- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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One of the most
annoyingenlightening parts of my job is reading all the ridiculousintelligent suggestions for the Big Ten's next expansion targets.
Conference realignment is the most discussed topic in this space, and everyone has opinions, most of which aren't in the same area code as reality.
It's time to get smart about Big Ten expansion suggestions. Think about it: if you follow these steps, you can outsmart your friends in realignment roulette! Trust me, it won't take much, but you need to know a few things that make Big Ten expansion a bit different from those we've seen in other leagues.
Here are four steps that should help you get started ...
STEP 1: On-field performance really doesn't matter very much
One of the biggest mistakes I see is fans scanning the Top 25 polls or the BCS standings and throwing out random expansion candidates. Uh, why doesn't the Big Ten add Boise State? How about West Virginia? Oklahoma State and South Florida, come on down!
Just because a school has a great football team doesn't mean the Big Ten is interested in adding it as a new member. The Big Ten just added Maryland and Rutgers, two schools not known for their football prowess. Although the Big Ten's previous two additions, Nebraska and Penn State, had brand-name football programs, the league's objectives are a little different now.
The Big Ten is more concerned with population numbers than AP poll numbers, so don't get wrapped up in the wrong data. Try to think less like a fan and more like a businessperson.
STEP 2: Get to know the AAU
If you don't know what the AAU is by now, you've probably been spending too much time making silly expansion suggestions. The Association of American Universities is an association of leading research universities that means a lot -- not a little, but a lot -- to the Big Ten and its presidents. Right now, 11 of 12 Big Ten institutions are in the AAU. Nebraska was a member at the time of its admission to the Big Ten (June 2010) before losing its status. I've been told that if Nebraska hadn't been an AAU member in June 2010, there would have been much more resistance from the Big Ten presidents to green light the addition.
Maryland and Rutgers both are AAU members, and you can bet any future expansion targets will be, too. The Big Ten would have made an exception for Notre Dame -- a non-AAU member but an institution with a very strong academic reputation -- but no other candidates.
Bottom line: if a school isn't on this list, it won't be targeted by the Big Ten. And if a school doesn't have a strong academic reputation, the Big Ten won't consider it.
STEP 3: Look outside the existing Big Ten footprint
Two of the most common expansion suggestions I've received in the past three years are Pitt and Iowa State. Both are AAU schools that have football rivalries with existing Big Ten members (Penn State and Iowa, respectively).
The problem with both -- yes, it's a problem -- is location. Both are already in the existing Big Ten footprint. Remember, this is Big Ten expansion we're talking about, and given what the Big Ten has said, that means expanding the footprint to new areas with large or growing populations and a good chunk of Big Ten alumni. It doesn't make sense to add a school in a market you already have. It certainly doesn't make much sense to add a school in as small a market as Ames, Iowa.
That's why Maryland (Washington D.C./Northern Virginia) and Rutgers (New York City, New Jersey) were so much more appealing.
All the recent expansions we've seen have leagues going into new territory, not solidifying existing territory. The Big Ten is no exception.
STEP 4: Pay attention to demographics
How many times did you hear the word "demographics" from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany last month? Pay attention to that word.
The Big Ten remains such a popular conference despite subpar on-field results because it has so many fans. But the population numbers in the Midwest are on the decline, and the league has made it clear that demographics is the No. 1 factor in pursuing further expansion.
Look at where the people are. Look at the size of the television market. Look at where Big Ten schools have their largest alumni bases.
It's about expanding the brand.
Hope this helps you with your Big Ten expansion suggestions.
Now back to answering emails about Iowa State and Oklahoma State ...