Ohio State Buckeyes: Gene Smith

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
5:00
PM ET
Questions, answers and Twitter. What could possibly be better on a Tuesday in June?

Let's begin ...

Virgel from Valdosta, Ga., writes: Adam, do you think that if this season ends the Tim Beckman era at Illinois, they would go after a high-profile coach on the bench right now, like a Mack Brown? Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting thought, Virgel, as it's hard to know where athletic director Mike Thomas would turn. He has a track record of hiring MAC coaches -- Butch Jones, Brian Kelly, Beckman -- but I'd be shocked if he went that route again. Brown will be 62 in August, has a ton of money and likely a lengthy TV career ahead, so I'm not sure how much he would want to coach again. And if he did, for how long?

Illinois doesn't want to keep changing coaches. But thinking outside the box could be a good approach. Or Thomas could hire a guy like Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who is ready to lead a major-conference program.




Kyle from Hamilton, Ontario, writes: We all have heard how "weak" Iowa's schedule is. It has even been rumoured that they could be favoured in every game. Given the fact they don't play Ohio State, a scenario exists that they both could go undefeated. That could have happened in 2002 if Iowa didn't blow the lead against Iowa State that year. My question is this: If both Ohio State and Iowa go undefeated do both teams make the playoffs?

Adam Rittenberg: Man, I love that Canadian spelling. This would be a fascinating scenario, Kyle. A lot depends on what happens in other conferences and how the Big Ten performs in marquee nonleague games. But I don't think Iowa makes the playoff with a loss in the league championship game, primarily because of the seemingly soft regular-season schedule.

In this scenario, Ohio State would have a road win against a preseason top-10 team in Michigan State. The Buckeyes also play Virginia Tech in nonleague play. Will the Michigan home win help or hurt Ohio State? How much credit will Iowa get for beating Wisconsin and Nebraska at home? All these questions factor into the playoff decision. Ultimately, I doubt the Big Ten gets two teams into the initial playoff. Fairly or unfairly, the league will pay for its recent shortcomings. But Ohio State has a better chance as a one-loss team than Iowa.




Dave from Marietta, Ohio, writes: The Big Ten should've gone to North-South divisions instead of East-West. I'm not sure about the exact locations of the schools, but a North-South alignment could look something like this ... North -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa. South -- Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska.

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting idea, Dave, as this proposal appears to create more historical balance than the current East-West alignment. But if you look at the Big Ten's recent expansion, the idea is to live in a second region along the East Coast. It's not a northern expansion but an eastern one. Another factor to consider is geography. Nebraska would be a major outlier in the South division -- nearly an eight-hour drive from its closest division competitor (Illinois) and a loooong way from Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. Would Husker fans care? Maybe, maybe not. They would get annual games with both Penn State and Ohio State.

I like how your proposal satisfies the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry triangle/dilemma, but it also would require at least one extra protected crossover, Ohio State-Michigan, which would reduce the overall schedule rotation for two of the league's marquee programs. I definitely see value in the North-South model, but East-West is here, at least for now.




[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Paul VernonOhio State's Braxton Miller is one of just two early enrollees to be Big Ten Freshman of the Year in the last seven years.
Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I wondered if you've seen any data comparing early enrollees and players who enroll in the fall. Do early enrollees start sooner, play in more games, have better drafts or have better graduation rates than players who enroll in the summer/fall? My thought is if the player works hard enough to graduate high school early, maybe there's a bit of a better work ethic.

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, David, and there's not a great answer yet as this trend remains somewhat new. The number of early enrollees really spiked in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Not surprisingly, there is some evidence that early enrollees are contributing faster in their careers than those who arrive in the summer. We've seen examples in the Big Ten such as Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who earned a starting job as a true freshman. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller enrolled early and has started since the middle of his freshman season.

Then again, a 2009 ranking of top early enrollee groups Insider showed more misses (Tate Forcier, Kevin Newsome, Will Campbell) than hits (Gerald Hodges) in the Big Ten. Penn State had seven early enrollees in 2010 but only one, running back Silas Redd, became a star for the Lions.

Of the Big Ten's last seven Freshman of the Year recipients, just two -- Ohio State's Miller and Illinois' Arrelious Benn -- were early enrollees. So it's hard to draw clear conclusions.




Peter from Boston writes: Would be interested to hear your thoughts on a recent article by John U. Bacon about attendance issues at Michigan (Ivan Maisel referenced it in his latest 3-Point Stance). Personally, I think you could insert any major program in the country (including my alma mater Penn State) and write roughly the same article. ADs constantly point the finger at high-definition TV and other tech as the reason for slipping attendance, and it's definitely a factor, but Bacon makes some very good points about the in-game experience and costs of attending a game at a major university. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: There are some very valid points in Bacon's story, especially about rising ticket prices. As Ohio State AD Gene Smith recently told me, "The reality is a lot of our ticket pricing, some of us are at the top of the pyramid." And it seems like the branding push, especially in the Big Ten, is turning off some fans. Has the sport sold its soul in some ways? No doubt. Is branding too much of a priority in the Big Ten, which makes a lot of money but doesn't really win anything? There's a case to be made. ADs are devoting a lot of energy to improving the gameday experience, but two solutions are pretty simple: scheduling better opponents and charging less for tickets.
After taking a look at the most recent database of revenues and expenses in college sports, we’re putting the Big Ten under the microscope. Our four-part series -- the rest of which can be found here -- concludes with a look at recruiting expenses and why they've grown.

Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop can still remember sifting through thick stacks of manila recruiting folders in the mid-90s and reaching for a shelf of VHS tapes hanging above his desk.

There were no real recruiting support staffs to speak of. He'd pop a recruit's game tape into a VCR and then ready himself with a notepad. Fast forward, fast forward. There's the recruit. Fast forward, fast forward.

[+] EnlargeClayton Thorson
Tom Hauck for Student SportsDigital and online technologies are helping schools discover prospects like Clayton Thorson earlier and make more educated scholarship offers.
"Recruiting's changed a lot," Shoop told ESPN.com. "Our recruiting staff, they'll cut up tapes for me now. I don't have to sift through hours of recruiting tape anymore. Our interns will hand me 10 clips for a 2016 safety or something like that. You're investing to recruit good people."

As technology has evolved, so has recruiting -- and recruiting budgets. In just the past six seasons, according to a recent analysis from "Outside the Lines," recruiting budgets encompassing all sports have increased at 13 of 14 Big Ten schools and risen by at least 30 percent at eight of those. Higher gas prices, increased postage and other variables have undoubtedly played a role but several coaches and athletic directors also stressed how bigger staffs -- a result of newer technology -- have inflated those numbers.

At Penn State, Shoop can now rely on two full-time staff members, two graduate assistants and a team of 30 students/interns to help with recruiting. At Northwestern, the recruiting staff has tripled in just the last six to eight years. And, at Ohio State, one full-time position was recently added, in part, to help with recruiting presentations.

