South of the border, American College Football is winding down its regular season with upcoming primary rivalry games and conference championships scheduled for the first week in December. Over the next five weeks, 70 teams will be playing in 35 bowl games scattered mostly throughout the warmer climates of the southern states. Wouldn’t it be great if the University of Toronto Varsity Blues could participate? Perhaps they can.
The primary topic of discussion during the 2010 American College Football offseason concerned the expansion of the NCAA’s Big Ten and its implications for all of the other conferences. The Big Ten is America’s premier Division I organization as measured by attendance, athletic revenues, and academic standards (the Southeastern Conference is currently the best performer on the football field).The Big Ten is incongruously named as it has 11 members, soon to be 12. The conference moves very deliberately and prospective members must pass many tests to be accepted into the group. They must be a “good fit” with membership intended to be permanent.Only one school, the University of Chicago, has left since the founding of the conference in 1896 and that was 64 years ago. Only three schools have been added since then.The “good fit” has been described as excellence in academics, including membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, contiguous borders with the existing geographic footprint, and competitive athletic programs.A new member school should be similar to the current membership — a large flagship public university with an enrollment between 20,000 and 50,000. Ideally, the school’s team will command an army of television sets, as the new school should be accretive to conference coffers.The Big Ten Network has been a smashing success and is one of the reasons that expansion is being studied.If the right schools are added, the quality of content on the network will improve and cable TV companies will subscribe to the service at elevated fees in the new Big Ten territory. The whole experience can be improved while increasing each school’s annual TV payout over an already staggering $22 million each; the conference divides all TV revenues equally between the schools.The Big Ten indicated that its expansion study would address adding “at least” one school and perhaps several more. Many prognosticators forecast an ultimate super-conference of 16 schools.This past summer, the conference added the University of Nebraska beginning in the 2011–2012 academic year. The Cornhuskers are a powerhouse franchise with the nation’s largest contingent of traveling fans. What they do not add in TV sets (Nebraska is thinly populated) they make up for in cachet — improving the content of the BTN and filling all of the stadiums they will visit during the football season. They also became the 12th team, which enabled the Big Ten to move to a two-division system with a lucrative championship game.
The primary object of the Big Ten’s expansion desire was the University of Notre Dame. However, it did not meet several of the tests described above; it is a small private school and does not belong to the AAU. But bringing the Irish on board would be a home run for the conference.Notre Dame, which rests right in the heart of the conference map, has a national following among Catholics, many residing in major population centers, and is the only team in the sport with its own national TV contract. The Irish continually insist that they intend to remain independent in football, but developments in the sport suggest that the storied school may be joining the Big Ten mid-decade. Notre Dame’s $15 million national TV contract with NBC pays less than the Big Ten’s $22 million payout to each member.Scheduling is getting much more difficult for Notre Dame as most teams are only playing within their conference during October and November. Finally, a playoff system may be devised whereby seeding is based upon winning one’s conference. The Irish do not want to be left standing when the music stops. It is likely that they will eventually join the Big Ten — probably after their TV contract with NBC expires in 2015.This is where the Varsity Blues come in. They would fit into the Big Ten like a glove.The University of Toronto boasts an enrollment of 45,000 students, is one of two Canadian members of the AAU and is a flagship institution in Ontario. The Varsity Blues would effectively add the province, if not all of Canada, to Big Ten Network territory, and would be natural rivals to several nearby programs including Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State.The ties that make intercollegiate athletics so compelling suggest that the Varsity Blues would be a great addition to North America’s premier collegiate athletic organization. The school has a storied tradition on the gridiron as well as the hockey rink.Granted, the football Blue and White have not impressed for a generation. This change in paradigm may be just what is needed to bring back their championship-caliber program. It would be a great opportunity for the program to step up. It would benefit all of the school’s 26 sports and expand their competitive horizons.There is already a roadmap in place for schools to move up divisions. The University of Connecticut moved from Division II to Division I in 2000 and enjoyed a winning record by its fourth season. It was bowl bound its fifth year and has played in bowl games the past three seasons.The NCAA, the governing body, currently offers Canadian schools a path into Division II. Big Ten sponsorship could likely do the same with Division I. Count on a four or five year transition.What‘s the downside? What would the Varsity Blues necessarily give up? Two words: Canadian Football, which they have been playing at the U of T since the 19th century.For purists, this may seem like quite a sacrifice. Would the transition to American Football be worth it?From a fan perspective — as measured by attendance and TV viewership — it’s no contest. Varsity Centre holds 5,000 fans, though they did not once fill the house in 2010. In fact, The Blues typically drew less than 2,000 fans. This is not big time football.The Big Ten is as large as it gets in collegiate athletics. Essentially, each game is televised and the average attendance is over 70,000. If the hometown Varsity Blues simply matched the visiting Buffalo Bills Rogers Centre attendance from early November, they’d bring in about 50,000 fans per game, roughly the same as Big Ten members Purdue and Minnesota and ahead of Indiana and Northwestern.The Big Ten season would run for 13 weeks, with 12 games played beginning the first week of September. The Rogers Centre with 54,000 seats would become the home field and would often be full with the likes of the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes coming to town.Hockey would be moved to Ricoh Coliseum (capacity 8,140) to accommodate larger crowds to see Big Ten games. The Big Ten is contemplating adding hockey as a sport, again, pursuant to BTN programming.Five conference schools currently play in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and Penn State is adding the sport. If two more hockey teams were added, for eight total, it would likely be added as a conference sport.If hockey is not added to the Big Ten, the Varsity Blues hockey team could take membership in the CCHA. The basketball team would move its home to Varsity Arena, until they outgrow it.What, then, is the suggestion? That the 12-team Big Ten will simply add the University of Toronto for a baker’s dozen?No — I expect the Big Ten will add teams two at a time. Toronto and Notre Dame could both be added for 2016 or 2017, which would give the Varsity Blues the opportunity to transition in. It would give the Irish the chance to wind up their contract with NBC and fully honor their schedules, which are largely set through 2016.