The news out of this week's Big Ten meetings in Chicago is mostly "no news," at least where conference expansion is concerned: Commissioner Jim Delany made clear to reporters today that the league is not in any hurry to expand, or not expand, or give anyone anything firm to work with either way before the end of the year. So while it seems obvious to just about everyone that something's happening here, exactly what it is ain't exactly clear.
Still, Delany wasn't entirely above throwing a scrap to the starving pack, indicating that the expansion push was driven by two overriding factors: a) The revenue increase created by the Big Ten Network, which everyone knew already, and b) The demographic shift to the South over the last 20 years, which – wait, what? The South? Yeah, that's right – the South:
... [A]long with the money, there are other issues that would have to be addressed, such as academic credentials and geography.
"We've talked from 10,000 feet about the census 20 years ago and the rust belt population, the Big Ten population versus movement to the Sun Belt over the last 20 years," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said. ...
"More and more people have moved to the South," he said. "The Big Ten still has the largest population base of alumni, but we want to make sure years from now, if that movement continues, we’re in position to say that."
This is true: Though Rust Belt states are still significantly larger than their Southern counterparts, the gap has been closing for decades, and the Big Ten's core population/recruiting states – Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania – have been stagnant for years as Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas continue to grow by leaps and bounds. The Wall Street Journal explored the relationship of demographics and football in December 2008, partly to explain why the SEC seemed to be "dominating college football like never before." (For some reason, the WSJ doesn't just accept "because we care more" as a sufficient explanation for that perception, although some other smart people do.) If the primary goal of expansion is to maximize the number of possible eyeballs on the television network, the network has to follow the eyeballs to their new homes. Which probably do not have basements.
Amid the wider shifts to sunnier environs, there's also the matter of precisely which eyeballs the conference could be reaching there:
That's a Google map of Rivals' top 100 recruits in the class of 2009, a nice visual representation of another Big Truth everybody knows: For years, top players have come disproportionately from the Southeast. (Note that the relationship of blue-chip recruits to overall population in California is roughly 1:1, though even there, they tend to be clustered in Southern California.) By necessity, every successful Big Ten school has worked hard to make inroads into Florida, and to a lesser extent into Texas, Louisiana and other Dixie strongholds, because that's where the players are. Off a fluky year in which the Big Ten couldn't even keep the top prospects in the Midwest in the fold, expanding the recruiting footprint is no small motivation.
The upshot: Maybe those weird rumors about the conference considering Georgia Tech and Maryland as potential expansion targets aren't as weird as they sounded. More to the point, maybe the weird rumors about the conference making a run at Texas aren't so farfetched, either, however adamantly the Longhorns continue to deny interest in leaving a major conference they effectively control already as the most profitable athletic department in the country. If you're going to go fishing, might as well try to reel in the big fish.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.