Long time readers (and family members) know that I have a tendency to enjoy telling other people what to do. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is no exception. First, I told him with what bowls to align the Big Ten. Then, I told him how to go big for expansion (note: I may not have been the only one who told him what to do on this topic). Most recently, I told him how to set up his divisions and operate the best possible 9 game conference schedule. Now I'm focused on the next problem that will be coming in the not too distant future: the glut of Big Ten games.
What's the problem? Let's look into the future. It's November 13, 2011. The Big Ten is operating under the same television contracts and broadcasting rules as it does today. After using its lone six day exemption for the Week 12 games, ESPN announces that Nebraska's first trip to the Big House since 1962 will be broadcast on ABC (with ESPN mirror) at 3:30 EST. Penn State will host Ohio State at 11 AM on ESPN. The remaining games are left to the Big Ten Network. Because of the 3:30 exclusivity rule (Essentially, the Big Ten can't broadcast any games against the 3:30 ABC game. ESPN can waive this for its purposes if it so chooses - like it did with the game at Wrigley - but the Big Ten cannot.), the Big Ten Network cannot broadcast any games at 3:30. Further, because of the prohibition on Big Ten night games in November, the Big Ten network cannot broadcast any games at 7 PM. That means that the Big Ten Network will show four games at 12 PM EST - Illinois @ Wisconsin, Indiana @ Michigan State, Iowa @ Purdue, and Minnesota @ Northwestern.
Haven't they done that before? Yes. But there is a difference. We're not talking about Wisconsin-Austin Peay or Illinois-Southern Illinois being shoved to a DirecTV expansion channel. We're talking about the prime "inventory" that was described as "valuable" during the expansion talks. Not good. But, here's how it can be fixed in two steps.
1) Move some conference games into the first four weeks of the season.
The first, and already discussed, benefit of this is to prevent the ridiculous weeks when the Big Ten fails to present a single decent game. Remember Week 4 of this season? The league opponents were 8 MAC teams, 2 FCS teams, and 1 Bye Week.
The second benefit is that it helps alleviate the glut of "good inventory" from late in the year. The announcement of the 2011 and 2012 schedules showed that the Big Ten missed the opportunity. Here's hoping that we don't miss it again for the 2013 schedules. Move six conference games, that's one game per team, into the first four weeks. If you pick the right games (annual games that aren't the biggest rivalries), you'll draw big early headlines. You'll also create new traditions (kind of like Tennessee and Florida always meeting in Week 3 of the season). Here's what I'd love to see...
Indiana v. Illinois
Michigan v. Minnesota
Iowa v. Purdue
Ohio State v. Wisconsin
Michigan State v. Northwestern
Penn State v. Nebraska
You're telling me that those games wouldn't whet the appetite? This also moves 12 cupcake games into the Big Ten season. There, they'll be under-card events, ignored by all but the fans of those teams. They're the kind of games that should be buried on expansion Big Ten Network channels. Instead, we had Ohio State playing a MAC team on network TV (with a national mirror on ESPN2). That's not good for the league. That's not good for anybody.
Indiana and Illinois would develop a new tradition of kicking off the Big Ten season. Penn State and Nebraska would see their annual matchup in either primetime or the 3:30 ABC slot every year. The other games would help provide good television options for the season's opening weeks.
2. Embrace nighttime football
Maybe it's because the Big Ten is centered around Chicago, the place where daytime-only baseball held on the longest. Maybe it's because of the cold or tradition, but no league has done less with nighttime football than the Big Ten. That needs to change.
Starting in 2011, the Big Ten needs to have at least two games played at night every week. Yes, even in November. I'm not talking about "Game of the Week" contests (like Ohio State-Wisconsin) that are on national, network television. No, I'm looking more in the line of the Purdue-Northwestern game that was played at 7:00 on the Big Ten Network. Let's stop treating a night game like it's the Autumn Rose Bowl and start treating it like an opportunity to show off our teams. If ESPN wants one of the games, great. If not, the Big Ten Network can show them. Look back at that list of four games that were going to be wedged into the Big Ten Network at Noon. Now, move Iowa-Purdue and Minnesota-Northwestern to 7 PM. Look what you have: the people of Indiana will actually be able to watch Purdue and Indiana play. Same for the people in Chicago with Northwestern and Illinois. The league will also keep a focus on its teams through the entire day (through studio updates and halftime reports). This is a good thing. Now I know, it gets colder in Big Ten Country than it does in Alabama or Arizona. But if NFL teams in Philadelphia, Chicago, Green Bay, and Cleveland can have night games in December, there is no reason that that Big Ten schools can't do the same.
So what's the final result if you install both pieces of the puzzle? Let's take a look at the schedule for November 19, 2011 if these reforms were in place.
12 PM EST
Ohio State @ Penn State (ESPN)
Minnesota @ Northwestern (BTN)
SE Missouri State @ Purdue (BTN)
Louisiana-Monroe @ Iowa (BTN)
3:30 PM EST
Nebraska @ Michigan
7:00 PM EST
Indiana @ Michigan State (BTN)
Illinois @ Wisconsin (BTN)
(Iowa @ Purdue was moved to Week 3. Each team strong armed a weak non-con opponent into this week.)
The people of Indiana and Iowa will see the Boiler-Hawkeye routs. The rest of the country will get a Big Ten matchup at 12 on the BTN. At 7, there are two viable games played. It's also possible that ESPN would pick up the Badger-Illini game on one of its channels. Even if not, both games will be seen by many more people than if they were part of a four game logjam at 12:00. And really, isn't the point of broadcasting the games to let fans see the games? (And then have the fans buy the things advertised during the games) Exactly. Let's make this happen, Mr. Delany.