December 1, 2010

Expansion leads to more league title games

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows a Big Ten title game is coming next season, but that doesn't mean he has to like it.

"I've never seen a great advantage from a coaching standpoint," Ferentz said. "I think this is just a sign of the times and the way and direction that college football is going."

Ferentz is right. The Big Ten and Pac-10 are the latest conferences to join the league title game movement. With the addition of Nebraska from the Big 12 in 2011, the Big Ten will split into two six-team divisions and conduct a conference championship game in Indianapolis. The Pac-10 is adding Utah from the Mountain West and Colorado from the Big 12 next season to grow to a 12-team, two-division conference with a title game. The league also will change its name, to Pac-12, to reflect its growth, but the Big Ten has no such plans.

This is championship weekend in college football. The SEC (Auburn-South Carolina), ACC (Virginia Tech-Florida State), Big 12 (Nebraska-Oklahoma), Conference USA (SMU-UCF) and Mid-American Conference (Northern Illinois-Miami of Ohio) will conduct title games, putting a figurative cherry on top of their seasons.

Some would say that it's about time that the Big Ten and Pac-10 got in step with the times. The SEC will play its 19th league title game Saturday after giving birth to the concept in 1992. It was a modest beginning at Birmingham's Legion Field, with Alabama beating Florida 28-21. The event moved to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in 1994 and has become one of college football's showcase events and generates an estimated $14 million annually for the SEC.

Since then, the championship game concept has grown. The Big 12 added a title game in 1996. The MAC joined the club in 1997, and the ACC and C-USA got on board in 2005.

"It's a chance to celebrate the conference," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "It's a culminating event. And I think it will extend the watchful eye of the fan base on through early December. That hasn't been the case with our season usually ending before Thanksgiving."

The title game also will pad the Big Ten's bottom line. Delany won't estimate how much revenue the event will generate, but it may not match the SEC's take -- at least in the early stages of the event.

"I don't think the Big Ten championship game will be as lucrative as the SEC's," said Patrick Rishe, associate professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis who is the founder of Sportsimpacts.net, a sports consulting firm that specializes in marketing research and economic-impact studies for sporting events. "The fan avidity among SEC fans is unmatched in college football.

"That said, the Big Ten championship game will likely become a close second in terms of stature and prominence, given the history of the schools and the positive marketing power that the Big Ten Network exercises during the season by promoting the Big Ten brand."

The Big Ten will hold its inaugural game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Delany said he isn't sure if the league will choose a permanent site, which the SEC has done, or rotate the event, as the Big 12 and ACC have done.

"My inclination is to look at multiple cities, but I am not 100 percent sure on that," Delany said. "I think what we wanted to do at first was get a city that we were really familiar with and knew it was world-class with the Super Bowl coming [after the 2011 season]. Then, wait until spring when our men's and women's basketball tourney contracts come to an end, along with our football championship, and look at those as a collection of important events that are sought-after.

"We will take that opportunity in the spring with our ADs, talk to our presidents and the coaches a bit to decide what the best way is to apportion these events. I don't know if it will be one city, two or more."

The Pac-10 already has decided that its event will be held on the campus of the team with the best record.

"We think that will serve as incentive during the regular season," Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said. "And that will only add value to the regular season and make it that much more attractive for TV."

The Pac-12's game figures to lag behind the SEC and Big Ten in terms of revenue and prestige. But that may not last for long, thanks to Scott.

"I think the Pac-12's game may rival the other two in the near future, given the aggressive marketing initiatives of their new leadership team," Rishe said.

While the Big Ten and Pac-12 will add championship games in 2011, the Big 12 will pull the plug on its season-ending event after Saturday's game in Arlington, Texas. The conference will contract from 12 to 10 teams with the departures of Nebraska and Colorado, and Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe estimates his league will lose about $4.5 million to $5 million in ticket revenue from the event.

Not always so special
While league title games are good for the bottom line, they can be treacherous to a school's quest for a national championship.

Nebraska (1996 vs. Texas) and Kansas State (1998 vs. Texas A&M) saw likely shots at the national championship end with losses in the Big 12 title game. Tennessee saw its national championship dreams die in a loss to LSU in the 2001 SEC championship game.

"Sometimes, it is really special," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "But when you are undefeated and still have that hurdle to cross, and you look at other teams that aren't playing them and are sitting there and waiting, it isn't the best situation."

