The Big Ten enters a new, 14-team era in 2014. The conference, with a fair bit of cynicism, opted for lucrative television markets with Maryland and Rutgers over football prowess (66th and 93rd in SRS respectively). These additions will only dilute the Big Ten’s underwhelming conference schedules further. Paired with soft non-conference schedules optimized for ease and home revenue, Big Ten teams are offering no reason beyond blind loyalty for their fans to buy season tickets.
Big Ten home slates for 2014 are bleak. We bolded games against marquee conference opponents for next year (Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin) and against big name BCS conference teams. Six teams had either one or no such game on the schedule.
Illinois: Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State
Indiana: Indiana State, Maryland, North Texas, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue
Michigan: Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Utah, Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana, Maryland
Minnesota: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee, San Jose State, Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State
Nebraska: Florida Atlantic, McNeese State, Miami (Florida), Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota
Wisconsin: Western Illinois, Bowling Green, South Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota
Michigan’s best home game in 2014 is … Utah. There is not one game worthy of marking up the pricing. Michigan State has Michigan and … yawn. Their second best game is Minnesota. Nebraska fans may feel fortunate the team scheduled Miami. Wisconsin fans will hope Nebraska is competent next year.
A further six Big Ten teams will spoil fans with not one but two marquee pairings.
Iowa: Northern Iowa, Ball State, Iowa State, Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska
Maryland: James Madison, West Virginia, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Rutgers
Ohio State: Virginia Tech, Kent State, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan
Penn State: Akron, UMass, Northwestern, Ohio State, Maryland, Temple, Michigan State
Purdue: Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Southern Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Northwestern
Rutgers: Howard, Penn State, Tulane, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana
Iowa hosts Wisconsin and Nebraska, after fans warm up with Northern Iowa, Ball State, Iowa State, Indiana and Northwestern. Ohio State has two home games in danger of being competitive.
The two schools that offer three marquee opponents are Michigan State and Northwestern.
Michigan State: Jacksonville State, Wyoming, Eastern
Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, Rutgers
Northwestern: California, Northern Illinois, Western Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois
But, lest you get too excited, Northwestern balances that extravagance by charging you for Cal (0-11 vs. FBS in 2012) and three games against teams from Illinois. Michigan State balanced with three cupcakes.
Fan apathy has become an issue in college sports, even at the biggest and most successful programs. Too often, this problem is attributed to the character and fickleness of fans, rather than the product offered on the field. Teams in the Big Ten and elsewhere have chased TV revenue, gate revenue and individual bowl bonuses, while viewing fan support as a given. They are coasting on loyalty and tradition, while offering a spectacle woefully ill-prepared for a rational entertainment marketplace.
Cynicism is bred by exploitation. Empty crowd shots may be rife at Big Ten stadiums next year. It’s not because of smartphones or PS4s. It’s because a vast swath of games, far more than 20 or even 10 years ago, suck. Hope the Big Ten network checks are worth it.
[Photo via USA Today Sports]