Could more neutral site games be in future of MAC/Big Ten relationship?
(photo courtesy: USA Today Sports/Anthony Wells)
We've talked a lot about the term "MACtion" this week and rightfully so, you know... since we're previewing the conference and all, but there's another term, one that the MAC would like us to forget and that's MACrifice. It's a term that refers to it's football teams and their symbiotic relationship to the big boys of the Midwest - the Big Ten. However, the future between these linked conferences could be changing in a big way.
These two conferences have been linked together for about as long as they've both existed and it only makes sense with the footprints of the two conferences pretty much overlapping throughout their histories. It helps in travel costs, bringing fans along and allowing Big Ten fans to be at least minimally aware of said opponent.
However, the relationship is often one of the smaller MAC school having to trek it to the "big brothers" of the Big Ten and thusly taking a beating. Hence why they call it MACrifice.
The Big Ten's 301-49-4 all-time record against the MAC pretty much sums up why those in Big Ten country have coined that term.
Moving forward though, the mutually beneficial relationship between the two Midwest based conferences could be changing and that may mean that MAC schools need to become more creative to get this relationship to even come mildly close to anything resembling fair.
Why? Well, the reasons are a bit complicated and without getting too far into the weeds on this one we'll just say there are three big reasons and none of them have to directly do with the MAC ironically enough.
First is what's going on in the Big Ten. They are going to 14 teams starting next season, will have a nine game conference schedule starting in 2016 and will be banning games against FCS foes that same year. That means one less game in the non-conference season and in every other year it means most Big Ten teams likely need all of their non-conference games to be at home to get to the magic number of seven home games to break even financially.
That creates a win/lose scenario for the "little brother" in what has been a pretty decent relationship between the conferences. What do I mean? Well, the problem is that the chances of getting a Big Ten team to come to your place are going to be next to none. Right now a few Big Ten schools are willing to play home-and-home series' with MAC schools. The changes for the Big Ten make that scenario about as likely as Lindsay Lohan staying clean and sober.
As for the positive side of the coin? The MAC schools could at least be in a position to make a lot more for going to the Big Ten schools in one off games in the future. It's something that Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez addressed at the Big Ten meetings earlier this week, saying Big Ten schools have to be careful about the FCS situation because smaller FBS teams know they'll be in a position of strength and demand more money for playing games at the Big Ten schools.
He pointed out an interesting factor that really may end up affecting the relationship between the two conferences in a potentially negative way. Especially since over the next five seasons (according to FBSschedules.com) the two leagues are scheduled to meet forty-six times.
That's not exactly a small relationship and it's financial impact isn't small either. Every game against a Big Ten team pays out a minimum of $500,000 and it's likely more depending on who the game is against. In the future that payout is likely to go up because of the scarcity of available schools willing to play one off games against Big Ten teams and it may turn the Big Ten away from wanting these games in favor of other small conference schools willing to play for lower payouts - basically it could create a potential bidding war for these one-off games.
Now, the second factor in all of this is the increasing likelihood that strength of schedule will mean more in the playoff system it's likely that lower level games like the ones against FCS or lower MAC teams could be on the chopping block.
How could the MAC fight this? One, it would be smart for them to not go all extortion on the Big Ten when dealing with contracts and the payouts for visiting Camp Randall, the Big House, etc. That would help keep a mutually beneficial relationship alive.
Another way is something that has proven to work on a small scale and it can be attractive to both sides - playing games at a neutral site and allowing the MAC school to be the home team.
If you think that's a bit much, I'll point you to what Northern Illinois has done with their series' against Wisconsin, Iowa, and in the future, Nebraska. In both cases (vs. Iowa and Wisconsin) the games have gone off well and it allows a greater payday for the MAC school on the neutral site thanks to an increase in likely gate receipts than they could ever get by holding the game on campus and it allows the Big Ten school a guaranteed amount that's at least close to what they would earn for playing the game at home.
Additionaly the fans of the Big Ten schools responeded to getting a game close to home but still a destination type game. They make a weekend out of it and NIU benefits from the economic side of things and the name recognition increase as well.
Now, it can't be all the time as we know the novelty of said games can wear off, but what would be wrong with every three or four years there are games at the likes of Cleveland Browns Stadium, Soldier Field, Lucas Oil Stadium, or Ford Field? Creating a destination for fans across the Midwest is just smart business and takes away the massive home field advantage Big Ten teams have.
Finally, it would really help for schools like NIU, Toledo, Ball State, and Bowling Green to sustain the success they are experiencing right now. That makes games against them more attractive when strength of schedule matters and teams don't have to go outside of their footprint to get potentially quality games to add that aren't the Top 5 conferences.
At the end of the day it's likely that the relationship between these two conferences is going to change and it's affects on the MAC could be very large. It could mean more financial security, but it could also mean less opportunity to get fair games as well and that's the dangerous tight-rope these two conferences need to walk to keep their mutually beneficial relationship working going into the new College Football Playoff era.