I no longer remember exactly how long I’ve been a sports fan. I know it’s been since childhood, but there’s no exact moment, no exact day, no exact memory that I can point to and say “This is the day I became a sports fan.” I remember how I got hooked on college football, though: ESPN Plus. (No, not the new streaming service ESPN has; a different channel altogether.) When the Saturday morning cartoons ended, the Big Ten game of the week would start up on Channel 4. When basketball season came around, if I couldn’t find the IU games on CBS, it was a decent bet that Channel 4 would again have me covered, as the statewide home for Hoosier basketball. Back before the Big Ten Network existed, back before conference specific channels were really a thing (save perhaps for the SEC-CBS partnership), these local channels made sure that I got to see at least some of the games I wanted, even if they didn’t put IU football on TV enough for my taste.
[In retrospect, that probably saved childhood me from witnessing a lot more Indiana losses, but I digress.]
I have no way of knowing if my experience is typical in any way throughout the conference, but I know that I became a fan because I could watch games on local TV, not needing the cable subscription that was just beginning to take over the sports landscape to keep track of my teams. If the Big Ten Network had existed when I was a kid, I doubt I get hooked early. Given that growing up with sports was a big part of my life, I honestly can’t imagine what would have happened if every conference had their own channel, and I couldn’t watch any of them. Maybe I’d still be an IU fan and alum. Maybe I would have gone to Ball State instead. Maybe NBC having so much Notre Dame football would have sent me to South Bend. Perhaps I might have decided that the Midwest just wasn’t for me, and gone where I could see my adopted team (probably Tennessee, given the popularity of Peyton Manning in Indy at the time) up close and in person.
We’ll never know how that scenario would have turned out for me, but even today, it could still be a possibility that keeps a future Hoosier, Boilermaker, Buckeye, Spartan, Wolverine, Badger, Wildcat, Cornhusker, Scarlet Knight, Terrapin, Golden Gopher, Hawkeye, Nittany Lion, or Fighting Illini from being such. The digital age has made keeping track of your home teams much easier than it used to be, at least for those capable of doing so properly. But have we given up too much of our local support and talent just to be able to broadcast coast to coast?
Think about it this way. If an athlete in Indiana sees the Hoosiers playing all of their games on local TV every week, are they more likely to choose Indiana so that their family can always see them play? If, on the other hand, they can just as easily watch Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon, USC, or any number of other schools and teams, do they still pick the hometown option, or do they go elsewhere, knowing that any stage is a good stage? It’s easy to pick the known when the unknown is sparingly seen and far away, but when all options are equal, the best and brightest tend to converge upon each other, locality be damned. Why would kids who are used to traveling for AAU games or other traveling teams pick the team closest to them if that team isn’t guaranteed to be any good?
No one can argue that the Big Ten Network and others of its ilk haven’t brought money and exposure to their respective conferences. But at what point does loyalty factor into the equation? Have we already gone past the point of no return? Will the stories of families following in each other’s footsteps at certain schools become things of the past?
Is hometown glory still a motivation worth fighting for, or is it better to just have it all, whatever the cost?