Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany announced at Media Days that his conference will mandate its schools stop playing FCS teams and schedule at least one non-Big Ten power-conference team per year. Even though a few FCS teams are better than some FBS teams and most Big Ten teams already play power non-conference opponents, those changes simply mean more Big Ten games that matter.
Delany described those two rules and the conference's move to nine-game schedules as being good for fans, good for players and good for College Football Playoff résumés.
But later, in a reply to a question, Delany added a fourth factor (emphasis added):
"I think the better competition draws the fans more. I think, if you ask players, they don't like to practice very often but they love games, they love big games. So I think it was a partly player and fan and television."
College football revenue has skyrocketed in the past decade, largely due to television. The Big Ten gave roughly $32 million to each of its schools in 2014-15, almost double what it paid in 2007-08. Last year, the Lafayette Journal & Courier found the conference expects to pay each school nearly $45 million in 2017-18, with $33 million from TV, due in large part to Big Ten Network expansion and a projected new contract with ESPN.
The problem? As ESPN's revenue declines amid a generation of cord cutters, it's feeling pressure from its owner, Disney, to cut back on rights deals.
That's bad news for the Big Ten's projections. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott even said he's glad his conference isn't next in line.
Scott on ESPN cutbacks impacting rights fees: "I’m glad we’ve got our deal done. I’d be more worried if I were the Big Ten coming up."— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) July 30, 2015
The Big Ten isn't doomed. It might not end up as rich as it could have been, but it's still the richest conference in the country right now. The Big Ten Network is in 60 million homes, and the conference announced plans to deal with the new landscape, including adding BTN to Google Chromecast and other streaming services.
"I'm quite optimistic about our position in the marketplace, even with the dynamic change which is occurring," Delany answered at Media Days. "We've prepared for it. Economy is good. I think sports content is valuable. There may be a transition period over the next decade as to how people consume in terms of direct-to-consumer or through the cable package or through a thinner package. ESPN has been a great partner. I hope they'll be one of our partners in the future."
The key is scheduling. Made-for-TV neutral-site games have become popular for top programs, because they're able to generate more money than standard non-conference games against lower-tier teams. The same can be true for nine-game schedules and games against other power conferences.
The Big Ten's changes might seem small, but they could impact the value of media rights deals, especially if the idea catches on. For example, a Florida schedule that replaces Florida Atlantic with, say, Miami is going to be worth more to ESPN.
College football is a business, and while many coaches* resist playing tougher schedules, the Big Ten found out recently that the people who run athletic department budgets don't care.
Pat Fitzgerald said Big Ten coaches voted 14-0 AGAINST going to nine league games. "But hey, we do what we're told."— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) July 31, 2015
TV rules college sports, and in this case, what's best for TV is also best for fans.
* Head coaches at Alabama, Arizona State and elsewhere have recently called for power-conference teams to play nothing but power-conference teams. There could even be an organized system for it.