"Our technology has increased quite a bit," OSU athletic director Gene Smith said. "That's a big number for us."

That technology, such as online game film, has placed a bigger focus on immediacy. In an age where a top prospect's highlights can be filmed today and broken down by college coaches tomorrow, staffs can no longer wait until the offseason to evaluate players. And they can't drop everything on a Friday night in October, either, to give up game plan tweaks in favor of digesting film from a high school junior.

"Your coaches are doing this thing in the football season called coaching," said Chris Bowers, Northwestern's director of player personnel. "The time allocation a position coach would spend in March, he's not going to allocate that same amount of time in December or October. He can't. So, yes, there's been an increase in staff for sure.

"I would say at most universities -- I can't speak for everyone -- the recruiting staff is probably two to three times bigger than it was in '06."

In September of 2012, the Wildcats were able to jump early on the Clayton Thorson bandwagon because of that extra staff and technology. The ESPN 300 quarterback, who signed with Northwestern in February, hadn't started under center prior to 2012.

So, when he was due in Evanston, Ill., for a Saturday night game, Bowers noticed his high school coach uploaded his film to the Hudl website that Friday evening. Bowers contacted a GA, requested he cut-up some highlights -- and then forwarded the finished product to the coaching staff. Thorson received an offer that Saturday, partially based on something that was filmed less than 24 hours before.

And if this had all happened just a few years before, then how long would it have taken to make that same judgment call? Months?

"

You're investing to recruit good people.

" -- Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop
"Yes!" Bowers said. "… Even if you were an aggressive recruiting staff, the high school coaches would still need to bring you a DVD or mail it to you -- and they might not do it until the end of the season."

Nationally, recruiting budgets have risen across the board, so it's hardly limited to the Big Ten. Still, the conference seems to be outpacing the competition. Between 2008 and 2012, Big Ten teams placed within the top-10 nationally in recruiting spending on just five occasions. In 2013, four conference teams (Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State) placed within the top 10 -- and Illinois wasn't far behind at No. 12.

But coaches and athletic directors were slow to label last season a turning point. After all, it's not as if the staffs had all doubled overnight. Instead, they cautioned, there were other variables that needed to be taken into account. At Wisconsin, for example, the budget is artificially low because the Badgers are provided a private plane and don't need to charter flights as much. At Iowa, a booster donation wasn't included in the recruiting numbers until a few years ago -- which could account for part of the jump. And at Minnesota, due to the campus location, increased flight and hotel expenses impacted the budget more than schools elsewhere.

"We can't drive as much as others," Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague added. "So we've got to keep building the budget and being aggressive."

Regardless, the trend of spending more on recruiting each season appears to be a difficult one to stop. Whether it's an increased staff or costs elsewhere, few universities take a step back in spending.

But, on the bright side, it could be worse -- at least the era of "Be kind; please rewind" is long gone.

"That required a significant amount of manpower hours," Shoop said with a laugh. "And in some ways, now, it's a pro model. It's not like you have an entire scouting department, but I'm sure we're getting closer to that model now than ever before now, as far as people whose sole responsibility is player evaluation. ... It's incredible how the process has accelerated."

After taking a look at the most recent database of revenues and expenses in college sports, we're putting the Big Ten under the microscope. Our four-part series continues today with a look at the money Big Ten teams have paid to opponents over the years.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images Ohio State is the league's largest athletic program with 36 varsity sports and a massive, often sold-out football stadium.
Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis was scheduled to meet with reporters during the lunch break of Wednesday's Big Ten administrators' meetings, but he showed up earlier than expected.

He jokingly offered a possible reason for his escape.

"It seems like every vote we take," Hollis said, "costs us $100,000."

Expenses are rising for major-conference schools, especially with the welfare of college athletes in the national spotlight. One area that continues to get more expensive is the cost of home games, and the prices will continue to rise.

While Big Ten schools make millions from football games in their campus stadiums, they also are paying large guarantees for opponents to show up and play. According to recent analysis from "Outside the Lines," Big Ten teams paid nearly $42 million to visiting teams in all sports during the 2012-13 season (this includes Rutgers and Maryland, but not Northwestern, a private institution that doesn't report figures). The Big Ten, with its big football stadiums and broad-based athletic programs, paid more to opponents than any other conference. It's not a surprise considering many Big Ten teams make more than $3 million per football home game.

In 2012-13, Ohio State led the nation in money paid to opponents ($7,999,881), followed by Minnesota ($4,799,383) and Wisconsin ($3,987,864). Two other Big Ten teams -- Michigan State ($3,650,864) and Indiana ($3,375,562) -- finished in the top 10, and 10 schools finished in the top 25.

Ohio State has spent more on visiting teams in each of the past six years, averaging $7.4 million per year. Its total spent since 2007-08 ($44,418,002) is more than double that of the next Big Ten school, Indiana ($21,576,798). The simple explanation for the disparity: Ohio State is the league's largest athletic program with 36 varsity sports, and with a massive, often sold-out football stadium, it spends because it can.

"We’ll net north of about $7 million off of each [home football] game," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "That's why we can afford to pay that guarantee. If you're over 100,000 seats -- you look at Michigan, us, Penn State, Tennessee -- you have to look at their average ticket price, which is typically north of $75. Then, you're probably looking at $5-7 million that those stadiums are netting individually.

"So when you take out a $1-million, $1.2-million, $1.3-million guarantee, you can handle it."

According to the Associated Press, Ohio State will pay more than $2 million in guarantee money to its three home nonconference opponents this season (Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Kent State). The Buckeyes also will receive an $850,000 guarantee for playing Navy in Baltimore.

These fees aren't new to college football. Many major-conference schools with big stadiums have been spending $800,000 or more on guarantees since the latter part of the last decade. In 2008, both Ohio State and Michigan State paid more than $5.5 million to road teams, finishing first and second nationally, respectively.

"We're in the market, we're part of that market because we’re a large stadium," Smith said. "It's just what you have to do today to get the mix."

The problem going forward is inventory, a word used by several Big Ten athletic directors at last week's meetings. Although the Big Ten moves to a nine-game league schedule in 2016, which reduces the number of nonconference games to schedule, the demand for nonleague home games remains high, if not higher. Big Ten teams will have five conference road games every other year, so to get the seven home games most need to meet budgets, all three nonleague games must be at home.

The Big Ten also has placed a moratorium on scheduling FCS opponents, a route many Big Ten teams have taken because FCS schools don't require return games and have relatively lower guarantee fees. So Big Ten teams in many cases must find FBS teams willing to play on the road without requiring a return.

"The issue with nine is inventory," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "You're trying to schedule all [FBS] schools. The inventory becomes questionable. People don't want to go home-and-home. You try to stay at seven games at home, it's very difficult to do that in the year that you have four Big Ten games at home. So there are some issues."

One of them is cost.

