Longtime readers, or heck short-term readers since I mention it all the time, of this site know I wasn’t born and raised in Big Ten Country. While the definition of what Big Ten country is has changed (again) in the past week, I’ve never considered the larger 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 Coasts became “Big Ten,” but if you ask anyone to define Big Ten Country, they’ll almost certainly be a cold one , grey, maybe it’s snowing, an upper midwest November morning with burly guys who grew up on a farm running into each other.
You’re not thinking about Philadelphia and certainly not about Los Angeles.
I’ve been trying to think through my feelings about the Big Ten adding UCLA and USC to the conference in 2024, and I still haven’t come to terms with it. I hope to get everything out of my system by writing it down. The more I think about it, the less I like it, to be honest.
When the rumor first broke my first reaction was ‘hell yeah let’s go crazy’ because I think there will always be a part of me that wants to see the chaos in sport unfold. However, when it started to sink in that Wisconsin (and Michigan and Ohio State and Indiana and, well, you get the idea) would be traveling to LA multiple times a year for various sports… it just didn’t feel right.
Watching Wisconsin play basketball at the Pauley Pavilion or football at the Rose Bowl is cool. Those are two iconic venues in collegiate athletics, but these matchups shouldn’t happen on a regular basis. They should be special occasions used as fun outings for fans, not biennial cross-country slogs, because FOX Sports and ESPN executives have decided that mega conferences are the future of collegiate sports.
This move is not in the best interests of the athletes playing, the fans watching, or the sport at large. Let’s quickly break down these three entities:
- The increase in travel for all Big Ten teams and (massively for) the two LA schools isn’t good for the athletes. Even if there are improved travel amenities (like charter flights for all teams thrown around as an idea), there’s no way the journey from LAX to State College, Pennsylvania, for a Wednesday night basketball game will be smooth. Have you ever been to the state university? It’s basically only one (1) street access and the tiny University Park Airport, SHOCKINGLY, has no direct flights to/from Los Angeles.
- When a California recruit chooses a California school to play sports at, he likely expects his family to be able to see him play. Well, now the closest road game to USC or UCLA (that’s not the other) is in Lincoln, Neb. Enjoy the trip grandma!
- Car trips are more expensive/difficult if the schools in your own conference are two or three time zones away.
- There is no animosity between Wisconsin and either of these two teams. I honestly don’t remember USC even playing basketball most seasons, and I haven’t bothered to learn anything about UCLA football since the Badgers beat them at the Rose Bowl. To be fair, it’s the same with Rutgers and Maryland.
Now, as for The Sports itself, I will mainly focus on football as that was the reason these moves were made in the first place.
I like to think of myself as quite a progressive person when it comes to changing things I love. I think players being able to capitalize on their name, image and likeness is an outrageously good thing. I think the transfer portal is positive for player empowerment etc. etc.
However, college football’s slow transformation from a cluster of regional conferences rarely featuring teams from outside of that region to the era of some massive superconferences that lies ahead is horrific. College football is a local sport, always has been and should remain so.
There’s a reason everyone hates the SEC, thinks the Big Ten is undeservedly pompous, and doesn’t even think about the Pac-12 until 11pm on Saturday nights. Because the other regions of the country make fun of them in the name of their regional pride! People love watching Ohio State play Alabama in January because while the players aren’t all from their respective regions, it’s a battle between Midwest Football and Southeastern Football, and that reigns.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll never cheer for Ohio State even if they’re playing the Independence Day aliens and the safety of the world depends on the Bucks scoring a touchdown. But I like to see Alabama lose, especially to a Big Ten team, because that’s when the Midwest wins, and that’s the region I support.
College football moving away from being a heavily regional sport will eventually kill everything that is fun and different. The road to becoming NFL Lite is paved with gold for TV execs, major esports box offices, and the various other collegiate sports power brokers who don’t care what they break in their quest for another dollar.
