OTE Interviews Big Ten Senior Associate Commissioner Mark Rudner

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It's been an exciting couple of weeks for us here at OTE.  Last week I had an opportunity to interview Gophers coach Jerry Kill, and yesterday, for whatever reason, I was able to brainwash bribe beg plead  finagle our first ever interview with a senior official from the Big Ten conference.  

Senior Associate Commissioner Mark Rudner (OSU Class of '78), has been working for the Big Ten for 32 years, and he is also the liaison to the conference football coaches.  Mr. Rudner was heavily involved with the conference administration and athletic directors of the Big Ten in how to create the divisions, division names, and football schedules in the wake of Big Ten conference expansion.  Our thanks to Associate Commissioner Rudner for sitting down to answer questions about the Big Ten network, the new divisions, some cross-divisional rivals, and other topics that we've been talking about here in Big Ten Country. 

Senior Associate Commissioner Rudner, after the jump.

OTE:  First off, talk about your role as the football coach's liaison, and what are some things you have to do when a new football coach is hired within the Big Ten?

You know, it's interesting because we have four new coaches in the conference, a full third of our membership, and that doesn't happen very often.  The good news is some of these coaches have been in the Big Ten before, either as an assistant coach or a player, so there's a lot of familiarity with the conference, and things like the conferences rules on eligibility and the officiating program.  But my role is to integrate them into the Big Ten structure and help them understand what the conference is about.  Whether it's integrating or maintaining, it is a process that is ongoing.  And what's really remarkable is the mutual respect that our coaches have for each other; it's really inspiring.  That helps build a strong brand that really lets us stand up and be counted at the end of the day.  

OTE:  Let's talk Nebraska.  Most people thought it would be difficult to get Nebraska integrated into conference play before 2012, but they start in 2011.  What were some of the logistical hurdles you had to overcome to make that happen?

In the sport of football, we had schedules that we set aside, because our presidents and athletic directors wanted the integration to occur as soon as possible.  We went to work right away, and in some instances it required some schools to re-adjust non-conference schedules that had been previously scheduled for 2011 and 2012, but more importantly we had to get started because now we're going to have a championship game, and we had to figure out how we were going to do that, and where do we do it?  So there were a lot of logistical challenges and I think in a very short period of time, we've created divisions based on competitive equality, we found a site for our championship game, we have a broadcaster for that game, we named the divisions, and we created a whole new brand, so there's been a lot of activity over the last 8 months. 

OTE:  When the conference came up with the protected cross divisional rivals, Nebraska ended up with Penn State.  Many people think they were set up that way because they are the most geographically separated schools.  Is that why, and if not, what was the reasoning?

Because they're two of the more iconic brands in college football, two of the most successful all time, and two of the more recent additions to the conference.  It worked out really well, so that was sort of the thinking behind that.

OTE:  Most Iowa and Purdue fans were surprised when they were named each other's cross-divisional rival.  What was the thought process in that decision, since there is no real traditional rivalry there? 

It really goes to how and why we created the divisions.  From the start, our athletic directors made competitive equality the number one guiding principle.  We spent a lot of time looking at what competitive equality means.  Maintaining traditional rivalries was important, as was geographic considerations, but really, the number one principle was competitive equality, and we spent a lot of time on that.  We looked at a number of different data points and we created so many different permutations on the divisions, that when we put up what ultimately turned out to be the Legends and the Leaders divisions, when you look at them, it really passes the competitive equality test.  We weren't able to maintain all the traditional rivalries, but the AD's wanted to make sure that the divisions were balanced in such a way that could be shown to be competitively equal.  When you look at the cross-divisional games, Ohio State-Michigan makes sense, Penn State-Nebraska makes sense, and Iowa-Purdue probably doesn't.  But they're two conference schools that, when you look at it, are very close together.  It wasn't perfect, but at the end of the day the number one principle was competitive equality, which we met. 

OTE:  You've mentioned competitive balance here, as did Commissioner Delany when the divisions were announced.  In choosing competitive balance as the deciding factor over geography and traditional rivalries, are you concerned that the competitive balance of the divisions might not be the same in 5 or 10 years as they are today, and you might have to look at a geographic alignment, or will a realignment even be a possibility?