"As the supply shrinks," Hollis said, "those that are in the window of who you want to play have the ability to ask for more."

Like many college football observers, Smith had hoped both the SEC and ACC would join the Pac-12, Big 12 and, soon, the Big Ten in adopting nine-game league schedules. But he didn't see it as a competitive balance issue.

The problem: inventory.

"If they'd gone to nine, obviously there's a lot more inventory out there because they would only schedule three [nonleague games]," Smith said. "Everyone is trying to schedule the same types of nonconference games in the same window of time, September. It's challenging."

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, while reiterating the need to avoid scheduling FCS opponents, says he will assist member schools with the scheduling dilemma. Some schools are exploring neutral-site games, which are lucrative and have gained greater popularity in recent years. Penn State AD Dave Joyner, who will watch the Nittany Lions open the 2014 season in Ireland, said, "It's almost like having a home game."

But Big Ten ADs also have been resistant to move games -- and the money they generate -- away from local markets.

"I don't know about the neutral-site thing," Minnesota AD Norwood Teague said. "We just built a stadium on campus, a beautiful new 50,000-seat facility. That was built for a purpose, and $150 million of that stadium was paid for by taxpayer dollars."

Hollis also has stiff-armed the neutral-site trend, but he acknowledged last week that MSU and longtime rival Notre Dame are discussing a neutral-site contest, possibly in Chicago.

"Some of us aren't traditional thinkers," he said. "You can come up with some creative ways that make sense for student-athletes, fans and … that you can meet your financial challenges."

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
5:00
PM ET

What's on your mind?

rtXC from Denison, Texas, writes: Hey, Brian, love the blog! After the SEC's "groundbreaking" announcement to stay at eight conference games and have each of its teams play one team from the Power 5, would you like to see the other conferences band together and make a stand? Other than certain SEC-ACC rivalries and current contracts for future games, how about the four conferences band together and abstain from scheduling SEC teams in the future? That'd surely solve things, eh?

[+] EnlargeGene Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State AD Gene Smith says the SEC's decision puts the onus on a strong nonconference schedule.
Brian Bennett: It would make scheduling all but impossible for the SEC, but I don't think other leagues are as outraged over the decision by the SEC to stay at eight games as many fans are. I talked to Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith earlier this week and asked him if he had an opinion on the SEC's decision. Here's what he said:

"No, not really. I don't know about my colleagues in the league, but I think when you look at different conferences, they have to do what they have to do based on their makeup, based on their geography and their fan base. Whether they go nine or eight games, that's really based on who they are. I really don't have a preference and would not want to even try and direct how those conferences should go. They're living in it, they're working in it, they know their travel issues and all that stuff, so for someone outside to project, I just don't think that's right."

Smith did add that the SEC's decision "will ultimately depend on what they're doing in the nonconference. Because their in-conference strength of schedule, the majority of the time, is going to be pretty good. But when you leave four games to the nonconference part of your schedule, you've got to make sure you're able to get who you need to get in order to make that overall schedule strength good."

Translation: SEC teams had better not shy away from playing strong teams in the nonconference, and they'd better hope the teams they schedule years in advance are actually good when the games arrive (see Ohio State's conundrum with the Cal series). Ultimately, the best way to get some uniformity in conference games is not some sort of boycott. It's having the playoff selection committee send a strong message about strength of schedule in its choices for the four-team event.



 



Eric from Iowa writes: Give the so called "Big 5" conferences more power, eh? More power to create their own rules on things like stipends, medical coverage, family travel benefits, recruiting, etc? ... I'm not going to pretend those conferences aren't already the big money makers of college football, but giving them the autonomy to make these rules for themselves vs. a poor old little MAC school who already struggles to keep up ... proof that the Central Michigans are in place to provide home games for Michigan and MSU, and that's pretty much it.

Bennett: Well, how is that really any different? The Central Michigans of the world are in no way, shape or form on the same playing field right now as the Michigans and Michigan States anyway. The money gap is huge and will continue growing. I think there's an honest desire from the power conferences to give back more to the players (in part, sure, because they're afraid a court or legislature will force them to do so if they don't act first), and if all that's holding them back are mid- and low-major schools that can't afford it, then there need to be different rules in place.



 



Tony from Auburn Hills, Mich., writes: When Darrell Hazell was announced as head coach for Purdue, everyone assumed he would be bringing that TresselBall that he carried to Kent State, even though Purdue has been a spread team since Joe Tiller brought it to the league. Then the season happened and, well, none of us is really sure what identity the offense was supposed to have. But in the Q&A from last week's lunch links, Hazell said he thinks they'll be a spread team this season. So was this really his plan from the beginning, or is this a change out of pure necessity due to poor recruiting and awful play from the O-line?

Bennett: Hazell has always preached physicality and a strong running game as his base philosophy, so hearing him talk about the spread was surprising -- though as Ohio State showed the past two seasons, the two aren't always mutually exclusive. You're right, Tony, in that Purdue had zero identity last season (or maybe I should say it's identity was a zero) on offense or defense, and the coaching staff might have misread the talents of the players. With an offensive line that's not close to being dominant and speedsters such as Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, the spread might be a better use of the Boilers' current talent, much of which was recruited for a spread system, after all. The smartest coaches adapt their system to the players they have, not the other way around.



 



John C. from Princeton Jct., N.J., writes: Been a lifelong RU football fan. Have the Knights winning three games this year. May steal one or two more. The athletic department is a mess. And it seems every week it gets worse. Coach Kyle Flood (nice man) plays not to lose. Watch the games, and you will see it. This lack of "killer instinct" has to overflow to the players. I can give multiple examples. What do you think?

Bennett: I don't know about a lack of a killer instinct, but Flood and predecessor Greg Schiano certainly seemed to play a conservative style -- especially on offense. Perhaps that will change with Ralph Friedgen calling the plays, but we shall see. It's not like that type of style would be out of step in the Big Ten, after all. There's no doubt that the Scarlet Knights' inaugural Big Ten schedule is very difficult, and out-of-league games at Washington State and at Navy are no gimmes by any stretch. I think Rutgers will win more than three games, but 5-7 might be a reasonable accomplishment against that slate.



 



Bran Stark from Winterfell writes: Penny-for-your-thought type of question, Brian ... Iowa clearly has the "easiest" conference schedule of the three preseason favorites of the B1G's West. Next, Wiscy gets Big Red at home and finally my Huskers have to travel to Iowa City, Madison, and East Lansing, coming in at the hardest of the three favorites. If memory serves me correctly, Bo Pelini hasn't lost to any B1G teams twice in a row, and only the terrible Longhorns have notched that feat against him. How much, if at all, do you think the fact that the last time Nebraska played all three of those home teams it ended with losses will have on the team? Mind you, some of those losses came in grand fashion.

