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12-9=7: The Crazy Math Of The Big Ten's Nine Game Conference Schedule

Just how badly do we want this game back on the schedule every year? (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images).
Just how badly do we want this game back on the schedule every year? (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images).
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One of the biggest pieces of news to come out of the Big Ten football meetings this week in Chicago is the continuing discussion of a nine-game conference football season.  This is not a particularly new talking point; it's been batted around for years (and, indeed, back in 1983 and 1984, Big Ten teams actually did play nine conference games).  It's gained steam in recent years as fans, journalists, and administrators have griped about cupcake games (and particularly their ever-increasing price tags).  And it really gained steam when the Big Ten added Nebraska and expanded to 12 teams.  Nine conference games was difficult to do with 11 teams (the math didn't really work), but with 12 teams it's much cleaner.  On the other hand, it also raises new problems (and possibly exacerbates old ones).  Let's break it down.


It could create a more balanced Big Ten schedule -- and revive some rivalries.  Friend of the Pants Scott Dochterman has been banging the drum for a nine-game conference schedule for quite a while now and he's even gone to the trouble of working out a sensible scheduling cycle for every Big Ten team, beginning with Iowa:

  • Divisional opponents: Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern
  • Permanent cross-divisional opponent: Purdue (2)
  • Second permanent cross-divisional opponent: Wisconsin (1)
  • First cycle: Ohio State (1), Illinois (2)
  • Second cycle: Penn State (1), Indiana (2)

The most obvious advantage of expanding to nine games is the ability to protect additional rivalries.  There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when the Big Ten announced the divisions and split up Iowa and Wisconsin, the most competitively balanced rivalry in the Big Ten (42-42-2), as well as the source of arguably the Big Ten's best game in 2011.  As Dochterman so elegantly explains, Wisconsin can return to Iowa's schedule as an annual opponent under a nine-game conference schedule.  Dochterman's proposed scheduling plan also enables the revival of the Battle For The Ugliest Trophy In The Land, although admittedly the other permanent Big Ten rivalries it creates aren't any great shakes (Michigan-Illinois, Minnesota-Purdue, Nebraska-Indiana, Ohio State-Northwestern).

His plan also creates a bit more competitive balance in the schedule.  For instance, this year Iowa and Nebraska play five common opponents in the Big Ten (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn State). But their two non-common opponents?  Iowa gets Indiana and Purdue, while Nebraska gets Ohio State and Wisconsin; it's not hard to tell who got the better end of that deal.  Says Dochterman:

All the league has to do is apply the same tenet it used to form its divisions: competitive balance. In permanent non-divisional play, each program should play one traditional upper division and one traditional lower division opponent. On a rotational basis, the league should couple opponents by upper and lower division status.

That's not a fool-proof plan since teams can and do rise up from lower division status -- Wisconsin was a lower-division team in the '80s, as was just Northwestern in the time before history began (1995) -- but it works well in broad strokes and history is what it is.  It doesn't change easily.  If Indiana emerges as a Big Ten superpower in the next twenty years, the Big Ten can reassess things then (and we can read about their new decision from the newsfeed beamed directly into our brainmeats while we ride our dragons to work).

It could eliminate the much-reviled bodybag games.  This isn't some that Doc has harped on too much, but it has been a talking point for other proponents of the nine-game conference schedule.  The idea is that the new ninth Big Ten game would take the place of one of the (at least) two cupcake games that virtually every Big Ten team plays each year.  The cupcake games have never been popular -- even the most ardent homer would probably admit that watching a glorified scrimmage (and let's not forget: that's what the staggering majority of these games are; for every Appy State over Michigan or James Madison over Virginia Tech, there are dozens of ugly 42-7 beatdowns) isn't really that appealing -- and they've only grown less appealing as the price tags for the games has climbed.  Iowa paid $400000 to Eastern Illinois last year and the prices for low-level FBS teams has grown even steeper in recent years.  

Despite the escalating price tags, the games continue to get scheduled because having another home game -- even one against a lowly opponent like Eastern Illinois or Tennessee Tech -- enables the athletic department to rake in loads of cash; the idea here is that they could make even more if they didn't have to cut a big check to a minnow school.  We'll see if that's necessarily true down below.

