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How Is A So-So Big Ten Rolling In Dough? It’s All About The Numbers

cash-wadYesterday we posted a note regarding the projected payouts for Big Ten schools this spring.  According to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, those payouts are expected to be north of the $25 million barrier.  It’s the first time that a conference has had so much wealth to share.

After posting said note, we received questions from three people — a comment and a pair of emails — asking how a mediocre football league is raking in so much cash when football is clearly the main revenue stream for conferences today.

That’s easy — Look at the numbers.

The Big Ten Network is a cash cow.  That much everyone knows.  It’s a 51/49 ownership split between the conference and FOX.  It currently stretches across the nation with serious penetration in the Midwest from Nebraska to Pennsylvania.  The additions of Rutgers and Maryland are expected by Big Ten leadership to increase the channel’s cable/satellite penetration into Maryland, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at the number of top 30 television markets that can be found in the footprints of the Big Ten and the SEC.


Big Ten:  New York (#1) coming, Chicago (#3), Philadelphia (#4), Washington DC (#8) coming, Detroit (#11), Minneapolis/St. Paul (#15), Cleveland/Akron/Canton (#18), St. Louis (#21), Pittsburgh (#23), Indianapolis (#26), Baltimore (#27) coming

SEC:  Dallas/Ft. Worth (#5), Atlanta (#9), Houston (#10), Tampa/St. Petersburgh (#14), Miami/Ft. Lauderdale (#16), Orlando/Daytona/Melbourne (#19), St. Louis (#21), Nashville (#29)


First, yes, we credited St. Louis to both camps because the city sits on the border between Missouri and Illinois.  Second, it’s obvious that the Big Ten is home to more big cities.  Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has referenced on numerous occasions the fact that people in the Rust Belt are currently moving to the Sun Belt — which led his league to expand again — but for now his conference reaches a whole lot of people in some of America’s biggest cities.

Ya know another reason the Big Ten gets such good television contracts for what’s currently a so-so product?  Interest.

Think of it like this — Harvard might not be a big school with big athletics, but you can bet its graduates care about Crimson athletics.  Now consider just how big the schools of the Big Ten are (again, with the SEC used as a comparison).

The following enrollment statistics are from 2012:


  Big Ten Enrollment   SEC Enrollment
  Ohio State (56,867)   Texas A&M (50,230)
  Minnesota (52,557)   Florida (49,589)
  Michigan State (47,825)   Georgia (34,816)
  Penn State (45,628)   Missouri (33,762)
  Illinois (44,407)   Alabama (31,647)
  Indiana (42,731)   South Carolina (30,721)
  Michigan (42,716)   Tennessee (30,194)
  Wisconsin (41,946)   LSU (29,718)
  Purdue (40,849)   Kentucky (27,226)
  Rutgers (39,950)   Auburn (25,469)
  Maryland (37,632)   Arkansas (23,199)
  Iowa (29,810)   Mississippi State (20,424)
  Nebraska (24,593)   Mississippi (18,224)
  Northwestern (20,959)   Vanderbilt (12,836)


It’s not hard to spot the differences between those two lists.  The Big Ten footprint might be losing population, but for now, its schools are cranking out graduates at an unparalleled pace.  In 2012, the current and future Big Ten schools had a total enrollment of 568,460 students.  In the same year, the SEC schools had 418,055 students on campus.  That’s about 150,000 more Big Ten fans cranked out per year than SEC fans.  Over a decade that’s 1.5 million more fans.

Now, the SEC plays better football — attracting national eyeballs — and its fans are fiercely loyal.  That’s how Mike Slive and company keep cutting brain-melting television deals.

But whether Big Ten football is up or down in a given year, there are simply more Big Ten grads and alums running around to follow that conference.  Homestate U. may stink and its conference may be weak, but someone who went to Homestate U. will still tune into his alma mater’s games on television.  That’s how Delany and company keep cutting their own wallet-fattening television contracts.

The quality of football in the SEC allows it to make a ton of cash.  The sheer size of the Big Ten — its schools’ enrollment numbers and its cities’ populations — allow that league to bring in monster bucks.

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