Bennett: Thanks for taking time out of your busy warging schedule to write in, Bran. ("Game of Thrones" nerd alert). That's an interesting stat on Pelini, but I'm not sure that history has any bearing on the future. Teams just change too much from year to year for the past season to be a huge factor. And remember the Huskers needed some major comebacks in games against Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State to avoid back-to-back losses. The schedule, though, is definitely worth noting. Nebraska clearly got the toughest draw of the three teams you mentioned. Based on returning talent alone, I would make the Huskers the West Division favorite by a nostril. The schedule could end up keeping them out of Indianapolis. Truly worthy championship teams can overcome it, though.


Big Ten lunch links

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
12:00
PM ET
The links are slimming up for the summer.
The most exciting day of the Big Ten offseason is here. OK, not really, but it's definitely in the top five.

The first portion of the Big Ten's prime-time schedule is out as ABC/ESPN made its six selections for games to be played under the lights. The Big Ten Network will announce its prime-time picks next week. Additional kickoff times could be announced later this spring or early in the summer.

Here's the ABC/ESPN schedule:

Sept. 6

Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Sept. 20

Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 4

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 11

Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2*

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Nov. 1

Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

*-previously announced

A few notes, quotes and observations:

November night games

Contrary to popular belief, the Big Ten never had a strict policy against playing prime-time games after Nov. 1, but most of its schools preferred to keep those games in the first two months of the season. League members have shown an increased willingness to schedule more prime-time games, and after discussing November night contests for several years, we finally have one.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
David Dermer/Getty ImagesOhio Stadium will host its first November night game in 2014.
Although the November matchup -- Illinois at Ohio State -- lacks a wow factor, this is still a positive step for the league. Also, this is not the final list for November prime-time games, as others will be announced in the future.

"There is a real recognition with our coaches, our athletic directors and our fans that prime-time football is very important," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com. "It's important to the conference, it's important to recruiting, it puts you on a big stage.

"It's a big event whenever you have prime-time football."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and coach Urban Meyer both have vocalized their desire for more night games. The Buckeyes get three of them on ABC/ESPN (two home, one road), and possibly more to come. It's the Urban Effect.

Huskers, Lions back in prime

No two Big Ten fan bases value night football at their home venues more than Penn State and Nebraska. The Nittany Lions and Huskers both host prime-time games on ABC/ESPN in 2014 (Nebraska didn't have an ABC/ESPN prime-time game in 2013) and make multiple appearances.

The Nebraska-Miami game should be a fun one, especially given the history between the two programs in bowl games (their last five meetings took place in major bowl games). Nebraska's visit to Michigan State is one of few must-see division crossover contests, so it makes sense in prime time.

Beaver Stadium will be rocking for the Ohio State game as former longtime Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson makes his return to Happy Valley wearing scarlet and gray. Although Penn State remains ineligible for postseason play, the Lions' value is reflected here with East Division matchups against both Michigan and Ohio State. The Lions' consecutive winning seasons despite the bowl ban, plus the arrival of coach James Franklin, enhance the program's appeal for top TV slots.

No limits on prime-time appearances

Big Ten teams typically have had no more than three prime-time appearances per season, but like the November night games issue, this was more of a preference than a policy. As schools like Ohio State become increasingly more open to night football, the number of prime-time appearances will increase, and will occasionally exceed three.

Wisconsin played four prime-time games (two home, two road) in the 2011 season.

"That three [limit] was really self-imposed," Rudner said. "You could waive it if you wanted to. I don't know if that will be as hard and fast as it was before. They see the value in these big events, these big games."

Additional games/announcements

Some Big Ten prime-time games were previously announced, such as Michigan's Sept. 6 trip to Notre Dame and Purdue's Sept. 13 neutral-site game against Notre Dame. A game time has not been set for Wisconsin's season-opener against LSU on Aug. 30 in Houston, but the game will kick off in prime time and be televised by an ESPN network.

One thing to remember when predicting or analyzing night-game choices: other games being played in the same window. Prime-time kickoffs offer certain benefits, but teams don't like being overshadowed in the late window.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
5:00
PM ET
I'm currently driving around Michigan, getting a close-up look at the Wolverines and Spartans this spring. I still found a little time during my Mitten State adventure to answer a few of your emails in this shortened mailbag. Keep those questions coming, and I'll try to do a longer one on Wednesday.

Iowatvman from Cedar Rapids writes: With the vote to allow players to unionize, how does this affect Title IX at the universities? Now that they have to pay out for football, which pays for many other sports, will women's rowing, wrestling, men's and women's gynmastics, etc. go by the wayside?

Brian Bennett: It's important to note that the ruling by the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board applies only to Northwestern football players, and it specifically dealt with issues at a private university. Also, Kain Colter and CAPA have stressed that they didn't push for unionization in order to receive salaries. They have said they're looking for the right to bargain for their practice and living conditions and receive medical care protections, not to get paid.

Still, you'd have to think that eventually any college players' union would get around to asking for a bit more of the financial pie, and even some of the medical benefits the Northwestern effort seeks would cost money. There seems to be little reason why a non-revenue sport at Northwestern or another private school also couldn't petition for a union and use this ruling as a precedent, especially because those athletes also spend so much time working on their sports. And then what happens? It's clear that there are a whole lot more questions than answers right now on this union story, but it is fascinating.




Glenn K. from Leesburg, Fla., writes: Regarding your mention about Dan Wetzel's article revealing that Gene Smith received an $18K bonus for his victory (uh, I mean a wrestler's victory) in the NCAA wrestling championships, maybe you should rephrase your comment to read, "that tells you everything you need to know about OSU sports." In mentioning other examples of gross exploitation, Wetzel didn't name any other B1G school. Did Dave Joyner receive an extra bonus for having two national champions, as well as the team championship in wrestling? Are there other B1G schools whose AD gets similar bonuses? I would venture to say that there are probably bonus clauses in all of their contracts, as are also in coaching contracts. But I wonder if they are comparable to Smith's freebies that he gets for not doing one damn thing to earn it. Not to mention his obscene salary.

Brian Bennett: Glenn, I can assure you that these types of bonuses -- not just for championships but things like NCAA tournament berths and academic benchmarks -- are commonplace in athletic directors' contracts all across Division I. Smith is by no means alone when it comes to those bonuses, and as the CEO of one of the largest athletic departments in the country at Ohio State, his salary is commensurate with the demands and marketplace. I have absolutely no problem with Smith negotiating the very best deal he could get, just as any of us would do. But at a time when athletes are suing the NCAA over the use of their images for a video game, or when the cost-of-attendance stipend can't get passed, or when players are going so far as to unionize to protect their own rights, that bonus simply doesn't look good.




Kenny from Cincy writes: Almost baseball season, and your Cards are going down this year. I have a simple question, yes or no, because this seams to be the Big Ten's main question ... Is this Ohio State's year?