It's all about TV, stupid.  Once again, Doc provides a very salient point:

 The earliest the plan would be adopted is for the 2017 season because some schools have four non-conference games scheduled in future seasons, Delany admitted.

 The Big Ten’s television contract with ABC/ESPN expires after the 2016 season, so a nine-game schedule adopted for 2017 would coincide with a new TV deal.

A nine-game conference schedule means six more conference games than the current system provides for and given the dreck most Big Ten teams schedule for non-conference fare, those new intra-conference clashes are bound to be more appealing to the Big Ten's television partner(s).  Based on the recent deals signed by the Big XII and Pac-12, the Big Ten already might be in line to receive a healthy bump in their television revenues in a few years; adding more desirable intra-conference games to the mix just sweetens the pot and drives the price higher.


It might not make as much  financial sense as it first seemed.  As we're well aware, the Big Ten are a delightful bunch of Commie bastards when it comes to distributing the vast sums of money the conference rakes in on an annual basis.  Naturally, that includes gameday attendance and that creates some interesting imbalances in a league where a handful of teams have stadiums that seat over 100K (and routinely sell them out) and a separate handful of teams have stadiums that seat 50K (and that are rarely sold out).  Why don't we let Doc break down the numbers:

 Big Ten schools share 35 percent of all football gate revenue from league games with a $1 million per-game ceiling and a $300,000 per-game floor. Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State, all of which have stadiums exceeding 100,000 seats and most filled to capacity, always pay the $1 million per-game ceiling. Over four home Big Ten games, that’s an annual contribution of $4 million.

Following the 2009 football season, each Big Ten school received $2.95 million in gate revenue-sharing. Six Big Ten football programs lost significant revenue because of revenue sharing: Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State (each lost $1.05 million), Iowa ($765,000), Wisconsin ($657,341) and Michigan State ($656,075). Schools who gained from gate revenue-sharing that year include: Northwestern ($1.71 million), Indiana (nearly $1.3 million), Minnesota ($896,704), Purdue ($785,650) and Illinois ($539,539).

If you're Indiana or (holy welfare state, Batman) just Northwestern, adding a ninth conference game is great news -- that's even more home game money from the big boys that you get to take a cut from.  If you're one of the big boys, it's less exciting news, since it means another $1M out of your pocket.  On the other hand, given the skyrocketing prices attached to bodybag games, the numbers here may soon balance out anyway; if the choice is between giving $1M to Bumblefuck Tech or $1M to the conference kitty, you might as well keep it in-house.  It's only more profitable for the Ohio States and Michigans of the world to schedule the Youngstown States and Appalachian States of the world if you're paying them less than you would the Big Ten office for another conference home game.

There's another financial factor that hasn't been mentioned as much in regards to the proposed nine-game conference schedule (though it has re: the conference championship game) and that's the Big Ten's established track record of sending two teams to the BCS.  Over the last ten years, the Big Ten has only twice failed to send two teams (2001 and 2004).  Last year the BCS bowls paid out $17M to the participants, which is a lot of money to leave on the table if you can't get two teams into the mix.  If the Big Ten tacks another game onto the conference schedule, there will be more losses for Big Ten teams -- it's a zero sum game, so someone must win and someone must lose.  Conversely, if every Big Ten team plays a non-Big Ten team instead during the week of the theoretical ninth Big Ten game, there's a possibility of all twelve Big Ten teams winning their game that week. Tacking another loss onto the ledger for half the Big Ten won't automatically disqualify them from consideration for an at-large BCS bid, since the same main factors that have always benefited the Big Ten (large, passionate fanbases that travel well and hugely popular and recognizable brand name teams) will still be present -- but another loss certainly won't help matters.

