How Big Ten Continues to Be College Football's King of Cash

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How Big Ten Continues to Be College Football's King of Cash
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The Big Ten pays Jim Delany nearly $2 million a year for his work as conference commissioner, and he's worth every penny.

Under Delany's stewardship since 1989, the Big Ten has been and continues to be the richest conference in college athletics. Even though it has not won a national championship in football since 2002, the Big Ten still rakes in more cash than any other conference, including the SEC.

According to tax returns made available to USA Today, the Big Ten brought in $318.6 million in revenue for fiscal 2013. Nearly $298 million of that was distributed to its 12 members, with each school receiving between $23-$26 million (except Nebraska, which won't receive full shares until 2017-18). 

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Contrast that with the SEC, which is the second-richest conference despite being far more accomplished on the football field. In fiscal 2013 the SEC made $314.5 million, with its 14 member schools each receiving around $21 million (and a bit less for newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri).

So how did Delany get his conference schools more money than anybody else? And how did he do so despite the Big Ten's 1-2 record in BCS championship games and a losing record (13-15) in BCS bowl games during the 16-year run of the BCS?

The simple answer is television. Delany figured out how to leverage the large viewership of his popular conference to maximize revenue.

The 12 Big Ten schools occupy 10 of the 35 largest media markets in the United States (according to the 2013-14 Nielsen Media Research)—as compared to six for the SEC, which includes the marginal SEC markets of Houston and St. Louis. All Big Ten schools except Iowa and Nebraska dominate at least one, sometimes several of these top-ranked markets.

Delany's decision to launch the Big Ten Network in 2007 also turned out to be a stroke of genius, even if he was second-guessed at the time—especially after the BTN failed to corral all the cable providers in its first year. The BTN has grown to be a model for all other conferences, with the Pac-12 following suit two years ago and the SEC due to begin its own in August.

Top Media Markets for Major Conferences
Conference DMA (Ranking)*
Big Ten New York (1), Chicago (3), D.C. (8), Detroit (11), Twin Cities (15)
Pac-12 L.A. (2), Bay Area (6), Phoenix (12), Seattle (13), Denver (17)
Big 12 DFW (5), Houston (10), Kansas City (31), Austin (40), OKC (41)
ACC Boston (7), D.C. (8), Miami (16), Raleigh/Durham (24), Charlotte (25)
SEC Atlanta (9), Houston (10), Tampa (14), Orlando (18), St. Louis (21)

* Nielsen Media Research 2013-14

That's why while Delany's decision to add Maryland and Rutgers was met with widespread derision—especially given those schools' complete lack of athletic prowess in recent years—it might turn out to be another shrewd maneuver.

With Maryland and Rutgers in the fold (beginning this fall), the Big Ten adds three more top media markets (No. 1 New York, No. 8 Washington, D.C. and No. 27 Baltimore) into its already formidable lineup. This will force television providers in these markets to add BTN into the basic tier while allowing the conference to establish a firm presence on the densely populated eastern seaboard.

Delany is already looking ahead. After alternating the Big Ten basketball tournament between Chicago and Indianapolis, the 2017 tournament will be played at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Don't be surprised if the Big Ten's football title game shows up at either FedEx Field in Maryland or MetLife Stadium in New Jersey sometime soon.

“Moving into the eastern corridor, that’s the new Big Ten,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told CBSChicago's Chris Emma. “We all have to accept it, and our fans have to accept it. We want to welcome our two new members in Rutgers and Maryland, and we want a presence in the East. We want to take advantage of us expanding into the East.”

That's why as much as Maryland and Rutgers are the butt of jokes in college football, fans only laugh at Delany and his vision at their own peril. He and the Big Ten are laughing all the way to the bank.

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