College football fans have none of that. We don’t see a single dollar, in fact we end up paying MORE money to follow the sport we love. Car trips to see your team cost more, tickets cost more, your cable bill goes up because the networks broadcasting the games can charge the cable company more for their product, and so on until you just can’t take it anymore and don’t care anymore.
I don’t care about watching Wisconsin play football at USC unless it’s January 1st at the Rose Bowl.
It’s important to me that Wisconsin play Iowa in Iowa City on a cool Saturday in November because it’s a game I’ve watched dozens of times in my life. It’s a game that I’ve talked shit about with the many (you could say too many) Iowa fans I know (and like!) for 12 months because Wisconsin won the game last year. It’s a game I lost bets on against my old boss (an Iowa grad), it’s a game I remember watching it in a Dayton Street apartment with Matt Rock (all our other friends were at the game in Iowa). and slowly realizing that the apartment below us was filled with Hawkeyes because the windows were open and we took turns cheering depending on how the previous play went, it’s a game that’s important to me and probably to you too.
The game is important because of a shared history. It’s important because of the proximity. It’s important 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 stupid accountant you don’t really like, that but doing a good job is a michigan degree. Wisconsin vs. Minnesota matters. Michigan vs. Ohio State affairs. Indiana vs. Purdue is important. Heck, USC vs. UCLA matters! Purdue vs. UCLA doesn’t matter and, frankly, never will.
It’s about time college football returned to being a more local sport. Adding Nebraska to the Big Ten was odd, but ultimately made at least some sense as it was close to the rest of the conference. Bringing Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten was foolish and did nothing except make the Big Ten Network more valuable as a cable property. The addition of USC and UCLA means…well, it means college football as we know it is about to end.
A conference stretching from Los Angeles to Piscataway, NJ is not a serious conference. It’s a money-making operation and, to be fair, a pretty good one. The new TV deal for the Big Ten is going to be pretty darn big, and that’s all that matters to collegiate sports decision makers. Destroying everything people really love about college football is just a minor by-product of future billion-dollar television deals.
Is it possible that I’m being dramatic and that this is just another big shift in collegiate sports that we will adapt to and everything will be fine? Yes, I think it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s likely. This is the kind of shift that tears at the substance of the sport. People will care less and it will cause fans to switch off and become passive supporters of their team. The connection fans, many of whom are alumni, have with their colleges and college football team is strong. But outside forces have torn and scratched and weakened that bond, and eventually…it will break.
I will always love the University of Wisconsin and its college football team, but after decades of college football not loving me back, someday I won’t care. I’m a passive fan of the NFL, MLB and NHL, now that I’ve grown up an extremely active fan of all three. There are various reasons for my lapsed fandom, but I think it’s important to note that no fan is 100% loyal. If things just keep getting worse and the addition of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten to set up a future super conference certainly makes things worse, fans will stop caring. I’ll stop caring.
I don’t want to stop caring about Wisconsin football. It was an important part of my life for everything. To bring that back to the Philadelphia suburbs, my father is from Stevens Point and graduated from Wisconsin. I’ve loved Wisconsin football since I was little.
We watched games together and we talked 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 father, who always told me the choice was mine, was thrilled that I had made the “right” choice.
College sports fandom are feelings that are passed down through generations. You hate Minnesota because your parents hated Minnesota like their parents hated Minnesota before them. The same goes for Gophers fans. I have no feelings toward Rutgers other than confusion, and I have no feelings toward UCLA except that I’m sure their students enjoy the winter more than Wisconsin students do.
There’s a line we all have when it comes to losing interest in things. I’m sure for some people Penn State’s entry into the Big Ten was a bridge too far. For some, NIL was the turning point. Even if these super-conferences happen, I’ll certainly give college football some extra attention, but I won’t go to any games, I won’t worry about the fight for Wisconsin’s third QB and, worst of all, I don’t care is whether my kids are interested in Badgers football.
That makes me sad.
College football, and eventually all college sports, is slowly dying out due to greed and the deliberations of a few powerful individuals and organizations. I hope that something can change this course, but I see no reason to be optimistic about it.