In five weeks, the most historic conference in college football history will return. The Big Ten is back.
Donald Trump is taking credit for this, because he loves taking credit for things he doesn’t actually do. But, you should know that this isn’t about politics.
It’s about money.
The occupant in the Oval Office called Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren a few weeks ago imploring him to get football started. It was a publicity stunt, given that decision wasn’t Warren’s to make.
It was a classic sleight of hand trick, as some focused their attention on the political and social optics of the situation — during a global pandemic — instead of realizing that Big Ten presidents had a change of heart due to the amounts of money their schools were about to lose out on — during a global pandemic.
To understand how money and college athletics work, you have to look at the two biggest sports: basketball and football.
The NCAA makes 98 percent of its annual revenue from the NCAA Tournament. So, that’s how they get paid. This is why it’s impossible to believe that we won’t be having a college basketball season this year, as the NCAA isn’t missing their biggest payday, twice.
On the other hand, colleges and universities make a ton of their money off football. So, despite the fact that COVID-19 seems like it’s not going away anytime soon, these big businesses disguised as “institutions of higher learning” need their income. It leads to the head coach of the defending national champions publicly saying things like this:
“Not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it (COVID-19)“ – LSU head coach Ed Orgeron.
Now, let’s get to the numbers.
The Big 12 is playing football. The conference’s total revenue for fiscal 2019 was $439 million, which resulted in school payouts between $38 million and $42 million.
The ACC is also playing football. The conference’s total revenue in fiscal 2019 was $455.4 million, which resulted in school payouts of $27.6 million to $34 million.
The SEC is playing football, too. The conference’s total revenue for fiscal 2019 was $721 million, which resulted in an average payouts near $45.3 million going to the 13 schools that received full shares.
The Big Ten is about to play football, and here’s why. The conference’s total revenue for fiscal 2019 was more than $781.5 million, which resulted in a $55.6 million payment to the 12 longest-standing members of the 14-team conference. Rutgers and Maryland don’t get as much, they’re still the new kids on the block. A few weeks ago, Michigan’s athletics department decided to eliminate 21 staff positions, while also deciding not to fill another 15 open staff positions. The university was expected to lose $100 million in revenue due to not having football.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why I’m not listing the PAC-12, it’s because they don’t matter. I don’t say that to be rude, nor do I mean that they don’t need or make money, too. But, their value in the national conversation about college football is the lowest of the Power Five conferences. The East Coast bias is real. Since the debut of the College Football Playoff in 2014, the PAC-12 has only made two appearances and has a 1-2 record. But for the heck of it, the PAC-12 made $530.4 in revenue in fiscal 2019. They make more than the ACC and Big 12, and still get ignored.
In all, the Power Five pulled in more than $2.9 billion in combined revenue for their 2019 fiscal year.
As I said, it’s all about the money.
But, let’s focus on the Big Ten since this is its moment. Here’s a list of the amount of money each Big Ten football program brings in for their school, calculated by the U.S. Department of Education:
Michigan State: $75,545,976
Ohio State: $115,091,304
Penn State: $100,133,983
The thought of losing that kind of money is what will make school presidents and chancellors reverse course on their previous stance and unanimously vote to resume football, under the guise of “improved COVID-19 testing.”
This is what happens when an economic structure is built off the backs of unpaid teenagers playing football on Saturdays, the ones taking all the risk. It’s a system where everyone is motivated by money.
The schools need it to survive, while some parents, and players, see it as the only potential stepping stone to possibly make millions at the pro level.
So in the end, while race, socioeconomics, politics, a global pandemic, and even Donald Trump, may have added to the aroma of this meal, the main ingredient, has always been, and still is, money.
Updated Sept. 16, 2020 at 7:30 p.m.: On Wednesday evening, Trump also called on the Pac-12 to reactivate as well: “Pac-12, you’re the only one now,” Trump said. “Open up, Pac-12. Get going.”