And that matters, because while U.C.L.A.’s head football coach, Chip Kelly, makes about $4.7 million a year, the school’s head coach for women’s rowing makes about $100,000 in a city with some of the highest housing costs in America. To stay competitive, U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. both need to be able to hire not just top-notch head coaches, but assistant coaches and sports information directors, too — and that staff needs to be able to afford a house. Television money could help.
What makes the Big Ten so lucrative in comparison with, say, even the very profitable S.E.C.? Brown told me that it not only contains major media markets, like Chicago and Detroit, but that fans of Big Ten teams live all over the country, distributing themselves across America in ways that fans of other conferences often don’t. Coupled with the Big Ten’s slate of research universities, Brown said, the moves actually made a lot of sense. “If you’re a provost at U.S.C., you would rather be able to say, ‘We are a peer institution to Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.’” More so than to Mississippi State, he said. (This is not a slight to Mississippi State, a fine university that tried for decades to bar people from ringing cowbells at football games before giving up. Clanga.)
But Brown told me that the move, while seemingly sensible, still makes him sad. He mentioned that the travel will be incredibly challenging for athletes. Imagine trying to make it from Ann Arbor to Los Angeles for a midweek track meet and back with finals looming. But more important, he’s worried that conferences that aren’t tethered to a specific region or filled with schools that have historical rivalries with one another will lack the intimacy that makes college sports fun. “I think part of what makes college sports, like, not just football, but college sports, a unique and fun enterprise for consumers and fans is that it very much isn’t the N.F.L. It’s very provincial. I did not go to the Cleveland Cavaliers. I went to Ohio State,” he said.
I get that. Part of why I love college sports is that when you say you’re a Michigan fan, and you meet an Ohio State fan, you immediately have a rapport (granted, one based on rivalry). And if you grew up in the Midwest, you are assured of knowing people who attended virtually every Big Ten university, making it a family affair of sorts. I may not have met you yet, but if you went to Penn State, I already have a lot to discuss with you. But I didn’t grow up with anyone who went to U.C.L.A., and I know only one U.S.C. grad personally.
“When you look at the rivalries and the places where college sports are most unique and energized and exciting, it’s where you have that proximity. It’s the Holy War where every church congregation is full of Utah and B.Y.U. fans. It’s the Egg Bowl,” Brown said, referring to the annual rivalry game between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. “The game isn’t just about football. It’s about religion and culture and class and Mississippi. And when we break those things down in the name of trying to reach the largest casual audience, I worry that you will undermine the entire value proposition and what makes this interesting. And then eventually it becomes something like baby N.F.L. And then people will realize, ‘If I’m gonna watch the baby N.F.L., I’d rather watch the N.F.L. where all of the players are good.’”