August 25, 2010
We found out this week what happens when Big Ten fans stop being polite and start getting real about the fate of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, after both commissioner Jim Delany and Michigan athletic David Brandon, echoing Ohio State AD Gene Smith last week, suggested not only that Buckeyes and Wolverines could be relegated to opposite divisions when the conference to 12 teams next year, but may also start seeing other people in the regular season finale, where OSU and Michigan have met every year since 1936. "The Game" will go on as an annual spectacle, but the timing and stakes are suddenly negotiable.
Depending on your perspective, moving the traditional hate-fest up to facilitate a more palatable, profitable OSU-Michigan rematch in the new Big Ten Championship Game, is either a) The inevitable march of progress, or b) Armageddon, facilitated by whores. It's a stark divide: On one side, 75 years of tradition – the Gold Pants, swimming (and peeing) in Mirror Lake, the Ten-Year War, Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson – squares off against, essentially, a straight money grab.
Because I have a soul, I've already firmly aligned myself with the "armageddon" crowd, made up of those of us who can't stand the thought of one side telling the other in mid-October, "We'll see you again when it really matters." Which probably means I've aligned myself with the losing side. Whatever the motivations of its less influential champions, the prospect of a Buckeye-Wolverine split only has traction among people who matter because the people who matter see a buck in it: If one Ohio State-Michigan game is good, two Ohio State-Michigan games must be even better, and I'm sure they have the ratings projections and accompanying ad rates to prove it. The rivalry has already defined and shaped the national perception of the Big Ten for the last 50 years; just think of the possibility of the rivalry-as-championship game as "expanding the brand."
Which brings us to the fundamental question: From a strict branding point of view, leaving aside all the sentimental hokum about "tradition" from the little people (who will buy pretty much anything the conference decides to sell them, anyway), does The Ohio State-Michigan Game™ necessarily bring more to the table than The Big Ten Championship Game?
The answer, I think, depends on whether the Big Ten wants it to. If the conference splits up the Buckeyes and Wolverines and moves the annual rivalry game up in the schedule, it's doing so with the unabashed intention of paving the way for a championship rematch – in effect, declaring that, in a perfect world, the Big Ten Championship really should be The Ohio State-Michigan Game™. If it doesn't work out that way in any given year, well, okay. But, as with the ACC placing its bets six years ago in a blatant attempt to set up an annual Florida State-Miami showdown in its own title game, the preference will be clear enough.
It seems just as obvious, though, that the Big Ten Championship Game has the potential to eclipse the prevailing dynamic of the last 50 years and become a ratings/marketing juggernaut in its own right – not because it's another stage for a specific, anticipated matchup, but because it's the freaking Big Ten Championship Game, with an outsized value to all interested parties no matter who's playing in it. It's not like Penn State or Nebraska fans will ever fail to match their counterparts in Ann Arbor and Columbus for diehard passion or national appeal in their own right.
The SEC model proves the point: No one needed to see Alabama-Auburn or Florida-Georgia outside of their traditional contexts for the sake of the championship game, and the game itself always maximizes its potential as a grand stage, even in odd years when Arkansas or Mississippi State is involved. The brand defines its participants, rather than the other way around. The ideal scenario for the Big Ten over the next 50 years is to create a similar event that holds its value whether its selling Ohio State-Penn State, Michigan-Illinois or Purdue-Northwestern. America's watching because The Big Ten Championship is A Big Deal, and the teams that win their way into it must be worth watching.
If it succeeds on that front, and The Michigan-Ohio State Game™ is no more valuable as the championship matchup than any other potential championship matchup between deserving teams, there's no incentive whatsoever to risk blowing up the hallowed traditions that mean so much to so many people on both sides. Keep the game where it's always been, at the end of the schedule. Keep the game what it's always been, the ritualistic culmination of an entire season in a single, freezing orgy of centuries-old hate that cannot be overturned or redeemed for at least another 365 days. In good years, the division championship (hence a shot at the conference championship) will be on the line, preserving the familiar winner-take-all/loser-go-home intensity that made "The Game" what it is in the first place.
Forsaking all of that in the hope of an extremely marginal increase in TV ratings for two or three championship games per decade is extremely cynical, but it (probably) wouldn't make Jim Delany one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It also wouldn't make the conference any better or more valuable than it would be otherwise, and it would arbitrarily undermine one of its most valuable, unique pillars for virtually nothing. Michigan-Ohio State already stands on its own. Let it stand, and build the Big Ten Championship as a unique pillar all its own.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.