No, not really.  We think this division alignment will stand the test of time.  We looked at data going back 17-18 years, since Penn State first started playing football (in the Big Ten) and our athletic directors and our staff think you just can't be changing every year or two to adjust to changing programs.

OTE:  When the rumor got out that the UM-OSU game might be moved to sometime in October, there was quite a fan backlash, and at the end of the day, UM-OSU is still the last game of the regular season.  Was there serious talk to move The Game, and was fan reaction responsible for it staying put?

We knew that expansion was going to bring about some change, to include the possibility that The Game could be played some other time or that they would be in different divisions.  At the end of the day, having them play on the last regular season game is the right thing to do.  We looked at lot of different models, and a lot of different dates for that game and a bunch of other games, but the only schedules we showed our athletic directors were schedules that had that game at the end of the season.    

OTE:  Commissioner Delany has mentioned the possibility of a 9 game conference schedule  somewhere around 2015, but there has been push back from the athletic directors because they want a 7th home game because of the extra revenue it provides for other sports.  How do you think that is going to play out?

I think this is what's going to happen.  Our athletic directors want to play more conference games as opposed to fewer, but how to do that rationally has really been a challenge and an issue.  As you may know, a lot of schools do non-conference schedules years in advance.  I'm looking at non-conference schedules for 2022, 2023, and so on.  Those are contracts that have termination clauses, etc., so they asked us to be respectful of that and really try to find a time when we can provide them with a minimum of 7 home games each year.  So what that means is if you play 9 conference games and 3 non-conference games, we need to choreograph it so in years where a school plays two non-conference home games and one non-conference road game, that would be the year that they would have 5 conference home games.  Or, if they have three non-conference home games, you schedule it so that's the year you have four conference home games.  A lot of our institutions have very important non-conference rivalries, like Notre Dame with Michigan, Purdue, and Michigan State.  Ohio State schedules in such a way that they're going to have a top flight non-conference opponent each year, whether it's Miami (FL), Oklahoma, or Virginia Tech, so part of our challenge has been when (the nine game conference schedule) will occur.  Is it going to be 2015 or 2017?  I think we'll have a pretty good sense of that soon, and hopefully get on with future football schedules. 

OTE:  So you're working to make both a reality then?

Yeah, I think so.  It may not be perfect, because there may be somebody that has a non-conference away game every year, at which point they're going to have six home games, but that's clearly something that they control, because we don't control non-conference schedules.  So if they can somehow make it work where if they have a non-conference road game each year, if they want get to the seven home games then they're going have to figure out a way to change their non-conference schedules.

OTE:  When the conference rolled out the ‘Legends' and ‘Leaders' division names, it really took a PR hit, and the names still aren't popular with the fans.  Commissioner Delany said that the conference would re-look the names after Jan 1st, but then turned around and said that the names would be used for 2011.  Is this something that the Big Ten will look to re-address and possibly change after the 2011 season?

We understand some fans don't like the new division names but we have also heard from some who really do.  We love to hear from our fans and have been listening to all of the feedback-good and bad.  The plan for 2011 is to ‘test' the names the same way that we test all of our brand components on an on-going basis.  In order do that we need to use them in the manner in which they were intended to be used (i.e. during a football season).  We will conduct our market research across all market segments throughout the season.  Our hope is that people begin to understand the history (legends) and aspirational goals (leaders) that the division names celebrate, but in the grand scheme of things they're just division names.  Although we had lots of submissions, we were limited by the fact that we had to rule out geography, school specific names and colors.  We think that these names can help us honor our past and inspire the thousands of student-athletes who participate in intercollegiate athletics on all of our campuses throughout the conference.  Only time and research can help us to answer that question.

OTE:  How much of an impact has the Big Ten Network made on college sports, and where do you see the network in 5 years in terms of availability and programming- i.e. more live sporting events for football and basketball and/or as accessible as ESPN?

