Like most things, money drives Big Ten’s expansion

It’s kind of cute that the Big Ten still calls itself the Big Ten.

Can’t anybody over there count? Soon enough, the long-esteemed league will really be the Big Sixteen, or whatever number the roulette wheel ball stops on.

The recent announcement that UCLA and Southern Cal are joining the Big Ten in 2024 set the sports world abuzz but seized the attention of the casual fan, too.

I have been surprised how many people who do not attend games and who only periodically follow team fortunes have brought up the pending change in a “How about that?” way.

Never has college sports been bigger business than it is right now. Once upon a time, it was about extracurricular activities offered while students studied. Now, when anyone who is not a student of the game asks why something changed, the answer is always money.

The word “amateur” is essentially a curse word in sports nowadays. The prevailing phrase in the NCAA administration and in conference administrative offices is to refer to young people representing schools as student-athletes.

Only the most naïve believe athletes are fighting simply for the old alma mater out of allegiance and the games, especially ones played on the biggest stages staged by the football team are more about rah-rah than cash through ticket sales or TV rights.

Seismic shifts have been shaking up college athletic conferences in recent years, realignment away from traditional rivals is forsaken for the goal of making more money from television contracts or placing more teams into playoff rounds.

During the recent Big Ten football media days at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the issue of expansion, for now and the future, the luring of the Los Angeles schools into the fold, was applauded as the proper poaching move.

The mood matched the old ballad “Home on the Range,” “where never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.”

Commissioner Kevin Warren several times repeated variations of the word “boldness” in describing the necessary outlook for the Big Ten’s actions, recent and forthcoming.

In essence, he meant taking the initiative, building strength and being aggressive in a changing landscape. He said adding UCLA and USC gives the Big Ten “a footprint” in “the three major media markets from New York to Los Angeles to Chicago” and will enable the conference to be “even bolder” with corporate partners.

Warren said he is asked every day what is next on the horizon. He did not mention other prospect schools, but none of us should be surprised if others sign on. For decades, the Big Ten has coveted adding staunchly independent Notre Dame football, the main nearby Midwest school that makes the most sense.

In the midst of conference bulking up — the Southeastern Conference has made the most noise besides the Big Ten — one might wonder if the Notre Dame brand is being diminished, or if the Fighting Irish still carry sufficient clout to edge their way into any conference for football whenever the mood strikes.

There was some quizzing of coaches about the “looong” trip to LA for UCLA and USC games, but that was really silly. Jets travel 500 miles an hour, assuming a plane actually takes off on time these days.

Teams can go to the Left Coast early. And when has taking an extra day off from class for a football game bothered coaches or universities? Plus, with so many league teams, schedules might only call for a Purdue or Northwestern to go west just once every couple of years.

Indiana coach Tom Allen was one of several who said the players welcomed the LA teams news and potential opportunity for a road trip in California. What’s not to like? Maybe they’ll get a visit to Disneyland out of it, the way they would on a bowl journey.

Does it make sense for the Big Ten to expand? Financially, yes. As Warren put it, the league will have more corporate leverage.

These days, marketing trumps everything, including wins and losses. You’ve got to protect your flank. You can’t be having your marquee teams seduced by the Sun Belt or Mountain West.

Lew Freedman writes sports columns for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]