By Chris Emma-
ROSEMONT, Ill. (CBS) — In a dapper display throughout the Big Ten’s swanky Rosemont offices, the conference’s new direction is unmistakable.
The hallways are coated with décor of the Big Ten’s 12 Midwest members and then plenty more for the two newest additions, Maryland and Rutgers.
“M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D, Rutgers will win!” is plastered on one wall. “R-U Rah, Rah, Rutgers Rah!” greets visitors near the building’s entrance.
The Big Ten and its Midwestern roots are committed to building a presence on the Eastern Corridor.
“If you look at who we are now, we’re a conference that’s in two regions,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said to several reporters Wednesday.
Added Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, “We want the East Coast now to be aware of what the Big Ten is, and vice versa.”
But is the East Coast ready to embrace its new tenants?
Maryland provides little reason for excitement, with just one bowl appearance (Military Bowl … yawn) in football and zero NCAA Tournament berths in men’s basketball since 2010. Rutgers has been a total Big Ten embarrassment, led by insufferable athletic director Julie Hermann, whose rap sheet includes allegations of abuse as volleyball coach at Tennessee, verbal attacks on a local newspaper and telling Eric LeGrand not to deliver the university’s commencement speech.
Still in need of a little PR training, Hermann declined to speak with reporters in Rosemont.
The Big Ten’s two newcomers bring little sex appeal, and moving events to the East Coast — starting with the conference basketball tournament in 2017 — is a bummer for the conference’s Midwest fan base. You may remember, the Big Ten was once a central conference.
In reality, none of that really matters. The Big Ten’s current 12 members have 44.5 million reasons to be satisfied. That’s the number of dollars generated in the conference’s new distribution plan. It’s the reason why Delany made this shrewd move.
For a twist of irony, the Big Ten Network — the primary reason for eastern expansion — was once highly criticized by fans. It became the cash cow that’s driven the Big Ten to becoming the highest-grossing conference in college athletics.
Now, the new home in New Jersey and Maryland — or more importantly, New York City and Washington, D.C. — is frustrating fans rooted in the Midwest.
“Moving into the eastern corridor, that’s the new Big Ten,” Alvarez said. “We all have to accept it, and our fans have to accept it. We want to welcome our two new members in Rutgers and Maryland, and we want a presence in the East. We want to take advantage of us expanding into the East.”
Incredible revenue totals aside, there’s potentially great benefit from the Big Ten building a brand along the Atlantic coast. The hope is that a kid from Washington, D.C. or New York City would be more likely to attend school at Iowa or Nebraska. By extending the geographic footprint, this is more in the realm.
Since its foundation in 1896, the Big Ten has been the Midwest’s college conference. Now, it’s also the Eastern Corridor’s conference, too.
In welcoming Maryland and Rutgers to the fold, the Big Ten has higher priorities — establishing its brand to a new region.
“You got to go out there, you got to be active out there, and you got to flex your muscle out there,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. “Are you going to be a renter in that region, or are you going to be someone that takes ownership out there? We’re going to be aggressive.”
Added Delany: “The challenge is living in two regions. All the major conferences are doing it. Nobody has (executed) it before.”
Led by a bright, bold thinker in Delany, the Big Ten has planted its seeds along the Atlantic. Such a move is unprecedented in college athletics, and especially stunning considering the conference’s Midwestern roots.
Change is coming to the Big Ten, and it’s something the Midwest must embrace. Perhaps those on the East Coast will, too. Then the plan will have paid off.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmmaScout.