Leagues cling to brands

Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10 may have to rethink their names after conference shake-ups.

07/11/2010 12:06 AM

07/11/2010 12:06 AM

ST. LOUIS — During his first venture into the world of conference expansion, Jim Delany made a dangerous assumption.

The Big Ten had added an 11th member, and the league's new commissioner figured adjustments were necessary to signify the arrival of Penn State in 1990.

"I just presumed we would be a different group, a different name," he said. "I was going on that presumption and found out quickly the Big Ten was a name that carried a lot of meaning to a lot of people."

That issue has been raised again for not only the Big Ten, which was founded in 1896, but also the Big 12 and the Pac-10. They all must decide whether name brand is more important than accuracy after the first round of conference realignment left all a bit off kilter in terms of membership and monikers.

To review: The Big Ten has 12 schools, the Big 12 has 10 and the Pac-10 has 12. The potential for problems was created when the leagues opted to insert numbers in their names in the first place.

Conference expansion has been a popular pastime for the last 20 years, and names have come and gone as many leagues, mostly of lesser prominence, have morphed into new animals.

But the BCS conferences have more at stake. The Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East didn't have to worry about such things in the mid-2000s when their numbers changed.

Most assume the Big Ten will stand pat to retain more than a century of tradition. But will the Big 12, a mere teenager, consider alternatives?

"Those are two different situations," said Brett Boyle, associate professor of marketing at St. Louis University. "The Big 12 could probably get away with (changing) because in most people's memories it's been something other than the Big 12. The Big Ten brand name has too much value to let it go just to get the math right. They would give up that tradition."

There has been plenty of confusion between conference names and membership through the years and it continues to be widespread, sometimes within a conference's walls.

The Big 12 requests that the media not refer to the league in print as the "Big XII" yet maintains the roman numeral as a prominent part of its logo.

The Atlantic 10 has 14 members, giving it the biggest numeric discrepancy in the country. And geographic accuracy has never been a particularly important requirement. If it were, Chicago State wouldn't be in the Great West, Louisiana Tech in the Western Athletic Conference, San Diego State in the Mountain West or Marquette and DePaul in the Big East.

Seemingly the only conference that covered its bases from the start was Conference USA, which was so named because of the wide geographic spread of its members.

In 1990, the Big Ten opted to merely change its logo. Al Grivetti, who was a graduate student at Northern Illinois, incorporated the No. 11 into his now-famous design.

"I also gave them a 12, a 13 and a 14," he said. "It wasn't particularly taken seriously, but I did it to show it could be done if needed. I firmly believe the Big Ten stands for the conference, not the number of schools."

The Big Ten is the oldest college conference in the country, having formed in 1896 as The Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives. That tongue twister was happily changed to Western Conference, and the league became firmly known as the Big Ten when Michigan State joined in 1950.

The next opportunity to change came 40 years later, but tradition trumped the need to keep pace with membership. However, Dan Jenkins, the historian for the National Football Foundation, has a more cynical view.

"I don't think it makes much difference about tradition any longer," he said in an e-mail interview. "The cast of characters don't care about anything but TV and money. The Big Ten would call itself the Big Bank of America if it meant more money."

The Big Eight was willing to alter its name to Big 12 when it swallowed the old Southwestern Conference's Texas schools in 1994. But the league was thinking about the future when it trademarked the name Big 14.

Now, with the league moving in the other direction, commissioner Dan Beebe has been noncommittal about what might be in store. "I don't want to give my indication now of what I think and then have my members say, 'What the heck are you thinking about?'" he said. "That will be something we have to fully consider as we go forward."

When the Big Ten added Nebraska several weeks ago, Delany said the matter would be addressed.

"We haven't had a discussion," he said. "But there are a lot of people out there with computers who manipulate the name and numbers. I think it's something we'll have to figure out over the next few months."

The Pac-10 has undergone several changes through the years, starting as the Pacific Coast Conference and changing to Athletic Associates of Western Universities in 1959 and the Pacific 8 in 1968. When Arizona and Arizona State were added, it became the Pac-10.

But a common prefix complicates matters for the Big Ten and Big 12. They are among six NCAA Division I leagues that start with "Big," but the others didn't plug a number into the name.

"I could see both conferences staying the way they are because of the equity they've built up," Big East associate commissioner Tom Odjakjian said. "It indicates who you are with less confusion. And then people can chuckle about how many schools they have."

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