Bob Hunter commentary: Expanded Big Ten gets attention on East Coast

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Maryland and Rutgers officially became members of the Big Ten last week, and The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun marked the occasion with the kind of quality stories we expect from two such prestigious publications.

This is what Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and other conference leaders anticipated when they invited the two East Coast schools to join. The league has become news in populous places that usually wouldn’t be paying much mind to it at this time of the year.

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>> Seriously? You're following all those Twitter accounts but not @buckeyextra? Go ahead and move to Michigan while you're at it.

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Newspapers are only a tiny part of the Big Ten’s grand plan, of course. Presumably, people in the East were so excited about the new affiliations that many of them stopped on the Big Ten Network while channel-grazing yesterday and found themselves entranced by a replay of last fall’s Illinois-Purdue football game.

From there, it’s only a small leap until Easterners are watching BTN all the time, with their eyeballs glued to everything from replays of Big Ten men’s and women’s basketball games to live action in Big Ten field hockey, swimming and rowing.

OK, it might take more than a small leap to get there, but you probably get the idea. If many Midwesterners reacted to the league’s latest expansion with yawns and grimaces — neither school comes with the football pedigree of past expansion invitees Penn State and Nebraska — value comes with that expanding footprint.

Having people in Baltimore, Newark, N.J., Washington and even New York paying any kind of attention to the Big Ten on the Fourth of July weekend, even if it’s only to wonder why the Big Ten Network thinks anyone would want to watch a replay of that Purdue-Illinois stinker, is a step in the right direction.

The “new” Big Ten isn’t yet national in scope, but it’s getting there. At the same time that the Eastern papers were “introducing” league members to their readers and debating whether Maryland will have a true rival in the new league, Omaha World-Herald columnist Dirk Chatelain was analyzing the new divisional alignments created by the expansion that concentrated most of the power in the East.

He concluded that just about all the good story lines are in the East, and the Big Ten blew it by failing to put Michigan State in the West and allowing it to have an annual rivalry game with Michigan, especially since the only cost of that decision would have been splitting up Purdue and Illinois.

The West doesn’t have the panache of an East with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State duking it out just to get to the conference title game, and having a steady diet of those football drawing cards is probably one reason that Maryland and Rutgers feel some excitement about joining the conference.

But the new Big Ten probably seems like a step back to schools in the West that will infrequently play the East’s big four with one of their two annual crossover games. Wisconsin won’t play any of the East’s big four this season and instead gets crossover matchups with Maryland and Rutgers. The coach might like that; the ticket director might be preparing a resume.

No matter. The Big Ten is new in a lot of ways, many of which should make it more interesting.

Before Michigan State defeated Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and then defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl, most people outside the league saw Southeastern Conference transplant Urban Meyer and his Buckeyes as the waning football league’s only serious contender for a national title.

Now the Spartans are on the radar, and by scoring one recruiting coup after another, new Penn State coach James Franklin has raised the league’s hopes that the Nittany Lions are going to get there again.

If the Big Ten helps the Maryland and Rutgers football programs more than they help the Big Ten, they have piqued the interest of fans in heavily populated areas where they are talking about the league for something other than its football weakness compared with the SEC.

As long as they don’t spend too much time watching football replays on BTN, it might even stay that way.

Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.

bhunter@dispatch.com

@dailyhunter

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