CHICAGO | The widely speculated Big Ten expansion story took another twist on Tuesday, one that might require sunglasses to clearly see.
Commissioner Jim Delany and one of the league’s top athletic directors spoke about growth in terms of demographics, specifically the swelling population in the Sun Belt region.
“In the last 20 to 30 years there’s been a clear shift into the Sun Belt, and that has demographic meaning long term, with the economy, jobs, the recruitment of students, the recruitment of athletes,” Delany said.
By definition, Missouri and Nebraska, two Big 12 schools strongly speculated to be expansion targets, aren’t part of that region.
Neither are any in the Northeast, where Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Connecticut are seen as targets.
Delany talked about tax bases in growing areas large enough to support universities in the future.
The 2010 Census is expected to show a continued trend of population shift to the Sun Belt. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 10 states with the greatest population percentage gain from 2000-09 were located in the Southeast, Southwest and West. None are in the Midwest or Northeast.
“The demographic shift for any planner, whether they’re planning expansion of a medical facility or a conference is a relevant factor,” Delany said. “So I think what you want to do is look forward to 2020, 2030, and see what the impact would be on our schools.”
Delany then called the changes in demography the most important factor in expansion plans, ahead of adding television markets to the ultra-successful Big Ten Network.
“You’re on track with the thought process,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said when pressed on the issue.
The idea may widen the circle of prospective candidates. The Sun Belt stretches across the country, from the Southeast through the Southwest.
Is the Big Ten seriously considering schools from conferences like the SEC, ACC along with the Big 12? Georgia Tech? Vanderbilt? Texas?
Smith wouldn’t say.
“I’m trying to give you a hint,” he said with a laugh.
One area where Delany remained unequivocal was the expansion timetable. The December announcement of 12 to 18 months stands, he said Tuesday.
“It continues to be roughly 12 to 18 months,” Delany said. “Could it be 19 months? I hope not. Could it be 11? It may.”
That runs contrary to some media reports that suggested an announcement could happen soon, or at least in early summer.
“There have been a lot of reports that have been premature,” Delany said. “That would be a kind way to describe some of the reports.”
Delany wouldn’t even guarantee expansion.
“We won’t expand for the sake of expansion,” Delany said. “We’re not looking to achieve a championship game. That’s not our motivation. If it was we could have done that many times over the past 20 years.”
But if it happens, the process would work like this: A school would be invited to apply and it would need eight votes of the 11 members for acceptance.
“Nobody would apply without knowing they’d be welcome to apply,” Delany said. “We’re not interested in embarrassing anyone.”
Smith has one school in mind, his alma mater, Notre Dame. He wants to see the Irish play for a conference championship in football.
“I love them, love them deeply. The things I enjoy in life are because of my experiences there. So my feelings run deep,” Smith said. “I have always struggled with the quality of experience today, in this landscape, for a football player.
“If they end up being one of the (invited) schools, I hope they would consider what a football conference championship means to a young person. I’ve got to believe that Notre Dame winning a conference championship and having a conference ring would be a memorable experience.”