It would create a new imbalance in the Big Ten schedule.  While a nine-game conference schedule smooths out certain competitive balance issues by guaranteeing each team one inter-divisional game against an "upper division foe" and one inter-divisional game against a "lower division foe," it also creates a new competitive balance.  The problem is right there in the number of games played: nine.  By definition that means some teams are going to get five home games and some are going to get just four home games.  As Michigan State AD Mark Hollis noted:

But Hollis pointed to road games as another potential drawback of nine conference games, especially as the Big Ten begins to crown a true champion with divisional play. If the Big Ten makes a change, half of its teams will play five league road games, while the other half will play just four. 

"I have some concerns and reservations about nine games with equity in the championship race, five [road] versus four home games," Hollis said. "[In 2010] you had three teams tied for the [Big Ten] championship and all three of them lost a game on the road." 

Personally, I think the benefit of the competitive balance you achieve by installing the Dochterman plan is worth the slight loss in competitive balance you get with an uneven home-road split, but there's no doubting that it would be an issue.  Just wait until the first year a team makes the Big Ten Championship Game after playing five home games while another team misses out after playing four home games; there will be some outcry when that happens.

It still wouldn't eliminate the bodybag games.  For all the lip service that's been paid to the notion that adding a ninth conference game would eliminate the games against the likes of Bumblefuck Tech that everyone hates -- no one has yet been able to offer up any clear examples of just how they would make the new system work.  They want nine conference games AND seven home games (which is a non-negotiable point, according to multiple sources) AND they want to reduce the number of cupcake opponents that (most) teams play from two to one.  Unfortunately, it's awful tough to make the math on that work out.  Let's use hypothetical 2011 and 2012 schedules for Iowa to illustrate this point.

home (7):
Tennessee Tech, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin (replacing UL-Monroe*), Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State
away (5): Iowa State, Penn State, Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska

* You can replace either UL-Monroe or Tennessee Tech in this scenario; I chose UL-Monroe since playing a Sun Belt team costs more than playing an FCS team.

home (6):
Tennessee Tech, Iowa State, Penn State, Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska
away (6): Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State

Uh-oh -- our precious seventh home game got gobbled up because we have to fulfill a home-and-home with Pitt. There's simply no easy way to juggle two non-conference games against BCS opponents with the uneven home-road split you get under a nine-game conference schedule and preserve the vital seven home games concept.  As it is, teams would still need to finesse their schedules to make sure that the non-conference road game is being played in a year in which they have five Big Ten home games. 

Is getting to play Wisconsin every year worth doing away with games against the Pitts and Arizonas of the world?  (Because let's face it: the Iowa-Iowa State series isn't going anywhere for quite some time.)  It might be; from a competitive standpoint, the games are no worse than games against Arizona or Pitt -- and more often they're considerably better since Wisconsin has been a high-level team for most of the past 20 years.  There's also the rivalry factor -- a game with Wisconsin is unquestionably going to have more juice than a game with Pitt or Arizona or Syracuse or [insert mid-level BCS team here].  But it's also a little bit less variety to the schedule and less opportunities for Iowa to get out to prime recruiting areas (or alumni hotspots, in the case of the Arizona series).

* * *
So what's it all mean?  Well, if you've been reading the tea leaves at all, you would know that it sure as hell sounds like the nine-game conference schedule is a done deal.  Straight from the mouth of Bloodpunch:

"The assumption is it will happen at some point," Barta said. "I think when you throw in the fact that we have a championship for the first time we’re trying to figure out how that factors in. Still talking about it.

"The point that I’ve felt that our conference has been at is it’s likely to happen. I feel like that’s still where it is."

Are you going to doubt the word of Bloodpunch?  Of course not.

A nine-game conference schedule is something Jim Delany wants, and as we've seen oh-so-often in the past -- EXPANSIONAPALOOZA, Big Ten Network, the Rose Bowl's special status, and countless other things -- he's a man who usually gets what he wants.  There are certainly issues to sort out (see above), but if it comes down to money, there's no shortage of creative thinkers in the room to solve that problem.  Maybe the solution is as (relatively) simple as setting aside some money from the forthcoming TV deals to give to the teams who get the short end of the stick from the uneven home-road split.  So, yeah, a nine-game conference schedule is probably on the horizon -- but it won't be easy to implement and it may not be quite as awesome as it seems on the surface.