The great thing about the Big Ten Network is that really exposes the mosaic of Big Ten sports, and we have over 700 events that are televised or streamed through the network each year.  We see that number growing, but the primary impact has been tremendous for the Big Ten.  I'm not sure what the impact is around the country (on other conferences), but I'm sure it's created a great deal of interest with other rights holders to create their own platform to espouse the values and great competition that they have, and we think that's great.  Competition is a good thing.  But our network was really built over a period of 110+ years of tradition, rivalries, great fanbases, alumni, and an intergenerational interest.  Obviously, we would like to see it continue to grow, and to see it continue to be the best in the nation for Big Ten fans to get Big Ten news.  We have a multitude of live games broadcast each week, but it's the shoulder programming, the shows that talk about Big Ten football and basketball, that we want to continue to build. 

There's a whole generation of college football fans that can't conceive of the idea that there was a time when only one or two college football games were televised a week.  There was an ABC game of the week, and that was it.  No ESPN, no 20 or 30 games in a weekend.  In the early 90's, when this really started to take off, we had a lot of athletic directors who were worried how the impact of all this television coverage would affect their gate.  The Big Ten even had TV appearance limitations for schools so we could protect the gate.  But as TV became more prevalent and important, it took the game to all nooks and crannies across the country.  And we think that helped drive a lot of interest in the sport.  For instance, in 1994, the Big Ten had 32 televised games, and averaged 66,833 fan attendance per game.  Last year, we had 76 games televised, and average attendance was 72,106.  Not only have we had success by expanding television opportunities, but we also grew the fanbase and attendance.  If you look at the TV ratings and combine it with the number of people who come to the games, it really helps tell the story of why college football is so popular nowadays.  It's remarkable how television has impacted this great game. 

OTE:  The University of Texas recently announced a Texas-only TV network in conjunction with ESPN.  Do you think it will be successful, and is it a good idea for individual schools to secure their own TV networks? 

I can't really speak to their network, because I'm not exactly sure what its going to involve.  But we do know that the University of Texas is a very, very strong brand, has an incredible following, and a rich history and tradition.  We'll be watching that endeavor with great interest, and hope that it accomplishes what it wants to.  I think conferences or institutions that feel like a network is in their best interest, then they absolutely should investigate it.   

OTE:  Kind of a two part question here--Do you think the Texas Network solidifies the Big XII or might this open college football up to another round of expansion, and do you ever see a scenario where a Big Ten school might find it more profitable to try and start their own network?

I can't really speak to any other conference and what it might lead to, but as far as the Big Ten is concerned, the Big Ten network as we've created it could not have been established without a long term commitment from our institutions, and all the Big Ten institutions have made a long term commitment through an assignment of television rights.  So I don't see that as something that could happen for a long period of time.

OTE:  Any idea on where the 2012 Conference Championship game will be played, and is the preference a single location, or a rotation between stadiums within the conference footprint?

That's a good question.  I think that we have had a lot of interest from a lot of different venues, and our athletic directors have discussed it in the context of basketball tournaments that are coming up for renewal after the 2011-2012 season, so it's still sort of an open question.  We're creating an outline on how to proceed, so that's about all I can say about it at this time.

OTE:  One last question.  You've worked for the Big Ten for 32 years, and have seen quite a bit of change.  Has that change been for the better?

I think it absolutely has been for the better.  There's more interest and more passion for college football today in 2011 than there has at any other time in the history of the game.  I think it's driven by the fans' passion for the traditions that they have, and it's unbelievable.  Certainly we're not perfect, but we try to do the best we can, because at the core we're talking about 18, 19, and 20 year old kids who for the most part excel at what they do.  They're good citizens, good people, and they move on to leadership positions in whatever it is that they want to do.  The thing that excites me is getting to know the traditions that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will bring to the conference, and what they will learn from our conference.  I look forward to that first time out in Lincoln when I can experience the tunnel walk that everyone at Nebraska embraces yet the rest of the Big Ten doesn't know anything about.  It's because of these traditions that college football will continue to grow stronger and stronger each and every year, whether it's in the Big Ten, the SEC, or Division II or Division III, it doesn't matter.  It's a great game, and TV has helped bring that story to the forefront, but I think it's the people, it's the passion, and the fans that will keep it going.

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