Brian Bennett: How dare you besmirch the birds on the bat. Vengeance will be swift. Anyway, I'm not quite sure what you mean by whether it's "their year" for the Buckeyes. I'm going to assume you mean a national championship, or at least a a College Football Playoff berth, because a Big Ten title isn't unexpected in Columbus (though it would actually be Urban Meyer's first). Ohio State has a lot of questions, which include four new starters on the offensive line, unproven backs and receivers and a defense that needs to make a major improvement without its two best players from 2013 (Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby). For me, those are too many questions to consider the Buckeyes a legitimate national title contender at this point. But as usual, they will have at least as much overall talent, if not more than everybody in the Big Ten. I trust in Meyer and his coaching staff. And having a great quarterback like Braxton Miller goes a long way. So I'm sure as heck not counting them out.




Arik from Chicago writes: I always find the back and forth on whether Maryland coming to the B1G is good for this side or that side, for this reason or that. Often the answer seems to come to this: The B1G gets a good market, Maryland gets a pile of money. I thought I'd share my thoughts as a double Terp (undergrad and grad school). Here's what won me over: the Big Ten Committee on Institutional Cooperation. As important as sports are to me, other than the money, the competition will probably stay about the same -- in the last decade, we've shown we're capable of beating or losing to just about any team at any time, no matter how good or bad a season either side is having. Now in academics, the B1G (with the CIC) has something unique that the ACC just can't offer. But the B1G wins, too -- bringing in a public ivy with huge research agreements with dozens of national and federal institutions (DoD, NOAA, NASA, FDA, NIST...) can't hurt.

Brian Bennett: Arik, you make some good points about the academic side of things here. Adding Maryland and Rutgers to the mix only adds to the league's brain power, and administrators from those schools are excited about the new research opportunities. Of course, football and demographics drove the train with this expansion move, or else the Big Ten would have been looking to raid the actual Ivy League, not the Atlantic Coast and American Athletic conferences.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
12:00
PM ET
Eyes closed, head first, can't lose.

Big Ten makes progress in diversity

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
9:00
AM ET
The Big Ten likes to consider itself a leader on many fronts in college sports. Several Big Ten schools were among the first to integrate their football programs, and the first two African-American head football coaches in a major conference called the league home.

But for much of this century, when it came to football coaching diversity, the Big Ten lagged behind the rest of the nation.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithPenn State's decision to hire James Franklin as its first African-American head football coach can't be underestimated.
After the third African-American head coach in league history -- Michigan State's Bobby Williams -- was fired late in the 2002 season, the conference went a decade without another black head football coach. The Big Ten was the only one of the six BCS AQ conferences that did not have at least one African-American head coach during that span; the SEC, by contrast, had four in the same time frame.

Thankfully, things have begun to improve. Two of the last three head coaches hired in the Big Ten -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Penn State's James Franklin -- are African-American.

"That's great news, to have that diversity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Now we just need to give them time and let them be successful where they are and develop their programs. I'm glad there is progress, and we need to continue to do more across the country."

There weren't a lot of opportunities, period, for head coaching jobs in the Big Ten during the recent diversity drought, as schools like Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State remained mostly stable at the top. But coaching turnover has increased in the league in the past few years; Penn State, for instance, just hired its second coach in three years after going nearly a half-century without a transition.

Was improving diversity a league-wide priority? Conference officials say no.

"What our schools try to do is hire the best coaches in their pool," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've had plenty of African-American basketball coaches.

"It's more about a commitment to opportunity and a fair process, and as long as our people are hiring the best people in processes that are open, you would hope and think that it would be sort of a broad representation of people. Whether you hire James Franklin or a new coach at any place, I'm not sure race should be the factor. Certainly people wouldn't want it to be a factor. It's really an outcome."

Still, it's hard not to note the importance of Penn State hiring its first African-American head football coach. More so than Dennis Green or Francis Peay at Northwestern or even Williams at Michigan State, Franklin is leading a flagship, blue-blood program. The timing was fortuitous, as the Pennsylvania native was ready for a new challenge after proving himself at Vanderbilt and the Nittany Lions needed a dynamic new leader.

“It’s a lot of significance," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "We hired James because of the kind of person and coach he is. The fact he’s African American is great. It’s a great testimony to opportunity. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in this country."

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP Photo/Ting Shen/Triple Play New MediaBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany said the hiring process should be fair and a commitment to opportunity for all coaches.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports hasn't yet released its annual hiring report card for college football. But Richard Lapchick, the center's director, said the Big Ten's recent moves are "definitely a sign of progress." While there are only 11 FBS black head coaches heading into the 2014 season, it's noteworthy that minorities have gotten opportunities to lead storied programs like Penn State and Texas (Charlie Strong), Lapchick said.

"That's critically important," he said. "Historically, the opportunities in general that have gone to African-American coaches have been at programs that have been really down, and the opportunities to turn them around have been very problematic. Let's hope [Hazell and Franklin] are successful, because they will help create more opportunities for other African-American and Latino coaches in FBS conferences."

The next step for the Big Ten is to continue to develop and identify the next wave of minority head coaching candidates. Both Franklin and Hazell, who led Kent State for two seasons before Purdue hired him, had already established themselves as winning head coaches elsewhere, though Hazell was also a well-regarded assistant at Ohio State. The Big Ten sent several African-American assistant coaches to the annual minority coaches' forum between 2006 and 2010, and some athletic directors see it as their job to mentor young black coaches.

Smith saw Everett Withers leave the Buckeyes staff this winter to land the James Madison head coaching job and said he is spending time this offseason with running backs coach Stan Drayton to get Drayton accustomed to non-football issues like university budgets and policies.

"We want to have guys who are trained to hopefully win in the interview process," Smith said. "Sometimes, those are beauty contests. You've got to be able to answer the questions the right way and demonstrate an ability to lead."

That's the ultimate goal, to have more minority candidates who are ready when those opportunities do arise. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that wasn't the case a few years ago, but the pool of potential coaches is increasing.

"We’re starting to see more and more diversity among the coaching staffs and up-and-coming diverse candidates in all various positions in the sport," Brandon said. "Now, we're seeing more representation at the head coaching level. That was bound to happen and important to have happen, and I'm glad to see that trend evolve."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
4:30
PM ET
Wishing you a great weekend. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox …

Jeremy from the South Carolina Cornfields writes: It has been interesting seeing the opinions of some new member fans from Rutgers and Maryland. What I found most interesting is which teams those fans seemed to fear/respect the most. Nearly all give credit to OSU and rightfully so. But I am surprised to see less concern about facing Wisconsin, Nebraska, and even Michigan State to a degree. However both Michigan and Penn State seem to garner more respect. Both have great name recognition, but both are also a shade of their former glory. Do you think that fan perception really is that regional and possibly outdated as a result?

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsAre the fans of new B1G members Rutgers and Maryland overlooking Mark Dantonio and MSU?
Adam Rittenberg: Whether it's fan perception or media perception, a lot of it is outdated, Jeremy. It's why historic powers like Notre Dame and Michigan often appear in polls when they shouldn't. People are used to certain things in the sport, even when recent history has shown otherwise. Wisconsin certainly has the respect of most college football fans, even those outside the Big Ten. But the Badgers would have helped themselves by winning at least one Rose Bowl between 2010-12.

