There was a seismic shift in the world of major collegiate athletics on Friday when the Big Ten announced that the conference had voted unanimously to add UCLA and USC to the conference, bringing the conference to 16 members, with rumors that the conference could also be adding more members in the near future.
It’s likely a big financial move for the conference as a whole, as they gobble up another large throng of West Coast cable subscribers for their television network, and gain more negotiating power for the monstrous television rights deal it is currently slated to negotiate later this summer, to be announced later this summer will. But what does that mean for the league’s forgotten stepchild, the hockey conference?
This goes against one of my core beliefs — that anyone who talks about “television markets” in relation to college hockey should get a slap in the throat — but there’s a certain natural curiosity about where college hockey fits when there’s big news like there are, so it’s the least worthy of discussion.
Following yesterday’s news, people rejoiced at some tweets released by the UCLA ice hockey team:
First of all, a club hockey team “aiming” at becoming a Division I team doesn’t really qualify as news. Every club hockey player wishes they played DI, mostly because it means someone else is paying the huge costs associated with the Ice Age. Quotations from a club team don’t mean much; Quotes from the money people make.
And while the level of play in the ACHA for association hockey is pretty good — I think most people would be surprised at how good it is — it’s really a very different thing than Division I hockey. If UCLA and USC wanted to start DI hockey programs, they would basically be starting from scratch.
I’m not saying that UCLA and USC will never add hockey programs. But looking honestly at the current landscape, I’m not sure I see a lot of incentives to do so right now.
It’s no secret that the Big Ten Hockey Conference was a televised flop. When the conference started, there were wild promises that every game would be televised. Last year only 25 games, including the conference playoffs, made it to BTN. The majority ended up on the Big Ten streaming platform.
I don’t see this trend changing with the addition of new conference members. A larger conference means more men’s and women’s basketball games will be broadcast. UCLA and USC also have fairly strong women’s volleyball programs, a sport that regularly doubles the audience that hockey games attract.
The future of Big Ten hockey, like the rest of college hockey, lies in streaming. For that reason, this latest round of TV negotiations may be of interest to college hockey fans. There’s a chance that when the Big Ten signs their mega-TV deal, the content that was on the Big Ten’s streaming platform will be sent to ESPN+ or Amazon Prime or Peacock or the highest bidder. That would be a win for college hockey fans in terms of accessibility and cost. But I can’t see it moving the administrative needle in these schools. If UCLA and USC were interested in having hockey games on a streaming platform, they could have done so years ago.
The other issue is that this particular moment seems like a particular challenge to launch such an ambitious venture. While smaller schools on the fringes of Division I have been able to add programs in recent years, we are just seeing the challenges for a large school to add hockey in Illinois in a failed attempt, despite what appeared to be a fairly honest effort on their part.
I see the same problems that sank hockey in Illinois and also affect UCLA and USC. The first is that both schools would also need a new arena and with inflated construction costs and rising interest rates this will be a major challenge.
But the other, bigger problem is the rapidly changing climate in the major collegiate athletics, as schools — some at a crawl, others at full speed — move toward a free and open market for top-flight basketball and soccer players. Amid rumors of recruits making seven-figure pledges to attend school, it’s hard to imagine a school shaking down its donor pool for the large sum of money it takes to start a hockey program.
I’m not sure if some of the NIL numbers being thrown around are sustainable long-term, but at least for the next few years as this new landscape settles in, I think schools will be very careful about where they and her donors give her money for fear of being left behind.
Even that doesn’t make it impossible for it to happen. We all live our lives at the whims of insane billionaires. But I don’t see the Big Ten college hockey brand as a huge motivator.