The Big Ten: College Hockey’s Grand Experiment

The dust has settled, mostly. It’s safe to come out. Realignment is here in college hockey. It happened and there’s no going back.

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Photo via @B1GHockey

The wheels of realignment started turning when Terry Pegula backed a dump truck of money onto the Penn State campus, granting the school the means to build men’s and women’s hockey programs. It also made hockey’s membership in the Big Ten a reality when Penn State became the conference’s six team to adopt hockey, the minimum the conference requires to affiliate a sport.

The WCHA and CCHA dominoes then fell after the Big Ten’s announcement of existence. The NCHC was born, the CCHA died and the WCHA will never be the same.

The fallout of realignment is still very much in flux. How deeply it impacts the college game may take several years to truly know. It will also take several years before we find out just how successful the new conferences are.

The Big Ten, however, is uniquely positioned. It isn’t a new conference, it’s just new to hockey. It is that distinction that makes the future of the conference and college hockey as a whole so intriguing and potentially better.

As the puck drops on the first Big Ten season, it’s somewhat difficult to see what lies ahead for the conference. This year, the six teams that make up the league — Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State — are good, but only Wisconsin looks to be one of the nation’s truly elite teams.  The on-ice product that we’ve come to expect from these teams isn’t necessarily the best at this point.

That probably will change. Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota all have rich histories and success has followed each program. Ohio State seems to be headed in the right direction (assuming it can manage the damage done by Mark Osiecki’s firing) and Penn State is incredibly well positioned to build an elite program in a relatively short amount of time with a world-class facility and anticipated enthusiastic fan support.

The new conference is expected to help recruiting some, though I think the name recognition carries more weight with casual sports fans than it does with legitimate hockey recruits. That said, there is a belief that the Big Ten name could go a little farther for these programs looking to attract more talent from Canada, where the knowledge of U.S. college hockey is a little less prevalent. The Big Ten Network is even available in parts of Canada, which should help the reach a bit.

It’s not like this year’s on-ice product is going to be bad, either. There are a lot of NHL prospects on these rosters and the fast-paced games each plays are certainly entertaining. Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin will play to large audiences, while Penn State is likely to do the same in its new building.

What makes the Big Ten most interesting, however, is not where it is this year, but where it will be in five to 10 years and where the conference takes college hockey with it.

The benefits of the Big Ten taking in hockey for both itself and the college game as a whole are numerous.

College hockey is a niche within a niche sport. The Big Ten is an established, powerful brand within a crowded college sports landscape. Brand name alone doesn’t get you everywhere, but it certainly comes with perks.

The conference, which has been overwhelmingly successful financially over the last several years has its own national television network, as well as already-established partnerships with large sponsors and TV rights holders. There’s money and there’s know how.

This is what separates the Big Ten from the NCHC, college hockey’s other brand new conference this year. While the NCHC very well could have a powerful and positive impact on college hockey, its future is a bit murkier. There’s just so much we don’t know about the new conference including the former non-Big Ten powers of the WCHA and CCHA. Also, it’s essentially on its own.

Before this year, college hockey as a whole was on its own island, with only the ECAC as a conference that wasn’t solely hockey (though the hockey branch of the conference operates autonomously). That means athletic directors, many of which who haven’t the slightest idea of how to make hockey work, had to put their faith in commissioners to navigate the murky waters of college athletics, media rights and corporate partnerships on their own. Again, for a niche within a niche sport.

That’s a difficult job for even the most experienced of executives. The Big Ten already has that system built in, with a proven track record of success. How it translates to hockey is still a bit of a mystery, but it’s not going to take long to find out.

Where the Big Ten may truly make the most impact is in how it brings the college game to new audiences. College hockey has loyal and rabid fans, but in order for the game to continue to enjoy success, that fan base has to grow. The conferences have to be able to generate money. They have to be on TV, they have to sell tickets and they have to create a sustainable future.

The Big Ten, while hockey probably falls lower on its priority list, has the power to operate as it always has, but with a potential new revenue stream in the form of hockey. Basketball and football will continue to drive the money train for the conference, but hockey is better positioned than most other sports to create a brighter future for one of the country’s most powerful athletics conferences.

The conference and its television network are not taking that opportunity lightly, either. According to Big Ten Network hpresident Mark Silverman, both entities are fully investing in hockey as a key asset as he told the New York Times.

“We’re in an investing phase, not in a moneymaking phase, with Big Ten hockey,” Silverman said. “The hope is, over time, that we can grow the sport so it can pay for itself and hopefully be an overall benefit to the network.

“We think it will bring in new viewers. We think it will help with our ratings. But we’re making a significant investment, and it’s not a short-term investment.”

