Thursday, August 26, 2010

Nebraska and Conference Realignment: Beyond Television Revenue

After reading Pat Forde’s article on ESPN about Nebraska football, I began thinking that perhaps the biggest winner in the conference realignment shuffle is the University of Nebraska. The obvious advantage to the move to the Big Ten is the television revenue; however, as Tom Osborne is quick to point out, there are other interesting advantages to the realignment. In an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Osborne highlights three additional advantages to the move:

1. The increased exposure from the Big Ten Network could help recruit students on a national level
2. Nebraska could better compete in outdoor sports such as baseball and tennis against their Northern competition
3. Significant academic opportunities, including opportunities for more research funding

As a faculty member, the last advantage interested me the most for several reasons. First, and not surprisingly, this benefit did not receive as much national attention on the sports page as television revenue and championship games. Second, I continue to reexamine the idea that athletics helps academics. Certainly the value of a successful athletic program has many advantages, but does it directly help the academic reputation of the institution? The idea that an athletics decision (such as moving conferences or upgrading a new athletic facility) could improve academics is not a new revelation created by the Nebraska administration. Although many scholars dispute this claim, it is one that administrators still use to justify major support to the athletic department. In the case of the University of Nebraska, the idea that academics could see rewards from the move to the Big Ten is one that many people at UNL believe to be true. Why? The biggest reason is the new relationship with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC). The CIC is essentially an “academic Big Ten Conference” or a consortium of Big Ten schools and the academically prestigious University of Chicago. Similar to an athletic conference, the CIC is a formal relationship that allows the 12, soon to be 13, schools to collaborate on projects and share resources as a group rather than operate as an individual campus. Sound familiar? It should – it is a similar model to their athletic colleagues at the Big Ten and the development of the Big Ten Network: Leveraging opportunities through strength in numbers. But does this work on the academic side of the institution and could this benefit Nebraska?

The answer is ‘yes’ it does work for the current members of the CIC and one would think it could also work for the University of Nebraska. The benefit of the CIC, as stated in the 2008-09 Annual Report, is connecting “people with resources and opportunities, enhancing the distinctive strengths, assets and expertise of each member university.” Some interesting results of the collaboration stated in the annual report show that the membership has gathered over $6 billion in funded research, saved a combined $5.9 million in purchasing, $6 million in library savings, and $19 million in technology savings for 2008-2009, and provide incredible learning opportunities for students through programs such as the Travelling Scholar Program.

Supporters of the move point directly to the improvements of Penn State since joining the Big Ten and the CIC in 1990. Specifically, Adam Smeltz refers to statistics included in the U.S. News rankings that “show Penn State-University Park graduation rates went from 57 percent in 1990, when the university joined the Big Ten, to 85 percent in 2008. The average University Park freshman's SAT score is up, too -- between 1,100 and 1,300. Before 1990, the average had been just below 1,100.” Certainly other factors contributed to the growth of Penn State over the last 20 years but as the article suggests one cannot ignore the importance of the move to the Big Ten and the invitation to the CIC.

Perhaps more important than the tangible research dollars and projects that may develop, the CIC has provided the University of Nebraska with a public relations victory among the rest of campus and beyond. In a recent article in the Lincoln Journal Star, Ellen Weissinger, interim senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at UNL is quoted as saying, “I’m about as happy as I’ve been in my 24 years at UNL because of what it says of the Big Ten’s perception of the premiere status that we’ve achieved academically.” In addition, the University’s press release highlights several opportunities, with one of them being the ability to attract high-caliber faculty and to “open doors to new investors, entrepreneurs and others interested in expanding regional and national markets.”


Conference Realignment by the Numbers

One of the measuring sticks of “academic success” is the U.S News & World Report Best College Rankings. Using the recently released 2011 listings, a quick analysis indicates that the University of Nebraska will be associating itself with what many would consider a more prestigious group of schools. Or as John Nichols, a Penn State associate dean and former faculty senate president said in a recent article in the Omaha World Herald, “Simply put, it’s [the Big Ten Conference membership] very fancy company.”

U.S. News & World Report Big Ten Rankings


U.S. News & World Report Big Twelve Rankings



Currently, UNL is ranked 104 in the National University category, which would be much lower than any school in the Big Ten (the lowest Big Ten member is Michigan State at 79). All the schools in the Big Ten are considered to be “more selective”, with Northwestern and Michigan listed as “most selective”. Also consider that the affiliation with the CIC puts UNL in the same circle as the University of Chicago, considered by the 2011 rankings to be the ninth best National University in the country. That is exceptional company, considering the Big Twelve has no school listed higher in the National University category than the University of Texas at 45. In terms of selectivity, the Big Twelve schools are all listed as “more selective” with one school, Texas Tech ranked at 159, listed as “selective”.

While the University of Nebraska may have in fact joined the Big Ten because of football and television revenue, athletic departments and conferences across the country should pay close attention to the perceived benefits to the academic side of the institution. Time will tell if the Big Ten move was advantageous to the Cornhusker athletic department as well as the rest of the university, however it appears that embracing the change to the Big Ten could pay big dividends.



This posting was authored by Tony Weaver, Assistant Professor of Sport and Event Management at Elon University. Tony has agreed to occasionally provide research summaries. Prior to teaching at Elon, Dr. Weaver was an athletic administrator at Iona College, Siena College and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.