Nebraska is more like Michigan and Penn State as a historic power, but the Huskers have been down, at least by their standards, for longer than both programs. Michigan and Penn State both have made multiple BCS bowls in the past decade, while Nebraska's last came during the 2001 season. That's a long time. Michigan State undoubtedly helped its perception by winning the Rose Bowl. The Spartans now must follow it up with another strong season (would be fourth in five years under Mark Dantonio).




Desert Husker from Tucson, Ariz., writes: ESPN has had a lot of press on the drop in student sections at football games. I'm curious what your thoughts are on the role of television in this drop? Think about it for a moment. Now every game is carried on TV. And with that came some of the changes: variable kickoff times (morning kickoffs, late kickoffs), weekday games, no more PPV.

Adam Rittenberg: It might not be as significant as ticket prices and schedules, but TV definitely plays a role, Husker. Fans have access to everything, and they want to be as tuned in at games as they can be at home. That's the challenge for schools. The days of simply reading out-of-town scores are over. More schools are showing live cut-ins or highlights of other games on the video board. But's it's a challenge. As Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told me, "They've got every picture right there. We have to respond to those times."




Steve from Boston writes: Adam, Do you feel that [Kain] Colter is bitter about his experience at Northwestern? Wasn't he taken care of medically while he was injured? Not to mention, he ultimately made the choices he did to not go into pre-med classes, while still getting a degree from a highly esteemed university. I feel like he is upset about something else which is driving this unionization of players.

Adam Rittenberg: It's a bit puzzling, Steve, because Colter consistently has said that he had a great experience at Northwestern and harbors no ill will toward the program. I think he's under a lot of pressure to expose the problems of the system, and he's trying to paint his own experience -- one that was largely positive -- in a somewhat negative light. His testimony shocked a lot of folks in Evanston who had seem him blossom as a player.




Steve from Nebraska: What are your thoughts on parody twitter accounts involving college coaches and players? For example @FauxPelini. His tweets are hilarious but sometimes cross the line. Another example is @NotMarkWeisman, who is popular among Iowa fans. Are these fake twitter accounts just for fun or are they becoming out of hand?

Adam Rittenberg: Is this baseball pitching phenom Steve Nebraska? Someone call Albert Brooks. … I'm a huge fan of @FauxPelini. He's the best in the Twitter parody business, and it's not really close. When the real Bo Pelini acknowledged Faux during the national title game, it made my night. But I agree many of the parody accounts cross the line. I've had to unfollow a few that became too lewd with their comments. I prefer the coach parody accounts to the player ones because the coaches are older, in power positions and usually hear a lot worse criticism.




Paul from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., writes: With regard to the diminishing student fan base in the B1G, should the ADs reconsider the "after Thanksgiving" game? It was instituted just two or three years ago so that BCS voters wouldn't lose sight of the conference as they were dormant that weekend and the other conferences were playing. Now with the playoff with its selection committee is in place and with the B1G having their own championship game on the same weekend as the other conferences, that concern has to be somewhat diminished. Does it not? Scheduling the regular season to end the weekend before Thanksgiving not only alleviates the inconvenience for the students who now have to return early to school, but would allow for the scheduling of a game earlier in the year.

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Paul, but you're not going to see all of college football move up the start date a week just so the Big Ten can wrap up before Thanksgiving. I definitely agree the relevancy argument isn't as strong with the championship game in place. One concern is having a bye week for each team, which can be hard if the season starts in early September and must wrap up before Thanksgiving. Most Big Ten schools had no bye week in 2009. While no one likes the double-byes, coaches want to have one off week so players can rest. Is it possible to go back to the old way? Sure. But I don't see it happening.
Four years ago, the Big Ten clarified its November night games policy, saying that while a contractual provision exists between the league and its TV partners about prime-time games after Nov. 1, the games can take place if all parties are on board and planning begins early.

The message back then: We can do this, but we probably won't any time soon.

Last year, Big Ten coaches and administrators expressed greater support for night games, including those in November. League commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com he wouldn't stand in the way of such games.

[+] EnlargeGene Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsIf the matchups are right, Ohio State AD Gene Smith is open to November night games in the Big Ten.
But when the Big Ten prime-time schedule came out for the 2013 season, it included no night games after Nov. 1.

Will 2014 be the year we see Big Ten football kick off under the lights after Nov. 1?

We won't know for sure until ESPN/ABC and BTN announce their prime-time schedules this spring, but there's momentum for more night games and later night games, and talks are underway.

"We're more amendable to that first November Saturday," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently told ESPN.com, "and I think some of us will be willing to look at that second Saturday in November if the contest is right."

Weather is still a potential deterrent for Big Ten schools to schedule night games later in the season, as it creates possible logistical problems for all involved (fans, game operations staff, police/security). But the temperature difference between late October and the first portion of November often is negligible.

The 2014 season includes Saturdays on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.

Here are the schedules:

Nov. 1

Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska

Byes: Minnesota, Michigan State

Nov. 8

Penn State at Indiana
Michigan at Northwestern
Ohio State at Michigan State
Iowa at Minnesota
Wisconsin at Purdue

Byes: Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska

The bad news: The Nov. 1 schedule doesn't feature too many big-time games, which could decrease the likelihood of a prime-time contest, especially on ESPN/ABC.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Stadium
AP Photo/The Ann Arbor NewsMichigan likes for its night games to be major events, which could rule the Wolverines out for an early-November game under the lights in 2014.
The good news: Several of the schools hosting games that day are among the most open in the league to hosting night games. Penn State and Nebraska welcome such contests -- in part because of their pre-Big Ten history -- and Ohio State, which is installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium for the 2014 season, has become increasingly interested. Rutgers comes from a league where you played whenever TV asked you to, and a night game against a good opponent like Wisconsin would bring some nice exposure for one of the new Big Ten additions.

Michigan wants its night games to be major events, and facing Indiana doesn't exactly qualify. Iowa hosting Northwestern is a possibility, especially since the Hawkeyes play only one other home game (Oct. 11 against Indiana) between Sept. 15 and Nov. 1.

The Nov. 8 schedule includes arguably the Big Ten's marquee game of the year in Ohio State visiting Michigan State, a rematch of the 2013 league championship. I'd absolutely love to see this at night, and what a way to kick off November prime time in the league. It's definitely a possibility, but the game also could fill the 3:30 p.m. ET window, which many Big Ten athletic directors prefer (Purdue's Morgan Burke recently called it "the sweet spot").

The Penn State-Indiana game is another potential prime-time kickoff, mainly because Indiana has been so open to night games (six in the past two seasons, nine since the 2010 season).

