The Big Ten Gets Bigger

On Monday it was officially announced that the University of Maryland would be joining the Big Ten Conference, and it’s fully expected that Rutgers will make a similar announcement later today (NOTE: They just did). This is the second expansion of the Big Ten in just 2 years, with Nebraska joining in 2011, brining the total number of schools to 14 by 2014. From a branding perspective, this move could hurt the conference.

Before Nebraska, the last time the conference expanded was in 1993 when Penn State joined as the 11th member. Instead of becoming the Big 11, a simple logo design with a clever use of negative space was utilized to embrace the history of the Big Ten name, with a nod to the 11 members. The 2011 redesign ditched the acknowledgement of the actual number and stuck solely to a stylized ’10,’ resulting in the now common abbreviation ‘B1G.’ At the time it seemed silly and almost offensive. Silly because the previous logo had been such a shining example of ingenuity in design, sitting up there with the likes of FedEx on lists of great negative space and “once you see it…”. Offensive because while Penn State’s addition merited a numeral callout in the logo, new guys Nebraska got shunned and instead of embracing the 12, the logo reverted back to a 10. Offensive because while the 1993 logo was designed by a Big Ten student, the 2011 logo was shipped off to London, despite the wealth of talent in the Big Ten’s own universities, not to mention the emotional attachment of that talent to this project.

As surprised as most sports fans were at the recent announcements, it appears now that the higher-ups in the B1G may have known this day was coming sooner than later, resulting in a safer mark not tied directly to the actual number of B1G members. The logo isn’t changing, and neither is the name; the Big Ten will still be the Big Ten, math be damned. It’s a smart move, as the conference has a long history and incredible brand recognition. But a name and a logo are not the only elements of a brand, and the moves the B1G is making could hurt it just the same.

A little history: Formed in 1896 as the “Western Conference,” the Big Ten is the oldest Division I college athletic conference around. When founding member University of Chicago left in 1946, Michigan State was added in 1950, completing the core of the current Big 10 (yes, actually 10). These 10 universities reside in 7 Midwest states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The proximity of the conference members nurtured heated and storied rivalries that dominate the states themselves and the nation as a whole (see: Michigan/Ohio State).

The expansions into Pennsylvania and Nebraska proved controversial enough; when a two-division system for football was created in 2011, fans from all schools cried foul over the rivalry match-ups they risked losing. With the two new schools in Maryland and New Jersey, “B1G Country” now stretches west from the Atlantic Ocean across over half of the United States. More schools in the mix means that teams will meet on the gridiron even less, especially those in opposing divisions, and when they do, will it be the same? Will fans in Lincoln, Nebraska have the same excitement (or ability) to travel to a football game in New Brunswick, New Jersey (22 hrs) as they would to Iowa City (5 hrs)?

Due to the fact that the B1G was created and thrived in the Midwest, with Midwest members, it might seem perplexing as to how Maryland and Rutgers were chosen to join the ranks. In-state rivalries like Michigan/Michigan State, and Indiana/Purdue are a staple of what makes the conference what it is – why not tap some of the great institutions already in the area? Money.

Though B1G and university officials may try to deny it (albeit poorly), money has been the leading factor in this conference expansion. While Maryland and Rutgers are both respected institutions, they leave something to be desired in athletics, even at the B1G level (which can be shaky…). The real selling point for these two is location, location, location.

The Big Ten Network was the first of its kind: a cable channel devoted to an college athletic conference, and it has succeed in bathing the B1G members in money. Rutgers and Maryland are both in need of a financial boost, and because they reside close to the New York and Washington/Baltimore TV markets respectively… well, welcome to the Big Ten! More televisions means more cable subscriptions. More subscriptions means more advertising in large markets. All of this means more money.

As I said before, there’s more to branding than just a logo and a name – those are just the beginning. Branding encompasses everything that a business or institution does, their positioning, and while brand recognition is important, public opinion is even more so. While the B1G will be keeping a logo and a name, the controversial decisions they’ve made of late and their apparent assumptions that we’re not keen enough to figure out why, could ultimately hurt them. A general disregard for geography and their mad-grab approach to team acquisition dilutes the brand that they have worked over 100 years to build, while the underlying greed of all parties involved tarnishes their image across the country and, most importantly, with the fans that have given them so much and identify with them so strongly.

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