The investment up front is fairly sizable in terms of on-air inventory.

This year, Big Ten hockey teams will appear 27 times on the Big Ten Network, with all games available live. That type of single-conference coverage is unprecedented for college hockey. An additional seven will air on the ESPN family of networks, showing that the Big Ten’s partnership with the cable network stretches beyond football and basketball. There is also expected to be Big Ten appearances on NBC Sports Network this year.

The league is in its first season of existence and already has a captive audience. It’s a small one right now, but there’s potential to grow. College hockey’s TV ratings haven’t been terribly great, but they have never been accompanied by the marketing presence and budget of an entity like the Big Ten.

Ads for the new hockey segment of the conference have appeared on major national college football broadcast and the conference seems invested in promoting the sport. Ads only go so far, but major national promotion is something college hockey has lacked of late.

It’s no secret that the big schools of the Big Ten are more palatable to a national television audience than most others in college hockey. They have wide alumni bases and most are in or near major television markets. The recipe for success is there, but it won’t come without time to find its legs.

It is important that the conference, its schools and the television network understand that this transition is likely going to take some time. It’s going to take money as well, but there’s reason for a positive outlook.

As the involved parties seem to be aware, the long-term plan is going to have to include conference growth. Six teams is far from ideal when trying to build a college athletics superpower. Each Big Ten school will play a total of 20 games against conference foes, with a large non-conference slate. According to that New York Times piece, Wisconsin is expecting to experience a 15 to 20 percent spike in its travel budget for its first season of Big Ten Hockey.

Handling some of those losses up front is all part of that investment I’m sure we’ll keep hearing about.

The conference did well to set up an impromptu scheduling agreement with Hockey East. It raises the intrigue level of the non-conference slate, if only a little, with a challenge trophy and a potentially new tradition in a realigned college hockey.

As nice as that is, there will have to be more teams in the conference for it to reach its full potential. There is obviously the hope that some other Big Ten schools will consider investing in hockey and create programs. Something of that nature appears far off in the distance and there’s no guarantee it will happen at all.

Nebraska’s new basketball arena will have the capability of making ice, and the program at Illinois continually comes up as one of the most realistic possibilities to add hockey, but neither appears anywhere close to such a decision.

With that in mind, the Big Ten may have another plan, as revealed in the New York Times piece by Pat Borzi.

The Big Ten associate commissioner Jennifer Heppel, who oversees hockey, said she would not rule out adding associate members for hockey alone, as the conference did for Johns Hopkins in lacrosse, though not soon.

“It’s hard to predict the college landscape right now, especially Division I,” she said.

The possibility of the conference eventually seeking associate members should put the commissioners of the NCHC and Hockey East on high alert.

With the Big Ten’s exposure, television capabilities and likely revenue streams, there probably aren’t many teams across the country that wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to get a piece of that pie. Much of this year’s realignment was motivated by money. No one cares about promises or hurt feelings anymore.

Not every school probably would be in, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Big Ten attempts to lure schools like Miami or North Dakota just for hockey. Notre Dame would be a natural geographical fit, but considering the football program’s repeated rebuffing of the conference, it’s hard to see that happening.

Another round of realignment probably wouldn’t sit too well with a lot of college hockey folks. Especially since we don’t know what this realigned landscape is going to look like over the next few years.

There is a real fear among folks who have been around college hockey a lot longer than myself that some established programs, particularly those displaced in the new WCHA, may be forced to close their doors if they can’t find their way in this new era. That’s a huge concern.

The potential still remains for growth, but it seems unrealistic to expect it to come without casualties, however small or large they may be.

That’s what makes the Big Ten so important for college hockey’s future, good or bad. If the Big Ten is a success — and to achieve success against its rather lofty expectations, it is going to have to accomplish a lot — there is the chance it can bring college hockey unprecedented exposure. Especially if this year’s robust television package is only the beginning of something bigger.

If it proves it can make money and be a ratings driver for the Big Ten Network or wherever games are played, the niche within a niche sport becomes a little broader. If it makes money, more programs may sprout up, creating more opportunities for a rapidly growing player base. If more programs sprout up, more fans are created in more places.

More simply, if the Big Ten thrives on its own, creating a competitive, entertaining conference, while allowing the rest of college hockey around it to improve gradually, providing more opportunities for players and fans alike to experience Division I hockey, it was victorious.

College hockey’s potential as an entity in the American sports landscape is different than it was two years ago, which is what makes this such an exciting time for the game. The status quo had to be obliterated to make it happen. None of us know how it is going to pan out, but if college hockey can be considered better than it was before the rather uncomfortable and tumultuous couple of years in the wake of realignment, it will have all been worth it.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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