Some teams have found their way into the BCS title game without playing a league title game. Witness Nebraska in 2001. Oklahoma got to the BCS title game in 2003 despite losing the Big 12 title game.

Some observers would say schools in the Pac-10 and Big Ten have had an advantage in not having to navigate a league title game en route to getting to the BCS title game. But that's about to change.

With the Big Ten and Pac-12 adding title games in 2011, the Big 12 (which is dropping its title game after this season) and Big East will be the only "Big Six" leagues without championship games.

"I wish every league had to play one," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.

But Beebe said he feels the loss of ticket revenue will be offset by additional inventory of regular-season games that are attractive to TV. The league is moving from eight to nine conference games in a round-robin scheduling format that will see each Big 12 school play every other team in the league.

Beebe said he sees the loss of a title game as "taking a step forward. This group kind of likes being different. Everyone else has copied what the Big 12 and SEC created 15 to 19 years ago. This isn't something we planned. We tried to keep all 12 together. But when we ended up with 10, all of a sudden there was enthusiasm for not having that game, which always has been controversial in our league."

The NCAA requires a conference to have 12 teams to conduct a league title game. The Big 12 could petition the NCAA to still play the title game with 10 schools, but Beebe said there is no interest in doing so from its members.

"There is a lot of excitement about positioning ourselves as a true conference, where everybody plays all the other schools for a true champion in a round-robin schedule," Beebe said.

It's debatable whether Big 12 coaches will miss the game.

"If we are undefeated and racing for the national championship, no, I won't miss it," Oklahoma's Bob Stoops said. "If we are out of the national championship picture, then it is pretty neat and special to have that game. Does that make sense?"

The ACC has no plans to end its league title game, though it hasn't been well-received since its inception in 2005.

"I am not really sure [why the event hasn't caught on]," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "Maybe fans felt like it was hard to travel to Florida for the ACC title game, and then head back to Florida for a bowl. Some fans may have felt stretched to make both [trips]."

The event was held the first three seasons in Jacksonville, then moved to Tampa for the past two seasons. Regardless of location, attendance for the most part has been spotty. The attendance in Tampa was especially abysmal, with 27,360 attending in 2008 and 42,815 in '09. Rishe said the ACC's game might be "a poster child" for proof that title games aren't a guaranteed success.

"The first year, we had excellent attendance [72,749 for Florida State-Virginia Tech]," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "Then with some of the matchups we have had from a geographic standpoint, we didn't have a lot of alums from that regard. What we have to do as a conference is find the right mix that makes that game successful year in and year out, regardless of what teams are there."

The ACC game moves to Charlotte this season. The league hopes the more central location will help attendance.

"We thought all along it would be a positive move," Swofford said. "And all indications are is that it will be. We are closing in on a sellout. Charlotte is a high-energy city, and the stadium is right downtown and it is the geographic center of our league. Eight of our schools are within 300 miles, so it is a relatively easy drive for a lot of our fans. There are just a lot of pluses there as our game evolves and develops."

If the new location isn't a panacea, Swofford may consider proposing the ACC title game follow the lead of the Pac-12 and play on the campus of the team with the best regular-season record.

"We have considered it some in the past," Swofford said. "Larry [Scott] at one of our meetings took me aside and asked me our thinking. I told him I would suggest they give that [playing on campus] serious consideration.

"Geographically, the Pac-10 and ACC are somewhat alike. You have to take that into consideration. I think that is a very reasonable decision by the Pac-10 to give that a try. And we will keep an eye on that, as well, in case Charlotte is not the success we think it will be."

While the Big 12 is abandoning its event, it wouldn't be a surprise if the league re-expands in the future and reinstates the title game to get back in line with the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC, leaving only the Big East among the "Big Six" conferences that doesn't conduct a league championship game. In fact, there could be a day when all six major conferences are conducting league title games. Could that lead to the beginnings of a playoff?

"Some people who are into structure look at it that way," Delany said. "We pushed hard to get the Rose Bowl in the BCS in '97 and '98. Keep the Rose Bowl healthy and alive, and grow it, improve and enhance the bowl system.

"If the Rose Bowl is healthy, that would make the establishment of a NFL-style playoff more difficult. I don't see our expansion to a championship as anything other than a move intended to strengthen the Rose Bowl and the conference's regular season. It's the same objectives we had when we went into the BCS. It's really not tied to a football playoff."

The conference title games may be the next-best thing, at least for now.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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