"We've probably had more night games than most of our colleagues in the conference," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We think it's a good thing for us, it helps our attendance. We're certainly open to that, and my guess is that will be more of a trend."

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas echoes the support for night games, noting that several Big Ten ADs and coaches previously spent time in the Mid-American Conference, where playing at night and on weekdays, especially late in the season, is common.

"We experienced all of that in our past lives," said Thomas, who served as Akron's athletic director from 2000-05. "We talk about the opportunities for the prime-time windows and where we are as individual schools and as a conference in having that kind of exposure.

"I would certainly support it."

Many of Thomas' colleagues seem to be on board. Smith said the athletic directors last week spoke about moving up the timetable for prime-time selections so they can begin promoting games. Prime-time schedules typically have been announced between April 20 and May 15.

"We're putting in lights because we've realized that we can handle night games," Smith said. "In 2006, we were a little bit skittish about it. We know our fans love it, so we've shared with the conference that we're amenable to having more. There's a novelty to it. That helps us with our atmosphere.

"It makes things really exciting."
It's not surprising that Big Ten athletic directors spent part of their meeting last week discussing football attendance, a growing concern despite the sport's surging popularity.

The real surprise: How much the ADs focused on a group whose devotion to gamedays rarely is questioned. They're the folks with the shortest commute to stadiums, discounted tickets and the most direct connection to the team on the field. And yet they're showing up less and less, even in regions where football resonates the most.

[+] EnlargeNittanyVIlle
Josh Moyer/ESPN.comThe Penn State student body camps out before games in an area known as "Nittanyville."
"How many stories were written this fall about student attendance?" Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas asked during a recent interview. "Even SEC schools like Alabama, we're talking about a drop in attendance. In 2012 and 2013, that was the difference for us, our student numbers.

"How do you get the students engaged?"

It's a question Big Ten athletic departments are asking, whether their schools are seeing tangible drop-offs in student attendance or maintaining strong Saturday turnouts.

"That's your next generation of ticket buyers," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said, "so you better be paying attention."

Some Big Ten student sections have as much tradition as the teams for whom they cheer. The Block I at Illinois just completed its 103rd season. The Block "O" at Ohio State celebrated its 75th anniversary this past fall. Penn State's Nittanyville often is rated as the nation's No. 1 student section.

But almost every Big Ten school is examining how to get students to show up for games and stay until the end. Images like this and this and this have become more common. Iowa reduced its student section size by two sections last fall after sales dropped and no-shows rose.

Some challenges are local, whether it's ticket prices at Illinois or early kickoffs at Nebraska or pricing and seating structure at Michigan or tailgating space at Minnesota. But there are common issues that are getting attention, particularly from the league's newly established football gameday experience subcommittee.

"For students, something like Skull Session at Ohio State or the Tunnel Walk at Nebraska or a Whiteout at Penn State, you're never going to be able to replicate that anywhere but the game," said Big Ten associate director Kerry Kenny, the liaison to the committee. "Those types of things obviously help drive attendance and keep people interested in coming back, but it's that other piece, of how to make that experience a total immersion in the game."

Technology is part of that piece, and Big Ten schools are either implementing or exploring total stadium Wi-Fi and cellular service upgrades. Students are avid social-media users, and many would benefit from stronger in-stadium coverage.

Jake Bradley, director of football operations for the Block "O", said it's nearly impossible to communicate between the two student areas at Ohio Stadium -- at the North and South ends of the facility -- because cell service is poor. While improved coverage would be nice, Big Ten student section leaders don't think upgrades would have a dramatic effect on turnout.

"Being able to text and get on Instagram in the stadium is very difficult," said Kurt Hansen, who oversees the Block I at Illinois football games. "There are so many people on their phones. But do I think it makes that big of a deal? No."

The bigger issue at Illinois, aside from the team's on-field struggles, is the pricing structure. There's no difference between standard student tickets and Block I tickets. Because the Block I charges an additional fee for the perks it provides for students, the overall cost becomes higher.

[+] EnlargeGallon & Gardner
AP Photo/Tony DingMichigan has had some difficulty with student attendance in the past couple of years.
Prices also have been an issue at Michigan, which switched from seniority-based seating to general admission seating last season in response to declining student attendance (26 percent absences in the 2012 season) and late arrivals.

Early kickoff times also present a challenge in the Big Ten, especially for schools located in the Central time zone. Although Wisconsin hasn't had a decline in student attendance, according to associate athletic director Justin Doherty, it's typically a late-arriving crowd.

Steve Dosskey, president of the Iron N student section at Nebraska, said students often don't filter in until 15-20 minutes after kickoff because they're at off-campus tailgates. (Nebraska's campus is dry.)

"People usually get there, but we have a difficult time filling up the student section by kickoff," Dosskey said. "Naturally, we're going to have better attendance for the [2:30 p.m.] and for the prime-time games."

Purdue used to spend half the season in the Central time zone, and Burke admits, "I feel for the schools that have 11 o'clock kicks. That's really hard."

Tailgating opportunities are very much on students' radar. Minnesota provided a new tailgating area for students before the 2013 season, and the Block I holds tailgates before each home game.

"Let's face it: Most college facilities don’t sell alcohol," Thomas said. "Do you lose kids because they'd rather go down to the local bar and hang out with their friends? That does affect some of us to some extent, but [selling alcohol is] not a place we're considering going."

One place more Big Ten schools seem to be going is more attractive nonconference schedules, which could boost student turnout.

Nittanyville president Brian Sanvido saw more empty seats for a September game against Eastern Michigan. Greg Licht of Iowa's Hawk's Nest noted that sweltering heat and an FCS opponent (Missouri State) kept students away for a Week 2 game.

"The tailgate scene in Iowa City is pretty prevalent," Licht said. "If there isn't a big-name opponent or students don't have a reason to see the opponent, they'll stay outside."

The Big Ten still has plenty of places where attending football games is woven into student culture. Penn State students take great pride in Nittanyville's ratings, camping out before games and filling the stands behind one end zone.

"You feel like you've affected the game," Sanvido said. "Students latch on."

But not as much as they used to, so Big Ten leaders are paying attention.

"There's so many options for our young people," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "The demographic is changing; their interests are changing. We have to respond."
The Big Ten's combination of big stadiums, big fan bases and big tradition has historically made football attendance a rather small issue.

America's two largest football venues -- Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium -- sit on Big Ten campuses, and three of the seven football stadiums with six-figure capacities are in the league (Ohio Stadium is the other). Michigan has led the nation in college football attendance for the past 15 years, and the Big Ten occupied three of the top five spots and seven of the top 23 spots in attendance average for the 2013 season.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesOhio State averaged 104,933 fans at its seven home games in 2013, which ranked No. 2 in that nation behind Michigan.
The Big Ten in 2013 set records for total attendance (6,127,526) and attendance for league games (3,414,448), and ranked second behind the SEC in average attendance per game (70,431), a slight increase from 2012.

