAA's rules, the revenue can only be deployed indirectly by paying for coaches and facilities.
This effect is most pronounced in the way that Big Ten teams have raided New Jersey. Rutgers' teams have been dreadful since joining the league, but their new rivals have reaped a reward.
Let's look at four- and five-star football recruits in the 247Sports Composite and where they went in the three years before and after Rutgers started playing in the Big Ten:
|Class||New Jersey blue chips who signed with Rutgers||Those who signed with other Big Ten schools||Those who signed to conferences besides Rutgers'|
|Total before expansion||8 (27.6%)||7 (24.1%)||14 (48.3%)|
|Total after expansion||Down to 0||Up to 17 (68%)||Down to 8 (32%)|
Other Big Ten teams have signed 17 blue chip recruits from New Jersey (68 percent of the total available) after signing only seven in the previous three years. Schools outside the Big Ten have seen their share of New Jersey blue chippers drop from 48 percent to 32.
If the Big Ten would have signed blue chip players from New Jersey in the last three years at the same rate as it did before, the league would have signed about six instead of 17.
During the same period, Rutgers' recruiting has cratered, illustrating the disaster that was Kyle Flood's tenure. The natural tendency has been to look at Rutgers' results and conclude Jim Delany's move was a colossal blunder. However, if the result of Rutgers' collapse is that the powers in the conference recruit better, all while the Big Ten Network can sell New York City as a market, isn't this the best of all worlds for the Big Ten?
So how does the Big Ten's New Jersey experience compare to other conference situations?
Let's look at four Power 5 moves in top recruiting areas, as compared to the three years prior for each.
|Expansion state||In-state team's blue chip signees||New conference's blue chip signees||All other teams' blue chip signees|
|New Jersey (Rutgers to Big Ten)||Down from 27.6% to 0.0%||Up from 24.1% to 68%||Down from 48.3% to 32%|
|Maryland/DC (Maryland to Big Ten)||Up from 20% to 23%||Up from 24% to 30%||Down from 56% to 46.7%|
|Pennsylvania (Pitt to ACC)||Up from 12.5% to 14.3%||Up from 9.4% to 11.4%||Down from 78.1% to 74.3%|
|Texas (Texas A&M to SEC)||Up from 9.5% to 20.9%||Up from 10.3% to 13.2%||Down from 80.2% to 65.9%|
The Big Ten's experience with New Jersey is unique, perhaps in part because Pitt and Texas A&M have more or less maintained average quality. Maryland's been about as up-and-down as Rutgers on the field, but has had much less public athletic department turmoil.
The Big Ten and the Terps have both seen slight improvements in Maryland's turf, which means it has gotten slightly harder for non-Big Ten teams to pull players out of the area. Bama and Florida State continue to do very well in the DMV, however.
Before Aggieland turned into a departure point for former five-star quarterbacks, Texas A&M experienced a substantial bump around the time it joined the SEC. Some of this is attributable to Johnny Manziel, but even his 2012 class had more blue chip players than the previous two classes combined.
Meanwhile, SEC recruiting in Texas did not pick up in the Aggies' first three years; it only improved this year, just as A&M's recruiting was faltering. (Note the 2016 upward trend in the first chart of this excellent piece on SEC recruiting in Texas.)
Thus, the SEC's experience illustrates that when a conference adds a talent-rich area and the new addition struggles, the result can be an opportunity for the rest of the conference.
And for an example of conference expansion not affecting recruiting, we have the ACC. Pitt's in-state recruiting has not improved much since joining a better conference, and neither the rest of the conference nor the country has seen much change in Pitt's state.
Is this a sign of ACC recruiting weakness? One can reach that conclusion, at least for the northern members. (I'm looking at you, Virginia Tech.) Florida State and Clemson are the two main powers in the ACC, and they are far from Pennsylvania. Plus, they are in a different division, so they can't play the "we'll play a game in your state every other year" card.
The ACC ends up looking like Spain in the 17th century: an entity that is too weak to exert control over its colonies. The ACC's decision not to create a TV network would be analogized to Spain's ineffective tax system. (Thus, the implication would be that Delany's next move would be to try to add Virginia. Just as England exploited Spain's weakness, so too could the Big Ten do the same.)
As with most college football research, we have a sample size issue.
The number of recruits is low, and the time period is necessarily short. If Michigan did not hire Chris Partridge, the Wolverines might not have signed five blue chips from New Jersey in 2016, and then that table would look different.