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Big Ten Football schedule should prioritize greater good over competitive balance

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Financial stakes are keeping hope alive for a season this fall, so a focus on maximizing revenues should be the goal.

Ohio State State v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

August is here, which usually marks the beginning of fall training camp for college football. However, this year the calendar turned to a traditionally predictable month that is nowhere close to that this time around.

While the global pandemic COVID-19 continues to plague the United States, the Big Ten, like all the other power five conferences, is still hoping to play this fall. They are expected to release a ten game conference only schedule very soon per Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. In addition, James Kratch of NJ Advance Media reported that the “expectation” is training camps will begin for Big Ten teams on August 7th.

Of course, the entire Rutgers program is currently under quarantine due to 15 players testing positive for the coronavirus per New Jersey’s health commissioner, so they won’t be ready to begin practicing in less than a week. Michigan State likely won’t either, as the Spartans are under quarantine as well. Three other schools, Ohio State, Maryland and Indiana have had stoppages of workouts previously this summer. That makes it five of the seven Big Ten East programs having already been shutdown due to issues with COVID-19 before official team activities for the season even took place. Not a good start.

Which begs the question, how is having a fall season plausible with the current state of the country?

Our Fred Gaudios recently reviewed the challenges in having a college football season this fall and things are not trending in a way that is seems likely for it to occur in a way that is anything short of a train wreck. The Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein previously cited a source who said the probability of a season this fall was “hanging by a thread.”

Even so, it appears the Big Ten is doing everything possible to hold out hope, however slim, that a season in some shape or form will take place this fall. The plan has been reported as a 10 game conference only schedule that could front load divisional games, have extra open weeks to account for health issues within programs, and have four crossover games between divisional opponents instead of three. Instead of reducing the schedule within conference play, they’ve added one extra game.

Desperate times like these call for desperate measures and out of the box thinking. The format that appears to be the plan for now is not that. It’s a concerted effort to try and control things as best as possible across the conference for sure. But it seems to be too much wishful thinking and not enough of a realistic approach during this health crisis.

Look at the disaster that the first week of the Major League Baseball season has brought. That’s a professional league with owners that are not short on cash supply, even during a financially crippling scenario that COVID-19 has brought with it. It shouldn’t be a surprise that attempting to replicate business as usual will likely lead to failure. The NBA has done well so far because it’s been the most forward thinking league by creating a bubble for its players and league personnel to isolate themselves in.

That type of scenario isn’t possible in college athletics, which is yet another reason to question why college football is still being contemplated to begin in just one month. The answer is pretty simple....money.

The financial impact that cancelling the college football season could be catastrophic among athletic departments across the country, even among power five schools. Football programs generate an overwhelming majority of a major athletic department’s annual revenue, so it makes sense that the Big Ten, like all the other powerful five conferences, are waiting as long as possible before conceding all hope is lost for the 2020 season.

If money is the true motivator, then the Big Ten needs to make that the top priority if a season does in fact take place. Here is an idea: scrap the traditional conference schedule format and develop a plan to maximize television and media revenues for its fourteen member schools.

Obviously the league is already under contract with ESPN and FOX Sports, but this is an unprecedented time. If the Big Ten came up with a way to generate scheduling opportunities that were non-traditional, it seems reasonable they could go back to the networks and negotiate a deal based on this unorthodox season.

One way to do that is to split the schedule into four subdivisions, rather than focus on division vs. division. A benefit of this from an ethical and human standpoint is limiting travel across the conference and in turn create regional specific matchups more often than usual. The much more impactful one from a financial point of view is it would create opportunities to maximize revenue based on certain games scheduled in this format.

For example, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Indiana could be one sub-group from the East Division with Rutgers, Penn State, and Maryland as the other. The teams in each sub-group would play each other twice this season and play the other schools in the division once as usual. Looking at the map in the West, it probably makes the most sense to put Wisconsin, Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois in one sub-group and Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota in the other.

By the way, Rutgers would likely keep Purdue on the schedule from the West in this scenario, as they are the closest opponent from the West at 753 miles away, while Northwestern would make sense as the second opponent being a stone’s throw of 800 miles away from the banks. So that would eliminate two other crossover opponents, but reduce travel significantly.

It’s not a perfect plan but there is no such thing during a global pandemic.

Competitive balance would be blown to pieces. Another issue is that two of the sub-groups would have one less conference game scheduled than the others, so those teams would need to play an additional crossover game potentially or remain one game short.

There are flaws with this sub-group idea that are the size of the Big House. Both problems created by this scheduling format would normally be deal breakers before the first sentence describing the idea was completed. However, we are in such a strange time that the league should focus on gaining as much revenue for its members above all else.

We know all of the Big Ten athletic departments will take a huge financial hit this coming academic year due to COVID-19 and football has the widest net to generate anything significant. The conference should focus on the greater good of all its members and let the other issues that are typically non-starters help solve more important problems.

Salvage what you can and be innovative with a one off type schedule during a season that likely will already have an asterisk attached to it anyway. I know this won’t happen, but why not have fun exploring the possibility.

Two Ohio State-Michigan games would be the regular season highlight from a media rights and broadcast perspective. Nebraska and Iowa is another big rivalry to have twice and having both face-off against Minnesota twice would generate some potentially compelling games.

A major issue with this idea is that the traditional conference powers like the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Hawkeyes would be facing a much harder challenge in conference play, while Wisconsin and Penn State would be given much easier roads.

One way to help that imbalance is to create divisional title games as a semifinal round to determine which team from the East and West qualifies for the Big Ten Championship. It also creates two additional postseason games that would help drive revenue for the entire league.

The bottom line for the Big Ten would be protecting and elevating its brand at the same time, while also helping to preserve the successful athletic programs its had across most sports in recent years. If athletic departments in the conference were forced to cut certain programs due to the loss of revenue this coming academic year, it would change the dynamics of the league forever. If football can actually take place this fall, the Big Ten should throw an appropriate Hail Mary and attempt to bag as big a financial split across its member institutions as possible.

As David Byrne so passionately sings, we are probably on a road to nowhere regarding Big Ten football this fall. However, since it’s August and the conference is holding out hope that it will happen, taking a different approach and separating itself from the other conferences in an effort to maximize revenues seems like the only logical reason to hit the grid iron before 2020 ends.