So what's the B1G deal? Eight of the 12 league programs saw a decline in average attendance last season. Some have seen numbers drop for several years. Student-section attendance is a growing concern, and the Big Ten is tracking the troubling national attendance trends.

"We've been blessed because we haven't been hit with the significant drop-off that many other conferences and schools have experienced," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "However, we've seen it in certain games, or in not necessarily ticket sales but people actually coming to games.

"So we're concerned."

The league is taking a proactive approach, starting last season with the formation of a football game-day experience subcommittee, which Smith chairs. The committee in August announced that Big Ten schools would be allowed to show an unlimited number of replays on video boards at any speed. Schools previously could show one replay at no less than 75 percent of real-time speed.

The move drew positive reviews from fans and no major complaints from game officials.

"If people can see the replay at home on TV, you can't give them a lesser experience in the stands," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.

A "more robust" replay approach is on the way for 2014, and Big Ten leaders are looking at other ways to bolster the stadium experience, which, as Burke noted, seems to have reached a tipping point with the couch experience.

Here are some areas of focus:

Cellular and Wi-Fi Connections

In August, the subcommittee encouraged each Big Ten school to explore full Wi-Fi in stadiums as well as Distributed Antenna System (DAS) coverage to enhance cell-phone functionality. A fan base immersed in smartphones, social media and staying connected demands it.

"Everybody realizes improvements have to be made," said Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee. "People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren’t there but are watching."

Penn State installed Wi-Fi throughout Beaver Stadium in 2012 but is the only Big Ten school to have complete access. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said he hopes to have total Wi-Fi in the school's football stadium by the fall, if not the 2015 season. Nebraska's regents last month approved a $12.3 million Wi-Fi project for its stadium, and Wisconsin hopes to have full stadium Wi-Fi this season.

Most schools are focused on boosting cell service, which is more feasible and widespread. Ohio State installed more than 200 antennas in Ohio Stadium to improve cell service. For complete Wi-Fi, it would need about 1,200 antennas.

"We don't know what the cost is, but we know it's somewhere north of seven figures," Smith said. "We're studying it, as are my colleagues in the Big Ten."

Student attendance

Student sections aren't nearly as full as they used to be on Saturdays, both in the Big Ten and in the nation. ADs are well aware of the downturn and have tried different approaches to boost attendance.

Michigan in 2013 implemented a general admission policy, hoping to get more students to show up early, but reviews weren't favorable. Minnesota provided a new student tailgating area and better ticket packages. Illinois held a clinic for international students, who have told Thomas they'd come to games if they knew more about football.

The technology component resonates for students. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told CBSsports.com that many students didn't show up for a 2012 game against Iowa because they couldn't send text messages in the rain.

Even if Ohio State doesn't install complete Wi-Fi at The Shoe, it could do so for the student section.

"Our surveys show that less than 25 percent of the crowd actually uses their cellular device [during games]," Smith said, "but of that 25 percent, a supermajority are students. You want to be able to provide that access."

In-Game Entertainment

Everybody realizes improvements have to be made. People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren't there but are watching.

Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee, on Wi-Fi in stadiums.
The days of public-address announcers listing scores from other games during timeouts are over. Schools want to give fans a broader view on Saturdays, whether it's putting live feeds of other games on video boards or replaying highlights shortly after they happen.

"I was at a game at Purdue this year," Kenny said, "and they showed a highlight of a touchdown in the Wisconsin-Iowa game within a couple minutes of that touchdown being scored."

Added Thomas: "If you're watching ESPN or watching a game at home, those are the kinds of experiences you should give people in your venue."

Big Ten athletic directors and football coaches last week discussed having more locker-room video or behind-the-scenes content that can be shown only within the stadium.

"You're in an era where people want to know what's it like before the game, after the game," Burke said. "It humanizes us if people see that side, the highs and the lows."

Burke likens Purdue's sideline to a "Hollywood production," as the band director, a disc jockey and a show producer coordinate in-game music on headsets. Several schools post tweets from fans at games on video boards to create a more interactive experience.

Ticketing and timing

Last month, Penn State became the latest Big Ten school to adopt variable ticket pricing for single games, acknowledging, "We have been listening to our fans." Attendance has dropped 11.2 percent from 2007 to 2012, while frustration has grown with the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) program.

Big Ten schools are getting more creative with ticket plans in response to attendance concerns. Northwestern last season implemented a modified "Dutch auction" system where a portion of tickets were sold based on adjusted price demand rather than set prices.

Purdue last fall introduced mobile ticket delivery, which allows fans to download tickets directly to their devices.

Kickoff times are another attendance indicator, as Big Ten schools located in the central time zone often struggle to fill the stands for 11 a.m. games. The Big Ten gradually has increased its number of prime-time games, and while Burke considers mid-afternoon games ideal, more night kickoffs likely are on the way, including those in early November.

Ohio State is in the process of installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium.

"I'm a big fan of evening games," Thomas said.

As attendance becomes a bigger issue, the Big Ten and its members have surveyed fans about what they want at games. Wisconsin last fall established a 25-member fan advisory council, with two students. The school has received feedback about concessions, parking and whether fans would prefer digital programs rather than the traditional magazine-style ones.

"So much of it is when somebody comes to your venue," said Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's associate athletic director for external relations, "they have an experience that makes them want to come back."

Big Ten's lunch links

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
12:00
PM ET
The lunch links: Snapping the ball over your head since 2008.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
12:00
PM ET
Anybody up for a little fish fry?
  • Former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons is apparently not facing charges for the incident that seems to have led to his expulsion from the school.
  • The Wolverines have seen some of their recruiting momentum slip away. Could Michigan State capitalize on that given its strong finish on the field last season?
  • Ohio State has found itself a new president, and he was a popular guy with at least one coach during his stint at UC-Irvine.
  • The Buckeyes are keeping their current athletic director around for a while, and Doug Lesmerises takes a look at the contract extension signed by Gene Smith.
  • Former Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson has picked his next school, and he'll be staying in the Big Ten as he heads to Rutgers.
  • Should likely defensive coordinator Joe Rossi be judged for the performance of the Scarlet Knights in the bowl game against Notre Dame?
  • Iowa has fired an athletic department employee over missing funds from ticket sales on the Hawkeye Express.
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has been on the job for a year, and he's crammed plenty into that relatively short timeframe.
  • Penn State's new passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach knows better players can make for better coaches, and Ricky Rahne is set to work with another talented signal caller in Christian Hackenberg.
  • A Madison-based company landed Russell Wilson for his first solo Super Bowl commercial, and it struck gold when the former Wisconsin quarterback actually led Seattle to the NFL championship game.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

College Football Minute
Devin Gardner will start for Michigan, an Ohio State fan gets tackled for a big loss, and Oklahoma's perfect record inside the 10-yard line. It's all ahead in the "College Football Minute."
VIDEO PLAYLIST video