With the Big Ten announcing its new $7 billion media deal, University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s latest contract valued at $94 million, and the College Football Playoff expanding to 12 teams and a projected $2 billion in revenue, the headlines are familiar. Coaching salaries and media revenues are on the rise again. Add in the news of student loan debt relief, highlighting the persistent defunding of higher education and rising costs across campus.
While the escalating expenses in higher education and college sports are typical, UCLA and USC moving to the Big Ten reveals another consistent pattern in the well-established interdependence between what happens on campus and what happens in the athletic program.
Any decision by the University of Washington’s athletic program to join the Big Ten or stay in the Pac-12 has implications that will impact the entire campus community. It will affect who our campus peers are, where the next generation of students will come from, and where our alumni are likely to be in the future.
The competitive, often commercial, aspects of college sports reflect the same competitive characteristics of colleges and universities that are less visible, but deeply entrenched across campus. Conferences like the Pac-12 and Big Ten were formed for athletics competition but created powerful drivers of competition among campuses, from admissions to alumni.
As a UW associate professor of education, I’ve been studying colleges and universities and their athletics programs for my entire career. I’ve worked in college sports, attended dozens of athletics committee meetings, and taught hundreds of students aspiring to work in college sports. These experiences have shed light on a simple premise — that for better or worse, college athletics and their institutions are inextricably linked. What happens on a few Saturdays each fall has a profound effect on the entire campus. And it’s not wins or losses that matter: It’s who you line up against that really counts.
Colleges and universities are no longer just local or regional. UW is well known across the U.S. and around the world, ranking No. 3 here at home and No. 17 in the world in a recent global ranking report. And just the same, college admissions are no longer only local and regional. According to a 2020 survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed, 60% of admissions officers say they will target out-of-state students and 78% will target full-time students in their campus recruitment strategies. UW will join the Common App in 2023, a college application platform that in 2019 processed 5.6 million college applications to 900 universities from students in 200 countries and territories.
Data reported to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics shows UW’s largest proportion of out-of-state students come from California, home to the Big Ten’s newest members. Add states with current Big Ten members, and the competition for out-of-state students stiffens — and conference commissioners know it. The Big Ten media rights deal also provides $100,000 for each school’s advertising budget to promote their academic mission for linear TV and streaming audiences, featuring campus vistas, laboratories and shots of students in state-of-the art classrooms.
Just as UW knows where its freshman class is from, schools also know where their alumni are, and social media data tells us where fans are. Kevin Warren, Big Ten commissioner, noted that while UCLA and USC are important to the Los Angeles media market, so is the density of Big Ten alumni there. After the collection of states in the Midwest, Los Angeles is home to the greatest proportion of Big Ten alumni.
These moves by the Big Ten come at a time when California’s governor and legislature are fighting to retain California’s in-state students. In the UC system, $31 million has been designated for ensuring 900 more in-state students attend UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego.
If the UW athletic program moves to the Big Ten, analytics will predict any boost in ticket sales to help fill Husky Stadium on Saturday afternoons with more Michigan or Purdue alumni. But football athletes have always been ambassadors to promote the campus to a wider audience. This kind of campus promotion by athletes now extends to even more of our sports teams.
Any move to the Big Ten adds airline travel across time zones, increasing demands on all athletes and requiring more services and support for athletic and academic success. Any cut of a mega media deal will be spent just as quickly as it comes in.
However, from football in the fall, to basketball and gymnastics in the winter, to softball in the spring, if the UW moves to the Big Ten, those regular matchups in Midwest states will influence the competition to fill our classrooms, too.
What’s really on the line in the UW athletic department’s decision to join the Big Ten or stay in the Pac-12 isn’t just a football decision or one that impacts the 19 other sports. It’s a decision that will also chart the course for our next generation of students and alumni, and how they will shape the future of our campus community.